Traditionally April 1st is the day of the year when Ivy Style makes attempts at being funny. This year the online consensus is that under no circumstances should April Fool’s Day be “celebrated.” After a great deal of pipesmoking deliberation, I have selflessly decided to share the complete prologue and first act of my new work of darkly comic menswear fiction. Indeed, in the entire literary genre of Darkly Comic Menswear Fiction, it stands alone. Written last year and taking its name from a quote regarding Beau Brummell and his celebrated cravat, “These Are Our Failures” centers around two men of polarizing ideologies working together to preserve the necktie — and classic menswear in general — from extinction in the wake of a coming apocalypse. Stay safe and sane, and enjoy April Fool’s Day in whatever way you can. This year the joke’s on me. — CC
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Excerpted from “These Are Our Failures”
By Christian Chensvold
Published by Antenna Books
Available exclusively at Hanger Project
It was a lazy Sunday afternoon and I was reclining on the sofa listening to Fred Astaire’s album with Oscar Peterson leading an all-star sextet and floating on a stream of reveries. Astaire cut the album in 1952, and swung his way through songs he’d introduced to America a generation before in those glorious black-and-white pictures for RKO. Yet as cool as these sparse renditions were—with Astaire’s effortless vocal delivery, never once straining his modest talents—I couldn’t help but picture him in what I believed was his natural element: wearing white tie and tails and dancing to a lavish orchestra across an Art Deco soundstage. And so I found myself wondering what it must have been like for the elegant icon to have watched that whole world disappear.
Astaire had lifted our spirits through the Great Depression with the most sophisticated escapism America had ever seen. Never again would a man of such humdrum looks bring such singular style to the silver screen. The advent of Technicolor robbed his musicals of the dreamlike quality that characterized the early black-and-whites, and the war destroyed the taste for pure fantasia. So now here was a 53-year-old Astaire gone hip, swinging with a jazz sextet in the era of television, commuter suburbs, and gray-suited company men clawing for their slice of American pie in a decade of unprecedented prosperity.
As Astaire worked his way through “Something’s Gotta Give,” my thoughtstream took a detour into the stagnant waters of my own trajectory. I’d sailed and sunk with the changing times the same as every man, but while Astaire’s world had gone from black-and-white to color, mine had done the reverse. Gone was the pageantry of impetuous youth; now there was only the dragging anchor of middle age, the dark underside of bachelorhood, the ignominy of groveling for contract work. With no deadline to procrastinate, no date to dress for, and not even the vaguest sense of what to do with a Sunday afternoon, I turned to that great pastime of style aficionados when they’ve nothing better to do: rearranging the closet.
I’d neglected my necktie rack long enough and quickly identified a handful of eyesores for the thrift store. But as I tossed them into an old shopping bag, something made me pause. Might the time come when neckties will be hard to find? The less men wear them, the fewer will be made. I consoled myself with the thought that any Extinction Level Event would be adequately foreshadowed. “Rome wasn’t built in a day,” I said to myself, “nor did it fall overnight.” So into the bag the ties went. I then went compulsively to the computer, as one does in the age of abbreviated attention, and spied a headline about the growing epidemic of apocalypse anxiety. My lazy Sunday was fast becoming a drag as my thoughts now turned from my own precarious position to that of civilization’s. What would I do if it all came crashing down? A luxury lifestyle writer is the epitome of useless, a parasite on bourgeois society. Obviously, I’d be selected for immediate extinction.
Mood plummeting, I decided to get some fresh air and was lacing up my running shoes when a message arrived. It was from my StyleForum account, and the sender was the pedantic contrarian “Scary_Grant,” considered one notch above a troll. His real name was Mark Galloway, and I used to bump into him years ago at retro events in San Francisco. He’s a vintage clothing collector and full-blown costume re-enactor who suffers from a form of psychosis in which it’s always 1938. In his benign delusion, men are dapper and well mannered (or at least he is), World War II hasn’t caused fabric rationing, and teeny-bopper culture has yet to exist. It’s all cocktails, screwball comedies and double-breasted suits. “Vintage clothing,” reads the tagline in his forum profile, “not vintage values.” Whatever that means.
