Notes of a Footnote – 7 – Shopping For Clothes
South…& other stops
There are few areas of life in which I’ve ever considered myself conservative: certainly not in politics, nor – until more recent years when I’ve increasingly entered my Grumpy-Old-Manhood – in most areas of cultural and social intercourse. The exception over the years has been in matters sartorial. Under my mother’s influence I started out fairly natty. Photos exist of me looking dapper (for five years old) in what we would later call a sport-combination of fawn jacket and dark brown shorts. However, by the age of seven or eight the standard outfit consisted of jeans, t-shirt and sneakers. Heavy, shapeless winter coats – with mittens attached to the sleeves with elastic – were worn in season, along with hunter-type caps with earflaps. Sporting these often torn and usually disarranged garments, in conjunction with notably unruly hair, I would, generally speaking, have made Huckleberry Finn look like Cary Grant. As mentioned earlier, the most treasured article in my wardrobe was the faded maroon polo shirt that I wore for any and all activities, particularly sporting ones, until it finally disintegrated when I was about eleven.
In this pre-teen inelegance I was not following any parental example. My father, even in his heaviest drinking days, was always unobtrusively well dressed, although he deprecated anything that smacked of the affected fashion plate. As a young and middle-aged man he had the slim build on which clothes hung well and in later life – when not wearing casual or “slopping around” clothes – he presented a figure that my mother sometimes described as “ambassadorial”. Anne herself was always well turned out, having a judicious eye for clothes and a figure and carriage to show them to advantage. Her favourite colour was pink, which, with subtle browns and beiges, featured in many of her ensembles. Somewhere up in the attic are a couple of floral-print summer dresses that date from her flapper period during the 1920s. During her regular visits to England she would invariably stock up on underwear at Marks & Spencer. She particularly enjoyed the designation of her size in M&S tights as “Stately”.
For me, as is usual in most cases, clothes-consciousness and puberty arrived pretty much in a dead-heat. Unsurprisingly the prevailing male mode at Elisabeth Irwin High School, circa 1956 (Jeff Albert apart), was the fundamental Ivy League or junior Brooks Brothers-Tripler look: natural shoulder jackets; Oxford weave button-down collar shirts and so on.
As the ‘50s progressed what was called the Continental style became more prevalent. This featured tight-fitting, short-cut, pleat-less, cuff-less trousers with slash pockets, narrow lapel jackets and slim-jim ties. I never went in much for this fashion, the more extreme versions of which would draw comments from the neighbourhood guys along the lines of: “Why don’t you get your socks to throw a party so your shoes and your pants can get together?”
Until my early teens most of my clothes came from Gimbels’ department store near Herald Square where my mother held a charge account. Probably the best outfit I had when I was fourteen and fifteen consisted of flat-front charcoal grey flannel trousers and a lighter grey tweed sports jacket worn with a pink Oxford shirt, rep tie and goodish black shoes. See what I mean about Ivy League? I wore this ensemble for school dances and, most memorably, on one day in spring 1958 when I took a solo Greyhound bus trip down to Philadelphia to attend an edition of then enormously popular television programme American Bandstand. I didn’t get to dance much during the show but I did see Arlene and Kenny and, less excitingly, Dick Clark. With minor modifications in size and cut I could pretty much wear the same outfit today.
