Sartorial Semiotics, or My Father DID Wear Matching Socks…

My father’s persona was part rascally lapsed Catholic (think Dean Martin’s shtick), part manly stoic (think John Wayne jogging crouched past German bombs), and part soulful, sleepy-eyed cynic (think Robert Mitchum as an aging Philip Marlowe). Now, if as a child/teen/young adult I always knew where my mother stood on clothing and fashion (trend-followers were beneath contempt; wearing classics revealed one’s superior intellect; hand-me-downs were acceptable from relatives but otherwise revolting), I never really understood my father’s wardrobe inclinations. To be honest, at the time of his death a few years ago I still took him for a laissez faire sort of dresser at his very core, who threw on whatever my mother had stocked the closet with, continued wearing it till she threw it out, and didn’t have much use for a subtle palette (put bluntly, the man seems to have gone colorblind). Standard garb for Florida: Cranberry-and-white Bermuda short sets with tan socks and golf shoes. For visits up North: Poly slacks and faded disco-style shirts with a pilled grey woolen vest. When he took to wearing suspenders (his own father’s signature look; see photo below) the year before he turned 80, I interpreted it approvingly, as a sign he was attempting to refine his image.grandpa

Since then, however, my efforts to learn who my father was in a way I didn’t need to while he was alive (typical, no?) have led me to rethink my assumptions completely. Some months after the funeral, my oldest half-sister shared with me a photo album from my father’s failed marriage to her mother. Poring over the tiny, film-noirish shots of him, teenaged and then with his first wife, I did a doubletake not only at how handsome he was, but also at the unmistakeable echos of 30s and 40s pop culture icons in his hairstyle, his clothing, his posture. He had been young and proud of it, and had cared very much how he looked.

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