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November 9, 2015 | The Art of...

The Art of Fiction Menswear

Aaron Burch

The Art of Fiction Menswear photo

I've known Tom Williams for a handful of years. I think I originally met him through Barrelhouse, and I've mostly tried to not hold that against him. He is, in the parlance of whoever it is that says this phrase, "good people." He is generous and thoughtful with help whenever I've had questions, about writing or teaching; I was lucky enough to visit him at Morehead State University, where it was obvious he was equally generous and thoughtful, and his students loved him; he's a fantastic guy to share some beers with at Buffalo Wild Wings, a great writer, and, always, a sharp dresser. I'm not sure I've ever seen him not in a suit. I've been hanging out with him on days where he was to read, and he's changed from his "day suit" to a fancier night time/reading/performer suit. The Mimic's Own Voice is one of my favorite novellas, Don't Start Me Talking is a fantastic buddy road trip novel with Brother Ben, the "last of the True Delta Bluesmen"; and while reading his new story collection, Among the Wild Mulattos, I couldn't help but to start noticing the presence of apparelsuits both perfect- and ill-fitting, men dressing up to hide, men dressing up to stand out. I don't know how to wear a suit myself, so thought I'd ask Tom...
—Aaron

 

AB: Alright. I’d like to start super broad, which is just to ask: Can you setup and/or give the background or context on your suits? I could be wrong, but I IMAGINE it was a conscious decision, at some point, and I'm kinda curious two things: a) WHEN was that decision, and b) What prompted it?

Tom Williams: You are right. It was a conscious decision, but it took a while for me to get to a suit: the decision started with neckties and that happened around 1997, when I was in my first academic job in Wisconsin. It was a curious university, only around thirty years old when I got there, with many of the faculty having been there since the debut. And the humanities faculty uniform for men was, no big surprise, loafers, jeans, a long sleeved shirt and a rather shapeless blazer—blue or black the typical hues. Probably because of a generally contrarian spirit, and because I was only 29 when I started there, I needed some way to show students I belonged in the professoriate, wasn’t just a slightly older version of the students themselves. No way was I ever going to fit in—I’m a writer, I’m person of color, I’m taller than most English profs—so I started wearing a necktie every day. Soon I started branching out to bow ties, too. And when I moved jobs in 2000, and wound up in Arkansas, I kept up the practice, only now I was in a land of the occasional southern dandy, which meant white bucks, seersucker suits—I probably will never own a straw boater, mind you. But the key moment was when I got a Brooks Brothers Brooksease suit—olive, two-button, off the rack. And things started to fall into place. After changing jobs again in 08, I was now no longer a mere professor, I was a department chair, and it just seemed the time to make the move to the suit as primary mode of menswear.

 

I’m almost loathe to turn to writing or your book, specifically, here, just because talking menswear is more fun, but… maybe the easiest-to-point-out commonality through these stories is the biracialness of the narrators/protaganists. I mean, it’s called Among the Mulattos. But the more I thought about the stories, the more I saw how much fashion is there, too. Almost all (all all?) of the stories are about appearance, and fitting in or not fitting in. I guess I just want to keep pushing this idea of clothing as (not) fitting in, as identity. Maybe both a) how much you’ve explicitly thought about this w/r/t yourself in life, and b) how much you’d thought about it as writer theme?

I saw this question and looked at all the stories and, wow, there’s a suit or necktie or significant outfit in just about all of them (except for “A Public Service,” which is all about ass). And part of that comes from my pretty steady focus on providing clothing for characters, just as a standard way to distinguish one from the others, but in particular it does seem that clothes operate as costume or aspiration in many of the stories. Characters are trying to blend or they’re kind of “dressing for the job they want, not the job they have.”  I’m glad to see that I’m not totally one note on this matter: in the title story, an ill-fitting suit is what keeps a couple of characters from leaving their homes, temporarily. But the thought I’ve given to clothing is that it ultimately serves as a way to hide, to conceal. Even when people get a suit they want they worry that people might see the “real” them beneath it.

I should say, though, in the interest of full disclosure, that I take fashion very seriously. It is not frivolous to me. I spend time thinking about what I wear. I follow rules: shoes and belt should always match, no white shoes or seersucker after Labor Day, bowties only with forward point collars. And inasmuch as the characters are often versions or extensions of me, I’m not surprised that most of them take fashion seriously, as well.


The seersucker prior to its post-Labor Day confinement.

OK. “I follow rules: shoes and belt should always match, no white shoes or seersucker after Labor Day, bowties only with forward point collars.” I guess I do want to keep steering this skid into writing. What jumps to mind when you think of “rules” w/r/t writing. Are there rules you know you tend to follow? Are there rules you know you especially like to break? What might be the writing equivalent of, say, no white after Labor Day, and/or what might be your fashion equivalent to a good “you gotta know the rules so you can break them”?

What I tend to think about rules in fashion and in writing is how I view rules in sports. I mean, people are all the time talking about how they want to transgress fiction and fashion and I think, why is this somehow an achievement? If you hold on every play, of course you can score a touchdown. If you pick up the soccer ball, you can hurl it past the keeper easily. If you run down the court and dunk you’re LeBron James. I’m not impressed when people break rules. I’m impressed when they work within the rules and achieve their aims. Does this make me a mindless fashion (and fiction) automaton? Check me out in seersucker the day before Labor Day. I think I make it work.

