In Praise of the Small Wardrobe

Tue 29 Sep 2009 - Filed under: 1950s,Clothes,Lit — Christian
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Perhaps because I scribe for a living, and know that a piece of writing always benefits from cutting,* I’ve always been a ruthless editor of my own wardrobe. There’s always something that can be discarded for being redundant, having fulfilled its use, or not being quite right. The simple test is to look at an item in your closet and gauge your gut reaction to it: If you’re not immediately filled with fondness, get rid of it. Clothes are the perfect means to practice the striving for a state of perfection, even if that state is never reached.

As a result, I’ve never understood the web’s notorious clotheshorses and their compulsive acquiring. Money is not the issue, as some spend lavishly while others are inveterate thrifters. At some point both must reach a stage of surfeit, when it’s impossible for every item in their wardrobe to be fondly cherished. It’s the difference between having a dog and having a kennel. At some point it’s just variety for its own sake, and at that point are your clothes really an extension of you?

And just because an item is already broken in doesn’t mean it will automatically feel second nature to wear it. Whether it’s an old rep tie or a vintage Harris Tweed, an item new to you is still new, and will take time until you’re wholly unaware of wearing it. But before then the item will not feel like a part of you, but a kind of awkward sartorial prosthesis.

Sure, wearing something new can often put a spring in your step, but only one new item should be worn per outfit. Don’t inaugurate a new jacket, tie and shoes all at the same time.

Consider this passage from Patricia Highsmith’s 1955 novel “The Talented Mr. Ripley”:

Evenings looking at his clothes — his clothes and Dickie’s — and feeling Dickie’s rings between his palms, and running his fingers over the antelope suitcase he had bought at Gucci’s. He had polished the suitcase with a special English leather dressing, not that it needed polishing because he took such good are of it, but for its protection. He loved possessions, not masses of them, but a select few that he did not part with. They gave a man self-respect. Not ostentation but quality, and the love that cherished the quality. Possessions reminded him that he existed, and made him enjoy his existence. It was simple as that. And wasn’t that worth something? He existed.

I find this an inspiring argument for fewer, but better. — CC

* This blog post shortened from 1,800 words.

Club Dues: Geoffrey Wolff’s “The Final Club”

Mon 15 Jun 2009 - Filed under: 1950s,1990-present,Lit — Christian
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I recently wrote a shortie for the blog at RL’s about Geoffrey Wolff’s 1990 novel “The Final Club.” This is the novel set at Princeton in the late ’50s I alluded to in the Bruce Boyer interview, which caused a reader to ask what book I was referring to. It can now be revealed, and I’ve excerpted some sartorial passages below that I think you’ll enjoy.

Wolff is the brother of Tobias Wolff, whose novel “Old School,” another campus tome set in the same era, was the subject of a previous post.

Here’s a New York Times article about their brotherhood and literary rivalry.

Though I enjoyed both books, I preferred the energy and stronger coming-of-age themes in “The Final Club,” which centers around a half-Jewish boy named Nathaniel who attends Princeton, takes in the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival, goes sailing and dances outdoors under the stars. Basically the life we’d all like to lead, at least for a day, if we could eliminate the bigotry and disillusion. (Continue)


Poetic Injustice

Sun 26 Apr 2009 - Filed under: 1950s,Lit — Christian
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Before his untimely death, few men of letters embodied the jazz-fueled cool of midcentury New York better than poet Frank O’Hara. The Whitman of the modern urban landscape, O’Hara captured the essence of the city, its multitudes, and its motions of constant speed punctuated with moments of stillness.

Heavily influenced by Abstract Expressionism and jazz, his work affected the spontaneity of free-form verse, with a diction that bridged both high and low culture, uptown and downtown. His collection Lunch Poems was said to have been composed over the course of a single lunch break.

A member of the informal group that came to be known as the New York School, O’Hara mingled with the most important artistic figures of the age, including painters Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning, and poets John Ashbery and James Schuyler. He shared with the Abstract Expressionists a belief in the work of art as an artifact of spontaneous creation.

Born in 1926 in Baltimore and raised in Grafton, Massachusetts, O’Hara served in the Navy during World War II and saw action in the South Pacific.

An accomplished pianist, he attended Harvard to study music on a GI Bill scholarship, where he roomed with artist Edward Gorey. Upon taking his M.A. in English from the University of Michigan, he moved to New York and quickly embeded himself within the local art and music scene. Employed at the Museum of Modern Art, he also wrote as a critic for Art News and began to seriously pursue poetry.

