EPISODE TWO: THE UNIFORM MENACE
"Red, white or blue?" is often my pre-caffeinated greeting to my son as we lay out his school clothes on weekday mornings. Nicholas, like many six-year-olds, keeps the schedule of a foreign currency trader - up well before dawn and fond of cranking Johnny Cash's 'Jackson' on his boom box as a kind of reveille for his father. So forgive me for not having more enthusiasm for the uniform. It consists of khaki pants, sneakers and a shirt bearing the school shield. The shirt comes in three colors: red, white and navy. The styles vary by season: short-sleeved polos for warm weather, turtlenecks for cold.
This mufti is a bit casual compared to my days at the same all-boys school. Back then, the little ones were required to wear tiny English touring caps; the older boys blazers and ties. These made us easy prey for muggers (or pretty much anyone) because the only thing our school was known to be lethal at was our convincing portrayals of Shakespeare's heroines.
Now it is Nicholas' turn to confront tradition, starting with the uniform. But watching how my dandy-in-training and his classmates infuse their looks with some covert individuality has gotten me thinking that a uniform is not a straightjacket. Indeed, some of the best-dressed men I know actually wear one, although they might never call it that. For the truly chic seem to go from schoolboy uniforms, through periods of youthful experimentation (pills, powders, paisleys) and then settle into 'UPS', namely a Unique Personal Style.
It was not love at first sight with the uniform for Nicholas. Last summer, when we opened the box from Lands End bearing the shirts, he ran the cotton fabric between his fingers and made a face I had only seen him make once before - when I tricked him into trying broccoli rabe. The cotton was not of the top shelf he was familiar with from his Papo d'Anjo shirts or my Robert Redd's. "Well, this is a good uniform," he said somewhat haltingly. "These are the colors of the American flag....but why no turquoise? Maybe there are more colors when you get older?" There were a few moments of panic, too. "How will I know who is who, if we are all wearing the same thing?" I explained that some of daddy's investment banker friends have the same concerns when they arrive at the office each morning.
Since that shaky start, Nicholas and his classmates have intuitively grasped one of the key tenets of men's dressing - individuality is in the details. Backpacks are festooned with charms, amulets and other odd talismans. One boy wears khaki shorts throughout the dark days of winter as a trademark. Another is a full-fledged sneaker pimp. Instead of workaday New Balances, he will sport miniature versions of vintage Adidas or Pumas. Nicholas' trademarks include wearing an orange cable knit sweater over a navy polo or a skull belt, which makes him look like a preppy Iggy Pop. One hundred days into the school year, he has a favorite color. "I look good in blue," he told me recently.
In their own way, each of these boys is laying the groundwork for his own UPS. When you think about the best-dressed men you know, they don't have 25 looks; they have a handful. Like other men whose style I admire, I have tried to pare my wardrobe as I've gotten older in the same way that Mondrian started out as a painter of naturalistic landscapes and gradually reduced them to the bare bones of colors and geometric shape. (Or at least, this is the pep talk I give myself when I find myself purchasing yet another gray suit, Bengal-striped shirt and dark crocheted silk tie). These days I care more about the cut and the quality of my clothing than its topicality. Minor course corrections are made to mirror the winds of change, but I'd rather own just seven timeless suits with great workmanship, all in a similar cut, than 20 fleeting ones.
"Daddy, why do you always wear the same thing every day?" Nicholas will often ask me as we walk to school.
"Why do you?"
"I don't. I mix it up," he'll reply and then in the way that only a six-year-old can, he'll change subjects without a segue. "Daddy, what does Johnny Cash mean when he says, 'We got married in a fever hotter than a pepper sprout'?"
By this point, we have thankfully arrived at his classroom door, and I am treated to staring at the red, white and blue mosaic - 22 boyish variations on the same theme. Taking in all these cubs, my mind's eye often flashes forward to their futures.
I hope they grow up to be kind and good men. I hope they are there for one another in the way that so many of my schoolboy friends are still there for me. Then my thoughts run shallow. Jobs? Professions? Who will they become? The Boy in The Shorts a financier in chalk stripes. The Sneaker Pimp a groovy tech mogul. And then there's my little lamb. I have no idea what the future may hold for him when he sheds his uniform for the less forgiving ones of the real world, but I am certain some night hence when we get together for a father-son beefsteak, I'll compliment the way his silk knot sits in his French cuffed shirt, and he will reply, "I look good in blue."