I'm wearing tan chinos, a black peacoat, a button-down shirt, a knit tie and a tan fedora – cocked slightly to one side – as I stand in the checkout line at No Frills. "I'm bored," says my seven-year-old, scuffing my chestnut- brown leather chukkas as he shifts back and forth. I'm not the only father getting groceries with his family, far from it. But the others are wearing the typical Saturday-morning dad uniform: battered and faded Blundstones, sagging jeans, a hoodie under a jean or leather jacket, bed head or a baseball cap. And unshaven since Friday morning. What I see in their clothes and on their faces is exhaustion and frustration. It's disheartening.
My son looks around and asks me, as he often does, "Why do you dress so fancy?" I always have the same answer: self-respect. Sure, I'm deeply tired and supremely annoyed, too, but dressing well makes me feel better about myself. I hope it broadcasts positivity to those around me. And just because nobody knows me at the grocery store doesn't mean I'm invisible.
Charles Baudelaire said, "The only true death of dandyism is fatherhood," but that's not true, not for me anyway. I only became a dandy after my son arrived. His presence kicked me out of my extended adolescence and into adulthood. But I wasn't ready, so I changed what's outside in the hopes of changing what's inside. So far, it's worked but it's been far from easy. A good wardrobe requires time and effort, both to build and maintain. And I didn't want that to take away from time spent with my son. So I've found solutions. Like less watching Netflix and more polishing shoes. Reading men's-wear writer Bruce Boyer instead of scanning George Takei's Facebook. Not only am I well dressed, I am developing skills I can be proud of, skills I can one day pass on to my son. "One day" because right now he couldn't care less. His world is Lionel Messi and the Power Rangers, not chalk-stripe flannel and brogues.
That's why it was a blessed day when my son asked for help with his wardrobe. His school's winter concert was coming up and he needed to perform in a white shirt. The soccer jerseys just wouldn't do. So I convinced him to come to Brooks Brothers with me. Buying clothes at Brooks Brothers used to be a rite of passage for young men. Times have changed – as has Brooks – but I wanted to keep this one tradition alive. My son hates shopping so I knew I had to be focused and fast. We quickly found the white oxford-cloth button-down shirts and I picked one in his size. We went into the change room and I helped him do up the buttons. The shirt was stiff and uncomfortable, not having been washed, but he liked it. "It looks like yours, Daddy," he said. I glowed. As he changed on his own back into his Barcelona jersey and track pants, I spoke with the Brooks salesman, looking for some guidance. "I have two kids," he told me with a smile, "and you just can't force these things on them. If you want them to dress well, you have to set the right example."
I like that idea, of dressing my best and hoping that it will rub off on my son. After all, most of the well-dressed men I know attribute their style to watching their fathers as they grew up. So I tried an experiment. I usually set out my clothes the night before on a butler stand, which allows me to see how all the pieces work together. I placed a light blue shirt, then a navy vest and finally a checked jacket on the stand, then called my son. "What?" he said from his room. "Come here a second," I said, trying to sound casual. I heard him jump down from his bed and happily walk to my room – a father can sometimes tell his son's mood just by the sound of his footsteps. When he arrived, he hopped up on my bed, perhaps anticipating a session of wrassling. I looked at the outfit on the stand in serious contemplation and asked, "What tie do you think I should wear tomorrow?" He looked, also seriously, then suggested "something blue?" I pulled out a plain blue grenadine as well as a blue repp tie with gold stripes. "The striped one," he said, with assurance. I held it up to the ensemble and asked, "How about a pocket square?" My son loves pocket squares, so many colours and patterns on little bits of fabric. He jumped down from the bed and opened my squares drawer. He immediately picked out a wool square, predominantly yellowish-gold with a blue paisley pattern. "Why that one?" I asked. "Because there's a bit of yellow in the jacket. See?" he said, pointing at the subtle overcheck.
I made sure my son saw me the next day wearing the ensemble he had helped put together. And I am sure that somewhere in the back of his mind, between World Cup stats and robot fights, there's a little dandy taking root.
Special to The Globe and Mail