Style and Substance
I don’t know how long I’ve had a uniform (I mean beyond the green of my army days), but I think I’ve had about four different versions after I had a choice. Initially i had no choice, I wore what my mother made, or bought, Until I was 16, my first uniform was eclectic Montgomery Wards, with a JC Penney subtext, and capped by handmade flair (large polka dot polo shirts for me and my brother.)
I do remember one slight diversion, I bought ‘white Levi’s’ in keeping with the song by the Majorettes in 1963, and I wore a white shirt, a white cardigan sweater, and black Italian shoes that we called Knobbies, they came to a highly polished point that jammed our toes into a very narrow confined space. I was voted the best dressed 9th grader.
It was downhill from there. Not willing to follow the trend of buying Pendleton wool shirts from Smith’s, (the local men’s fashion house), I opted for an interesting choice. I bought turtlenecks & corduroys from Simons, sandals from Thom McCann, and a sheep lined jacket from Macy’s. (Okay, it was a fake sheep lined jacket, and I had socks with the sandals.) I would give it a 6 on the alternative scale.
I had to wear/buy something, and the collected sum of the things I bought generated the “uniform”. It wasn’t necessarily a time based, style of the month, but it was more a statement of culture. I saw bad movies, and in those movies the counter-culture dressed a certain way. Beatniks dressed like this, non-conformists dressed like this, and early hippies dressed like this. It didn’t occur to me that the ‘independent thinkers’ seemed not to be independent dressers. Anyway, I made the choice at purchase, and then didn’t think much about it, until I had to purchase again, and then I just repeated what I did in the past. Shopping took like, five minutes, and then I was done.
I pretty much maintained the same uniform for the next five or six years, rotating in a black t-shirt along with turtlenecks, hiking boots instead of sandals, 501 Levi’s instead of the corduroys, and the inclusion of a traditional farmer’s bandana around my neck. This really was the uniform of the backpacker, the road hitchhiker. The last to go was the sandals. I can’t believe how many miles I hiked in sandals.
The last road trip I finally had enough of bruised feet and I attempted to find good boots at a used clothing store in Idaho. Not a great selection of boots, but they did have a nice pair of leather roller skates. I bought them, unbolted the skates and I had a great pair of boots. Unfortunately the leather soles were never meant to touch ground, and within a week or two, I had worn the heel down so that the hobnails holding the heel together were driven into my flesh. I found out by noticing blood dripping out from the holes left by the skates. I tossed them and finished the road trip with sandals.
When I returned home I determined that the wisest think was to have the best foundation, a great mountain boot. I bought the most solid Italian climbing boots available, Pivetta’s Eigers, the ugliest heavy leather boots ever made. Over the years I bought three pair. Oh yeah, they were very expensive at the time, almost a week’s wages.
Then the army came into my life and the uniform was very real. I was eventually stationed in the most secret underground base in the world and the uniform had high expectations. It was to have three times the starch of even highly starched clothes. I actually stood my pants up the night before, instead of having them on a hanger. I opened the legs slightly, spread the legs apart at hip’s width, and I just left them standing there in the corner until morning. Very stiff. The shirt (the army called it a blouse, which was a little weird and off-putting), was laid out flat and had to be peeled apart to be put on. The end result was no wrinkles but very hard to bend at the elbows and knees. This lasted almost three years. In Korea I was lucky if the uniform was washed with stones, let alone starched.
Getting out of the army allowed me to go back to my civilian clothes and the uniform of the backpacker, only now things had changed, the bandana that I most always wore seemed to be a flag for someone with an alternative sex life. I didn’t have much of a sex life, but it wasn’t alternative. I had learned that having something around my neck served two purposes, it kept me cool in the heat, and warm in the winter. And now it served as a signal to other men that I might be available. I miss my neck bandana.
Having children also modified my uniform. I am tall but not so tall that I stand out easily. But with distinctive head gear I can be easily spotted in the crowd by my children. Instead of a beanie with a propellor, I started wearing a beret. They found me no matter how large the crowd. The beret was cheap, hardly anyone wears one, and it didn’t fly off in the wind like hats with a bill. My hair was thinning and the option of having scalp skin cancer was not in my future, so I was consistent in wearing it outside and to work. I bought black, grey, and for one year it was maroon. It matched the interior of our van. It turns out that there are many people that have never seen me without my beret. Weirdly, there are many people that don’t know I wear a beret. It was years before some church folks ever saw me wear a hat.
The downside of wearing a beret was traveling to Paris with the family. I didn’t speak French, I was an American, I had four kids in tow, and I was wearing a beret, like I thought every French person should. Parisians don’t wear berets, only Bretons and Basque wear berets and the Parisians hate them. So, no love lost on the Paris trip, but I still wore my beret.
And the upside? A lot of people comment that they like the hat, and some ask me if I am an artist, to which I stammer an answer, like, “well, I have the hat…” I don’t know, some people remember seeing me. I’m not wearing a tie dyed t-shirt with a jester hat, screaming for attention, but I guess I’m asking to be seen. It’s kind of like, writing a blog, hoping to be read. Psychologists might called it individuation. I am me, I matter, I am different. Or maybe it’s something else.
I like the idea of consistency, so for most of my adult life I have worn a very consistent uniform. While it does make a statement, it also disappears because it doesn’t change. And when it disappears I am left naked with my personality and character. At least that’s what I feel most of the time. Wait, did I say I was naked because I wear clothes?
Then again, I maybe I just like berets, and maybe I like shopping for five minutes max.