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The Clothes Kill the Man

Go ahead, ask me who died. You know you want to. Why resist the urge? Give in to the cliché, I won’t hold it against you. Because, yes, this is a new sport coat and, yes, it’s a little fancier than the situation calls for.

So, ask the glib and playfully insulting question, but know that you’re opening a rhetorical can of worms the pretension of which may overwhelm you, because winter’s approaching and my mind is turning toward the ritualistic. So, let’s get into it:

“Nice jacket, pal. Who died?”

“Thanks. Me.”

See, I’m still a little too young for an actual midlife crisis (and too poor to buy a sports car anyway), so I’m addressing the most recent outbreak of my cyclical identity confusion in a shallow and modestly materialistic—though societally sanctioned and encouraged—manner. I’m getting a new wardrobe and hoping it makes me a new person. I’m performing a symbolic, sartorial execution of a former self.

It’s not the first time I’ve attempted this exact same feat, so I have compelling reasons to believe that it’s pretty much doomed to failure; but to the extent that it gives me a fixation other than my recent, unproductive and inexplicable addiction, it serves a purpose. I’m buying what, in my childishly simplistic view, I regard as adult clothes. I’m hoping to find in department stores some outward display of maturity, some 30-percent-off heraldry, that will make obvious my arrival—into what, I’m not entirely certain. Grown-upness, or something equally vague.

A little pathetic, I know.

I blame society.

We’ve got no cohesive rituals of initiation, no celebrations of incorporation into the community—and, no, alcohol poisoning in a dank basement near a foosball table does not count. The Jewish bar and bat mitzvahs are close, I suppose, but obviously enough, applicable only to a minority. Furthermore, they confer a primarily symbolic status, rather than a legal one: You still can’t vote, drive after 9, get married, get a drink or a cigarette—or legally indulge in any of the other great adult mistakes. Those staggered steps to your legal majority, not to mention our culture’s youth obsession, serve to prolong adolescence. You just sort of bumble along in an extended teen angst—worrying about your attractiveness to others and your membership in certain cliques—until it’s time to start banging your secretary and getting hair plugs.

This is a deeply unsatisfying process.

In some other cultures, allegedly more primitive cultures, the initiation into adulthood is considerably more formal—and frightening. The initiate is traumatized, often by some physical mortification. There are scarification and/or piercing ceremonies; I read of one tribal ritual in which the boy about to enter manhood is smacked in the mouth with a board in hope of breaking a tooth, which will then serve as incontrovertible talisman of his status, a badge of his belonging and authority.

I myself am not quite so tough: I’ve got a scar on my chin because I was a restless sleeper as a kid, and I pierced my nose at a Lollapalooza because I thought it was daring, and I’ve got a broken tooth because not everyone understands my sense of humor—but all those trials were trivial, unofficial. And, yes, I vote, drive at night and spend more money than I should in BJ’s wholesale wine wing, but these are not transformative experiences.

We enter our civilized adulthoods not with a bang, but a whimper.

Not that I’m asking you to hit me with a board.

Instead, I’ll go about trying to establish, or reestablish, my adult identity in the method most easily available to me: by subtly changing my patterns of consumption, by switching brands as if it were a substantive statement. If I can’t become a new man, I’ll become a New Coke man, or a Coke Xtreme Man, or a Mega-Coke Arctic-Elderberry Freez-O-Rush man, or whatever. I’ll get new glasses and a different haircut. I’ll trade in my Campers for Johnston & Murphys.

I’ll fly the tags and labels like pendants and banners.

Interestingly, a friend of mine has thought to go the other way. In her own attempt to ditch a previous incarnation and to assert a new self, she says she’s planning to give up clothes- consciousness altogether, to end run hipness and status pressure, by purchasing a jumpsuit. She’ll be That Lady in the Jumpsuit (speaking of mortification). It may not be a great definition, but it is a definition. Like the guy who used to work in the neighborhood grocery, dressed in knee breeches, lace and a tricorner hat, who at some point had to decide to no longer be whomever he had been before the costume.

The jumpsuit, the Amadeus getup, they’re burial clothes, shrouds. They’re eschatological emblems. They’re soft tombstones, and markers of ritual passage.

They’re also silly, and a little sad. But, in equal measure, they’re brave and noble. It’s important—and therefore difficult—to shed old identities as they lose functionality. It’s important—and therefore scary—to challenge the expectations of those who think they know you, when you yourself are not so sure.

So, it’s a proclamation as much as an affectation.

It’s an obituary.

It’s a new sport coat.

And it’s better than a poke in the eye with a sharp stick.

—John Rodat

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