But my rules are pretty much Lee K. Abbott’s rules. He has given many a student this fantastic document called, “The Rules,” consisting of twenty astute observations about what fiction should do and what we should do with our fiction--twenty-one if you include the last line: “BIGGER THAN ALL THE RULES IS THE STORY.” I tend to take most to heart, but especially adhere to getting trouble in the first line (rule 4), not violating point of view (rule 7), and especially, especially, “We do not hector or harangue” (rule 17).

 

I want to circle back to where we started. I love these kinds of "origin stories," especially for the kinds of things that you don't often think about the origin of.

I'm curious, and maybe I'm projecting too much, about that/those moment(s) where you first started wearing a necktie everyday. First bow ties, first Brooks Brothers suit. You say "things started to fall into place," but I'm curious about that in between stage. Did it feel "right" right away? Did it feel like not you, or you as imposter. Were you self-aware enough to think, well, if I just keep doing this everyday, eventually it will feel like me?

The tie was part of a uniform. It was part of my professor wear. I put one on to remind myself that that’s who I was: Dr. Williams. But pretty soon I started to want to have more ties. I wanted to tie different knots. The schoolboy led to the four-in-hand led to the Windsor to the Pratt to the bowtie. (One day I will have enough brass to try the Onassis.) And I liked to be set apart from my peers and their loathsome open collars. As well, I’m sure I already sound as vain as mid 80’s David Lee Roth, but when I started to get a reputation as the guy who wears all the cool ties, I wanted to keep finding more cool ties to wear. It’s the same for suits. You might walk into Men’s Wearhouse or Kohl’s or even JC Penney’s and see these rows and rows of suits that all look pretty much the same, but then you move closer and see the subtle distinctions and want them all. Houndstooth lately has been my obsession. You know, when I was in college and had an occasion in which a suit was required, the suit wore me. Now I wear the suit. Goddam, Aaron, I want to go shopping, just talking about this.


The combination lint brush/shoe horn: indispensable to book tours.

Perfect. Maybe I need to take you with me to help me buy a suit. I don't know what I'm looking for in one. I like the idea of wearing a suit, but because I've never really worn one... it feels intimidating.

So, yes, I was definitely projecting. Although I'm curious now: if not menswear, does this idea of wanting to try something but being uncertain about it, being self-conscious... does it bring anything to mind? What might your corollary be?

I will take you to go buy a suit. We’ll video our trip and put it on Youtube. Doubtlessly, we’ll see millions of uploads.

But this notion of wanting to try something but being uncertain, man, that’s me with everything. It’s the feeling I have when I visit a new city and don’t want to be perceived as a tourist and don’t allow myself to bumble an order at a restaurant or bar for fear of revealing my yokel, provincial self. This is where, at times, a suit can feel like armor. You look good in a black suit with a strong knot in you tie, you can appear more unflappable than you actually are.

 

Related, I think part of the uncertainty, part of the self-consciousness is that my dad never wore a suit. He HATES ties. I mean, growing up, we dressed up for church, but I think dressing up otherwise was a symbol, for him, of "the man" or putting on airs, and he had no interest nor time in that. I think some part of me sees a good looking man in a suit and thinks, "I want to look like that," but then another nagging part of me hears my dad, saying some kind of version of "who do you think you are?"

I'll admit, I'm not wholly sure how to turn this confessional into interrogative. I guess I'm curious of your forebears, who you looked up to. I think it's easy to turn this into a writer question, who are "your guys," in the parlance of Marc Maron, but I'm kinda curious to keep this in the realm of... not just menswear, but maybe a more general "how do you carry yourself as a man, as a writer?"

I love this question because it brings together the sartorial and the aesthetic and the truth about me: I’m incredibly superficial. Maybe all surface, like a manta ray. No core values, no deep meaning whatsoever.

But I’m glad you brought up your dad, Aaron, because the two men I remember most of all wearing suits were my father and my grandfather, who on one hand were as different as two men could be, while on the other bore some very significant similarities. Both worked at the executive level and when I saw them coming home from work they were in suit and tie and hard-soled shoes. (Sometimes a topcoat even!) And for both of them—my father, a black man working largely among whites, and my grandfather, a self made man who’d worked his way up the ladder at Goodyear—they took the approach that you dressed largely not to call attention to yourself. You dressed, well, to fit in as much as you could. Yet I can see certain touches that each man possessed that kept them from completely conforming: my grandfather liked unconventional ties, my father could rock some lighter colored suits. It’s odd, though, because in my worlds—an English department, the indie lit demi-monde—a suit makes you stand out; yet I’m keen to be sure that I’m not just getting by as an anomaly. I want to be remembered not just as they guy in the suit, but the guy in the sharp suit.

But if I think about who my guys are, other than my dad and grandfather, I’ve mustered an admittedly incomplete but still illustrative list of suit wearing forbears, with a few comments:

Cary Grant
Sidney Poitier
Ron Glass—he played Harris on Barney Miller—and he was not only a cop in the show but a writer!
Bryan Ferry
Kind of Blue era Miles Davis
Fred Astaire—his butter yellow suit in Easter Parade I would trade my car for
Pat Riley
KC Jones—who in a piece in Sports Illustrated said he had learned from Red Auerbach to “Dress British, think Yiddish,” words I try to live by
Steve Martin—that white suit, man.
Humphrey Bogart
Albert Camus
James Baldwin
F. Scott Fitzgerald—and while I like all three writers I’ve included, it’s less for their literary influence and more about their fashion sense

 

image: Tom Williams


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