I opened the message. In matter-of-fact tones, Galloway indicated that he was in possession of the scoop of a lifetime, and that as a freelance writer I would presumably consider such information highly valuable. I replied that surely the kind of scoop he meant was the kind used for cleaning up after dogs, but Galloway was not in the mood for digital banter. We jumped on the phone, and two days later I was on a plane with a contract from Gentleman’s Journey, the slick sartorial bible from Singapore, to pay me a king’s ransom upon delivery of what I promised would be the menswear story of the 21st century, even if I didn’t know yet what it was.
What follows is the article more or less as submitted. Shortly after receiving it, my editor rang me at 2 AM on FaceTime. With not so much as a perfunctory greeting, he chewed me out for having the audacity to pass off this work of fiction as true, of trying to cheat the magazine out of editorial resources, and of making his life a living hell by leaving him without a cover story a week before deadline. But life had changed so much for me during the weeks I spent writing the piece, that I simply closed my eyes and calmly breathed. This raised his pique to a volcanic eruption, so I hung up. Later an intern emailed saying he’d read my article, and while he didn’t believe it at first, he changed his mind after Gentleman’s Journey began receiving cryptic inquiries from something called The Oldman Group. They were followed by the arrival of a group of men in sunglasses with suits and no ties. They had come halfway around the world to ensure the article in question had been “killed,” as we say in the magazine business.
They pronounced the word “killed” with added emphasis.
Sixty-seven miles northeast of Anchorage, Alaska, lies the small village of Manton, which was founded as a fur-trading outpost in the 1840s. There are still a few shards from the original building that poke through the ground, a porcupine patch of sharp protruding wood. The spiky forms seem to act as signposts pointing the way to Manton’s most noteworthy geologic feature. Beyond the outskirts of the village stands a group of towering glaciers, all intermingled like antibodies engaged in microbial battle, except that each is a half-mile in size. The glaciers date from the Ice Age, and glisten in the sunlight as they slowly drip like ice sculptures at a wedding reception long after the band has packed up and gone.
My Alaskan Airlines flight was only half-full, which allowed me to stretch out and imagine what “Scary_Grant” had in store for me. Of course I didn’t trust him. His reputation as a troll lay partly in his punctilious proclamations on the minutiae of menswear, and partly on his incomprehensible political views, which combined a conservative crank’s curmudgeonliness with a progressive’s pathological compassion. The result was a kind of reverse utopianism: he wanted to go back to the future. Or forward to the past. Either way, it would require closing a loophole in the space-time continuum. Considering he was perpetually broke yet had paid for my plane ticket, he must have something legit, but in Alaska? Proof of a mythic Arctic civilization where men wore neckties?
When I touched down in Anchorage, there was a man at the gate holding a cardboard sign with my name misspelled. He looked like Charles Bronson, gruff and tough and wearing jeans, boots and a wide-brimmed hat. Strands of tribal-looking necklaces rustled in his chest hair like snakes slithering through grass. He said his name was John and I guessed he was an Eskimo, which was quite interesting, but I didn’t want to ask because these are strange times and it might seem rude—plus, I don’t think they’re called Eskimos anymore. I retrieved my suitcase and followed him though the parking lot until we reached a dusty pickup truck. Inside was a young woman he referred to as his daughter—attractive in the half-second I glanced at her—sitting in the driver’s seat. When I asked where Mark Galloway was, John said he was still preparing for my arrival. When I asked how far it was to get to him, John said about a hundred miles.
Beyond the city we traveled on a two-lane highway and hardly passed another vehicle, gas station, rest stop, or any other sign of civilization. I’d never been anywhere so remote before, and each passing mile brought a sense of desolation. And yet beneath the foreboding fog was an ember of adventure, as if I weren’t merely on assignment for a magazine, but was starring in an action-adventure movie. Father and daughter didn’t talk, and at some point I realized she hadn’t uttered a word. John, in the middle, pulled his hat over his eyes and started dozing. I seized the opportunity to steal a glance at the girl: she was indeed beautiful, with straight black hair and an impassive expression, staring ahead at the road as though in trance. We hadn’t been introduced, and since the drive was long and dull, I decided to give her a nickname and make her a character in my imaginary movie. I settled on Spirit Guide. After all, she was driving me through uncharted territory, and my spirits, when I’d embarked on this journey, had been low indeed.
