Things I’m Excited About

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With spring officially a month away, new collections of airy polos, linen popovers, and loose-fitting safari jackets are just starting to hit stores, ready to be tried-on, coveted, and perhaps even purchased. For the next three months, brands will try to convince us that we need specialized outerwear to deal with the heat. “Get something unlined!” goes the mantra. This is mostly true until about June, when the sweltering swamp that is summer weather brings nothing but pain and regret. And yet, we’ll continue to wear those lightweight jackets because we bought them. Plus, we look better in outerwear.

For the time being, it’s still cold enough for the kind of clothes that generally excite people: warm scarves, chunky cable knits, Melton outerwear, and the occasional tweed. Friends of mine at StyleForum are already talking about what they plan to buy and wear this coming season, but I’ve only been thinking about how much I still enjoy my cold-weather gear. If you, like me, are still stuck in a fall/winter mindset, here are some things I’ve been excited to wear, and what I’m looking forward to wearing later this year.

COVERT CLOTH SUITS

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The Age Old Problem

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In the fall of 1997, Sue Ellen Cooper was casting about in a dusty thrift shop looking for a special gift to give to her friend for her 55th birthday. After having rummaged through piles of old books, clothes, and knick-knacks, she settled on a vintage red fedora, which she purchased for $7.50. She packaged the gift along with a copy of Jenny Joseph’s famous poem, “Warning,” which opens with: “When I am an old woman I shall wear purple / With a red hat which doesn’t go, and doesn’t suit me.” Cooper gave the gift to her friend as a reminder that she should grow old playfully and on her own terms. 

A year later, inspired by that same poem, Cooper founded the Red Hat Society, which is hat-quartered in Fullerton, California. Today, the light-hearted social organization boasts over 35,000 members, most of them women over the age of fifty who are looking for fun and friendships. These middle-aged ladies are organized into local chapters with whimsical names, such as the Scarlet Harlots, Terrific Tootsies, and Sassy Hattitudes. They get together every once in a while to attend brunches and Broadway shows, sing to residents in nursing homes, organize pool parties and picnics, and otherwise eat, drink, and be merry. If you’re ever out and about, you’ll know when you’re in their presence by their laughter and unusual garb. For their get-togethers, they wear red hats in every imaginable shape and style — cowboy hats, berets, and of course, fedoras — which they pair with silly purple outfits decorated with feathery boas or satin sashes. The Red Hatters know they look ridiculous, but they dress to cheer each other up and cheer each other on. 

They’re also quite protective of their group. In 2008, a sour New York Times journalist wrote about them cynically, saying she understands the group’s spirit, but not the uniform. “For one thing, the Red Hat Society appears less a grass-roots rebellion than an increasingly sophisticated, for-profit licensing and marketing operation,” wrote Paula Span. “And there’s my other problem. Isn’t it supposed to be the very young, teenagers all suddenly deciding to pierce their nostrils, who are prone to declaring nonconformity in unison? […] When I’m old, I’ll probably wear mostly black, the way I do now. And I’ll call the group I have dinner with “my friends.”

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The Liberty Cap

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A lot has been written about the death of suits, along with the accompanying necktie, but the first piece of traditional men’s dress to have disappeared is the hat. It’s been said that men stopped wearing hats en masse when President John F. Kennedy declined to wear one at his inauguration. Neil Steinberg, I think, has a more nuanced and convincing account. In his book Hatless Jack, he traces the slow disappearance of men’s headwear back to the late 1800s. Changing social norms and technology probably had more to do with it. Plus, after the Second World War, hats were increasingly seen as stodgy and conformist. In an age when informality is equated with authenticity, the fedora and its cousins can feel phony. 

Costume designers, however, continue to use hats to great effect. A hat can be the quickest way to say something about a character, communicating something just below the surface about how the person feels and thinks. Earlier this month, Apple TV+ debuted their new eight-part mini-series, Little America, which puts on-screen the moving portraits of real-life immigrants. These stories, which were collected by Epic Magazine, are about the essential goodness of America’s promise. “Everyone here came from somewhere else,” Epic’s editors write. “Even Native Americans crossed the Bering Strait at some point. This is the basic American idea — an identity open to all — but it can be easy to forget from inside. And that’s when politics can turn ugly, as it has recently, with our political narrative becoming a story of blame and fear. Little America is meant to counter that narrative with a fuller portrait of our most recent arrivals." 

