I like fashion. Part of me blushes with embarrassment at confessing such a thing. For three reasons. One. It seems superficial and frivolous, especially when there are so many serious and tragic things going on in the world. Two. I thought that by now I’d be past caring about what I wore, much less if my butt looked good in skinny jeans. Three. I’ve never been much of a girly girl so having a passion for fashion and being a tracker of tony trends, that includes knowing the hottest color of lipstick, seems out of character. This is one of those loves I’ve kept in the closet. Under wraps. Shawls. Sweaters and other lovely things. Until now.
Here’s the paradox. In actuality, I don’t like shopping. I just like clothes and shoes and accessories and make-up. If I was rich I’d have them brought to me. Like the Queen. Although I must admit I’ve been known to engage in a little retail therapy with my youngest daughter, from time to time. Truth is, it feels wonderful, especially doing it with her. She is my fashion consultant and barometer. She has a keen eye for all things fashionably hip yet balanced by age appropriateness. It’s absolutely fabulous Darling. I highly recommend it. In small doses of course.
Every now and then, I wonder if this trivial pursuit is really necessary. The Old Man would say an emphatic YES. So it is he who sowed the sartorial seed, and in this case, the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.
Ma was a natural Italian beauty. She always looked lovely when she went out, even if it was just to the grocery store. A splash of lipstick was all she needed and she was good to go. Her personal style was a combination of things that were fittingly fashionably for the time and casually comfortable. She preferred slacks and long-sleeved bright colored tops that coordinated. Her fav top was a hot pink check. When it came to shoes, hers were always made for walking. Grace and natural beauty aside, Ma would never have made it to the cover of any of the ladies’ magazines she so enjoyed reading.
The Old Man on the other hand was the sharp dresser. This was something I stumbled upon while curating hundreds of family photos. It was in the faded pages of old family albums and in the musty cardboard boxes stuffed with cracked and gnarled black and white images that I discovered this other side to my father. He was a Beau Brummell. A Dapper Dan. Snazzy and spiffy. A downright trendy dude. Where Ma’s fashion sense leaned towards the conservative and a touch predictable, The Old Man was stylish and clearly hip to current trends. His polish and flair could be seen across the decades. It was there in every precious detail. Topdown. Hats to shoes. Everything in between. This was all the more extraordinary given the geographic distance between our unsophisticated northwestern town and the fashion meccas. When I was young there weren’t many places to shop for clothes. Nor did we have the financial resources to do so. We were a family of modest means. Yet like Ma, he made much from little. Where he got this flair for fashion I’ll never know.
A large part of The Old Man’s adult life was spent in a uniform. First there was the kaki colored army uniform that he wore in the early forties. He is dashing in his official portrait. His side cap tilted towards his right ear with brass buttons front and centre. Black tie smartly snapped to attention. Regulation trousers. Two of the ancient photographs reveal an homage to the Canadian Scottish Regiment that he was part of. The tartan kilt. This provocative and valiant man-skirt showcased his strong legs adorned with traditional woolen knee-high hose. Head gear was a Scottish beret with a fetching pompom on top. A leather sporran hung on a strap around his waist. And sturdy leather brogues were issued with marching orders.
He wore a uniform to work every day. Blue twill pants and matching jacket complete with embroidered company name badge. Shaw’s Holusm. A basic ballpoint pen clipped into the single-button pocket always in the ready. His name Bill embroidered in simple readable script across the lapel of the other pocket. He dressed this up with a crisply ironed shirt in pale blue or white and minimalist dark tie in navy or black. Comfortable solid leather walking shoes were a must-have. Easy smile and eager-to-please attitude complemented this working man’s ensemble.
His summer attire was casual, designed for comfort and easy living. Basic cotton or polyester trousers in neutral colors. Beige, gray, navy or white. With or without cuffs, side pockets and always belted. Golf shirts were an essential. Stripes, both horizontal and vertical, abstract patterns or plain versions in fashionable colors that coordinated with his pants. This particular proclivity had nothing to do with the sport because he never golfed. It was all about fashion. Pure and simple. In the spring, or for breezy summer evenings, he layered this look with beautifully lined windbreakers that zippered to a close. My personal favorite was from the early sixties. This little number was a cream colored short jacket cut from a toothy fabric with a wide ribbed elastic waistband that hugged the top of his hips. The easy-going turned down color revealed a bolo tie anchored to a pale colored buttoned up shirt. A study in contrasts. Aviator sunglasses and ever-present cigarette were the definition of Rat Pack cool.
