Taking fashion by the throat

Kevin Cowherd

December 04, 1991|By Kevin Cowherd

UP TO NOW, I have remained largely ambivalent about the no-tie, top-button-buttoned look for men favored by artsy types, movie stars, rock musicians and unrepentant yuppies.

Much of this ambivalence has to do with my own fashion sense, which has been described as sort of a Bud's-Exxon-Goes-to-College approach to dress.

It leans heavily toward old sweaters, worn jeans and grease-stained sneakers, a timeless look that also (unfortunately) suggests the wearer is recently arrived from the unemployment line.

It's not reckless, is what I'm saying. No one has ever noticed me in the midst of a raucous party and thought: "Hmmm, now that's an interesting look . . . ."

Usually I give the impression that I'm there to sweep up.

The point is, when ultra-hip men began buttoning their top buttons a few years ago, I did not exactly rush to embrace the new trend.

Instead, my initial reaction was to snicker and remark: "It'll never last. I give it six months -- eight, tops. Then these losers will be getting tripped in office building hallways and elbowed in nightclubs, the way they always have."

As usual, my assessment was somewhat shy of the mark -- in this case, about 3,000 nautical miles.

Far from sinking into fashion obscurity, the top-button-buttoned look has endured and, much in the manner of a burgeoning religious cult, seems to be winning new converts every day.

Part of my problem with the look was that I had been conditioned to think that only nerds, geeks, small-town appliance repairmen and dairy farmers buttoned their top button.

Yet today, even those not confined to computer terminals or rural hamlets have affected the look, influenced no doubt by celebrities ranging from low-brow actor Sylvestor Stallone to the thoroughly gooey Arsenio Hall to cerebral, height-impaired musician Paul Simon.

In fact, the look is becoming so ubiquitous that even this writer is thinking of joining the trend, as unsettling as that might seem to some people.

Of course, I know exactly what will happen here.

The minute I spring for one of those over-sized yuppie shirts and button the top button, a small ripple of anxiety will pass through the fashion world.

In an instant, the look will become passe. Within days, I will be the only man in the country who buttons his top button. When I arrive at a party -- and my social calendar is not exactly cluttered with Magic Marker notations, if you catch my drift -- it will be as if I showed up in a Nehru jacket.

People will watch me rake a Wheat Thin through the onion dip and roll their eyes and shake their heads sadly, as if regarding a hopelessly addled uncle.

"What a dork," they will whisper as I pass by on my way to the pretzel bowl. "What a fashion zero."

Of course, that sort of reaction will be nothing new, which is the reason I'm buttoning the top button in the first place.

Or maybe . . . maybe I'll just grow sideburns.

Sadly, this is another disturbing trend in men's fashion: Sideburns are making a comeback. Long, skinny sideburns, at any rate. And they seem to be cropping up on everyone from the sullen young models in the men's magazines to sullen young actors on TV to sullen young tennis players such as Andre Agassi.

Here again, I find myself somewhat behind the fashion curve.

In fact, the whole thing brings back frightening memories of the mid-Seventies, when I affected a hair style (shaggy, John Sebastian-like mop, thick sideburns) that made me look like a dissolute lumberjack, or a man who had recently taken to sleeping in a refrigerator carton on the sidewalk.

The point is, I've done sideburns. And now it looks like they're coming back, spawning the terrifying vision of legions of American men with ugly, narrow 'burns like the ones Clint Eastwood wore in "Where Eagles Dare."

God help us all.

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