Clothes Kill the Man
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
jacket, pal. Who died?”
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 Gawker.com
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
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
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.