It was undoubtedly exposure to the South Village Italians during my saliently self-conscious mid-teens that informed such emerging sense of style as I developed. It must be said that the West Village Irish were not distinguished by their dress sense. I cannot recall a single individual from that neighbourhood and background for whom clothes were anything much beyond the means of warmth, comfort and (usually) decency. It also occurs to me that I cannot think of a single Manhattan men’s clothing store that operated in those days west of Bleecker Street, north of Houston Street or south of Fourteenth Street. There was one army & navy store on Eighth Avenue between Fifteenth and Sixteenth Streets where I bought Levis and my first and only garrison belt – the buckle of which I wore to one side but, unlike some guys I knew, I didn’t sharpen. In the same store I did see one of the Chelsea Puerto Ricans buy a pair of shocking pink pegged pants with black stitching along the seams but even at twelve, by which time I was wearing my hair in a modified Detroit, this struck me as stretching self-expression. No, on the whole my old neighbourhood was a sartorial Sahara. This may have been an Irish thing. Thinking of the years in the mid-‘60s and early ‘70s when I lived in Dublin I can scarcely recall anyone who I would have called well-dressed. Older, particularly rural, people ran either to straight work-clothes or the baggy-kneed, tweedy country mode, featuring ties that looked as though they needed shearing. The more urban types, especially the showband managers and other entertainment biz and media men, along with the Charlie Haughey-manque, Fianna Fail wheeler-dealer characters tended to dress expensively but not particularly elegantly. Some younger people were more dedicated followers of fashion but this, remember, was the heyday of hippie-dom when the ideal was more psychedelic than soigné. I suppose an exception might have been made in the case of Garech Browne. His mother was a member of the Guinness family and he could have led an idle and largely unproductive existence on his fairly sizable private income but chose instead to found Claddagh Records, an enterprise that would make a hugely important contribution to Irish cultural life. Garech’s taste in clothes was striking and markedly individual. Often seen in Irish tweed trousers held up by a sash of Celtic design and topped by bawneen jumpers, all hand-made, he also had more conventional suits and such. Being a newly arrived Yank, aged 22, and unversed in the social etiquette obtaining among the Anglo-Irish gentry, I once admired an elegantly cape-tiered coachman-styled tweed overcoat of his and asked who was his tailor. He stiffly informed me that one didn’t ask such questions. I could only reply, “Well, I do.” During that period I did have one suit made by a tailor in Pearse Street. I also had a couple of garments run up by a girl named Jeffa who lived in the Lower Mount Street house then known as The Orphanage – name checked in the ’60s Dublin rock group Skid Row’s LP “Tales From a Blue Orphanage”. The togs were a pair of Donegal tweed trousers and a double-breasted leather waistcoat.
[Sadly, I learned last month – March 2018 – that Garech had gone under the wire. The obituary of him that appeared in The Daily Telegraph informed me that his tailor was “Lesley & Roberts in Saville Row, shirts by Turnbull & Asser, ties from Hermes, Charvet and Lanvin.” I was glad to have the information, even 50-plus years after I’d asked for it.]
During the brief period while still (occasionally) attending Commerce, when I worked in Delvie’s clothing store I sometimes took advantage of my staff discount and bought articles from the shop stock. The style favoured by the store could be described as a halfway house between Ivy League and Continental and, while it was acceptable as casual wear, both in the street/Dirty Waters milieu and among my residue of E.I. and similar middle-class friends, it still didn’t quite cut it as distinctively Beau Brummellian.
In the event I became more and more observant of the South Village Italian model as exemplified by the nattier class of gangster. This style was by the late ‘50s more or less ten to fifteen years out of date. Its salient features were suits made from lightweight, slightly iridescent fabrics like English or Turkish mohair, sharkskin and silk, either smooth or shantung. Even then my neighbourhood reputation for knowing more things not worth knowing than most caused one of the Sullivan Street guys to ask me: “’Ey, Paddy, where does mohair come from? Does that come from the hair of a ‘mo’?
