In celebration of Slate Plus’ first anniversary, we’re republishing a selection of pieces from the past year, including this article, which was originally published on Oct. 1, 2014.
Every week, Slate’s Troy Patterson addresses sartorial matters, masculinity, and more in Gentleman Scholar, an advice column for the modern man. Slate Plus sat down with Patterson to chat about the art of giving sensible counsel.
What is the question you get for Gentleman Scholar most often?
There’s a lot of anxiety about where to put one’s phone. It’s sort of connected to the anxiety of where to put your keys, if you’re not going to have a sort of 19th-century gentleman with a watch fob or if you can rock sort of a punk-rock thing, akin to a chain wallet. If you can, then great, good for you. I mean, it’s just stuff, what are we supposed to do with our stuff? Men want to know what to do with their stuff.
And I’ve gotten a couple of questions about baldness. Guys are losing their hair and they want to know, “OK, I’m losing my hair, that’s fine, what do I do, like what’s the correct way out?” And I’m interested in figuring out what that is, as someone who’s not gaining any more hair. On a practical level, the matter’s sort of having the right vocabulary to communicate clearly with your barber while being barbered.
Have you ever gotten a question that you had no idea how to answer?
There are some buried in the back of my inbox. You get some cries of existential despair, people who have been in loveless marriages for 30 years, so those are just chilling and it’s hard to figure out … well, for one thing, what’s the practical advice I have to give? Sometimes you get emails from dudes who just sound depressed, and you say, “Dude, you’re depressed. That’s OK, go talk to someone about it.” Which is what I say, responding to them in the email, but I don’t see quite how to work them into the column yet.
Who are your gentlemanly influences?
A guy named Pete Bonventre was one of my first bosses at my first job in New York, and I would not burden Pete with referring to him as a mentor or anything, but he was definitely a master of the gentlemanly arts. He was an old-school journalist guy.
He used to write about sports for Newsweek and has written like four cover stories on Muhammad Ali. He’s even more impressive in his sartorial dash for being a shorter, more roundish man, but he’s the kind of guy who wears a pinstripe suit with great aplomb. He is also the sort of guy who has a safari jacket—and he’s worn it on safari. But he’s capable of wearing a safari jacket in Manhattan without looking like a clown.
How do you define the idea of a “gentleman scholar” nowadays?
I wonder if the column would have a different tilt or lilt if it had a different name, instead of Gentleman Scholar. We came up with another name at the beginning, Mr. Right, but it was decided that made it sound like a dating column. I know the placeholder name was You’re Dude-ing It Wrong. But I like Gentleman Scholar as the name for the column. I think that the idea is that I’m a scholar of gentlemen.
What’s your writing process like for the column?
I don’t really have a recollection of writing all of these pieces. I know that I have the dread that precedes writing them, and the relief of having written them, and sometimes the pleasure of rereading them, but the writing itself is just kind of a haze.
It varies. Things keep coming into the inbox, and when something’s hot off the presses, I feel a thrill of excitement like, “Oh, that’s good, I want to hop on that as quickly as possible.” And I want the column to have a regular flow and a good mix of things instead of talking about clothes all the time.
One of the reasons I brood on these things is that I try to think about the most gentleman scholarly way to answer them. Like I’ve got a question in my inbox from a woman—the herpes question that every advice columnist invariably ever gets. So what’s the gentleman scholar way of answering the question of revealing herpes to a partner? Because whatever Miss Manners or Web MD has to say about this is perfectly serviceable, but what can I say that’s more interesting or more fun?
In any event, the best, or most interesting comment on these matters is made by J.P. Donleavy in a book titled The Unexpurgated Code. There’s a subchapter titled “Upon Placing the Blame for Venereal Infection” and his stance is do this as soon as possible and admit to nothing; that way, the first person getting the accusation stands a better chance of being thought innocent. So that’s very aesthetically satisfying. Ethically, it’s more ambiguous.
Why do you think you get so many questions about clothing?
I have the sense that the clothing questions are driven by the fear of doing something wrong rather than the aspirational desire to do something right. We live in a wonderful pluralistic world where anything goes—but not just anything goes with everything.
Were you always a good dresser?
In high school, I was voted both most likely to succeed and best dressed. The thing is, you’ve got to wear something, so why not? Actually, my aspiration is to move toward having two outfits: one for summer and one for winter. I think that’s what we should all do. I don’t think it’s accidental that, from Calvin Klein to Andy Warhol, there are a lot of people deeply involved in visual presentation who wear the same thing all the time.
Are there some clothing choices that you look back on that you regret?
The regrets I have about my judgment are plentiful, but very few of them are sartorial. With the benefit of hindsight, would I have, in 1999, had a flat-top fade and worn Plug One spectacles? Probably—it was the right thing at the time. I have this liability in that I actually hate shopping. I like clothes, but I hate shopping.
Wait, wait wait. So you actually don’t like shopping?
I strongly dislike shopping.
That’s really surprising. Why?
It’s the kind of work that you must go at with an active eye. You sort of have to be as thoughtful at Banana Republic as you do at an art gallery, but your aesthetic sense is not rewarded because you’re just looking at these khakis.
I had a bad, mild temper tantrum in Banana Republic once, where I sort of needed a pair of pants immediately and the salesperson—I apologize if she’s reading—she asked if I needed anything. In my frustration, I muttered something like “I need a pair of pants that won’t bore me to death.” So I regret that, sorry.
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