"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Fashion Or Einstein

In the 1958 original version of The Fly Vincent Price dressed in a lab coat when he was at work,

but wore a smoking jacket when he was off-duty.  He wore tailored tweeds and tuxedos, foulards, fedoras, and high-fashion overcoats.  

In the 1986 remake of The Fly, Jeff Goldblum is no fashion plate.  In fact his girlfriend,  Geena Davis, asks him why he never changes his clothes.

“What are you saying?”, he replies. “I change my clothes every day.”

“Well, how come then you always wear the same thing?”

Goldblum walks over to his closet, opens it, and shows Davis a long rack of identical suits, ties, white shirts, and black shoes. “See?”, he says. “What did I tell you?”

Albert Einstein was even less fashion-conscious and reportedly had only one suit of clothes.  Like the Goldblum character, Einstein felt that having to worry about what to wear distracted him from more important work.

For me the very idea of having to go through a rack of different suits, jackets, and trousers; drawers full of socks, lines of shoes, and endless shirts is tiring. I have always had three outfits – office attire, stepping out get up, and old clothes for ‘banging around the house’. I had multiple spares for each outfit so they could be washed or dry cleaned, and I bought new ones at the first signs of wear – a telltale shine on the seat of the gabardine, pinholes in the polo shirts, wear on the collars.  I bought tried and true brands – Polo, Brooks Bros., Nordstrom, Allen Edmonds – because of their conservative taste and more importantly the likelihood that they would stay in business.  I paid extra for this security, but since I bought clothes so infrequently, it was worth it.

I met a young Englishman in Bombay years ago who was very proud of his upper class upbringing.  A gentleman, he said, has an outfit for every occasion – tea, shooting, dinner, the club, walking on the heath, and the opera.  The tropics were no different and he admired his father’s generation in the British Raj who always were properly dressed. Every Englishman took care to look right and spent time to assure correct personal appearance.

As in England, there were outfits for everything – on tour, at the club, sipping gin fizzes on the verandah, dinner, walking, riding, at the cricket ground, and in bed.  Attention to presentation, demeanor, and tradition was both an expression of personal pride in one’s country and class and a stolid declaration to the natives – We will never leave.

So Miles Ponsonby came to our Calcutta flat always dressed properly – white suit and ascot, polished shoes, high socks, and straw hat.   Miles was neither fop nor fool, just an eccentric carryover from the Raj.  He never disappointed.  On trips to the bush he wore crisp safari suits. On visits to Poona in the winter he wore tweeds with leather arm patches, checked shirts and paisley ties. At the Tollygunge Club he wore white linen. For sport, he dressed in casual white like his Victorian grandparents.

As much as I pay little or no attention to fashion for myself, I love it on others, particularly women.  Fashion adds dash, color, and fancy; and without it the world would be a very dull place indeed. I love the fashion of the late 30s and 40s – big hats, tailored suits, and attitude.

I love the Marilyn sexiness of the 50s, the cute flips of the 60s; San Fran hipster second hand chic, Milan couture, and new Asian.

I especially love Hollywood outrageous.

India and I matched up perfectly. Hinduism is based on the belief that the world is illusory and that the sole task of the individual is to focus on the spiritual journey which will lead to an existence beyond reality and illusion.  By following the prescriptions of the Vedas where every aspect of daily life is ordered – when to get up, bathe, defecate, socialize, have sexual relations, eat, pray, and sleep – the mind is free from the tyranny of choice.

Westerners often criticize India because of this belief.  How can enterprise and individuality flourish in such a prescriptive, confining culture?  The caste system – in Hindu eyes simply another way of ordering life for spiritual ends – to foreigners is retrograde, coercive, and antithetical to liberal thought.

I instinctively understood this aspect of Hinduism. The simplicity of khadi made sense.  Gandhi knew that his own asceticism was already a relic in the new Bollywood India, but he never relented.  His khadi movement was not only political (a symbol of protest of British textile exploitation) but spiritual.  The only right way is a simple way, he said.

Gandhi’s vision is still revered in India, but Indians only venerate what has become a historical icon.  Gandhi meant well; but a resurgent, powerful, India with wealth, Mars rockets, and geopolitical importance is what counts now.

Hindu life is made up of phases, one of which is that of the Householder – a period of duty, responsibility, and practicality; but which anticipates the next, more spiritually free one. As unpleasant as it is to put up with a screechy wife, harridan mother-in-law, a job punching tickets on the railway, and rice and dal for every meal, it is necessary; and best of all, it will pass.  At least in theory, when the Householder Phase is over, one is free to wander and search for enlightenment

Men in America not only have to put up with the same screechy women, but also have to sort out endless tangles of investments, taxes, insurance, repairs, kudzu, voles, and birds under the eaves. Women don’t have it much better.  They have to put up with layabout husbands who drink and fart; and have to deal with meals, schools, and family values.

Life in America is worse because, unlike Indians, we never assume that our jobs are simply Householder Phase placeholders, but stepping stones to higher authority, more money, status, and respect.  Marriage is a free-for-all.  We do not cast horoscopes for good matches, inspect family accounts and balance sheets, vet prospective marriage partners according to time-tested criteria of caste, family, and residence. We flail, take risks, follow our instincts, and aspire to impossible Hollywood-Harvard ideals.

In short, we are swamped.  We have to fight for purchase and air.  Something is always breaking.  The Bureau of Revenue fucks up a property assessment which takes months to rectify.  Cars fail inspection, mortgage payments go overdue, the toilet backs up, and Buster’s grades are failing.

Worst and most frightening of all is that this misery will continue forever.There is no next sanyasi phase of wandering and enlightenment. The wife, the house, the dog, and the taxes will always be there.

So dressing without thinking and following a routine of bed tea, writing, exercise, siesta, reading, dinner, and bed has become my sanyasa. Young people always wonder at how older people tend to ‘become set in their ways’; but they don’t know that the closer you come to the end of your life, the more you need to figure things out.  As the old Jewish saying goes, “Too soon old, too late shmart”.

At the same time I read all the fashion magazines that come my way.  The New York Times and the Wall Street Journal publish special high-gloss Fashion editions a few times a year; and the unisex hair salon has plenty of Hollywood low-brow glitz. I love the hipster pipe-stems, Fifties glasses, stringy ties, little hats, and black shoes; and the casual, thrown-together Thrift Store look of the women.

Fashion is my weakness, my antithesis, and my hookup with the outside. I am a sucker. A beautiful, stylishly-dressed, confident woman will always get my attention, no matter how deep in thought I may be. I will never be a Hindu.  I am an American.

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