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.
Excerpted from “These Are Our Failures”
By Christian Chensvold
Available exclusively at Hanger Project
After the recording mentioned here, Astaire gave each member of the band an engraved gold identity bracelet, I believe with the date of the recording and a thank you. I read somewhere that Oscar Peterson was the last member of the group to still own (and wear) his. It can be seen in many photos of him to the end of his life.
As for Astaire, he dealt with the change from his hey day of the 1930s-1950s by wearing ruffled tux shirts, buying some gray toupees, and, at 81, marrying a 36-year-old. So it goes.
Oscar Peterson– superb. A little Night Train after work.
In light of yesterday, would love to see some Ivy era pics of Hank Stram and Vince Lombardi. Easy to forget that, above all else and in light of other styles/looks, Ivy is grown-up masculine.
How much of the author is contained within the narrator of the opening passages?
The opening passages are evocative of so many stories written by Rod Serling and presented within the Twilight Zone, in which men caught in middle age, find themselves inhabiting a world which has become disappointing, alien, and perhaps mocking. I hope that the character in your story finds peace.
I wonder how much the “pedantic contrarian” character is based on frequent-commenter “Mitchell”.