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COMMITMENTS : Stand By Your Man, Not His Closet

TIMES STAFF WRITER

I remember exactly what David wore the night we met: black jeans, black shirt and a black leather jacket to ward off the autumnal night chill at a Dia de los Muertos party.

Cool, I thought, instantly smitten by this classic and slightly alienated fashion statement.

When we found ourselves out back by the keg, swapping notes on trips we had taken to Japan (“You love Yukio Mishima too? What a coincidence!”), I looked straight into his soulful brown eyes and forgot all about his attire.

The next day he sent me E-mail and soon we were planning a trip to Mexico. It wasn’t until I came back to Earth many months later that my eyes focused once more on his clothes.

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Ah, yes. Those fetching black jeans. Then there were the blue jeans. Worn with dark blue shirts and white shirts and black shirts and tan shirts. Once in a while, David even wore a forest-green shirt.

What’s wrong with this picture, said I, who favored black pants festooned with big red and yellow cherries, orange penny loafers, beaded purple chiffon tops. The truth dawned slowly, like a rainbow after a thundershower.

David was a monochromist. He was chromatically challenged.

Not for him the stripes, checks and paisleys of other L.A. men. There were no peach Hawaiian shirts hula-ing in his closets. No green silk boxers emblazoned with hunting dogs and marsh ducks. Not even a red plaid flannel robe, like those cuddly male models wear in the J. Crew catalogue.

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No. There was black. And blue. And khaki. One garment, one color. This was his signature, his uniform, the clothes he felt comfortable in, which also meant inconspicuous. But there was also an aesthetic at work here.

“A spirit of negation is what I strive for; having very few distinguishing features to my clothes,” explained David, who may have studied too much philosophy in school.

He favored clothes with clean lines, without frills, weird collars, trendy buttons, clashing colors. The sheer simplicity of his fashion suited his personality: understated and classic.

But the meddler in me would not be still. Friends didn’t help. He just needs someone to buy him more adventurous duds, they advised me. It will change his entire outlook on life, make him more freewheeling and outgoing, they said.

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I considered my friend Natalia, who had gently encouraged her sedate husband to buy his first purple shirt--a silk number emblazoned with umbrellas.

“He loved it,” Natalia confessed. “Of course, it helped that we were shopping in Paris.”

And thus I fell prey to a common disease, one that almost every woman I know has nursed at some point in her life. I tried to dress my man. It’s such a universal problem that Patsy Cline might have written a song about it.

As you read these words, women throughout America are cajoling their men to throw out those old holey socks. Retire that Members Only Windbreaker that Mom got you in 1978. Buy a nice shirt with a designer tie to match. And no, epaulets are not back in style.

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We can’t help these instincts. It comes from all those years of dressing up Ken and Barbie. Although we admire men out of GQ, we secretly lust for fixer-uppers. That way we can take some of the credit. There’s a little Pygmalion hiding in many women.

At the mall, I spent hours combing the racks, discussing my predicament with sympathetic clerks, screwing up my eyes in attempts to visualize David in shades he preferred to see on a Gauguin painting than draped across his torso.

Ultimately, I settled on a demure paisley print in a deep claret red.

I presented the box with a flourish.

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“If you don’t like it, you can take it back, I won’t be offended,” I assured my soon-to-be sartorial love.

But from behind hooded eyes, I watched him like a hawk, waiting for his reaction.

Which was a pained silence.

“You really won’t get upset?” he finally asked.

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The next time, I tried to be more subtle. I tried pin stripes. Basic color combinations, like blue on white, red and black. Hey, Stendhal even named a book after that one, and my love was nothing if not bookish.

“Nope,” he said, lifting it out of the box and shaking his head. “It’s just not me.”

Even T-shirts with designs or slogans were off-limits. One year my sister, who works in a museum, bought David a crisp white T-shirt with a Native American objet d’art silk-screened across the front in red, black and gray. It was nice, he said, but he wore it only around the house.

After a year, I stopped. We married, David saying “I do” in a dark blue suit that I had to admit set off his olive skin and hung just right on his lanky frame.

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When we bought a house, I moved on to more important things, like whether to get an electric garage door opener and if those small winged ants in the kitchen were really termites.

It was then I cast my fashion eye on my husband for a third time. I noted that while David embraced a limited palette, he was always precisely groomed, making sure his belt matched his shoes, which color-coordinated with his jacket. It was an elegant look with its own symmetry and grace.

It was also something to emulate, I decided. Of the two of us, I was the slob, the one who forgot the little touches that pull an outfit together like the fashion magazines are always harping on.

I began to check discreetly to make sure I wasn’t wearing dark blue hose with brown shoes. Meanwhile, I caught him red-handed, ordering a plaid flannel shirt and a houndstooth shirt from the J. Crew catalogue.

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Next came striped cotton from Guatemala. Ties from Bullock’s in muted watercolor pastels. Textured fabrics and cable-knit wool sweaters from Banana Republic. What was going on?

We had rubbed off on each other.

Now I let him augment his own wardrobe, and we’re both happy. David still wears mostly monochromatic clothes, although every now and then he surprises me.

Meanwhile, I’ve concluded it wouldn’t particularly make my day if David showed up in a purple silk shirt. In fact, I would probably cringe. It really isn’t him.

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Besides. Jack Kerouac wore khakis.


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