Be your own man, with your own style.
The bulk of what I know about fashion I learnt from a book – and not a book about fashion. When I was in high school, I read Walden by Henry Thoreau. For the most part, it’s one man’s account of leaving the city and society behind, and living alone in the backwoods of New England in a timber hut he built with his own hands. It serves as a handy, how-to guide for anyone who’s always wanted to live in a hand-built lean-to in the woods. Which is to say it’s a work in the adventurous genre of fictional nonfiction. That isn’t to say that it wasn’t useful, however. Sections on how to build a shanty and which wild forest weeds are edible were relatively short, but the rest of the book turned to earnest contemplation. And it turns out that when you live alone in a shed in the wilderness, you have a lot of thinking time on your hands. In between bouts of inevitable digestive weirdness and wondering if one could domesticate a wild squirrel for company, Thoreau managed to pen some useful philosophies for surviving the pressures of the modern world. On the topic of the fashion industry, he said, “Every generation laughs at the old fashions, but religiously follows the new.” This struck a chord with me. Maybe it was the simplicity of the idea. Maybe it was the way it felt as relevant in 1994 as it did when it was written in the 1840s. Or maybe it was what I was wearing at the time. Attempting to simultaneously look like an actor from Beverly Hills, 90210 and a member of Nirvana, I sported a look I call ‘The Gilded Dumpster’, in which a happy middle-class white boy attempts to look homeless and depressed. In the end, I just looked lost. Further failed attempts to fit in would occur before Thoreau’s words really sank in. There was the year at university when I wore loose-fitting linen suits almost exclusively, my Seinfeld phase of jeans with crisp white sneakers, or my early years on television when I wholeheartedly adopted the Channel Ten ‘Early 2000s Style Guide’ of vests being worn with everything, particularly things that shouldn’t be worn with vests. Finally, the penny dropped that Thoreau was right. I was looking back on photos no more than two years old and feeling ashamed. Keeping up with trends was a futile exercise, a game that would never be won. Still, it’s important to look good – we cannot depart from wardrobe maintenance altogether and spend our days in the woods. We have meetings, parties and dates to care about. Even forgetting all that, we owe it to ourselves to feel good in what we wear. Then I figured it out. Timelessness. That’s it. That is literally all you need. Everyone went crazy over how Don Draper looked in Mad Men when all he was wearing was a nice suit that you could still wear today. A simple two-piece always looks good, provided you follow a couple of rules: don’t vary the number of breasts just because of what’s on trend, and never wear a tie wider than your hand. Do those things, and the photos will show your kids you were part of the Rat Pack. In the casual realm, things are even easier. For the life of me, I’ve never known anything better than jeans and a T-shirt. It was perfect when James Dean wore it, the CEOS of cool start-ups seldom wear anything else, and it’s difficult to screw up. The rules here are also pretty simple. Don’t wear a T-shirt that advertises the brand that made the T-shirt; don’t get a T-shirt that’s been printed to look old and faded – everybody knows it’s not. Oh, and don’t add Nana’s cardigan just to try and look like Kurt Cobain. And finally, shoes – never buy really pointy shoes just because the shop assistant says they’re ‘in’. The moment will pass and you’ll be stuck with a $300 reminder of that time you thought you were the hip office elf. Of course, if you are a hip office elf, go for your life. I once read an interview with Barack Obama where he said he only had six pairs of shoes. If the leader of the free world can get by with six, then maybe that’s about right. Spend money on wellmade shoes and wear ’em until they wear out. The real genius of Thoreau’s sartorial advice is the context in which he wrote it. He was alone in a log cabin, not caring about anyone else in the world. That’s the mindset we should all take in choosing what we wear. If we all stopped caring about what everyone else thought was cool, then we could just pick what we like. In the end, we all have to look ourselves in the mirror – wouldn’t it be nice to see something we chose for ourselves?
“FOR GETTING EVERYTHING ELSE, WE OWE IT TO OURSELVES TO FEEL GOOD IN WHAT WE WEAR.”