I had two sets of male role models when I was growing up. Like many a child born in the mid-1960s and starting school in the early 1970s, my surrounding culture, my schools and my TV were filled with young men (and women) that looked like the older teenagers in That Seventies Show. I had bullies that lookst like the curly-haired guy in sunglasses. I had stoners that looked like Ashton Kutcher, I had various friends who looked like all the other folks. I was younger: only 6 in 1970 – so I could look up to all these folks (like my Uncle Bobby) and say “When I grow up I want to be cool like them.” Perhaps you see where this is going, but by the time I was 18, the 70s were over and the 80s were under way. We had elected Ronald Reagan; Alex P. Keaton was what young men were supposed to turn into. Apart from a brief moment in HS when I was the Goody-Two-Shoes guy from That Seventies Show it all ended before I got there and when college started, well.. it was kinda boring.
To be honest, by the time I got to College, no one did pot or acid (it was about cocaine and MDMA) and, while there was a lot of sex to be had, AIDS erupted on the scene at the exact same moment that I moved to Greenwich Village. The party literally stopped just as I walked in the door. Bye bye, Hippes. One whole set of male role models stopped being valid. I guess I could have changed into the world’s most out-dated College student, but, instead, I just moved along with the culture. Polo shirts, high tops, jeans and sneakers, knit ties (with flat ends) and feathered hair. I still had hair…
Something strange happened after that, but we’ll get to that in a minute. First, back to 1964…
The other set of role models in my life had nothing to do with teenagers or college students and very little to do with the 1960s, actually, except for the fact that they were there. My Childhood was surrounded by what you might call Southern Gentlemen Farmers. Farmers certainly: Mr Gray was as large a peanut farmer as was Mr Carter. My Grandfather, with quite a respectable Gov’t job, was his friend and so, in our small rural town, we were “respectable.” They wore hats. And ties. They dressed like we see in old Black and White TV shows and movies. And when I grew up, I wanted to be like them – because that’s what adult men looked like: most of the older people in Don Drapers life – including Mr D himself.
So, to recap: I wanted to get a little older and be a hippie; then, be a man in hats and ties.
Problem was, when the hippies (ie, Baby Boomers) grew up they didn’t, really, grow up. And so their kids – and all of us who followed them – didn’t grow up either. There’s are three (four?) entire generations out there who think “grown up” means earning a lot of money, preferably for not so much work, and wearing jeans and t-shirt all day. Yes, I know, clothes don’t make the man… but anyone who works in the fashion industry (or who watches Bugs Bunny) will tell you: dress different to act different. This is why Mr Rogers used to change into a sweater and sneakers… but keep his tie on: that’s what guys did.
I am, just now, 2 years shy of my Grandfather’s age when I was born. That’s a bit of an earth-shaking statement. I don’t feel old, or anything like that: but I also don’t feel like I’m half the man he was: this is not a gay/straight comment. It’s a baseball cap and blue-jeans comment. By my age the vast majority of my ancestors (who lived to my age) had raised multiple generations of family, and were resting on well-earned laurels. Most people my age can’t even care for house plants, let alone children. Because they still are children. In fact, I want to turn that around: I think it’s the self-sacrifice and martyrdom of marriage and childbearing that makes children into adults.
Most people I know personally (gay and straight) are trapped in a kind of perpetual adolescence. Our clothing choices make that visible. Yes, I know cultures change and clothing styles change, but even at a church party, I can see the difference between parents and non-parents. Or, equally, between married and single people. The latter may age… but we’re all sort of wrapped up in something we can’t get rid of without the help of another. We may be wearing the same clothes – but why, I wonder, are we all dressed like the kids?
There’s this interesting, on-going discussion about “dressing for dinner” in Downton Abbey, who should, who does and doesn’t, why they don’t. Mind you: “not dressing for dinner” in Downton is still wearing more layers of clothing than most of us wear in a week worth of office work. At one point the Dowager Countess refers to “play clothes” while speaking to two adult men in suits with vests, suspenders, white shirts, dress shoes, ties and bowlers! Not dressing for dinner means wearing a tie instead of a bow tie or wearing a black tie instead of a white tie. There is, however, never any question of jeans and tshirt.
Again, I know cultures change. But we still know what we’re doing: because when we go to a formal party or to fancy event, or a work party, or a wedding or a funeral, we dress up. We know that we are spending most of our life dressed down or: dressed like kids, even at work. In those rare occasions when we dress like adults we know we’ve done something extra, something formal. But most of the time we all still dress like we are going out on a play date – even when we’re on a very adult sort of date indeed. And adulthood starts, really, at the Prom: it should all be clear from there on out, that we’ve “Come of age” and we should dress like it.
A friend of mine pointed out that we don’t get dressed to “be someone” we dress up because we want to honor the people we will be with. You dress up at a funeral out of respect for the dead. You dress up for a wedding out of respect for the Bride and Groom. This has always been true: even in the Bible. That’s why the man with the bad clothes gets tossed out of the wedding feast. He’s dissing the family. But we go to church in jeans and Hawaiian shirts. Look at the President or the most recently Former President with their collars open: feels kinda disappointing really. If if you don’t have enough self respect to dress like the leader of the free world, at least when you meet me you’d better look the part. It’s insulting otherwise: I’m supposed to call you sir and Mr President, and you can’t even wear adult clothes like an adult? Mr Clinton blows them away in terms of style just because he wears a tie all the time.
I don’t know: would dressing up preclude us asking like children all the time? Certainly not because people have acted childishly all along – even in Downton. And some of the most childish people I know are wearing bowties these days. But, can you imagine a world where leaving the house meant looking nice? Not being caught dead in sweats – even at WalMart? Wearing shoes rather than sneakers unless there was a gym in the forecast, using hats that looked nice rather than dusty? The good folks on Downton are a bit out of my class: some of those tweed suits, even the ones worn by the servants, cost $1,000. I’m not going to go out and buy one. But I do wonder what life might be like if we wore hats and vests as a matter of course, if my dressing up was a mark of respect for you; a life where my fedora was daily wear along with a tie and if that didn’t make me look like an oddly eccentric San Franciscan of Certain Age, but rather an adult among other adults, divided from our juniors by age, experience and clothing. And where my clothes showed a mark of respect to you and where you understood that if I showed up in jeans and a shirt – if we were not cleaning out the garage, that is – I fully meant to say “you’re not worth it to me”.