In an episode titled "The Cowboy,” Conphidance plays the Nigerian graduate student Iwegbuna Ikeji, who came to Oklahoma during the early 1980s to study economics. Ikeji’s open enthusiasm and frank dislike for certain parts of American culture put him at odds with his fellow students, as well as a snarky tutor. He doesn’t understand why Americans privilege the individual over the community, and some of the tensions between him and his peers are aggravated by racism, even if not totally motivated by it. 

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Kintsugi, The Japanese Art of Repair

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Earlier this month, Dartmouth professor and labor economist David Blanchflower published a study on the statistical relationship between well-being and age. Using data from 132 countries, Blanchflower found that people often become increasingly miserable as they head into their 40s. Colloquially known as the mid-life crisis, economists represent this trajectory with an inverted U-curve (for those who aren’t mathematically inclined, such as me, this is shaped like a “frowny face”). This pattern has been long known to psychologists, philosophers, and mystics, but Blanchflower found the exact age when the average midlife crisis peaks: 48, give or take a year depending on some conditions. “The curve’s trajectory holds true in countries where the median wage is high and where it is not, and where people tend to live longer and where they don’t,” he writes. The good news is that, according to science, things indeed get better. After age 48, people slowly start to find contentment.

Why is this? Some suggest this statistical pattern is hardwired into our biology. A 2012 study of chimpanzees and orangutans found that our closest evolutionary ancestors also fall into middle-aged ruts. Theirs tends to peak at the age of 30, which closely traces along the human timeline (a little past the midway point for life expectancy). The study’s methodology, however, is questionable at best. Accurately measuring happiness in humans is notoriously tricky, so you can only imagine what it’s like for great apes. “Each ape has several keepers, and every keeper was asked to assess the psychological well-being of their particular animal using a short questionnaire,” explains co-author Andrew Oswald. Among the questions, keepers had to answer: “If you were that animal, how happy do you think you would be on a scale of 1-7?” (I found this question to be so hilarious, it briefly relieved me from my miserable existence).

Economists don’t yet know why life gets better after age 48, but they have a few ideas. It could be that people learn to quell their unreasonable aspirations after mid-life, as well as adapt to their strengths and weaknesses. They may learn to compare themselves less to others or appreciate their remaining years as similar-aged peers pass on. A more straightforward explanation could be that the population sample at the end of the age spectrum is biased. Happier people tend to live longer, so the inverted U-curve simply reflects who has managed to stick around.

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Respectability and Clothing

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Every two months at The Economist, you can find Adrian Wooldridge opining about the modern world through his column, The Bagehot. Nearly all of his articles follow the same formula. He bemoans the lack of etiquette and grace in today’s society, and then ends with a heavy-hearted sigh. He hates how the young, who are the most educated generation in history, are more likely to model their style after the urban underclass, rather than yesterday’s educated elite. As a committed pogonophobe, he thinks beards represents the mainstreaming of male vanity. He snarks on athleisure. Predictably, he also hates seeing tattoos, piercings, and, most of all, bare male ankles. He wishes we still had the respectability of the fedora. You can almost hear the smugness in his voice when he writes: “These days, hat-wearing is a snub to authority rather than a sign of respect. The most popular hats are the ugliest: baseball hats that look like giant duck-bills, plastered with an inane slogan, and beanies that could double as tea cozies.”

In an October/ November 2018 column, Wooldridge laments the collapse of manners. According to him, 16th century Europeans behaved like barbarians. They reveled in torture and public hangings; they stank to high heaven. “It took centuries of painstaking effort –- sermons, etiquette manuals, and stern lectures –- to convert them into civilized human beings,” he says. Now, however, after nearly 500 years of the civilizing process, all has been undone in just a few decades. People eat food on trains, and public bathrooms are a mess. San Francisco, a boomtown for tech-driven growth, is littered with feces, syringes, and garbage. The people who were supposed to guard high culture, such as academics, have collectively turned against it. At the end of his essay, he admits to almost serial-killer-level behavior, which he excuses as his way of just trying to keep up with a de-civilized world.

