There is a common expression in fashion: “When they zig, I zag.” It’s the idea that whatever is trendy should be avoided--repudiated even--with its aesthetic opposite. I’ve always been a zagger. For the past few years, with streetwear ascendent and menswear overtaken by children who seem to only be impressed with the bulbousness of one’s sneakers or the size of one’s logo--I’ve leaned hard on Anglophilia. I love fuzzy knit jumpers, waxed cotton moto jackets, and chunky English shit-kickers.
But when I moved to the United Kingdom a few months ago, I found myself wearing this gear in its natural environment, rather than the streets of Soho or Park Slope. It was weird to suddenly fit in. But more than that, my clothes were sending different signals here, signals I didn’t necessarily intend. On one of the first cool days in October, a friend I’d made at the dog park saw me in my waxed cotton jacket.
“Aren’t you the lord of the manor?” he snickered.
I was aghast. Back in New York, this jacket merely signified Englishess in an abstract way--here it had a definite class marker, a certain genteel fussiness I hadn’t anticipated. I still wore it--but now, I was beginning to notice all other guys around town who had similar jackets, the posh lifestyle it seemed to imply, and I didn’t want to be confused with them.
Stranger still, after the first few months in Cambridge, I found myself gravitating toward my most American stuff: an old college sweatshirt, a Mets baseball cap. These were things I would normally wear only while working out or running to the bodega, but now, I suddenly felt the urge to flaunt them about town. When a taxi cab lurched to a stop as I entered a crosswalk, I was tempted to slam on the hood and summon my best Dustin Hoffman impression. I’m walkin’ here!
Though I am short and like to pick fights, after the taxi incident, I realized I was less like Dustin Hoffman’s Ratso in The Midnight Cowboy, and more like the other protagonist of the film, Joe Buck. Played by an angelic John Voight, Buck is a young gigolo from Hicksville who moves to New York City and reinvents himself as a lonesome Western cowboy. In an early scene, he explains how the cowboy schtick will get him more ladies than regular hustler garb. Who wouldn’t be intrigued by the sight of a man in a buckskin jacket and a ten gallon hat walking the streets of Times Square? Of course, none of it goes to plan, and Joe Buck finds himself in increasingly degrading and lurid circumstances, used and abused by Johns and pimps, squatting in an abandoned building, and ultimately losing everything he holds dear.
Is there a lesson here? For my own sake, I hope not. But the story of Joe Buck does make me reconsider my own contrarian style impulses. Of course, I’m not saying we should all try to blend in at all costs, or worse yet, appropriate the native costumes of other cultures. But when I reach into my closet these days, I do pause to ask what I’m trying to say with my clothes. Am using a sartorial language that is intentionally foreign, just for the sake of being different? Usually, the answer is no, but sometimes it’s still yes. What can I say?
“I ain't a fo’real cowboy, but I am one hell of a stud.”