The suits tended to be generously cut. Jackets were very slightly pinched at the waist and had neither natural shoulders nor narrow lapels. Trousers were high-waisted with pleats and cuffs. They were usually worn with white-on-white, or other tone-on-tone, shirts with three-to-four inch long lock collars and, ideally, two flapped, pleated breast pockets. Signs of custom tailoring included trousers with “inverted” (or inward-facing) pleats and monogrammed shirts. Silk or satin ties were worn with immaculately white, square-folded breast-pocket handkerchiefs – also sometimes monogrammed. Inverted pleats on trousers were, of course, common in England. During her first visit to London in 1962 my mother bought me a pair of grey flannel Daks, with the desired inward facing pleats, direct from Simpson’s of Piccadilly. The leg width was wider and the cut altogether rather fuller than was fashionable around New York but the quality was undeniable. The favoured shoe store was Siegal Brothers on Sixth Avenue opposite the Nedick’s orangeade and hot dog bar at the corner of Sixth Avenue and Eighth Street – a site occupied when I was last in New York by a large book store, that lately replaced, I understand, by a bank. The most popular model was the Italiano, a light wing-tip brogue. This came with tasselled laces although most of us removed the tassels as too sporty. As one spark observed: “Am I gonna play golf in these shoes, or what?” Shoes from Florsheim, Johnson & Murphy and other quality outlets were also acceptable although the line was drawn at Thom McAnn. Some clothing could be bought from stores belonging to the Howard and Bond chains. Suits (often coming with two pairs of pants), slacks, jackets and overcoats represented reasonable value for the money. I don’t recall patronizing either, although I did window-shop at their various branches. Hats ideally were Dobbs, coming from various independent shops. One, on Ann Street at the top of Nassau Street, was still in business when I was last in New York. I can’t say when exactly the pre-World War II fashion of men wearing hats with the brim snapped down both front and back changed to the mode prevailing in my early sharp-dressing days of wearing the hat with the brim turned up all round came in but I don’t recall seeing many neighbourhood guys wearing their hats in the accepted snap-brim, Madison Avenue style of front down, back up. In any case, hats – either felt in winter or straw in summer – were almost always worn at a suitably jaunty angle.
The first suit I remember buying under the South Village influence turned out to be not quite the thing. I acquired it from a men’s outfitters situated on the first floor of a building on lower Broadway during my spell of working for the J.B. Rundle advertising agency. It was a conservatively cut grey worsted three-piece. I first wore it with a grey-on-grey lock-collar shirt, co-ordinated tie and a grey fedora with the front brim fatally snapped down. At this period one of the most popular television shows was The Untouchables and when I showed up outside the Bella Napoli on Sullivan Street thus turned out one of my Italian friends took one look at me and said, “’Ey! Whose side are you on?” And it had to be admitted I did look more than a little like Eliot Ness as played by Robert Stack. (Once on a later occasion I hailed a taxi at the corner of Forty-ninth and Broadway while wearing the same hat and an overcoat with the collar turned up. When I got in the cab the driver, seeing my youthful face, said that at a distance he had mistaken me for Walter Winchell.)
However, I soon got the hang of the thing. Within the next year I had begun to work uptown and was making not bad sugar for an eighteen year-old with no family responsibilities beyond the ten dollars a week I gave to my mother. The money I was making allowed me to become a bit more sartorially ambitious. Denny Baggs introduced me to my first custom tailor. The firm was called Gordon & Mallow with premises on an upper floor in a building on Eighteenth Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenues. The first suit they made for me was a classy affair in dark blue English mohair. I had by then developed exact ideas about the cut and tailoring details I required (inverted pleats, naturally, and lapped seams for the pants and slightly angled pockets for the jacket) to such a degree that one of the partners – whether Gordon or Mallow I can’t recall – observed, “So, we have here a designer already?” A photo – taken by Jeff Albert – survives of me in that first custom-made suit. It is set off by a blue Mr. B. (so called after the singer Billy Eckstine) roll-collar shirt and striped silk tie. Both of these had been bought from Brooks, a haberdasher then located on Broadway between Forty-fifth and Forty-sixth Streets and not on any account to be confused with the venerable Madison Avenue outfitters Brooks Brothers.
I had one further suit made by Gordon & Mallow and two others made by a firm, the name of which escapes me, who were located on Eighth Avenue in the Forties and who specialized in made-to-measure as distinct from custom-tailored clothes. The only other tailor-made garment (shirts aside) that I acquired back then was a midnight blue evening suit (or tuxedo) with a flame red lining meant to be worn to places like the Copacabana, Birdland, The International Club and Jilly’s piano bar, and thus really belonging to my Broadway rather than Greenwich Village period(s). During that time I also bought haberdashery not only from Brooks but also from Phil Kronfeld’s emporium at Forty-ninth Street and Broadway. I also remember a suit -probably hot – that I bought from the manager of Al Lang’s New Follies Bar (of which more later). It was a lightweight garment in a modified Prince of Wales check and slightly more Continental in cut than was my usual style.
