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Holiday Guide Feature

The Gifts That Count

The presents that have stayed in our writers' thoughts

By Raymond Cummings, Lauren Bender, Charles Cohen, Alex Epstein and John Barry | Posted 11/18/2009

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Sharp-Dressed Man

By Raymond Cummings

Deanna Staffo

If you don't own a suit, you aren't the man who has everything.

I've got mine, of course; it's hanging in the spare-room closet, sheathed in a Men's Wearhouse-emblazoned plastic cover. Really, you oughta see the thing. Charcoal gray, Primo Uomo, coat and slacks. Made in Mexico, according to the label. And my suit, it's got a rich, distinctive aroma that's more subliminal than actual. A downright virginal smell, because, as of right now, no drinks have been accidentally spilled upon it. No children have puked on it. This suit hasn't idled, dapper, in rooms where men celebrate happenings by slapping each other's backs and puffing pungent cigars. I haven't been knocked over by an overeager Great Dane while stunting in it.

I can count the number of people who have seen me flossing in my Primo Uomo on one hand, because it's only been in my possession for a few weeks. As of this writing, I'm unsure whether it's more depressing that this suit retails for more than my first car--1982 Ford Mustang, busted radio, totally decrepit--or that my mother bought it for me as an early Christmas present this year after I spent a decade and change successfully procrastinating the purchase.

Contrary to the lessons drilled into our porous psyches during adolescence, there's almost no end to what adult life lets you get away with. No need to shave every day, or apply copious amounts of makeup. You needn't dress as though you just strolled out of the pages of an issue of GQ or a Talbot's fall catalogue to satisfy your workplace's business-casual code; on certain days, it's de rigeur to roll up wearing a loud NFL jersey or drooping jeans. You can still drink on weeknights, albeit in moderation. Blowing kings' ransoms on original comic-book art isn't juvenile--it's a harmless, legitimate pursuit. Littering probably won't get you arrested. Manners? Everyone else is in too much of a hurry to mind theirs or to notice that you momentarily--or perhaps, permanently--lost track of yours.

But if you're a man, a suit is a must. You need a suit the way you need a good watch and a decent pair of dress shoes. A well-cut, good quality suit announces, sotto voce, that its wearer is a full-fledged, card-carrying adult willing and able to shoulder all of the responsibilities--familial, financial, and otherwise--that accompany that title. A suit insists that you're grounded, you're serious. A suit says that when big doings go down--a funeral, a wedding, or a Bar Mitzvah--you're primed and ready. Until this past October, yours truly--mortgage-yoked husband, father of one, thirtysomething technical professional--didn't own one. Not even a blazer.

As most private- or Catholic-school graduates will tell you, prolonged adherence to strict codes of dress has the effect of exhausting whatever reverence or enthusiasm one might have for looking like "you are somebody," in my grandmother's words. In middle-school settings--St. Charles Borromeo and Holy Family, for me--no wiggle room existed. I wore dress slacks, dress shoes, a button-down shirt, and a tie every single day; the designated colors never changed. Calvert Hall College High School, at least, allowed enough variations on the slacks/dress shirt/blazer theme that the standard never felt as constricting. As the years passed, though, I noticed a curious phenomenon: freshly minted alumni, upon returning to visit, dressed like bums. Long, wild hair. Unkempt beards. Air-conditioned jeans. Eye-gouging metal-band T-shirts. Piercings. It was almost as though everyone was desperately making up for lost time.

Upon becoming an undergraduate myself, via Washington College, I followed, er, suit. I didn't have to care. I could live and sleep in the same clothes for a week and get away with it. Ideas and ability counted for more, so, consequently, the only clothes I bothered to buy during those years were indie-rock T-shirts and jeans that I effectively wore to shreds. Because journalists and technical professionals don't like to take themselves too seriously, joining the workforce and transitioning through writing-based jobs was essentially Calvert Hall redux, minus the jackets and ties. No sweat.

A few weeks after tossing my mortarboard, I attended an aunt's Baltimore wedding in an ill-fitting high-school blazer worn over casual day-job attire. It wasn't a suit, per se, but nobody batted an eye; if I felt awkward and out of place, it was because I didn't have a date.

For the past decade or so, my parents subtly but strongly suggested that I suit up. "It's expensive, but really, Ray, you should own at least one suit," they urged. I was content to equivocate, dither, and frivolously fritter away my disposable income on comic books, fast food, and noisome albums by malcontents.

Until this past June, that is, at a cousin's wedding in Hagerstown. About five minutes into the service, it hit me that I was the only guy in the church who was wearing a polo shirt and khakis--everyone else looked like they'd just left the set of Goodfellas or The Ladykillers. No-one called me on this egregious breach of etiquette, but as far as I was concerned for the rest of the afternoon, I might as well have been wearing a naked coed lacrosse T-shirt.

A few months later, contemplating racks of suits at the Men's Wearhouse in Owings Mills, it struck me that as much as some things change, many don't. I was at a men's store with my mother, my son, and my wife, yet I felt just as awkward and uncomfortable with the fawning and fussing of salespeople and tailors as I had when my mother dragged me to JC Penney's as a teenager.

Decisions had to be made. Black? No, too intense. But gray was a drag, everyone agreed, and I vetoed navy blue on general principle. Charcoal seemed neutral; we went with that.

The fitting and subsequent alteration measurements were even less enjoyable: there's something about having four or five sets of eyes sizing up how clothing fits on you while you're standing on a platform in front of a tri-partitioned mirror that can make dude feel, well, exposed. My son didn't get what was happening, why a seamstress was marking my slacks with chalk, why Daddy seemed so tense and exasperated, why he couldn't seize a pair of cufflinks.

Mercifully, Mom lead him outside for a short walk, while my wife and I exchanged flabbergasted glances, marveling at condensed acres of Stacy Adams, Versini, and Burma Bibas fabulousity we couldn't even begin to afford, overgrown children in a world we still weren't fully ready to enter. Now, at the very least, I'll look tack-sharp loitering near the threshold.

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