Writer discovers that going back to his roots is a fashion-forward journey

HERITAGE HABERDASHERY--A

August 22, 1993|By Dan Rodricks

First, I will tell you about Gay Talese's trench coat.

In the winter of 1992, the best-selling author's book, "Unto the Sons," had just been released. It was a rich and vivid account of his family's migration from Italy to the United States, and of his father's experiences among master tailors. Talese came from a line of brilliant tailors, some of them legends in Europe.

The night Talese arrived in Baltimore to begin a promotional tour, he wore a fedora, a splashy tie and a handsome, custom-made, striped shirt with a sharp white broadcloth collar, and an outstanding wool suit with a lapeled vest. Draped over this ensemble was a tan trench coat.

Altogether it was a handsome package: Talese, distinguished author, worldly journalist, honorable son of Italy, looked as though he had just emerged from one of his family's famous shops.

Some time after getting off the train at Penn Station, perhaps as he passed through a door or slid into a cab, his trench coat had snagged and torn, leaving a gaping wound on the upper right sleeve. Talese seemed perplexed by the ironic symbolism of the tear.

"Too bad," I told him, "the old tailors aren't here."

The old tailors would have healed the wound in Talese's coat, would have made it disappear. They were that good.

We knew this, of course, from "Unto the Sons" -- considered the Italian "Roots" -- and the 10 years of research that went into it. Talese's book resulted from his decision to know, at last, everything about his family.

He was not always so interested. He had spent a good part of his life in ambivalence, even denial, about his ethnic roots.

To write "Unto the Sons," Talese had to make a leap deep into his Italian heritage, then wear it, literally, on his sleeve. Though he always exuded a cosmopolitan style, Talese's reckoning with his past now seemed to color the very threads of his ensemble.

Such a profound interest in the personal past is not widely evident in the American mainstream today. As reflected in wardrobe, in home furnishings, in behavior, in style, ethnicity seems only rarely to be acknowledged and promoted.

Most of what American designers offer is ethnically neutral. If inclined, you must go out of your way -- though not as far as you might think -- to adorn a lifestyle with the simple accessories that reflect Who You Are in a way that salutes What Your People Were.

Recently, I visited the large home of a woman with whom I grew up. Her name is Gloria. She was first-generation Italian-American. She had married a second-generation Irish-American. As I stood in her home, I looked around for signs of the couple's ethnic ancestries.

That might strike you as an odd thing to snoop for, but that's what I do. I still see ethnic diversity as an American wonder. I think celebrating your roots is enormously important -- especially as those of us with European roots move away from the immigrant experience of our parents or grandparents.

Gloria's house was "pretty." It was decorated in what I call the Martha Stewart Lite Motif, resulting in something one might label Safe Contemporary Colonial. Lots of cherry furniture, wing chairs, fox-hunting prints, that sort of thing. There was not a single acknowledgment of Gloria's or her husband's family or their ethnicity. (Not a single sepia of an old man with a mustache!) The house reflected nothing about the woman's character or her personality -- not the Gloria I thought I knew, anyway! Hers was, instead, the model home for the American Anybody.

It was so very nice. But disappointing.

I prefer something with a little more spice. Something, ultimately, a lot more honest.

Consider my cousin Eddie's way.

I went to his house in Chicago last fall and found roots all over the place. I don't mean he had cured hams and provolones hanging from the ceiling. He does not live some cartoon version of the Italian-American life, nor does he play Italian-For-A-Day as many second- and third-generation, nouveau-riche Italian-Americans do. This is not a hobby. My cousin has found ways to incorporate his ethnicity into his personal style with reverence, fun and grace.

And let's face it: It's easy to do this -- incorporate your ethnic heritage into personal style -- when your roots are Italian. Or African. Or Hispanic. Or Asian. There's simply more to draw from -- clothes, accessories, artifacts, furnishings that are instantly recognizable as being from the Old World.

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