Easy as pie, but not quite painless

Russell Baker

August 13, 1993|By Russell Baker

I LEARN from "Styles of The Times," my favorite guide to up-to-date dressing, that it is no longer de rigueur to have your jacket sleeve sewn to your jacket. To do so may even be gauche, revealing you are out of touch with the deconstructionist movement in men's wear.

The chic male, I gather, can now rip the sleeve off his best hound's-tooth check and tie it to the jacket shoulder with a ribbon. It's not clear whether you put your arm in the amputated sleeve or just leave the thing -- the sleeve, not the arm -- dangling empty in the breeze.

The article probably explained this somewhere, but it was such a heady brew of chatter about fashion deconstructionism that I didn't dare read much for fear the police might pull me over for driving under the influence of fashion writing.

For another thing, my mind goes even blanker than usual the instant I see the word "deconstructionism." Not long ago Calvin Trillin announced that he had decided not to bother with the word "holistic," since it seemed sure to fall into desuetude before he could figure out what it meant. Mr. Trillin's declaration of independence from vogue words made a mighty impression on me.

"Ah," I thought, "If I had only had Mr. Trillin's courage, I would never have wasted all those years finding out what 'desuetude' means."

Strengthened by Mr. Trillin's example, I decided when "deconstructionism" came along to ignore it until it went away. At that time, of course, it had something to do with French literary criticism. (Imagine a whole nation that can't pronounce "the" having the gall to "deconstruct" Shakespeare.)

I digress here only to explain that wild horses couldn't have made me read about fashion deconstructionism if there had been a herd of them in the parlor on Sunday when "Styles of The Times" swam into ken. Not having summoned the will power their menacing presence would have required, I fell easy victim to the picture showing the amputated jacket sleeve.

You will understand why once I explain that my brand new cream-colored summer jacket, while being worn for the first time the previous day, had acquired a small, barely noticeable salad-oil stain on the right shoulder. Repeated efforts to scrub it out had made it large enough to be visible from the next block.

So naturally my heart leapt up at that picture of the severed jacket arm. "What is deconstructionism, anyway?" asked a chunk of bold type. Smaller print gave the fashion answer: "Undoing the construction of a thing."

In short, late in life I seemed finally to have blundered to the forefront of men's fashion. By ripping the entire right front panel off my brand new jacket, I could not only shed the salad oil, but could also leave the guys at the American Legion bar morose when they saw how out-of-date their own duds were.

I was kidding myself, of course, and I knew it. I knew it the instant I studied the picture of Martin Margiela, the father of fashion deconstructionism. It showed a man wearing a Navy watch cap down on his eyebrows with torso wrapped in the sort of wardrobe Boris Karloff wore in the first "Frankenstein" movies.

The only males who can dress this way are either 13 years old or emotionally arrested at that miserable age. I am not 13 years old, but was once, and once was more than enough for me. I couldn't wait to turn 50 and start getting a little respect from cops, bus drivers and the kind of women who hang around bars and cherish the delusion that men old enough to be their fathers are dying to buy them expensive cars.

Sometimes, though, I regret putting 13 behind me. The year Robert Redford made "The Great Gatsby" and "the Gatsby look" was all the rage, I reasoned that since I looked so much like Redford I would spend some money to ape the fabled bootlegger's haber--ery. Result: heartfelt requests from my own children not to go outside the house.

Obviously, deconstructing the brand new cream-colored, salad-oil-stained jacket by ripping off the front would only make me look not just over 50, but also demented.

"Styles of The Times," tell me please, why is fashion only for 13-year-olds and nuts? And, incidentally, how about a nice piece on how to remove salad-oil stains?

Russell Baker is a New York Times columnist.

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