One of my late father’s recurring clichés was that “everything runs in cycles.” From the time I was in about the 5th or 6th grade, he and I would have various debates about the cyclical nature of things and events. Most of the time our discussions were jovial and agreeable; other times, a little more contentious.
I recall that many of our more humorous debates over the years centered around clothing style and fashion. As most young kids do, I always wanted to be wearing the latest – meaning, what all of my most popular classmates were wearing. This developed into a mini-obsession that included only wearing particular brands. I didn’t want to necessarily wear this stuff to be cool, I just wanted to be free from any ridicule. Typical peer pressure.
In high school (the late ’60’s) the rage for guys was “Florsheim” wing-tips , H.I.S. shirts (with little loops on the back, called fruit loops), V-neck sweaters (alpaca, if available), and so on. My father graciously went along with a lot of this but, being a child of the Depression, he had his limits. He permitted me to buy, within reason, most of the clothing that I wanted, but there was a rule: nothing was to be thrown away. He was of the strong opinion that if you wait, it will come back into fashion. I really didn’t have a problem with this rule since I knew that by the time it returned to favor, if it ever did, I would be long gone. As it turned out, and time wore on over the years, I learned that my mother quietly donated most of these clothes-in-waiting to the Salvation Army. What she didn’t give away disappeared in other mysterious ways to which only she was privy.
There were two items of clothing in our life-long running fashion debate, however, that lasted far longer than any of the others. One of the items was a shirt and the other was a coat. They both provided fodder for endless teasing, ridicule, laughter, criticism, and entertainment for not only the two of us, but for others for whom we would occasionally put on a performance.
The Tom Jones Shirt
In 1969, while a sophomore at Boston University, I made a date with a girl introduced to me by my roommate’s girlfriend. I decided that I wanted to impress her, so I made reservations for one of the most exclusive French restaurants in the city. I had a problem though in that I did not have anything sufficiently new or nice to wear to such a fine eatery. I decided that I needed to do some quick shopping. I remember finding a small shop in downtown Boston that had been in business for many years. Their specialty was hand-made custom shirts. I discovered from them that they would be delighted to make any shirt, in any style, and with any material that I so desired. I still don’t know what possessed me at the time (maybe Jimi Hendrix and “Are You Experienced?”), but I requested a Tom Jones style shirt with massively puffed and pleated sleeves, french cuffs, pearl studs and cufflinks, made from an aqua-colored Irish linen with tiny embossed white decorative swirly designs. It was a strange variation of a tuxedo shirt (think of a Pirate shirt), but without the ruffled front. I went the whole 9 yards and had it monogrammed, too. The shirt was outrageously expensive for my circumstance at $ 75.00 ($ 5.00 would last me a week as walking-around money), but I wanted to look good and impress. So I ordered it up and was properly fitted.
The shirt maker did an express job for me, and I picked it up the next day. Saturday night could not come too soon, or so I thought. I tried it on when I got back to the dorm and decided to get reassurance from some of the guys on my floor. The first guy I saw asked me, “Why didn’t you get the matching Harlequin hat?” The opinions were unanimous. I was in trouble, and still needed a new shirt for the date. I ended up wearing an older sport coat and pants with white shirt, and striped tie. I wasn’t able to impress my date at the restaurant either. Everything on the menu was, naturally, in French. All I could read was English and Latin.
I never wore the shirt. A year or two later I divulged my idiocy to my parents. My dad surprisingly perked up and asked if I would send the shirt to him. He said that he could use a shirt like that. I told him that I would more than oblige him. Later, I heard from my mother that the debut of the shirt never occurred. Although dad had planned the perfect occasion for his and the shirt’s joint appearance – just a regular night out with friends for dinner and dancing – she laughed so hard before they got out of the house that the shirt’s inaugural was immediately cancelled. The shirt continued to stay on the rack. He continued to threaten to wear it, but I suspected that he knew all along that it was an eternal lost cause.
In later years, long after I had my home and family, I would occasionally ask dad if the old Tom Jones shirt was back in style yet. “You wait, it will be soon enough, and I’ll be ready,” he would say. I recall once hearing him say that maybe it was acquiring collector’s value. It was a running joke between us off and on for about 20 years Probably the only reason that the joke didn’t continue was, in the interim, another item superseded it.
The Brown Plaid Coat
In 1978, as a first-time homeowner, I discovered that one of my new duties was to shovel snow from my sidewalks and driveway. While I had a nice winter dress coat and a fairly sporty winter coat for leisure, I really didn’t have anything suitable or warm-enough for long periods outdoors. I decided to do something about buying an everyday work coat.
It must have been buyer’s impulse, or the allure of the soft sheepskin lining , but I decided upon what could best be called a brown plaid woolen car coat. It didn’t have a hood, but it had a luxurious large roll-up collar and a button-down front. I didn’t like zippered coats then for some reason. It’s outstanding feature, however, was its striking plaid. We’re talking Scottish plaid, but not in Tartan colors, but soft-tones of baby-poop brown. The coat had to have been unique. I know that I never have, and hopefully never will, see another one like it. It was an immediate success functionally. I was toasty warm, and I didn’t seem to excessively perspire while shoveling or working. But the coat did have immediate problems. It got the occasional odd look from people. I felt that some people who took special notice were thinking, “Who or what vomited on that guy?”
Since I only wore the coat on ruggedly winter days, primarily in my yard, the coat worked just fine. After a few years though, I just couldn’t take it anymore. It went to the closet for good, or so I thought. Eventually though my father noticed somehow that my colorful coat had disappeared. I was now wearing a new, trendy, goose down, ski jacket with a detachable hood – nice! When I told him that the old coat would soon be on its way to the Salvation Army, he decided to intercept it. I reluctantly agreed but warned him that if he didn’t wear it, I was going to repossess it and donate it as I had originally intended.
Over the next several years, I actually inquired of my mother about the use and/or disposition of the coat. “Oh, dad wears it all the time. He loves it,” she would confide to me. I was pleased and, eventually just let the subject pass.
During the intervening years, some things had changed in my life and I had moved several times. Finally, I settled into a new home and again found myself without a work coat. I think that you have probably figured out by now that I wear a suit to work and, consequently the bulk of my clothing budget is encumbered for dress clothes. In short, I needed another snow-shoveling coat.
My mistake was that I mentioned this to my dad. He said, “Why spend the money on another coat now when I could return your brown coat? It’s still in great shape.” I now know why I accepted his offer. Sometimes, I am just plain cheap. Plus, I really wasn’t inclined to be in the market for a work coat. I had other places to spend my money at the time.
So, there I was – just like old times. And, good old trusty took me through several more blustery winters in fine stead. It was still a nice, serviceable coat – still doing its duty.
But, as before, I eventually tired of it again. I was starting to feel like an anachronistic, grumpy old man wearing the thing. So, off it went to the Salvation Army. In its honor I gave it a rather generous valuation for tax deduction purposes. It deserved it.
But that’s not the end of the story.
Two years later, while driving to a work appointment on a very cold, dark, gray day, I noticed something out the driver’s side of my car. I immediately slowed to take a closer look. Walking quite briskly with his head down was a man wearing THAT BROWN PLAID COAT. I hit the brakes to take a closer look without trying to be too obvious. At that point, he took notice and looked up. I smiled and waved back at my old friend. It had been a long friendship. If the new owner only knew.
Oh, yeah. I told dad. He was pleased.