Undoubtedly the sartorial Mecca for the South Village and East Side Little Italy sharpies was Al Kaplan’s. This store was located on the north side of Canal Street between (I seem to recall) Mott and Elizabeth Streets. It catered not only for the many Jewish jewellery merchants and high-up local racket guys from that neighbourhood but also for anyone who aspired to that look. It sold ready-made, off-the-rack clothing and haberdashery and also offered a custom-tailoring service for both outerwear and shirts. I think my pre-majority dandyism reached its zenith when I had three shirts custom-made by Al Kaplan. Two were white-on-white, one blue-on-blue and they all featured three-and-a-half inch long lock collars, French cuffs and the de rigueur button-flapped, pleated breast pockets complete with PTC monogram. They cost $23.50 each in 1961. It was one of these shirts that gained me my South Village nickname. Of course, as noted, to have no nickname in an Italian neighbourhood is to have no caste. Some of the Italians tried half-heartedly to call me Pasquale Carole but it never stuck. The one that lasted for the rest of my time around Sullivan Street was conferred on me one night in Googie’s Bar by Gazzute’s and Louie The Animal’s friend, Huntz. A highly popular movie of the period among neighbourhood people was Pal Joey, the rather sanitized version of the 1940 Rogers & Hart Broadway musical filmed in 1956 as a vehicle for Frank Sinatra. A favourite scene in the film showed Sinatra narcissistically stroking and donning a new shirt with “Joey” monogrammed across the breast pocket. Denny Baggs and I were doing our pre-karaoke vocal and piano routine to one of the show’s numbers (possibly My Funny Valentine) and I was wearing one of my new shirts. This was generally admired and Huntz, noting the monogram, immediately dubbed me “Chez Joey”, after the nightclub run by the show’s eponymous anti-hero.
Al Kaplan’s was still extant when I first came back from Ireland to visit in 1970 but was gone by the end of the decade, disappearing, I imagine, as a result of the northward expansion of Chinatown across Canal Street and into what had once been the Celestial-free environs of Little Italy.
Ready-made shirts in a similar style were often bought from two shops further east on Rivington Street. One of these was called Liberty, although, as with the distinction between the Broadway and the Madison Avenue Brooks, this shop would never have been confused with the famous London emporium Liberty’s. A few of my friends, notably Denny Baggs, had shirts made by the Custom Shop, a firm that until the 1990s had numerous branches in New York and elsewhere. Many years after the time of which I am now speaking, during a visit to New York, I used some of the money I’d earned from co-authoring a British television serial to order five Custom Shop shirts from a branch near the Seventh Avenue Garment District. I thought the $200-odd dollars I paid quite reasonable until I had to cough up £30 customs duty when the shirts arrived in London. Four of those shirts were of Oxford weave cotton and the fifth of a more finely textured cotton. All five had pinhole-collars and French cuffs. They were also monogrammed, not on the breast pocket but, subtly, rather lower on the left side a couple of inches above the waist. I wore those shirts for most of ten years and I still miss them.
Always somewhat chameleon-like in my sartorial modes, when I moved back to the Village circa 1963 I began including a previously unwonted amount of corduroy in my wardrobe and also to affect black turtleneck sweaters. This change of style gave rise to considerable head-shaking among my old South Village and Broadway friends eliciting remarks along the lines of: “’Ey, Paddy, whaddaya doin’ in all that baggy shit? You used to be so sharp.” Finally, in the months during which I was scrambling around for the money to finance my planned trip to Ireland, I pawned almost my entire stock of South Village/Broadway, basically Sinatra-inspired threads, including the midnight-blue tux with the flame-red lining.
