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After years of partygoing, he’s still trying to decipher L.A.'s dress code

Collis Barker of Long Beach can’t understand why he sees so few men wearing suits.

“I moved here six years ago from Iowa,” he writes, “and I still can’t get over the impression that maybe only 5% of the adult males in Southern California own a full suit--that is, trousers, vest, and coat, all matching. Perhaps only 10% own slacks, shirt, tie and sports jacket. . . .”

It does seem strange that the big department stories--Robinson’s, Bullock’s, Penney’s, May Co., the Broadway and others--are so well stocked with suits yet so few men are seen in suits on the street or in social gatherings.

Los Angeles must be the most difficult city in the world for a man to dress properly in.

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I have been trying to understand the dress code for 35 years, and I still blunder.

Only when an invitation reads “black tie” does a man have any idea how to dress. And even that “black tie” is deceiving. It means a tuxedo, but the variety of tuxedos that turn up at “black tie” functions make that apparently unequivocal phrase meaningless.

To some of our freer spirits a tuxedo jacket may be gold, maroon, plaid or paisley, with tie to match, or not match.

Of course many men simply ignore the injunction to wear “black tie” and come as they like.

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If any hostess is daring enough to write “casual” on her invitation she is likely to feel that her party has been invaded by pirates. “Casual” seems to mean anything from navy blue blazer, gray slacks, white or blue shirt and necktie to tank top and cutoffs, with or without shoes.

It is not unusual at casual parties to see men wearing T-shirts advertising anything from Primo Beer and Covina Bowl to universities they never attended.

I imagine I own half a dozen suits, besides my tuxedo, but I almost never wear a suit except to a hotel banquet that is not black tie. If Collis Barker were to attend a banquet in the Beverly Wilshire, the Beverly Hilton, the Biltmore or the Sheraton Grande, he would find that about half the men present were wearing suits and half jackets, slacks and ties.

There will always be some hunks wearing open shirts with gold chains, but a tank shirt is rare at a banquet, especially if it’s a fund-raiser. People who participate in fund-raisers tend to dress up.

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The bigger problem is how to dress for private parties. We went recently to a party in Pasadena. I meant to wear a dark blue suit, because, after all, it was Pasadena; but at the last minute it occurred to me that my host would probably meet me at the door in a T-shirt saying “Drink Miller’s Lite,” and would chide me about “dressing up.” So I wore a navy blue blazer with gray slacks, white shirt and a striped necktie, and I was the only man present who was not wearing a suit. I felt like a stable hand.

The chances of that happening are about 1 in 100.

Long ago I decided to dress the way I wanted to. I almost always wear a sports jacket and necktie, because I like neckties. They are the only color men are allowed, unless they happen to be exotics who dress like parrots. When I find myself in a younger crowd, it doesn’t bother me to be the only man present who is wearing a necktie, especially if there are any punk rockers present. It sets me apart, and I am glad to proclaim my gentility.

I agree, though, that the necktie is a strange anachronism. Men have been wearing them for more than a century. They are de rigueur for most businessmen who inhabit the towers of downtown Los Angeles and Century City, yet most men profess to hate them. Who makes them wear them?

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I once encountered the then publisher of The Times in a hallway when I wasn’t wearing a necktie. He said, “I wish I didn’t have to wear a necktie.”

I said, “If you didn’t wear one, nobody else would have to wear one.”

He looked as if that had never occurred to him before; but nothing changed. Tradition dies hard.

So I have no doubt that Robinson’s and all those other department stores and men’s stores are selling plenty of suits, some of them with vests, but for the most part they hang in closets unworn, or are worn only during the day in offices and at business meetings.

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Evidently groups of businessmen, no matter how ruthless and predatory, like to give the impression that they are gentlemen by wearing suits and neckties. Even if it is only an illusion, it is traditional.

I have also noticed that women in business also wear suits and white blouses with little string neckties, evidently because to reach executive heights in the business world they have to be as ruthless and predatory as the men, and they have the same desire as men to conceal their rapacity.

Of course part of Barker’s problem may be that men in Long Beach are even more casual than in Los Angeles. As John Gregory Dunne once wrote of Long Beach, “A chic place was a place where the bartender didn’t wear a tattoo.”

I don’t like to rap my birthplace, but maybe it has taken Long Beach longer to comb the Iowa corn out of its hair than it has Los Angeles.

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By the way, I sometimes wear a rainbow tie with my tux.


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