Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Tied Up

My knowledge of menswear lags far behind my knowledge of womenswear. This should not come as a surprise. I’ve been zipping and buttoning, squeezing and shoving myself into clothes for decades. And beyond the dressing of my own self, I’ve spent my life observing how other women dress. Being born into a family full of them, spending nearly half of my school years surrounded by them, the ways in which girls and women dress themselves was long ago demystified. When I began my more thorough fashion education near the end of college, there was a substantial foundation on which to build.

I've always been curious about menswear but until recently I didn't pay as much attention to it, didn't go through their runway shows and religiously devour their fashion magazines. And the observational skills that throughout my life provided me with reams of information about womenswear could become easily derailed. To be honest, they are still susceptible to derailment. When I see a man, his clothes are not always the first thing that I notice. Height and eyes and shoulders and that faint waft of cologne, those things catch my eye and hold my interest. Clothing is usually secondary. And even when I do notice it first, those other pieces, the height and eyes and shoulders and cologne, come in to crowd my thoughts.

It wasn't until I moved back to Boston in 2009, unemployed and emotionally bruised after the failures of New York, that things began to change. I got a holiday position at a clothing store that had once dominated my adolescence. I hoped that I would be able to stay on for awhile once the season came to a close. I ended up there for nearly five years. But that story, the long, winding tale of my underemployment, is best saved for another day and a different venue. Three years into my time there, as the brand's footprint in that corner of the mall expanded, I moved across the hall for the holiday season to act as a temporary manager at our men’s suiting shop.

Working retail during the holiday season is a particular kind of beast but this was a smaller, calmer situation. Yes, people came in frantically searching for gifts and weekends could be hectic and overwhelming but generally there was quiet. When things slowed, which they often did on weekdays, and there was nothing to fold or refold, I liked to spend time with the ties. It was the table that most easily fell into messiness. Near the front and filled with confections asking to be touched, shoppers often stopped there first. It wasn’t particularly shocking. Ties are considered an easy, sometimes lazy, gift and it was the gift giving season after all.

I got very handy at wrapping them nicely in tissue paper before placing them into long, narrow boxes. But I always demured when asked to tie the box up with some ribbon. I never learned how to get my hands to move in quite the right way.

They were organized by color on the table from warm to cool. Everything was always warm to cool. The sameness of things was one of the pieces of retail that I enjoyed. Colors always moved in the same direction. Sweaters were always folded one of two ways. Not too long into my tenure at the company I was able to let my mind slip off to other places while completing tasks. Places that weren’t whatever store I happened to be working in.

But the monotony of the task wasn’t the only reason that I was drawn to the ties.

I never had tomboy leanings when I was younger. I preferred full skirts and ruffled socks and patterned tights as a little girl. My adult closet houses numerous dresses and skirts. I had obviously seen ties but never had a reason or an impulse to examine them up close. Even when working in the larger store in its previously co-ed days, I rarely had a chance to peruse the menswear. I'd proven myself adept at tasks that were not selling and could most often be found behind a register or in the stockroom. But being near the menswear had made my curiosity about it grow. So when I finally found myself surrounded by it, I was flush with excitement.

The ties were folded in half on the table, two or three of each style placed next to each other. I liked the way the silk ones shined. I loved running my fingers down the length of the knit ones and feeling their textures. I liked picking them up, striped and pin dotted and solid, and seeing how they complemented, or clashed, with various shirts. But most of all I liked to bask in how pretty they were. Pretty, of course, is a descriptor often avoided in the world of menswear. But that’s what they were and that was why I liked them so much.

Sooner than I would have liked, I was back across the hall surrounded by the familiar trappings of women's clothing. I hadn't finished the lessons that one of the personal stylist's was giving a handful of us on how to properly pin a suit for tailoring. My four-in-hand still needed work. Bowties perplexed me. I missed the thrill of discovery. I've always loved learning and there was little new for me to pick up back across the hall with the skirts and the dresses.

I started to casually hang out at both of the men's shops. Sometimes I would pick up shifts at the one selling our casual menswear. I began doing some of my shopping there as well. Collecting ginghams and sweaters. And I began paying attention. To what arrived in new collections and what flew out of the stores and what lingered. To what fabrics and colors the suits arrived in when the seasons changed. To the range of denim and chino fits. I began visiting the other men's stores in the mall and conducting the types of fact finding missions that I had been undertaking in women's stores for years. And slowly, very slowly, the pieces began to come together.

On Saturday mornings, as Silver Lake begins to stretch its legs, I like to walk down my section of Sunset Boulevard with my earbuds firmly in place and take in the goings on. I file away everyone's clothes, put what they're wearing away for later distillation and understanding. I push away those things that would muddy the process. And I find myself smiling more than usual.