In the light of my previous remarks on the general sartorial shortcomings of my fellow Irish, it is perhaps ironic that when I went to Dublin in 1965 – carrying everything I took with me in a large rucksack – I did take one snazzy black mohair suit along with appropriate accessories. I didn’t wear this very often but on one occasion when I did I was, for the only time in my entire drinking life, barred from a pub. I was in company with two friends. One was a young Cornishman who migrated around Britain, Ireland and Europe following the crops. He invariably wore a sleeveless sheepskin tunic turned inside-out. The other was a Glaswegian art student whose most notable piece of attire was a small cap that he also wore inside-out. Both had casual work doing night-shifts at a glass bottle factory on the Dublin quays, and both were fairly hairy. One Saturday night we were trying to get into the legendary O’Donoghue’s pub in Merrion Row, at that time the headquarters of the traditional music scene. However, it was so crowded that you physically couldn’t open the front door. We then retired to another pub directly across the street. The publican was a former Co. Wicklow undertaker who had inherited the establishment from a brother. He was one of those – not entirely uncommon – landlords who basically despise people who frequent public houses. He took one look at my hirsute friends in their going-to-work outfits and at me and said: “We don’t cater to your sort here. You’d best go over across the road.” Another garment I’d brought with me from New York was an authentic shawl-collar Aran sweater that my mother, again, had brought back from a visit to Dublin. What I noticed about it during my early days in that city was that is seemed to be the only clean Aran sweater in town.
In thinking about the attitude to clothes that I’ve held – and hold more or less to this day – I have come to recognize that it is closely related to my childhood penchant for dressing up. When I sought to emulate the characters I’d seen in the Saturday morning pictures I was exhaustively meticulous as to details. After the age of six or so toy-store-bought cowboy outfits and obviously phoney cap guns were not sufficiently authentic. When I was Hawkeye I wanted properly fringed deerskin or something that would pass for it. When I was Sgt. Tyree of the U.S. Cavalry I required my mother (no seamstress) to sew yellow stripes down the side of some old blue pants and I wore my service revolver – replicated with a triangle of shirt cardboard taped to the underside of the barrel – in a flapped holster with the butt facing outward, along with a U.S. Army dress sabre, dating from the Spanish-American War, that I’d bought, circa 1952-’53, from an antique-cum-junk shop on Bleecker Street for $5. (I still have it.) When I was Captain Blood, D’Artagnan or Scaramouche I wanted the doublet, the tights, the hose, the cape, the plumed hat and a proper rapier. Well, as proper as a homemade one with a blade of wooden dowel could be. In this sense all the clothes I’ve ever worn, as an adolescent, an adult and now in my approaching dotage – work clothes included – have been not so much clothing as costumes. Although over 20 years of semi-country living has made me a tad more casual, the compulsion to wear the appropriate outfit for any given occasion is still strong. Going to a meeting with your producer? Dress like a (hopefully) successful scriptwriter, making sure you have that tie-coordinated soft silk handkerchief in your breast pocket. Going to the races? Get out the battered old brown trilby. Going to the farmers’ market and your favourite pub afterwards? Get on the flannels, the brogues and a Harris Tweed jacket that gives off steam like a steeplechaser after a hard race. Why, four or five times a year at the least excuse I give the people a treat and put on the black tie and the dinner suit. (It’s from Marks & Spencer and not as nifty as the old midnight-blue number with the flame-red lining but still pretty darned suave.) I gave up playing baseball nearly 20 years ago but to the last, even when I wasn’t much good anymore – not that I ever was – I always looked like a baseball player, and a sharply dressed baseball player at that.
A Further Note on Apparel
The circle of my own celebrity is sufficiently small and dimly-lit as to make it highly unlikely that I will ever be invited to appear on the Frank Skinner-hosted television show “Room 101. However if I were one of the first things I would condemn to the Fiery Pit – after, of course, the malignant ingnoramus presently disgracing the White House and polluting the U.S. body politic – next would be branded outerwear. Superdry, Saltrock, North Face, Gap and the rest. It isn’t only the depressingly supine, ovine conformity evidenced by the ubiquity of their boringly inelegegant “street style” garments, it is the curious reversal of the buyer/seller relationship. To the suggestion that I might lower my sartorial standards to the point where I would wear anything emblazoned with some schmotta-vendor’s logo my reaction is: I am not a billboard. If anyne wants me to walk aroud advertising their product, they can pay me!