O’Hara died a tragic and unpoetic death in 1966 at the age of forty, after being struck by an all-terrain-vehicle on the beach on New York’s Fire Island. — ZACHARY DELUCA (Continue)


Performance Anxiety

Mon 20 Apr 2009 - Filed under: 1960s,1990-present,Lit — Christian
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As we’ve repeatedly been told, WASP nonchalance is merely an affectation, a performance that renders its mannered marionettes ever anxious about committing some cred-crushing gaucherie.

And if it’s like that for members of the tribe, just imagine what it’s like for Jews.

Tobias Wolff’s 2003 novel “Old School” belongs to the prep-school-coming-of-age genre, while its central conflict draws on the much-mined Jew-among-gentiles trope. But the book’s spare style and focus on the literary development of its aspiring-writer protagonist give it a weight and freshness that sets it apart from others books in the genre, such as John Knowles’ “A Separate Peace.”

I read the book after seeing it mentioned on the blog Advice To My Sons.

Set in 1960, the bildungsroman charts the development of its unnamed, half-Jewish narrator, who enrolls in an elite prep school only to find himself a stranger in a strange land:

Class was a fact. Not just the clothes a boy wore, but how he wore them. How he spent his summers. The sports he knew how to play. His way of turning cold at the mention of money, or at the spectacle of ambition too nakedly revealed. You felt it as a depth of ease in certain boys, their innate, affable assurance that they would not have to struggle for a place in the world.

“Old School” contains a number of sartorial passages. In the following, tassel loafers are presented not as shoes for the starched square, but footwear for the “playboy”:

We dressed so much alike that the inflection we did allow ourselves — tasseled loafers for the playboy, a black turtleneck for the rebel – were probably invisible to an outsider. Our clothes, the way we wore our hair, the very set of our mouths, all this marked us like tribal tattoos.

Increasingly, the narrator becomes lost in his performance:

… From my own anxious studies I had made myself the picture of careless gentility, ironically cordial when not distracted, hair precisely unkempt, shoes down at heel, clothes rumpled and frayed to perfection. This was the sort of figure I’d been drawn to almost from the beginning; it had somehow suggested sailing expertise, Christmas in St. Anton, inherited box seats, and an easy disregard for all that. By going straight to the disregard I’d hoped to imply the rest. I had also meant to wipe out any trace of the public school virtues — sharpness of dress, keenness of manner, spanking cleanliness, freshness, niceness, sincerity – I used to cultivate.

By now I’d been absorbed so far into my performance that nothing else came naturally. But I never quite forgot that I was performing. In the first couple of years they’d been some spirit of play in crating the part, refining it, watching it pass. There’d been pleasure in implying a personal history through purely dramatic effects of manner and speech without ever committing an expository lie, and pleasure in doubleness itself: there was more to me than people knew!

All that was gone. When I caught myself in the at now I felt embarrassed. It seemed a stale, conventional role, and four years of it had left me a stranger even to those I called my friends.

I wanted out. That was partly why I’d chosen Columbia. I like how the city seethed up against the school, mocking its theoretical seclusion with hustle and noise, the din of people going and getting and making. things that mattered at Princeton or Yale couldn’t possible withstand this battering of raw, unironic life. You didn’t go to eating clubs at Columbia, you went to jazz clubs. You had a girlfriend— no, a lover — with psychiatric problems, and friends with foreign accents. You read newspapers on the subway and looked at tourists with a cool, anthropologicial gaze. You said crosstown express. You said the Village. You ate weird food. No other boy in my class would be going there.

A review of the book on can be found here. — CC


The Quiet American

Thu 29 Jan 2009 - Filed under: 1990-present,Historic Images,Lit — Christian
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Ivy-Style mourns the passing of John Updike, who died Tuesday at 76. While his status as a Great American Novelist is well known, his role as an icon of sartorial understatement is not. And so we present this homage to a master not only of English literature, but of dressing with quiet flair. Our tweed bucket hats are off to you, John: (Continue)


Writers Block

Sat 17 Jan 2009 - Filed under: 1960s,Historic Images,Lit — Christian
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In 1962 Life ran a group of photos of American authors. Pictured above is James Baldwin, while below is Philip Roth. Click on images for hi-res version: (Continue)

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