The Men’s Book, Fall/Winter 2005
It doesn’t take much to be overdressed in LA. At a Hollywood Bowl opera recital recently, just tucking your pineapple-adorned shirt into your faded khakis was enough to put you in the top 20 percent of male concertgoers.
As is my custom, I took the sartorial road less traveled, opting for what I considered proper attire for an outdoor summer concert: navy blazer, white linen slacks and a striped tie. The average patron, who looked like he’d spent the day rollerblading at Venice Beach, took me for an usher.
You probably know somebody like me: She’s your Aunt Peggy and she puts on her pearls just to fetch a quart of milk. The family considers her a mildly eccentric snob because they can’t see any practical benefit to dressing up when it’s not necessary. But that’s the whole point: Practicality has nothing to do with it.Like Aunt Peggy, I choose to dress up not for better service (a minor benefit), nor to impress LA hotties (I don’t), nor even to enjoy the view down the end of my aquiline nose. I simply hold to the notion that certain occasions demand certain standards of attire, and that it is more pleasant to dress well than to dress poorly.
A perennially well dressed woman will be admired by her peers as a woman of substance. But in a man — a species among whom it is far rarer — being overdressed signals self-absorption and vanity. Worse, people think you’re from the East Coast.
Yes, in LA clothes unmake the man.
I’ll illustrate: One sunny afternoon I took two female coworkers to the local Jamba Juice. I was clad in a plaid, double-breasted Alan Flusser suit, a navy polka-dot tie and brown and white spectator shoes (The Duke of Windsor on holiday, for expediency’s sake). As I squinted at the menu, my coworkers informed me that the entire staff was in hysterics.
“Yo, it’s Iceberg Slim!” said a gold-toothed youth behind the counter. When I confessed my ignorance of the persona in question, he said Mr. Slim was “just some ol’ pimp.”
Another time I was heading back to my Downtown office with a cup of coffee and a pastry, dressed in a sportcoat, spread collar retro shirt and white shoes. Kind of a swingin’ bachelor vibe, or so I thought. A scruffy miscreant stopped me and mumbled something about speed. I said cognac was more my poison but thanks anyway. “No, man,” he clarified.” Do you got any speed?”
I said the best I could offer was a chocolate donut.
Street ruffians aren’t the only Angelenos flummoxed by the overdressed man. Perfectly respectable professionals blurt out their own amusing non-sequiturs. In the winter I used to don a homburg with my suit, which earned me the nickname Al Capone. Hats do that to a man. Wear a suit and nobody says a word, but put on a hat and suddenly you kill people for a living. Once, inspired by Jude Law in “The Talented Mr. Ripley,” I threw a black porkpie on the back of my head. “Christian,” someone said, “I didn’t know you were Jewish.”
Dressing well is an art form, and like any art form it is subject to misinterpretation. The overdressed man practices a craft as antiquated as illuminated manuscripts, and the public’s tools for deconstructing classic masculine attire are little more than a hodgepodge of images and associations gleaned from movies and television. During my Edwardian phase, I’d wear black and white checked trousers, black sportcoat, black vest with watch chain, and a white shirt with a silver tie. A British colleague told me I looked like a butler.
Being overdressed in LA is not for straight shooters worried about getting their point across. It is the métier of the elegant outsider, the man content to float at smog level above the splendors and miseries of life in the City of Angels (an ironic moniker if ever there was one). You find contentment — and humor — living in a perpetual state of people just not “getting it.”
And the riposte to their laughter is the old adage that dressing well is the best revenge.