On cold wintery days in the fifties and sixties, he sported a knee-length dark wool overcoat with matching fedora. No matter where he went. Even if it was a mere stroll through the neighborhood pulling me on a sleigh. He also owned a smashing mid-thigh single-breasted charcoal gray car coat with big roomy pockets. And parkas with zip-out linings that extended their wear. Sometimes function did take precedence over form. He was also mad for plaid in winter. Especially when it came to soft flannel shirts. Either tucked tidily into his trousers or worn over like a jacket. Still always buttoned to the top. He wore this lumberjack garb on the weekends or in the evenings. To hockey games with one of his brothers or while making a backyard rink for me. If there is such a thing as primal memory than somewhere deep inside my soul is the comforting feeling of the flannel shirt he wore in our very first photograph together. The one he carried in his wallet from my infancy to his death. I can’t think of a better fashion statement than that.
He loved suits. And dressing up from head to toe. He had many over the years. Always stylish. Not Brooks Brothers nor European hand-stitched expensive jobs. Yet always the perfect cut and fit. Sometimes he donned a natty vest that came with the suit. Other times it was a v-necked knitted vest or sweater. He went to church every Sunday dressed to the nines. Shirt crisp and snappy. Cuff links in place. Tie full Windsor knot. Shoes polished to a spit-shine. Sunday mornings aside, The Old Man welcomed opportunities to put on a suit and tie. Weddings. Funerals. Graduations. Union conferences. Any function with even a dash of formality would do.
He also had a collection of sport coats for more casual outings. He relaxed his attire when wearing one of these. Loosened his shirt at the neck leaving one button undone and the collar on the outside of the jacket. No tie. While I loved his rogue edition from the sixties my absolute favorite was classic eighties. Deep burgundy velvet. He wore it proudly to an Awards Ceremony in 1984. It went beautifully with the striped Community Service medal draped around his neck that evening. I also loved his navy blazer with the gold buttons and the extra wide white tie he wore with it. A classic.
To say The Old Man loved shoes would be an understatement. He called them “kicks” and there was always a reason to buy a new pair. The name was apt since he got such a big kick out of them. His collection covered the cobbler’s gamut. Pristine white sneakers. Heavy black brogues. Brown penny loafers. White patten leather loafers. Simple unembellished slip-ons. Leather dress boots with zippers or laces. Rubber galoshes. And rubber slip-ons that covered the soles of his dress shoes to protect them from the harsh northern winters. He loved them all. He loved shopping for them. Caring for them. And most importantly, wearing them.
He also loved hats. In his later years, he had a collection of baseball caps with various logos. Teams. Companies. Places. It didn’t matter. He always wore them peak forward to shield his face. They were often embellished with a quirky lapel pin or two from his collection of hundreds. These caps were his standard summer headgear and he rarely went outdoors without one. In winter practicality reined, especially as he aged. The fedoras were put aside for more sensible woolen toques pulled snuggly over his ears. Aside from the fedoras, which were so irresistibly dashing, I loved him best hatless. Until the day he died he had a magnificent head of hair. He was an original Mop Top.
The Old Man cared about the way he looked even when he was elderly and walking was a struggle. One of my favorite pictures of him was taken on the front steps at 204. He’s sitting with my youngest daughter and her Big Bird knapsack. A faint shadow of Ma can be seen standing behind the screen door bearing witness to the scene. I was behind the camera. It’s summer and true to form he’s dressed in his summer casuals. Short-sleeved button-down plaid shirt, soft grey trousers, grey and black tweed socks, polished white leather sneakers and a red and black Reno baseball cap, peak forward. He and Ma would be gone a few short years after that picture was taken. Our time together had slipped away in a heartbeat. In a fashionable New York minute.
My father taught me many things over the years. Everything from riding a bike to driving a car. Yet it wasn’t until this past year that I realized he also taught me everything I know about fashion. Imagine that.
I love you Dad. Happy Father’s Day.