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damage control

The question

My newly retired husband is dressing in a manner which challenges my belief that “clothes don’t make the man.” Preretirement, his office attire was always good, but now he’s abandoned all fashion sense. We’re hardly social butterflies, but when we do attend a concert or dinner party he wears jeans, a T-shirt and an old pair of scuffed-up loafers. He hates shopping so most of his clothing is old and worn. If I buy him clothing, he always returns it. Now that winter’s here, he has resurrected a very old coat which is rumpled, ill-fitting and unflattering. He has become a tad more moody and sensitive in his old age, and I’m reticent to offer wardrobe advice for fear of launching a major argument. How can I get him to spruce himself up?

The answer

The gentle art of husband management is one my wife has been practising on me for years.

Call it “husbandry.” I know that term generally applies to livestock, the care and management of chickens and such, but it’s fun to think of it as applying to the care and management of one’s husband.

The operative word is “gentle.” Like I say, she’s been doing it to me for years: “Your beard could use a trim,” or, “That shirt doesn’t really work.”

But somehow it doesn’t hurt. Well, sometimes it zings a bit. For example, “You could lose weight.” But I know it’s because she cares and wants me to present a good face to the world.

The other operative word, besides “gentle,” is “persistent.” This doesn’t mean nagging. A woman named Amy Sutherland wrote what became a famous article in The New York Times called What Shamu Taught Me About a Happy Marriage.

In a nutshell: Her husband was bugging her in numerous ways, grumpily complaining he couldn’t find his keys, leaving socks on the floor, and whatnot. She tried nagging, getting angry and all sorts of other strategies. Nothing worked.

She hit on the novel idea of going to animal trainers. How do they teach seals to balance balls on their noses? Baboons to skateboard (true story) and flip? Elephants to paint?

She learned it was all about “approximations”-- doling out praise for every small positive step: “You can’t expect a baboon to learn to flip on command in one session, just as you can’t expect an American husband to begin regularly picking up his dirty socks by praising him once for picking up a single sock. With the baboon you first reward a hop, then a bigger hop, then an even bigger hop. With [my] husband, I began to praise every small act every time: if he drove just a mile an hour slower, tossed one pair of shorts into the hamper, or was on time for anything.”

So maybe try this Shamu strategy on your husband: “approximations”:

If that doesn’t work, I would say just come right out with it: “Listen, your rumpled old coat and scuffed-up loafers just aren’t really working.”

If he does balk, or squawk, just remember: You’re doing him a kindness, a service — helping him present a better face to the world (bearing in mind others might be talking about it, too) — and keep persistently practising your husband-husbandry.

It’s baffling that he doesn’t accept your gift of clothes and would expend the energy to return them.

But you mention “office attire.” Could he maybe resurrect some of those clothes? I’ve noticed over the years that many men look great going to the office, but commit all kinds of fashion crimes on weekends and holidays.

(In your case, in retirement.)

That’s because the modern suit, basically invented by Beau Brummell (who was a pioneer in radically simplifying male costume: Before him were the “macaronis,” with ruffled collars and a frills and furbelows and high powdered wigs — sometimes pink or purple — they looked ridiculous), is the best look for a man in my opinion.

Does he have a navy blue suit? My mother always said: “You can never go wrong with a navy blue suit.” And she’s right about most things.

Next time you go to a concert or party, just say to your frumpy hubby, “Why don’t you slap on your navy suit? I want you to look good and handsome and be proud of you.”

I don’t see how he could possibly say no to that.

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