I don’t think I’ll ever give in to the fashion for beards and tattoos, let alone turning up to meetings naked. But I’ve noticed that I increasingly circumvent the normal rules of politeness in a desperate attempt to keep going. I carry a pair of headphones with me at all times to insulate myself from the noise of my neighbors. I sprint ahead if I see any possible competitors approaching the queue for coffee. And I’ve graduated from putting my bag on the seat next to me on a train to a more cunning technique: I leave a copy of Jack Rosewood’s “The Big Book of Serial Killers” on the chair and smile maniacally at anyone who comes anywhere near. So far, the serial-killer strategy has worked remarkably well.

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America’s Other Button Down

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Those who heard Harry Hosier speak found him hard to forget. During the American Revolutionary War, Hosier, who’s better known as Black Harry, was a newly freed slave and an illiterate exhorter. In 1780, he met one of America’s founding bishops, Francis Asbury, who was traveling through the states to convert people to Methodism. At the time, Asbury needed someone to help drive his carriage, so Asbury hired Hosier, then a freedman, to travel with him. However, when Asbury noticed that his illiterate guide could recite long passages verbatim, he trained him to be a preacher in his own right.

At first, Hosier was supposed to just help bring black audiences to Asbury’s Methodist sermons. In his journal, Asbury wrote: “If I had Harry to go with me and meet the colored people, it would be attended with a blessing.” But in 1781, when Hosier gave his first sermon — “The Barren Fig Tree” — to a black audience in Virginia, his delivery was so effective and affective, even white audience members were moved to tears. Among the people in attendance that day was Benjamin Rush, a civic leader and one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence. Rush determined it was one of the best sermons he had ever heard. “Making allowances for his illiteracy, [Hosier] was the greatest orator in America,” he later wrote.

Together, Asbury and Hosier helped spread Methodism throughout America, as well as set up what would become one of the oldest American traditions: the traveling tent ministry. In the early days of the United States, it didn’t make much sense for ministers to set up a church. The souls they wanted to save were on the move, and people were continually pushing westward. Boomtowns that sprung up overnight were just as likely to go bust the next day. So staunchly devout men of God packed whatever they could into saddlebags, and then traveled through the wilderness and into towns on horseback, preaching to whoever would listen. These saddlebag ministers, who were known as circuit riders, spoke about the Word of God from street corners and open fields, in courtrooms and people’s cabins. Circuit riders still exist today, but they’ve traded their covered wagons for motor homes. You’ll often see them on university campuses, shouting at students about eternal salvation.

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The Best End-Of-Season Sales

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This will probably be the last sales post for the season. After this, there will be a few price drops here and there, but sizing will start to get scant, and the selection narrow. At the moment, however, there are still some excellent end-of-season promotions. Here are seven I’ve been looking at, along with choice picks from each section.

No Man Walks Alone: Up to 40% Off

No Man Walks Alone, a sponsor on this site, just started their end-of-season promotion this morning, where you can find select items discounted by as much as 40% off. This season, I bought one of their Chamula sweaters, which are hand-knitted in Mexico from plush merino yarns. They’re stretchy and somewhat loosely knitted, but supremely comfortable and have an attractive, slightly uneven texture. Available in Fair Isle and an American flag motif. Just size up, as these run small.

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How We’ll Remember This Decade

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The end of the year always brings some reflection on what’s happened. The closing of this year, however, is special because it marks the end of a decade. So, this past week, I’ve been thinking about what are some of the biggest changes in fashion in the last ten years. Is it about the rise of specific trends, the emergence of certain subcultures, or something else? The more I think about it, the more I think this decade will be remembered not for its looks, but the ways in which we engage with clothing. 

