Barriers to Style

A few months ago, I vaguely resolved to become a well-dressed person. The chain of thought leading up to this momentous decision was something like this:

  • I ought to have  really stylish visiting cards
  • Hmm, but if I have really stylish visiting cards I ought to have really stylish card cases too instead of yanking them out of my wallet
  • And if I’m going to have four different sets of cards for four different social contexts, I’ll need lots of pocket space
  • So I really ought to get a summer blazer to carry my card cases in style
  • If I’m going to wear a summer blazer, I might as well make sure all my clothes are that good
  • So I ought to be well dressed

Neo-Edwardianism is mighty! For twenty-eight years my mother has tried to convince me to dress well, and I could not see what the point was. And yet, the humble calling card led to a chain of thought that made me revise my entire outlook on being well dressed. Unfortunately, while my intention has changed at last, the outcomes have not. I remain slobby. There are three major hurdles on the path from wanting to be a natty dresser to actually being one. These are:

  1. I don’t know how
  2. My waistline
  3. My budget

I shall now elaborate on these three hurdles.

I Don’t Know How

A quote from Cryptonomicon is apposite here:

It is trite to observe that hackers don’t like fancy clothes. Avi has learned that good clothes can actually be comfortable–the slacks that go with a business suit, for example, are really much more comfortable than blue jeans. And he has spent enough time with hackers to obtain the insight that is it not wearing suits that they object to, so much as getting them on. Which includes not only the donning process per se but also picking them out, maintaining them, and worrying whether they are still in style–this last being especially difficult for men who wear suits once every five years.

So it’s like this: Avi has a spreadsheet on one of his computers, listing the necks, inseams, and other vital measurements of every man in his employ. A couple of weeks before an important meeting, he will simply fax it to his tailor in Shanghai. Then, in a classic demonstration of the Asian just-in-time delivery system as pioneered by Toyota, the suits will arrive via Federal Express, twenty-four hours ahead of time so that they can be automatically piped to the hotel’s laundry room. This morning, just as Randy emerged from the shower, he heard a knock at his door, and swung it open to reveal a valet carrying a freshly cleaned and pressed business suit, complete with shirt and tie. He put it all on (a tenth-generation photocopy of a bad diagram of the half-Windsor knot was thoughtfully provided). It fit perfectly. Now he stands in a lobby of the Foote Mansion, watching electric numbers above an elevator count down, occasionally sneaking a glance at himself in a big mirror. Randy’s head protruding from a suit is a sight gag that will be good for grins at least through lunchtime.

The scenario outlined in the second paragraph quoted above – good clothes, made by an expert, and delivered to you without you having to actually worry about how they appear is so aspirational it’s practically the stuff of high speculation (but then Neal Stephenson is a science fiction writer). Alas, in the real world, I have to figure out whether something looks good along with being comfortable or not.

This is tremendously hard. Being colour co-ordinated is just one problem, and even that can be solved with a brute force method – restrict all colours to white, blue, grey and black. But then there is the whole issue of fit. My mother hates a pair of my jeans on the grounds that they make me look weird. I can’t even conceive of jeans changing the way I look. These are matters beyond my understanding, like Things not from this world, but between.

Ahem. The point is, I don’t get which colours go with which other colours, and what cuts and fits are right for me. In fact, I don’t even get whether cuts and fits are the correct concepts that apply here. I suppose this may be learnable, and fear that it isn’t.

My Waistline

For the past five years, my waistline has been oscillating between a size 32 and a size 34. It keep buying size 32 trousers in the hope that I will get back down to size 32 some day, but this has never happened.

Never happened yet. For the incredible dreariness of the food at the Kanchipuram guesthouse ensures that I eat only what is necessary to keep myself going. A year and a half ago, size 32 trousers started fitting. This year, the waist itself fits comfortably and the problem is more with the slight roll of flesh that is squeezed up and out over the trouserline. That too shall pass. I have an exercycle and I’m not afraid to use it. Except when I’m really sleepy. Or I’d rather eat. Or write. Never mind.

My Budget

At an abstract level, being well dressed is an attractive idea. But when it comes to taking action, I find that all things being equal, I’d rather be rich than well dressed. This creates problems. When I have to buy clothes, I pick the cheapest possible option, even if a more expensive option will actually be more durable and thus more value for money. (On the note, see the Vimes Theory of Economic Injustice.) I make up for the lack of durability by stretching the item in question beyond its usable life. This isn’t always a conscious decision – as a corollary to point one about not knowing how, I may not even know that something is actually beyond its life – this is usually pointed out to me by my mother. With great exasperation and vehemence. Sigh.

There are sales, of course, but they come only twice a year, which means I have to buy a year’s worth of clothes with two months discretionary expenditure budget. And since they usually come in the months when I’ve already spent the budget on air tickets or some similar big-ticket item, I end up not making use of the sales at all.

The solution to this would be to set aside money every month, hold it in reserve until a sale happened, and then take advantage of it. And thirty kilorupees a year would probably comfortably cover my wardrobe requirements. Even if I decided to go all out – suits, summer blazers, dress shirts, multiple pairs of formal shoes, and so on – setting aside five kilorupees a month would probably cover everything.

Unfortunately, for two years now my monthly budget has been designed so that I don’t actually have five kilorupees to set aside. If my income rises to a point where I do, my first instinct will be to start a new mutual fund SIP. There are only two ways out: iron will power to keep the money aside for clothes and not savings, or to become so rich that I start making my investments in multiples of ten kilorupees and five kilorupees don’t register mentally.

I see a long, hard road ahead.