An hour passed before John pulled his hat up, rubbed his eyes, and asked if I minded stopping to pick up dinner. In a lame attempt at levity, I asked if there was a Burger King out here. “No,” said Spirit Guide, speaking for the first time, “but there’s a White Castle.” It seemed to be some kind of joke whose meaning eluded me.
John gave me a little tap and pointed behind us, where a hunting rifle had previously escaped my notice. “Ah…” I muttered, before pleading fatigue and expressing my eagerness to meet Mark and discover what all this was about.
“What do you mean what all this is about?” John asked in his monotone baritone.
“He didn’t tell me,” I said. “Wants it to be a surprise.”
Father and daughter exchanged an amused glance as the late afternoon sun suddenly broke through the clouds, shining straight into my eyes. I raised my arm to block it and asked John if he knew what was going on. He grunted in the affirmative. “The locals call it Xanadu.”
After more long and silent miles, Spirit Guide veered the truck off the paved road and onto one made of bumpy earth. This ride was equally interminable though in miniature, until finally we came to a stop, 90 minutes since leaving the airport. The girl climbed out of the truck and stretched her back in a vaguely feline manner, which I couldn’t help noticing, as John went around to fetch my suitcase from the truck bed. I peered around confusedly and wrestled with the door handle, which was stuck. A moment later Spirit Guide climbed back in, leaning across me with awkward familiarity and filling my nostrils with the scent of her hair. She proceeded to open her mouth and finally free her captive voice, which had a low and breathy resonance. “Here,” she said, jiggling the handle until the latch released. Sliding back out, she let her hand brush across mine in what I could swear was an intentional caress. Shaking my head in befuddlement, I hurriedly climbed out to find my state of confusion was only beginning.
There was nothing. No house, no hotel, no building of any kind. The only thing there was to see, which at first I had not seen because it was not what I expected to see, was an enormous glacial wall some 80 yards ahead, whose ends curved off into the distance. It rose some 10 stories towards the sky, where the moon had already risen in the fading twilight, and which, in its barren whiteness and crescent shape, seemed to mirror the frozen wall below. I was startled by the sound of spinning wheels, and turned to see the truck’s taillights as it sped away. I shouted but it was futile: I’d been abandoned in the middle of nowhere. So much for being my “Spirit Guide.” I began shouting “Hello?” but soon felt like a fool. There was nothing to shout towards, nothing but the white wall. I pulled out my phone, but of course there was no signal. So I did what any civilized man would do in the middle of nowhere, whether or not he’s an advertising man named Roger Thornhill, dressed in an impeccable grey suit and trapped in the perilous world of Alfred Hitchcock: I put my hands in my pockets and paced. The next 10 minutes felt longer than the flight and truck ride combined, but the tension was finally broken when the words “Welcome to Alaska, my name is Scary Grant,” insinuated themselves into my ears.
Mark Galloway had appeared as if from nowhere, dressed in a three-piece tweed suit. It would have been daffy on anyone else, given the context, but was pretty much what I expected. I unleashed a torrent of interrogations—where we were, what was going on, and where’d you just teleport from?—but he deflected them all with mocking laughter. If you’ve ever wondered what Internet trolls are like in real life, here’s your answer. I examined him more closely—a reflex for clothes-wearing men—and noted that he wasn’t wearing a fedora, as was his custom, and instead was absurdly apropos in a loden-colored Tyrolean hat complete with feather in the band. He was also thick cable-knit sock into which he’d tucked his pantlegs, plus brown dress boots, the overall impression being that he might begin yodeling at any moment. “Did you bring black tie?” he queried.
“To Alaska?” I replied. “I thought you were joking.” Mark shook his head in disdain, said he’d find me something, and offered an unfiltered Lucky Strike from a cigarette case, which I accepted because what the hell.
He looked exactly as I remembered —awkwardly tall with a pear shape—though he’d covered his doughy face with a patchy beard that didn’t suit him. He gestured in a way that bid me follow, and began marching towards the white wall. When we were close enough I noticed a fissure set at 45 degrees to the face of the wall and just large enough for Galloway—with a quick look back and cock of his eyebrows—to slip inside and disappear.
