"What exactly is it you dislike about shopping?" my friend Brad asked as we walked through Lenox Square.
"It forces you to look at every physical defect, every change in your body," I said.
"Oh, yes, of course," he replied. "We all hate that -- the huge mirrors, the garish lights, the microscope of it all. But my philosophy is that if I can find something that actually looks good in a store, it will look spectacular in real life."
My main horror in shopping is psychological. Like most baby boomers, I still feel 21 inside, so that indelicate expression, "age-appropriate dressing," is a concern. One of the glaring memories of my youth is coming home for a visit during my freshman year at William and Mary. In the baggage area, I heard my name called and turned to see my father in red pants embroidered with blue ducks, accented with white golf shoes and a white belt.
My mother -- the one who wore miniskirts and Nancy Sinatra-style knee-high boots when I was in high school -- stood beside him. "Why is your hair so long?" she carped. "And why are you dressing like Ralph David Abernathy?" My parents and I stared at one another's fashion in mutual horror.
So, the dilemma of the baby boomer is that he wants to avoid looking like he's trapped in the fashion of the past, but doesn't want to look like one of those decrepit geriatrics you see in Paris -- the French seem infamous for this -- dressed like a 24-year-old with age spots.
A secondary problem is that men's "high fashion" has now become oriented, just like women's, to anorexic bodies. I'm 6-foot-1 and about 220 pounds, but not fat, I promise. It's partly true, of course, that youth and being thin are often related. But my friend Peter, a fashion writer in L.A., assures me that it also has to do with the complete takeover of fashion in America by Italians. Even Brooks Brothers, which Peter favors, is now owned by Italians, and its once-ballooning shirts have been slimmed down, though not excessively. But, as a kid, I was sent twice a year to Muse's or the old Buckhead Men's Shop -- long before Brooks Brothers' arrival here -- and the ambiance of such stores causes me to recover traumatic memories of clothes I hated, altered by overzealous long-fingered tailors.
I can't find any good explanation for the slimming-down of fashion. About 65 percent of Americans are now overweight or obese and the folks who are doing this to us, the Italians, are the heaviest people in Europe now, with an obesity rate of 33 percent. I suppose it has something to do with maintaining an idealized image apart from our lived reality, though it's also true that Europeans generally are far slimmer than Americans. Oddly, we have, via African-American hip-hop culture, produced the opposite -- dirigible-sized clothing that looks equally ludicrous on anyone over 20. But the happy medium that isn't boring is largely hidden from sight.
Before heading to Lenox with Brad, I visited Universal Gear on Peachtree in Midtown. No store so completely epitomizes the triumph of anorexic men's fashion. Even the XL shirts there -- by designers like Ben Sherman and Kenneth Cole -- fit like Garanimals. I did find an XL that seemed OK, but when the salesperson -- thank God for his honesty -- saw me in it, he said, "That looks really good. I just have one bit of advice. Don't ever wash it. If it shrinks at all, and it will, you're screwed." When I selected a pair of jeans to try on, another sales clerk barked at me in front of everyone, "Don't bother! Guys with big thighs like yours can't ever wear those!"
"My thighs are not that big!" I protested.
"Well, they sure look big to me," he responded.
Later, when I told him they'd fit fine, he said: "Well, I'm amazed!"
At Bloomingdale's at Lenox, I found an XL pullover shirt by Kenneth Cole I liked. But when I tried to take it off, it got stuck on my upper body. I staggered around bumping into displays, my arms over my head, while Brad laughed and the clerk rushed over to rescue me. "Kenneth Cole gets smaller every year," the clerk, JB, kindly told me.
Happily, I discovered the Kenneth Cole store at Lenox, where all shirts come in XXL sizes and fit me just fine. I bought a couple. But later, at Rich's, a clerk tried to outfit me in itty-bitty stretchy shirts that he told me, as commission dollars danced before his eyes, looked "fabulous."
"Looking so fabulous, where would I wear this?" I asked. "One of those sex parties where people are into erotic asphyxiation?"
The next day, you know what I did. I went back to Brooks Brothers.
Cliff Bostock is in private practice. Reach him at 404-525-4774 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.