»  The Straggler, No. 22

July 26, 2004

  Seer or Sucker


The New York Post Style section recently ran a piece about the dress guides that are printed on the invitations to society functions nowadays. Apparently such inscrutable directives as "Dress Festive,"  "Summer Chic,"  and "Creative Black Tie" are common, and even quite sophisticated New York partygoers are baffled by them. The Post does its best to help. Concerning "Dress Festive," for example, they offer: "Do not attempt anything with fruit … Male guests are best advised to cautiously play around with the color of their jackets, shirts or pants …"

Speaking for myself, I have never attempted anything sartorial with fruit. If invited to "dress festive," I should probably show up in a Hawaiian shirt, chinos, and plimsolls, which plainly is not what is intended.

These misunderstandings are one of the hazards of social life, and always have been. The young Noël Coward once arrived at a literary event in full evening dress, only to find everyone else in street clothes. According to Coward's biographer: "He paused long enough for the assembled intelligentsia to take in the full effect, then said: 'Now I don't want anybody to feel embarrassed.'" (In a masterly display of turning life into art, Coward's short story "Bon Voyage" includes a scene in which an elderly nouveau-riche couple, the Teitelbaums, commit the same faux pas, but with less sang-froid.)

I think our own times are especially rich in opportunities for embarrassments of this kind. The confusion of those Manhattan partygoers is symptomatic. This is an age of sartorial flux. We have swept away the old rules, but not yet settled decisively on new ones. We wear a suit for a job interview, get the job, then find that it's a jeans-and-sneakers office so we shall never have to wear our suit again.

Or consider seersucker. I actually possess a seersucker suit. I bought it for $200 at one of those factory outlet places back in 1987. I put it on just once, looked at myself in the mirror, and realized what a ghastly mistake I had made. Seersucker, I perceived at once, (though two hundred nonrefundable dollars too late), belongs on stage in the production of a Tennessee Williams play, and nowhere else on earth. I stored away this truth with the rest of my hard-won worldly knowledge, and the suit in a remote corner of my deepest closet.

Yet now, and notwithstanding the off-color jokes it inspires, seersucker is in something of a revival. The United States Senate has actually had a Seersucker Day, organized by the dapper Trent Lott. "It's a Southern thing," the Senator tells us, "but it has spread far and wide — from sea to shining sea." One has a momentary blinding vision of alabaster cities populated by men in seersucker suits … Senator Gordon Smith (R-Ore.), described by Lott as "perhaps the best-dressed man in the Senate," is on board; and apparently the enthusiasm is bipartisan, with even — good grief! — Dianne Feinstein showing up in seersucker. Time to dig into my closet.

That 1987 seersucker purchase was made on theoretical grounds. Just five years earlier, when I was living single and carefree in London, I had patronized a rather swell tailoring establishment in Hanover Square. I had better not mention the name of the place; it had been in business for 200 years when I arrived, and I am sure is still a going concern. This was tailoring for the carriage trade — for the kind of gent who, as the saying went, let his valet have first wear of a suit so that it wouldn't look too new; then wore it three times himself; then gave it to the valet for keeps. The friend who introduced me (it wasn't the sort of place you could walk in to; you had to be introduced) assured me that they numbered the Prince of Wales's personal secretary among their clientele. I learned later by chance, from a person who knew the proprietor socially, that he divided his customers into Gentlemen and Payers, with the humbler sort like myself subsidizing toffs in the tradition of Winston Churchill, who, six years after joining the Fourth Hussars, still hadn't paid the tailor who made his first uniforms.

The proprietor of this august establishment, whom I shall hide behind the name Flyte (which, though the same length as his actual name, does not have a single letter in common with it) certainly knew his business. On my very first visit, when invited to inspect swatches of cloth with a view to choosing something suitable, I dawdled over a rather fetching faint pinstripe in 20-ounce worsted. Mr. Flyte intervened. "If you will permit me to say so, Mr. Derbyshire, I believe we are a warm person, are we not? Perhaps something lighter …" Now, it is true that I sweat rather easily. I was not sweating at the time, though, and I have always striven to maintain the highest standards of personal hygiene; so how did he know? Sheer professional expertise, I suppose and hope.

At any rate, I was from then onward very attentive to the weight of the fabrics my suits were made from, with a strong preference for the lighter ones. This kind of obsession naturally leads one to extremes sooner or later, and the extreme of lightness in suit fabrics is seersucker. A seersucker suit jacket, if left unattended outdoors, will blow away in a mild breeze.

I still possess the suits, pants, and jackets Mr. Flyte made for me. For one thing, twelve hundred pounds sterling was a great deal of money to pay for a suit in 1982, and I am not yet satisfied that those expenses have been fully amortized. For another, clothes of that quality last pretty much for ever, especially if you spend ninety-five percent of your life working at home in jeans and a T-shirt. So long as I do not undergo any dramatic change of shape, I can look forward to being laid out at last in my Flyte & Sons three-piecer. This will concentrate sufficient sartorial gravity in my casket that mourners can be invited to "Dress Festive" — assuming, by that time, everyone has figured out what it means.