Women — relatives, friends, companions and even strangers — love the cliché that men don’t get clothes and shoes. That seems to have fostered the whole Queer Eye culture as well.
That’s probably more right than wrong.
Beat me over the head often enough and I do notice some things like that. This morning for example, it was my shoes again. After spin class finished around 7, a woman called across the room to me, “I love your red shoes.”
Reading that, I am not oblivious to that being an unusual comment to a man. Plus, I’m not a delicate creature nor am I a Gen-Y guy. I’m old and bald and have shoulders that would intimidate an ox.
Men in general and New England ones in particular dress dully, dress drably. Wearing black, brown and navy is as Boston as button-down shirts. The latter are another amusing artifact. Designed for immature students who couldn’t be trusted to keep their ties on the inside of their collars otherwise, these marks of the puerile are the norm around here for adults too. These are really training pants for the chest.
Shock of the Ordinary
Two decades ago, the contrast between here and less fashion-timorous areas became obvious overlooking the Common. In late winter, I returned from visiting family in Santa Fe. Back in Boston, I sat in a dentist’s chair looking three stories down onto the theater of us.
In New Mexico, many ordinary houses have one or more exterior murals — such would likely disappear quickly in our winters and wetness. Women, children and men commonly wore clothes in colors that may never have appeared on the Common, except maybe on Brother Blue. Yellow shirts and three or four rings on a man were common, and those men weren’t rappers or hustlers.
On the Common, the scattered herd was in navy, black and brown, with a very rare dark red woman’s coat standing out.
In fairness, this may be a self-reinforcing cycle. Retailers may stock what we buy and we buy what retailers stock. Black, navy brown, if you please.
Shock of the Yellow
About that time, I bought my first mountain bike and found a version of the same fashion foibles. Cycle Loft in Burlington supposedly had the great stock. There, a caste system was in place. The cheap bikes were on the floor, with more expensive ones higher, until you got to the custom frames hanging from the ceiling.
Cycle shops are rarely places to get real bargains. They think a 10% discount is a huge gift. Yet I asked the salesman what his best bikes for the bucks were. He remained cagey and threw it back with me, asking what I liked.
To me, the most attractive bike was a tough looking Schwinn Sierra in caution yellow up front and neon green in the back. That was in the days when these bikes were still American-made and serious pieces of work. He looked a bit stunned, but recovered to say that if I wanted that particular bike, he could give it to me for less than it had cost Cycle Loft. He explained that New Englanders bought dull colored bikes — blue, black and maybe dark red. He had been unable to move the bike even though it was better than others in its price range.
He added that he knew this model in those colors moved very well in California, but not in Massachusetts. I took it and ended up with a high-end bike for a low-end price because of the region’s social conservatism.
Note: Expect a separate rant and tale of my having to shop for, and then track down a fun eyeglasses frame.
Standing Out By Default
In many ways, I’m not a wild critter. Neckties are a different story. I subscribe largely to Chinese inventor and writer Lin Yutang’s axiom that neckties strangle clear thinking. Yet over the years, as journalist, manager, writer and non-profit politician, I have encircled my neck many times in social convention. Fortunately for my repressed flair, my wife often and my sons sometimes have eased the burden. I have a purple tie with dino bones, an elegant white polka dot on blue with a small Mickey Mouse at the base, and a very subtle and discreet ladder-climbing frog, to offset my reps and other conventional cravats.
In Italy, such gests would be conventional on their own. In Boston, men and women alike comment and even rave. Man upon man says he wished he had such nerve. I can demurely say, “If you have to wear a tie, it should be fun.”
It may be a very, very small statement and protest. Yet, almost all of us wear clothes every day. Unlike Newbury Street and Rodeo Drive fetishists, I take joy not in NYT-acceptable fashion. Rather, what’s pleasing and fun and perhaps pushing boundaries a bit pleases me.
Thus, I came to a shoe moment, what was it, over 30 years ago? I was a young man finding my way in Manhattan. Those were terrible economic time, with failed newspapers, a recession, and the sudden shock of the WWII crowd realizing that their fantasy of an endless post-war growth cycle a miasma.
While a trained and experienced journalist ready to start a professional career, I found myself in HR waiting lines with editors and writers jobless near the ends of their careers, cast off by their failing publications. So, I found myself an Olsten Girl, a temp, plying my typing and grammar skills in Sherman Underwear and the United Jewish Appeal a few weeks at a time.
Then there was the Museum of Modern Art, first as an assistant to John Szarkowski in photography and next Emilio Ambasz in design. Had I the wit, I would have seized my association with Emilio and made a career seeing, touching and perhaps designing beautiful and functional objects. Instead, I saw my months at MOMA as pleasant diversions until the recession eased enough for me to write again.
A shoe moment came in the last four months or so at MOMA when I played a supporting role in bringing the show Italy: The New Domestic Landscape to life. I sat in Bellini’s catcher’s mitt chair and reveled in the shockingly advanced artful utility that shamed our post-Sputnik Era America’s provincialism.
Emilio brought many famous designers to town in the period in preparation and for the parties. Three of them in particular were enamored by one pair of my shoes.
In the small town in the eastern panhandle of West Virginia where my mother went to grade school and I spent my summers with her parents, they finally attracted a single factory — Kinney Shoes. This was peach, apple and corn country, not the grey sloped hills of coal and carbine in the southern third, but the farm maids and poultry of the northeast.
While visiting family and friends, I stopped by the factory and visited its shop. There was a cartoon pair of footwear, and in my size 13. It likely was a design experiment, a failed effort, a joke. There was a single pair of red and blue suede shoes with white stars, an all-American, fourth of July jest. They were meant for me, sized for me, and waiting for me.
Back on 53rd Street, no one paid much attention or at least kept their contempt to themselves. That is until the big-shot Roman designers visited and could not believe an American showed such flair. The trio was eager to rent a car and drive to Romney for their own pairs. Alas, a call proved that I likely had the only pair ever made. They could only express admiration and a new respect for American fashion potential.
I have made numerous small fashion statements, but no so well vetted by international experts. Yet, from time to time, my diversion from the mundanity of this region gain recognition.
Not long ago, for example, a female bartender at Redbones in Davis Square brushed aside the thirsty to tell me what a great shirt I was wearing. That was a Woolrich chamois, olive with black bears strolling about my pecs and lats.
Likewise, this morning, it was the Reebok inside workout shoes (smooth tread), bright red, Velcro lace covers and black trim. In the YMCA world of West Roxbury, they are comparative stunners, particularly to women, who notice such things.
I bought these several years ago, when I was still teaching spin myself. My classes took to calling them my Spiderman shoes.
These could become signature shoes for some time. I bought them in Stoughton at the Reebok store during a tent sale. Not as plainly, but much like the all-American suedes, I was immediately fond of these, partly because they were colorful, but also because they were size 13. I bought all three pairs they had — $100 shoes at $15 a pair.
Men, especially New Englanders, don’t make shoe statements unless it is along the lines of, “These are my wingtips. After all, I am an investment banker.”
Were I of a mind to philander, black-bear shirts and Spiderman shoes would seem to be excellent pickup lines, or rather responses. Women approach me to compliment my flairs.
A dash of yellow or of red. It doesn’t take much to stand out in Boston.