Fancypants: How I cured myself of a craving for selvedge denim.

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June 16 2011 7:09 AM

Fancypants

How I cured myself of a craving for selvedge denim.

Illustration by Rob Donnelly. Click image to expand.

I'm on daughter No. 3 in five years. Hence I'm derelict in my professional life, my ambition falters more by the minute, I do not play as much tennis as I used to, or read as many novels, or see as many plays, or talk as languorously on the telephone with old friends, and I am now awakened about two hours earlier than my body would like. But I have no nostalgia for the time before I was a father. I like most everything about dadding (I just coined that—pass it on). There is, however, one exception to my general infatuation with the dadly life: the way it has complicated my relationship to money.

If parenthood meant I could no longer afford the things I badly wanted, that would be regrettable, but not exactly complicated. My problem is rather different: I actually have very simple pleasures, and I can still afford all of them. Whereas some people enjoy backpacking in Thailand, leased BMWs, and triple-mint real estate, I like skim mochas at the local coffee shop in the winter, Starbucks Frappuccinos in the summer, ice cream at the local parlor year-round, a few new books a year, and midprice new clothes bought at T.J. Maxx or at chain stores you can find in the average upscale mall. I have enough money that I could buy everything I want. But I now have children, and no money saved for, say, college-tuition payments. And yet even if I forewent every frappuccino and pair of corduroys for the next 20 years, I fear I would not save enough money for one year of college for one daughter. So while in one sense every frappuccino is money wasted, in another sense every penny saved is for naught.

In a strange trope of sublimation, I have begun to gravitate in my late-night Web searching to sites featuring stuff I cannot even remotely afford and never could, very expensive men's clothing and accessories. Think neckties from the Hill-side, shoes from Quoddy, the suits J. Crew is selling in its Liquor Store collection. This is stuff I was never interested in buying when I could have done so guilt-free. But now that parenthood has discombobulated my relationship to the family fisc, I'm obsessed with the fantasy that for the first time, at age 36, I might start dressing in finer threads. And for the first time since becoming a dad, I have had thoughts along the lines of, "If I had no children, I could own jeans of authentic selvedge denim." And I don't even know what selvedge denim is.

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Given all this anxiety about parenthood and vesture, a book I could not resist reading—no matter how bad for my mental health—is How To Be a Man, by one Glenn O'Brien. I came across Glenn O'Brien when I was skipping about the Web, reading here and there about bespoke suits. O'Brien, I ascertained, is a bohemian downtown underground New York legend: cohort of Andy Warhol, former editor of Interview, host of a storied public-access New Wave rock-and-roll and talk show in the late 1970s, columnist for GQ, and famously well-dressed man about town. It says a great deal about me that, despite being a fellow journalist, I had never heard of O'Brien, and says a great deal about my current clotheshorsemanship that I quickly developed a lusty man-crush on him. There was no question that I needed to read this book.

How To Be a Man is a collection of essays, many previously published in GQ,10Man (whatever that is), and the Bergdorf Goodman magazine. They mostly take the form of advice columns, and as such they are funny and pleasingly didactic. He is for bold colors, against dyeing one's hair, and very much against wearing sneakers with formalwear. His tone is firm enough to please insecure men who really want to be told how to dress and groom themselves, but arbitrary and pointed enough to keep his savvier readers from taking him too seriously: "Young men should have long hair, because they won't be able to wear it when they're fifty. If you don't believe me, look at Aerosmith. Russell Brand has got about three years left." (From the chapter "How To Be Sexual.")

It quickly becomes apparent that O'Brien is not one to be confined to clothing advice; he eagerly moves beyond clothing into general wisdom for living large: "Men will have to refrain from compulsive trifling, habitual lechery, and flagrant promiscuity. Women will have to forgive us once in a while." (From "How To Be an Animal.") "A man must wear a suit. He must not be a suit." (From "On Suits.") "I love the necktie because it is the only article of clothing in a man's wardrobe that has real enemies. Iranian revolutionaries, for instance, see the tie as an evil phallic symbol of Western decadence …" (From "On Ties.") Speaking of mullahs, O'Brien also has a memorable riff on why they wish to preserve Persian men's unibrows.