I spewed out a stream of profanities. Mark’s voice echoed from out the ice, but the only word I could make out was “stuck.” I poked my head inside and shouted, “That’s why I’m not going in there,” to which Mark yelled back, “I said you’ll be stuck out there!” I looked over my shoulder at the darkening plain that stretched toward the horizon, where diamonds of the night sky had begun to flicker, let out an agitated groan, and squeezed myself into the opening.
After a few steps the passage widened, but it was so dark I could barely see. “Follow the light,” I heard Mark say. Twenty feet ahead I saw the glow of his cigarette lighter. I pushed forward, suitcase banging against the walls, when suddenly my subconscious spat up a ghastly image. It was one of Gustave Doré’s plates for Dante’s Inferno, in which hell is not a burning pit of flames but a frozen cavern. And here I was trapped under ice with Satan as a tweed-wearing Internet troll—precisely the sort of guise the devil would come up with. “Watch your head on those stalactite things up there,” Mark said. I hunched over to avoid a row of spikes pointing downward from above, and when I straightened up the outline of Mark’s Tyrolean hat was lit from ahead. Then light began to fall upon his tweed-clad form, until finally the crevasse opened up before the most astonishing thing I had ever seen.
The ice through which we had passed formed the perimeter of an enormous stadium, a naturally fortified valley surrounded by 360 degrees of glacial wall. In the center towered something only a mind of the most unhinged eccentricity could have conceived. It was like something out of Disneyland, as if the Sleeping Beauty castle and the Matterhorn had an architectural love child. It harmonized ingeniously with the surroundings, rising upwards some 80 feet like a giant vanilla soft-serve with medieval spires and windows for sprinkles. The summit was lit by spotlights like the top of a skyscraper, featured a wraparound balcony, and, if I wasn’t hallucinating, culminated in a flagpole flying a triangular banner that looked like a regimental tie from Brooks Brothers.
I was agape, unable to form intelligible speech, as Mark gave me a shove towards the gigantic gothic softie. My approach took me past bulldozers, a crane, a cement mixer, and piles of lumber and girders—indications that this fantastical edifice was merely the beginning of a much greater project. The entrance, which Mark activated by entering a code onto a keypad, featured a door that did not swing laterally, but rather descended like a drawbridge. It opened into a spacious hall designed like a hunting lodge, with an A-frame ceiling and a castle-worthy fireplace at the far end, where crackled a blazing fire. Polar bear rugs lay strewn across the floor, complete with gaping jaws, alongside zebra skins, tiger hides, and oriental carpets. Excruciatingly tasteful accent tables supported taxidermied timberwolves and snow foxes, while a suit of armor and Excalibur-like sword stood guard like a sentinel. But all this was merely a distraction from the hall’s most arresting sight: covering every available inch from floor to ceiling were some 200 gilt-framed oil paintings and chrome-mounted photographs, which made the hall seem like a cross between the Metropolitan Museum and a Ralph Lauren retail store. Represented in the artistry was the entire historic pantheon of masculine panache: Restoration fops, Regency dandies, Prussian officers, Belle Epoque aesthetes, Gilded Age tycoons, Old Money WASPs, English gentlemen, matinee idols, Riviera playboys, and every type of dashing cad who’d ever dimpled a Windsor knot.
Mark made me take a seat before I keeled over. As I crossed the room, the men on the walls seemed to follow my every step, as if deciding whether I was well dressed enough to join their company. Hypnotized with disbelief, I collapsed by the fire in a tufted wingback chair. I peered into the dancing flames, then traced my gaze outwards, noting that the fireplace was framed by two marble columns in the shape of male pantlegs with wingtips at the base. The mantel overflowed with masculine bric-a-brac: tobacco pipes, cigar humidor, and antique accoutrements including monocles, a pince-nez, watches and fobs, and an assortment of vintage apothecary bottles. Above, like a king on his throne, was the room’s largest painting, stretching all the way to the ceiling. It depicted George Bryan “Beau” Brummell tying his celebrated cravat, on which rested his reputation as an arbiter elegantiarum. Brummell’s manservant was exiting the room, carrying an armful of ties that had not fallen into place and needed to be restarched. On the far side of the painting, ascending the staircase, one of Brummell’s chums had come to behold his tie-tying technique. Addressing the servant, he inquired about the pile of white linen the man was carrying. Along the bottom of the frame, by way of brass-plate engraved inscription, ran the valet’s famous response: “These, Sir, Are Our Failures.”