When my editor poked his head through my office door and growled, “Write something about fashion for the next issue,” I knew why he had picked me. As a columnist in a Central Vermont newspaper office, it’s not always easy being the fashion icon. The reporters and editors envy me for the ease with which I pair plaids and stripes and the saucy way in which I put colors together. Plus, because I’m a columnist, they assume I don’t work as hard as they do.
I’d like to think I was born with a great fashion sense, but it probably came from my mother. She grew up on a Midwestern farm during the Great Depression, and that informed her fashion choices.
When we were small, she adopted a “farm chic” style for us kids. This consisted of blue serge de Nîmes (aka “denim” for the fashion challenged) bib overalls and cotton T-shirts and brought together the labels of design houses such as OshKosh, Hanes, and Fruit of the Loom. This clothing was paired, of course, with Converse All Stars black-and-white high-top gym shoes with the iconic circular white label at the ankle.
For more formal occasions, she would dress us in corduroy pants (standard 11-wales-to-the-inch corduroy) but still with the bib feature. In winter she added Buster Brown oxfords and five-buckle, over-the-shoe black rubber galoshes to keep Buster and his dog, Tige, safe and dry. I loved the look, especially because you could tuck your pant cuffs into the tops of the galoshes to look like you were in the 101st Airborne at Bastogne, but I hated how the galoshes sometimes “ate” your shoes when you took them off.
As we grew older our style morphed into “Depression punk.” The bib overalls gradually gave way to regular blue serge de Nîmes trousers with a belt (except for my brother, who always required suspenders to keep his pants up).
The style dictated that the belt be too long (because “Dammit. You’ll grow into it. That’s why!”), and the loose end was never put through the keeper but allowed to rakishly curl down to the left side. In my case the belt was made of a woven olive drab webbing with a brass buckle that we found at some surplus outlet. I’d read somewhere that girls always appreciated a military motif in men’s fashion, and it also worked well with my Boy Scout uniform.
My mom’s unfailing flair for fashion ensured that in the black-and-white photographs from the era we always looked as though we were waiting for soup.
We had little say in our wardrobe choices during those years, but sometimes we would insist on an occasional homage to cowboys in the form of western-style shirts with stylized and embroidered yokes and snaps rather than buttons, or print shirts with “cactus” or “horsey” motifs.
My mother always kept by her side the ultimate arbiter of style in those days, the Sears catalog. During its heyday it was gigantic in both its fashion influence and the amount of physical space it occupied. The Sears catalog had everything, tools, appliances, furniture, clothing, including, for us young boys, an extensive ladies foundation and undergarment section,…uhh,… I mean a toy section. My brother and I would spend hours in our bedroom leafing through that. But I digress.
So fashion-wise the die was cast by the time I reached high school. Still, like all teenagers, I felt pressure to turn away from my mom’s teaching and the dictates of Sears to conform with peers who wore “preppy” clothes such as Oxford cloth shirts with button-down collars by designers like Gant and cordovan-hued “Weejuns” penny loafers by G.H. Bass & Co. I’m sure those guys thought dressing that way would help them get into Ivy League schools, but, as we know today, to do that you have to have parents who will pay people to take your SATs or create fake photos of you playing water polo.
Rather than earning a degree from Dartmouth or the like, I ended up a journalist, but because of my mom and Sears, a journalist with a cavalier sense of fashion. When I sometimes overhear snippets of hushed conversation among my colleagues huddled around the Keurig, such as “Shh! Quiet. He’s headed this way. He dresses like Broun,” I do not mind their envy. Heywood Hale Broun was another journalist with a great fashion sense. If anyone knew how to pair plaids with stripes, it was Woodie.