Journey into the adult work world calls for trip to clothes store first

MAKING THE MAN

May 29, 1994|By Mike Gluck

"Now, with this darker shade of blue, you'll be able to match the jacket with khaki, tan, or even neutral."

"Neutral?"

4 "Oh, you don't have a pair of neutral trousers?"

I thought neutral was somewhere between reverse and first gear. I never knew they made trousers out of it. And since when are they called trousers? I own pants. Maybe one pair that could be called slacks. But trousers?

I was shopping for my first serious clothes for the workplace. As a summer intern in an office setting, I needed to upgrade my wardrobe past the flannel phase. Unfortunately, it was not going be an easy task.

When my father first told me about "pin stripes and houndstooth," I thought he was talking about some new sitcom on NBC. Dressing for success could have referred to salad for all I knew. But there I was, in the men's department of J. C. Penney, seeking advice from the same suit salesman who, in my younger days, I would laugh at on my way to the racks of Levis.

Standing around in a suit all day, tape measure around his neck, he was everything that I never was. And never wanted to be. Only now I was listening to him explain why button-down shirt collars were more practical than regular collars. And it made sense. For those times when you want to wear a sweater, a button-down collar ensures that the tips of the collar aren't going lift out of the top of the sweater. Even if you're just wearing a tie, having a button-down collar helps to . . . well, you get the idea.

It was having to buy a blazer that really got to me. A few months ago I wasn't even old enough to have a two-martini lunch, and now I was about to purchase the universally recognized symbol of corporate America -- the navy blue blazer. Different cultures have different ceremonies to mark the beginning of manhood.

I've heard of African tribes in which a boy becomes a man by spending a week alone in the jungle, or perhaps by jumping off of a 50-foot bridge with a 45-foot piece of twine tied around his ankle. Not a bungee cord or even the elastic from a couple of old pairs of underwear. We're talking twine. But standing in front of that three-way mirror, listening to the salesman talk about how the "classic cut of the pockets complements the drape of the fabric along the shoulder lines," I realized that I was taking a leap of my own. And the rope was tied in a Windsor knot.

But while I've never been one for formal wear (my cummerbund and bow tie for the prom were a checkerboard pattern that I haven't seen since my parents decided to sell their 1977 Volkswagen Rabbit), I must admit that part of me enjoyed standing in front of the mirror, straightening my sleeves and adjusting that button-down collar.

It was the same part of me that made the decision to go home to Buffalo, N.Y., over spring break and help out my dad while my mom was out of town, even though I could have gone to Myrtle Beach, S.C., with one of my housemates and played volleyball on the beach. How do you explain to your friend that you're giving up a week on the beach so that you can go grocery shopping and pick up your younger brothers after track practice? I once thought that responsible was a four-letter word. I didn't think it applied to me until, one day, I used it to describe myself on my resume.

I'm still hoping that, in some way, the clothes don't make the man. So what if I have to wear a tie to work? I'm still young. Sure, I wore polyester shirts during the '70s, but only because my mom still dressed me. I don't even remember disco. Or when "Saturday Night Live" was funny.

The way I figure, I can't be old if I grew up watching the Fonz live out his "Happy Days" on reruns. Now there was one cool guy. I mean, he could start that jukebox up just by snapping his fingers. But I'm not sure about that leather jacket. It just didn't look right on top of the white T-shirt he always wore. If you ask me, he would have been better off in a nice blue blazer. Maybe a button-down collar.

/# And a pair of neutral trousers.

MIKE GLUCK is a student in the Writing Seminars at the Johns Hopkins University.

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