My father used to say that a man should never wear any colour that couldn’t be found in nature. Even so, he had no intention of ever being seen in super-pumpkin pants or lemonyellow-soled shoes, as I now have.
It was an experiment. I live, for the moment, in Banff, Alta., where the fashion competition is as cutthroat as it is in a hipster neighbourhood in a large city. Because Banff, however, is an athletic place (the average level of fitness here makes Toronto look like a gathering spot for sloths), its fashion wars are fought over the latest softshell outerwear. You know those short, thin down-filled jackets everyone in the city wears nowadays? They were originally designed for professional mountaineers and are known as “Banff dinner jackets.”
But does it work the other way around? How do the latest seasonal duds for city dudes go over in Canada’s most famous mountain town?
Recently, a fine array of summer’s brand new men’s wear, which combines bright colours with a slim silhouette, was sent to me in Banff by Harry Rosen: two pairs of pants (one in bright French blue, another in the aforementioned pumpkin orange), three jackets (light blue, bright blue and Côtes du Rhône red) and a pair of Cole Haan light-grey-suede wingtips with that citrus sole.
I wore the blue pants first, in downtown Banff, an area smaller than Conrad Black’s backyard. They were French-blue chinos made by Brax, the reliable German pant manufacturer, to which had been added a little kapok, the so-called “silk cotton” used to tamp darts in blowguns. They were $225, but the fit was much better than you’ll get from those crotchcaverns they sell at Gap.
The chinos were cool – literally so, thanks to the kapok – and slightly stretchy. Three women of my vintage (under 100) gave them an appraising, decorator-like glance, as did a mixed group of skateboarding teenagers. It was the colour, obviously, that caught their eye, not me. Summer comes late in the mountains.
The thing about wearing bright blue or even orange pants is that they draw attention to the lower half of your body. On a tall, longlegged man, a pair of orange or bright blue pants have the same relation to the body as a stripe does on a car: It’s a bit of flash, suggesting speed and sleekness.
On the other hand, orange pants on someone like me, of shorter leg and broader chest, are overwhelming. The blue pants made me feel like a large bird. In the orange ones, I was a wedge of pie.
But I forged ahead. I added the brighter blue cotton blazer, by Montedoro. It fit tightly. I got a few more glances, again from older women who assessed my jacket as though they were thinking of painting the back fence the same colour.
Two evenings later, I donned a Boglioli jacket the colour of a Bing cherry that has been soaking in kirsch for a few months. It was more form-fitting than the Montedoro. And it looked more like a vest than a jacket.
Nevertheless, I headed off to Melissa’s, a bar frequented by locals; three minutes after I sat down, a huge guy, an Air Canada baggage handler on a lost weekend from Calgary, reeled over, wildly plastered, to talk to me about hockey. For an hour. He kept saying, “Where you from?” Obviously not Banff. Later I slipped off to the Rose & Crown, Aurora and The Dancing Sasquatch, three of Banff’s late-night hotspots; as they, too, were packed with city slickers from Calgary, I fit right in.
I wore the third jacket, an utterly unstructured baby-blue Tombolini blazer, a few days later. It was light and stretchy and felt like a sweatshirt. I paired it with a pair of navy-blue trousers, a checked shirt and the grey suede oxfords with the citrus sole, to meet Connie MacDonald and Sharon Oakley, two fashionable, fortyish working mothers in Banff.
They were explaining why they own so many jackets, given how many different sporting pastimes they engage in, over how many different seasons, times three when you allow for different colours and models. As I say, Banff is a stylish community.
Eventually I asked them what they thought of my outfit. Sharon said, “I thought you were very Toronto when you came to the door.”
Very Toronto. That could mean stylish. It could also mean “you look like someone who has his head stuck up his arse.” It’s not the most popular place out here.
“Yes,” Sharon said. “It’s a very young look.”
And then her husband, Kevin, said the thing that forever changed the way I, a man in his middle age, will wear bright colours. He said: “Or very Bob Barker.”
“Yes,” Connie nodded, “it does have a Florida-retirement-home feel.”
“Jeez,” I said. “What about the shoes?”
Sharon looked down. “Oh, I like those. Keep those. Get rid of the jacket.”
I did not put it on again when I made my exit shortly thereafter.
The next time I feel like sporting a bright shade (and who doesn’t sometimes?), I’m following a few of my own rules. Such as: The older you are, the more defined the patch of colour should be, which is why the shoes worked. If you pick the right piece, it will make you look youthful and ready for the future, but choose the wrong one and you’ll seem desperate, caught in the past. That’s how the irony of fashion works.