Long underwear tops mark male fashion peak

August 15, 1994|By MIKE ROYKO

Mike Royko is on vacation. In the meantime, we are reprinting some of his favorite columns. This column was first published Nov. 19, 1984. When my grandfather sat on the front steps wearing his long underwear tops and drinking beer, it never occurred to me that he was a fashion trendsetter.

That was just the way he and his friends dressed. For more formal occasions, such as going to work or to Bruno's Corner Tap, they would slip a shirt and trousers over their long underwear.

For leisure-time activities, such as lounging on the front steps, they would remove the shirt.

And for those private, intimate moments, such as going to bed, they would remove the trousers but retain the long underwear.

When I asked him once why he wore long underwear on all but the hottest summer days, he said:

"Because wearing is what underwear is for."

But why, I asked, didn't he wear something lighter, such as briefs and a T-shirt? He responded: "I'm no Italian gigolo."

But how does it look for you to be sitting around on the front steps in your underwear tops?

He explained. "When I got a shirt on, it's underwear. When I take my shirt off, it's not underwear anymore because it's not under anything."

And he was true to his dress code throughout his life. Especially after the fire.

It happened in the middle of the night. A fire broke out in the basement, and smoke quickly seeped through the floors into his part of the three-flat. As the firemen arrived, he staggered out of the smoky building. Naturally, he was wearing his long underwear.

And he pointed triumphantly at the guy from the second floor, wrapped in a blanket because he had been wearing only briefs.

"See?" he said. "Don't Chester look funny?"

Now, it turns out, he was not only practical but fashionable.

I happened to come across a copy of a men's fashion magazine called International Male.

And as a picture in that magazine shows, one of the hottest new men's fashion items is "The Greek Undershirt."

As the magazine said: "We found this authentic Greek undershirt in Athens. The European fashion-conscious men are snapping them up, and International Male is now importing these shirts to America."

How do you like that? All those years, my grandmother would snap: "You look like a bum sitting on the steps in your underwear. Put a shirt on." But he was simply a man ahead of his times.

The Greek undershirt isn't exactly like my grandfather's undershirt. His had buttons up the front and a higher neckline. And a few gravy stains, which he felt gave it character. But the effect was the same.

Of course, my grandfather's undershirt was not imported from Greece. He was always loyal to Sears. As he used to say:

"If they had Sears stores in the old country that sold long underwear this good, most of us would've never left."

I pointed out the Greek undershirt ad to Sam Sianis, the Greek who runs Billy Goat's Tavern.

He said: "Shoo, dat's real Greek undershirt. I used to wear shirt like dees when I chase sheep. All men in my village wear shirt like dees."

Then he looked at the price, which was $22, and he shook his head.

He said: "No Greek pay $22 for undershirt. Maybe for a suit, but not no undershirt." Then he thought about it awhile. "Well, maybe Onassis. He might pay $22 for undershirt. But even Onassis, I bet for $22, he wants bottom, too."

It just shows the importance of timing. If my grandfather had been a young man in today's world, he would have been a fashion setter.

Simply by removing his shirt, he could have gone to the bars in yuppie neighborhoods and looked right at home. True, he looked right at home in our old neighborhood on Milwaukee Avenue, too, but nobody accused him of being trendy.

Who knows, he might have even marketed his own designer long underwear. But I'm not sure if they would have gone for the flap in the back.

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