My father had a routine before every Memorial. An hour or two before leaving, he’d take out a shoebox and begin layering newspapers on the table. Out of the shoebox came two tins of Kiwi shoe wax, a brush, and an old shirt. After daubing a bit of black on a clean spot on the shirt, he’d swirl the wax on the leather while the shoe sat on the newspapers. After a few minutes, he’d take the other shoe and repeat the process on the other shoe. Returning to the first, he’d brush it until it reached a dull shine, then on to the second, and finish by grabbing the shirt with his hands on both ends and buff the toe and vamp to a high gloss.
“At least once a year,” he proclaimed, “you should shine your shoes.”
To his credit, my father never shared my enthusiasm for menswear. He didn’t care who made his suit, what kind of leather his shoes were, or if his shirt was Sea Island cotton; provenance didn’t concern him. What did matter, as evidenced by virtually every memory I have of my father in a suit over the years, was simplicity and propriety.
He always wore a white shirt. In later years he ventured into blues and light greys, but they were always solid. Ties were never too skinny or fat, trousers never too narrow or wide, jackets never too short or long. Mostly, the ties were solid silk twill. Once, I found a black velvet tie with yellow flowers in his closet that I had never seen him wear. For a split second I had a vision of my dad as one of All The Young Dudes on Barnaby Street in Cuban heels and bellbottoms. When I asked him about it, he shrugged indifferently.
“I think I wore that once, but it wasn’t me. You can have it.”
No, velvet was not my dad. Neither were bellbottoms, Cuban heels, leisure suits, polyester prints, beads, or anything else that ever pushed the envelope. Even at his most rebellious spell as a teenager, his craziest outfits were comprised of Levi’s 501s and sweatshirts or Ocean Pacific shorts and t-shirts, which he still wears today. Footwear was a pair of dress shoes, a pair of work boots, and flip flops. That’s it. His closet was lean, practical, basic.
Every year as we grew my parents would take us shopping to get new jeans, so when the faded jeans fad arrived, we felt out of style. My dad’s jeans, though, looked just like them. I remember asking him how he got them like that – were they stonewashed? Acid washed? Blasted?
“I just wear them and wash them,” he replied. The concept of wearing something for years is understandably foreign to a growing child, but now that I think about it, those jeans were probably as old as I was at the time. In fact, I don’t remember my father ever buying new jeans. He’d just wear what he had until it fell apart.
During my late teens I went through a skater phase, when Jive ruled the world and pants had leg openings big enough to cover your suede Pumas. At this point my dad stopped telling me what to wear, but he did warn me: “One of these days,” he’d say, “when you dress normal again, you’re going to look back and laugh.”
I can truthfully say that day has come.
Today, I have a shoebox of my own, and shine my shoes before every Memorial. As it turns out, I now wear jeans and flannels to work like my father did. In fact, a large part of my closet reflects what my father taught me about clothing. While it’s true that the sheer volume of clothes I have could dress an entire football team, the players would all look pretty much the same: properly conventional.
My dad always had a solid tie in his closet, something that I find myself reaching for probably more often than I should. Almost all of my shirts are plain, white or blue, with one yellow and one pink for when it’s sunny and I feel audacious. The striped shirts I do have are also blue. Most of my suits are solid colors, and my sport coats are all in a varying shade of brown. None of my dress clothes are terribly exciting. I have only one pair of what might be considered “nice” jeans, but everything else is years old, missing buttons, starting to get holes, or already patched.
If my dad were to look in my closet, he’d shake his head at the size of it. He’d laugh when I showed him the difference between the collar roll of an unlined Brooks Brothers oxford cloth shirt and an Italian-made one. He’d shrug in indifference at the clean, taped seams inside a bespoke jacket, or the buttoned cuffs of a locally-made trouser. He’s just a no-fuss kind of guy, and he’d probably think my interest borders on the obsessive. But I’d wager he’d wear everything in my closet, not realizing how much it mirrors his.
At least I’d like to think so. I should ask him.