Dressing Like A Classics Student
I took eight years of Latin but I could never find any one to speak it to. Latin meant reading. Talking to yourself. But I’d do it again. I can still read it pretty well and it helps me out when in Rome doing as the Romans do. The great thing about Latin is that it’s a dead language, but the world it describes somehow seems more alive than ours. It makes you want to cross a Rubicon, any Rubicon. There’s something about the past that brings out the futurist in you. It’s spring! Let’s take over Sicily!
Classical people were classical dressers. Robes, drapery, togas. Fashion as we know it today, as in competitive obsolescence, was probably confined to hair and make-up. Who needs conspicuous consumption when you have lands, slaves, men under arms? Classical clothing was simple in design. But today’s world is not suitable for the ancient classics – too many escalators and car doors.
Today classicists simply wear the clothes that men have worn throughout what we think of as modern times. Suits, shirts, trousers, jeans, sometimes a tie. The modern attitude was best summed up by one of the first of the sort, Mr Brummell, who said, “If people turn to look at you on the street, you are not well dressed.” Or as Andy Warhol put it, “The best look is a good plain look.”
This is a hazardous world and the secret of invisibility, according to William S Burroughs, is seeing the other person first. Then steps can be taken. Thus a classical dresser is one who blends in to the ebb and flow of the urban crowd, but on closer inspection reveals a personal interpretation of human deportment.
Here are a few of my favourite classics:
The button-down-collar shirt is a necessity for those who lived on the New Frontier (ie the JFK era) and what followed. Originated, apparently, by Brooks Brothers for polo-playing customers who were tired of their collars flapping at a gallop. Ideally the collar is fairly large and stands up a bit when buttoned, flaring slightly. When I was a lad, Brooks’ button-downs had no breast pocket, as they assumed a man would be wearing a waistcoat. The best are still made by Brooks Brothers’ Thom Browne division, Black Fleece.
The Symposium by Xenophon. Unlike Plato, Mr X was actually at the dinner/drinks party with Socrates.
Grey flannel suit. The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, Sloan Wilson’s 1955 novel and the 1956 film starring Gregory Peck, are about the horrors of war, and the search for truth and meaning within the conformity of the business world. Sort of Mad Men with ideals. When it comes to blending in and standing out doing it, there is no substitute for grey flannel – not too dark, not too light.
Sextus Empiricus (c160-210 AD), Against the Professors. A still-relevant sceptic manifesto against academia and other orthodoxies.
Saddle shoes. The great writer J P Donleavy wore saddle shoes when he arrived from New York City at Dublin’s Trinity College. Nobody there had ever seen such shoes and Donleavy simply darkened the white parts so that they blended in. But in New York they still achieve maximum sportiness and everywhere they let the world know you’re down with Catholic schoolgirls.
Homeric Hymns (7th century BC): “I salute you, Dionysus of the abundant grape clusters: grant that we may come again in happiness at the due time, and time after time for many a year.”
Tennis shoes. Not basketball shoes, skateboard shoes or running shoes. Tennis shoes. The kind they made when rubber was the hot new thing. Vulcanised! My favourite are Keds Champion. When I was a kid these were the preferred kicks of beatniks. Lace-up or slip-on. White. Stan Smith’s or Vans are acceptable.
Hesiod (7th Century BC), Theogony: “First of all, Chaos came into being, next broad-bosomed Earth, the solid and eternal home of all, and Eros, the most beautiful of the immortal gods, who in every man and every god softens the sinews and overpowers the prudence of the mind” Beats Genesis every time.
Knit tie. Start with black, then blue, then wherever your eye takes you. A black knit is good for a funeral, blindfold or gentle bondage. A tie that never gets obsolete, never looks pretentious, and it rolls up into a ball.
Suetonius, The Twelve Caesars (Robert Graves translation). Just when you think Tiberius can’t be topped, here comes Caligula, and just as Claudius seems to have things righted finally, here’s Nero!
Camel-hair polo coat. Originally a sort of warm belted robe worn by players of polo, the game of kings, during the breaks between chukkas, it caught on with sportsmen everywhere. As you know, polo was originally played by Persians with the heads of your ancestors, but they, too, would have admired the coat.
Aelian: Diogenes went to Olympia and saw at the festival some young men from Rhodes in expensive clothing. He laughed and said: “That is pride.” Then he met some Spartans dressed in cheap and dirty jackets, and said, “This is another type of pride.”
I have to have various blue blazers, different materials, some single breasted, some double. A suit jacket will even do at a pinch, and it’s even better because it doesn’t have brass buttons. You can only wear brass buttons if you have a yacht.
Birkenstocks. Fedoras. Straw hats. Bermuda shorts. Floral trousers. Sometimes you want to prove that you’re a man, not a slice of a corporation. If you look like you are running for office or you work for the government, generic suit and tie, flag on lapel, you are not only doing something wrong, you are not doing anything right.
Seneca (4 BC-65 AD), On the Shortness of Life: “When you see a man repeatedly wearing the robe of office, or one whose name is often spoken in the Forum, do not envy him: these things are won at the cost of life.”
Nothing is more classical than dressing for dinner in a proper tuxedo. When I say proper I mean one in which the “designer” has wisely refrained from practising his creativity, and nothing announces itself for the awards-show television cameras. We live in an era when men think black tie doesn’t require a tie.
When it comes to dressing for dinner, one can probably pick up a few tips from Petronius (27-66 AD), who wrote The Satyricon. He was described by Tacitus, Pliny and Plutarch as the arbiter elegantiae, or supreme judge of taste, in the court of the Emperor Nero. In Chapter 1 he writes: “A noble, and so to say chaste, style is not overloaded with ornament its own natural beauty gives it elevation.”
By Glenn O’Brien