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The Alpha Wardrobe

Building Virility From the Shoes Up in a City That Forgot the Hunter-Gatherer

April 08, 2001|PAUL KARON | The ruggedly dressed Paul Karon is an L.A.-based TV writer and freelance journalist

Some years ago, soon after I moved to L.A. and took note of the prevailing fashions, I decided to buy some cowboy boots, the better to appear cool and--more important--attractive to struggling actresses. They were the first cowboy boots I'd had since I was 5, when my mother brought home a red-and-white pair, possibly leather. After 15 minutes of ambling around our Long Island backyard saying, "Howdy pardner," most of the skin was gone from my heels, and that was pretty much it for cowboy boots and me.

But then I came to Hollywood and purchased another pair--black this time, probably leather--from a store in the Beverly Center, where all the real cowpunchers shop. Since I was flat broke and essentially cheap, I got the least-expensive boots I could find.

That worked out real well. Because, as everyone knows, nothing quite commends a man to the world like a pair of cheesy-looking, ill-fitting cowboy boots. Furthermore, they were only sporadically effective with the actresses.

The point is, I wasn't any more a cowboy in my 20s than I was when I was 5. For that matter, neither were any of those other wannabe Wyatt Earps with screenplays in their holsters. So why were we tottering around town on our Tony Lamas, attempting to lope?

In our attempts to build an image of virility from the shoes up, we forgot how L.A. works: It demands nothing of our clothes. Except for those guys who can pass for construction workers--like, say, construction workers--when most of us put on something rugged to go for a double latte, we look like we forgot to change after vacation on a dude ranch. We are all searching for clothing of substance, something that connotes a physical confidence--a sense that our bodies could, if challenged, hoist something heavier than a laptop, that we might wrestle with elements of fire and water and air, not just egos, work and women. But the only physical responsibility we have in Los Angeles is to apply sunscreen.

Clothing in L.A. is all form, no function--empty calories, special effects that only look like the real thing. Raincoats don't need to repel water, that soaking we got early this year notwithstanding. Winter coats don't need to insulate--it's not cold enough. Boots aren't for slogging; they're for shopping.

Sure, it's physically comfortable--but at what spiritual cost? As a writer, my work wardrobe of sweats or jeans--a uniform similar to that of most guys I know--is barely one step above pajamas on the sartorial ladder.

My wife has caught me gazing wistfully at the L.L. Bean catalog, that time capsule of traditional and functional clothing inspired by maple syrup farmers and competitive ice fishermen.

I never much cared for Bean's woodsy styles before I moved to Southern California. (Sure, I'd admired the Gore-Tex Waterfowl Overpants. Who hasn't?) But lately I have found myself transfixed by pictures of items like the Boyt Upland Field Coat, which has gusseted pockets to carry the animals you've shot. I scrutinized stubby rubberized boots designed to keep your feet warm at 300 degrees below zero--which I understand to be the ambient temperature in a duck blind at 4:30 a.m.

I don't hunt or fish or trap or do anything requiring me to touch guts of any sort. The truth is, I have no desire to stalk anything more elusive than a spare ticket to a Lakers playoff game. I just want to appropriate the qualities of the man for whom these clothes were built--a man who can grapple with the outdoors, a man who is confident in ever-changing physical circumstances, a man of strength.

There's a swagger to these clothes. Women can extract entire worlds of fantasy from their wardrobes. Guys do the same thing. Why else do we put on motorcycle jackets to drive around in electronically seat-warmed BMWs?

The problem with L.A. is that men are robbed of excuses for showing off our virile, outdoorsy clothes. A lawyer in Manhattan who has no intention of shooting a duck can walk down a New York street in frigid temperatures in an Upland Field Coat and look cool. Do that on a March morning on Wilshire Boulevard and you look like a flasher.

So I searched for some compromise between wimpy and rugged and settled on what I thought was the perfect choice--the flannel shirt, last seen on grunge rockers. I ordered one plaid item after another. My wife shook her head as I hung them up in my increasingly lumberjacky closet.

"What's with the shirts?" she asked. "It's like 94 degrees outside."

Finally what passes for winter arrived, and the temperature dropped a little. I wore my flannel shirts and congratulated myself on finding substantial clothes to go with my life in L.A. My wife looked at me differently, too. There was lust in her eyes. For the shirts, as it turned out. She borrowed one, then took the other four. "These are mine now," she said. I didn't mind. She looked good in them. To what higher calling could a man's clothes aspire?

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