Llewellyn King: In desperate search of sartorial dignity



Robert Whitcomb afterword at end.

Men’s hats bit the dust in the time of Jack Kennedy. Oh, sure, there are baseball caps and various ersatz chapeaux to keep the top of a man cool or warm. But they aren’t grand symbols of taste on the head: boaters, derbies, fedoras, homburgs, panamas, trilbies and — forgotten glory — silk top hats.

More recently, the bell has tolled for the necktie — that useless but delightful fashion option for men. Who ever complimented a man on his unadorned neck?

I blame Hollywood and the whole state of California for suppressing fashion by promoting the idea that casual dressing is superior. The Golden State has upended the decent order of all things sartorial for men; reduced us to looking like bums in shapeless clothes emblazoned with the manufacturer’s name.

What became of the well-fitting — bespoke, if possible — suit or blazer, craftily cut to minimize bulge around the waist and maximize size at the shoulder? What of the fine shirt in linen, poplin, French twill, silk or even broadcloth? What has replaced the sense of social perfection of a man showing his cuffs in a double-breasted Melton blazer?

This decline in the male wardrobe I’ve borne with fortitude. But I believe that wardrobe disassembling has hit its nadir: men wearing suits without socks. Enough, enough, enough!

A senior executive of a California company, of course, showed up sans socks for a taping of my television program. I’ll give the man his due: he wore a decent suit, a passable shirt and a power tie. His feet supported quality loafers. But why no socks? Does anyone admire the male ankle? Is it a thing of beauty? Have I missed out on the charm of this lovely body part?

That horror wasn’t an isolated event: Recently, I dined at a French restaurant in Boston with a distinguished citizen — an ambassador plenipotentiary to a European country, no less — who wasn’t wearing socks. Does the State Department know? Is there a protocol for ambassadorial dress? Can down-dressers be rebuked? Is this matter addressed in Hillary Clinton’s copious emails?

We should be told in the president’s Saturday broadcast whether the nation is going to be allowed to go down the sartorial drain.

I’ve been checking out Chinese dignitaries. Every last one of them, as far as I can determine, wears socks. Even Russian President Vladimir Putin transgresses international standards of statesmanship only from the waist up. Shoes and socks prevail for this improbable Tarzan.

The passion to be casual is causing actual hardship. Nobody knows what to wear at important events. Some years ago, I participated in a U.S.-Japan business forum in Hawaii. The U.S. delegation head decided that polo shirts would be appropriate attire for men. But his dress decision didn’t reach the Japanese delegates, and they all wore suits. After lunch, though, the Japanese went casual and the Americans donned suits. Mutual red faces.

Does anyone really think a partner or associate in a big law firm feels good with his tummy rolls accentuated by a knit shirt advertising a crocodile? For women, this casual thing is a refined cruelty. You work like hell: law school, junior legal slave, and finally — hosanna — partner. Time for a fabulous Chanel suit, patent leather-toed slingbacks and heaps of pearls.

Not so fast. The managers have decreed it’s time to go casual, to bring out the jeans. The law-school look for work.

We have to make America look as if it cares again. Therefore, I won’t vote for any presidential aspirant who, if male, doesn’t wear a tie or plunges his feet into loafers without socks; or who, if female, wears flats and eschews leg and foot coverage. I’m saving my vote for a sartorially principled candidate.

Llewellyn King (lking@kingpublishing.com), an occasional contributor to New England Diary, is executive producer and host of White House Chronicle on PBS. He wrote this for InsideSources.com.


Afterword from Robert Whitcomb, New England Diary overseer:

I have generally found that I get better service while traveling wearing a jacket and tie than without. (It’s also often helpful to wear pants.) The sartorial dignity tends to elicit more respect.

But there are times when being relatively formal can cause you trouble.

Two incidents come to mind:

In May 1974 I took the ferry from Ostend, Belgium, to Folkstone, England. I wore a summer suit and a tie. I was the only one so attired of the hundreds on the boat. It was the tail end of the Hippie age and most of the other passengers wore T-shirts, cut-off jeans and so on. It looked like Woodstock-sur-le-mer.

So I stood out. For my pains, I was asked upon entry in England to enter a stuffy room in the immigration center in Folkstone, where I was interrogated for an hour on where I planned to go in England and whom I would be seeing. I had to provide numerous phone numbers and addresses connected with my itinerary before my release.

Clearly they thought that someone of such traditional appearance had to be up to no good. Perhaps I was a spy or an international business con man? (If only that had been the case,  I wouldn't have worried so much about the cost of that trip to Europe, which was mostly to see old friends on the Continent and in England.)

The next incident came in the fall of 2001, soon after 9/11. I was returning from Athens via Amsterdam to Boston, again wearing a suit and tie. Everyone else was a slob, of varying degrees, and some young men look liked the popular vision of Islamic terrorists. I look like, I’m afraid to admit, (almost a parody of?) a WASP – dishwater-blond hair, thin and so on.

Anyway, because I looked like I was covering up something nefarious by wearing business clothes, and/or because political correctness directed them to make me an example of how they did not unfairly single out the scruffy or the ethnically or religiously suspicious-looking, I was interrogated at great length by two inspectors about where I was going.

Finally, I asked them, politely: “Why the grilling?’’ One of the inspectors responded with no explanation and a slight smile: “You can’t be too careful about people going to Boston.’’

That is of course from where two of the planes used by the 9/11 terrorists took off on their flights to mass murder.

But everyone else was going to Boston too. My old-fashioned conventional appearance elicited the inquiry, either out of real suspiciousness or to make a display of their lack of bigotry in front of a couple of hundred other passengers.