I often go back to this 2015 article by Cathy Horyn, where the then New York Times writer suggested that we may have entered a post-trend universe. That is, where fashion used to be cyclical — going from skinny jeans to baggy, and then back to skinny again — it’s now possible for many styles to coexist together. As she puts it, “there is no single trend that demands our attention, much less our allegiance, as so many options are available to us at once.” She credits this to social media, the ability of brands to create their own universe, and a greater acceptance for diversity in dress in general. An excerpt:

Throughout the 20th century, the way women dressed was governed by trends — from the hobble skirt of the 1910s, a Paris invention that spread to small cities and was ultimately sold by Sears, to Dior’s radical New Look of 1947, to the ’60s miniskirt. But for lots of reasons, mostly to do with economics and, inevitably, the Internet, the industry has moved away from that model. The last big trend that I can recall, one that started on the runway and exploded among mainstream manufacturers, was the hospital-green cargo pants that Nicolas Ghesquière made for Balenciaga. That was more than a decade ago. 

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Mr. Porter Winter Sale Starts

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Mr. Porter just started their end-of-season sale, where you can find select items discounted by as much as 50% off. Note, the actual sales section isn’t up yet — and things will be added to the promotion as the night rolls on. But if you add things to your cart now, you may see some discounted prices. 

For those unfamiliar, Mr. Porter’s seasonal sale rolls out in waves. By the end of tonight, you’ll see the official sales section up. And by tomorrow morning, you’ll see the full scope of their sale. If you want to get the best size selection, however, now is a good time to browse. Add things to your cart to see if they’ve already been discounted. If not, leave them in your cart and check back to see if they’re included in the promotion. If you see multiple items you want, checkout now with the discounted pieces you like. Things tend to move quickly at Mr. Porter and your size may not be around by tomorrow. 

I think the best way to browse the sale is by searching through the product categories and filtering by sizes. That way, you increase your chance of stumbling upon something serendipitously. Mr. Porter also has a page on their site listing all their brands. If you’re looking for suggestions, however, here are ten items I think are particularly good. 

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A Catholic Taste in Clothing

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It’s hard to believe that it took until May 1939, the spring before the start of the Second World War, for Vogue to publish its first cover of a fashionable woman in trousers. We know the image still had the power to shock because the editors assuaged anxious readers by saying that, while pants were considered masculine at the time, they can still be worn in conventionally feminine ways. “If people accuse you of aping men, take no notice,” they wrote encouragingly. “Our new slacks are irreproachably masculine in their tailoring, but women have made them entirely their own by the colors in which they order them, and the accessories they add.” In the photo, the woman was shown wearing a pair of ochre-colored sharkskin trousers with delicate jewelry, Moroccan slippers, and a scarlet jersey shirt with a plunging neckline. A silk scarf was wrapped around her head like a turban, with a turquoise encrusted pin holding everything together.

Since that cover was published, women have adopted nearly every masculine symbol into their wardrobe, from blue jeans to bomber jackets. But examples of men imitating women’s dress are rare. When they do, they’ll counter criticism by citing men’s earlier use of the style. A belted robe coat isn’t something your aunt would wear, but rather a reference to the earliest iteration of a polo coat, as seen on the strong-shouldered Richard Gere. Cuban heeled Chelsea boots aren’t so much high-heeled as they are Beatles-esque. And when long-haired youths were criticized for their appearance in the late 1960s, they pointed to how Jesus is often depicted with shoulder-length locks.

Kenji Kaga, the silver fox behind Tie Your Tie, has no problem telling you that he’s inspired by femininity — and he’ll do so without qualification. When I talked to him last month, I didn’t get the impression that he was saying so for political reasons. Instead, as an aesthete, it didn’t occur to him why he should do otherwise. “Most ties today come in stripes or small geometrics, such as the ones you might find at E. Marinella or Drake’s,” Kaga tells me. “Ours are inspired by vintage designs from the turn of the century until about the 1930s. I’m most inspired by French design, which I like for its femininity. The lines are more fluid and romantic; the design less symmetrical. When we color our collections, I also take inspiration from women’s collections, such as Saint Laurent, Celine, and Valentino. Very old designs, but in new colors. This is our style.”

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