Learning To Dress, Part 1: 
Damn You, Andy Garcia

by Jeff Lewis

Until my late twenties, I was undeniably a poor dresser.  In my early teenage years, I favored cheap cotton sweaters with knock-off Polo shirts peeking over the collar.  This included a bright green and cherry red combo, because every day is Christmas.  In my late teens, I went strictly with Levis, t-shirts and big glasses and in college, I mixed in some bandanas and gaudy shorts.  When I hit the workforce, I emphasized earth tones, which after a few washings became a blur of different shades of pale.  I desired to be stylish and occasionally—but not too often—believed that I was.  There were at least a handful of outfits through the years that didn’t offend, I think, I hope.  The problem was that I had the double-whammy problem of being frugal and a dork, which drove me to shop at Mervyn's and Marshalls, preferably in the clearance racks.

The colors of my shirt and pants should be
reserved for bathmats.

I needed either a kindly older sister or a girlfriend to give me vital fashion advice such as:  $100 spent to upgrade the frames for your glasses, in an effort to make you look like an Italian model rather than a member of the Brain Bowl squad, will bring you $1,000 of happiness.  Or that you should pay to have your hair cut once you reach high school and should take taunts about high-water pants to heart.  They may be mean-spirited, but they’re instructive.

Today, thanks to my wife, I likely am a competent dresser, although I’ve wrongly thought that in the past, so I can’t say it with complete conviction.  Over the years, I learned some painful fashion lessons that I’ll pass along, with the hopes that they’ll help someone, somewhere.  I aspire to persuade at least one person to wear a flat-fronted pant or a well-tailored suit, in favor of pleats and droopy sweaters.  In the course of a few essays, I plan to sketch out a number of my worst offenses, explain where I went wrong and, in some cases, suggest alternative apparel.

The first breakthrough in my slow ascent to fashion competency came when I happened to accompany two female friends to the local mall’s premier department store.  They turned the tables and forced me to try on full-priced clothes, insisting that I purchase a beige, light-weight sweater that looked smashing, and, I hoped, perhaps even ravishing.

I resolved to go shopping with female friends more often.  Eventually, I thought I might be able to compile a stylish wardrobe that, in turn, could lead to a girlfriend, which—among other things—would outfit me with a fashion consultant, provided this theoretical girlfriend didn’t favor culottes.

Unfortunately, this lesson clashed with my thriftiness.  For one, I refused to consider taking anything other than my blazer and dress pants (pleated) to the dry cleaners, since dry cleaning eventually turns a ravishing $30 sweater into a $100 sweater.  As a result, my few decent clothes faded and stretched their way to shabbiness after a few trips through the spin cycle.

I hit on a new plan after hearing my friend Geoff compliment a shirt that Harry Connick, Jr. wore during an interview.  Geoff was one of the few friends I’d ever had who put thought into his daily outfits, so I respected his opinion more than my own.  Harry Connick, Jr. made excellent use of what I saw as a standard white dress shirt, but Geoff pointed out that the fabric looked soft, luxuriant and you could bet every woman in the audience wanted to touch it, and not just because it was on Harry.  It caressed his body.  You could almost see the Victoria’s Secret model clutch it, unbutton it and eventually borrow it.  The collar stood above it all, a smooth curve that gave the shirt structure, announcing, “This is a very expensive shirt.”

I decided to get out my white dress shirts to see why they never had inspired an attractive stranger to begin kneading my shoulders.  One shirt—given to me in high school when I was smaller—was taut and constricting.  It made me feel uncomfortable, which, for some reason, caused me to spend a lot of time rubbing my palms together nervously when I wore it.  Also, I invariably left only the top button undone.  I’ve been told that this, combined with the tautness of the fabric, gave the impression that I didn’t like to be touched.  Where Harry’s shirt spoke of caressing, clutching and undressing, mine occasionally sparked the question, “Are you Mormon?”  The other white shirt in my wardrobe fit better, but repeated washing had turned it dingy and threadbare.

A cursory investigation into sexy white dress shirts suggested that they cost well over half of my weekly income, so I searched for other celebrities to give me fashion inspiration—examples that I could adjust to my Marshalls budget.  The breakthrough came when, due to a botched date, I went alone to see Meg Ryan and Andy Garcia yell at each other in When a Man Loves a Woman.  Since I was there, I figured that I could scrutinize Andy Garcia’s wardrobe for advice.  I’m not as hairy as Andy Garcia and he’s got a slightly darker complexion, but I figured he would be a decent fashion role model.  It’s a shame I wasn’t watching Mambo Kings because his look in that movie might have been worth striving for, but I suppose I would have ignored the flashy suits anyway because I was looking for something to go with jeans and a t-shirt.  Indeed, I found it—Mr. Garcia’s blue sweater vest.  Brilliant.

When I began shopping for sweater vests—that phrase makes me want to cry—I immediately hit the woven acrylic jackpot.  My first purchase at Marshalls was dark grey with lines of light grey and red geometric patterns, with banding at the shoulder and waist.  I knew it wasn’t ideal, but it was the only one they had and I was too keen to use common sense.  I was very disappointed when I got home and found that the vest was tight and very, very long, so that it either wrapped fully around my bottom or bunched up into a round lump around my waist.  By the way, I’m pretty sure Darryl Hannah once wore a similar sweater as a mini-dress.

With repeated washing a once
sexy sweater sags, suggesting
fat wrists.

I tried again at Mervyn's and struck (fool’s) gold when I bought two loose, roughly woven vests that seemed like only a slightly cheaper version of Mr. Garcia’s.  Both were midnight blue and one had burgundy and flax-colored horizontal stripes down the front. 

If I were standing, you would see
the vest clinging to my hips and
bottom. Notice how the shirt,
vest and hukkah almost match.

Next, I needed t-shirts to wear with the sweater vests.  Unfortunately, I hadn’t paid much attention to Mr. Garcia’s shirt, but somewhere I picked up the notion that large sleeves were stylish.  Not long sleeves, mind you, but large short sleeves.  This rung true because I’d long been adverse to short, tight sleeves that show off biceps, particularly if the wearer has spent a lot of time rolling the sleeves evenly.  I avoided tight short sleeves for the same reason that I didn’t wear hair product.  I didn’t want to be a pretty boy.  Well, I succeeded.

It didn’t take me long to find a bundle of big-sleeved tees in the Mervyn's clearance rack.  When I came across blue and burgundy shirts that were very close to the colors of the vests, I knew I had to buy them.  (It would be years until I learned that dressing is not like horseshoes.)

In the fitting room, I did feel a little uneasy at the size of the sleeves, which looked like elephant ears sticking out of the sweater vest holes, but the color and the price—less than $15 for three—were too good to pass up.  The lesson that I should have learned at this juncture (other than to never wear sweater vests) was that when something looks terrible in the store, it won’t look any better at home.

I must apologize to
my fellow Americans
for wearing this outfit
out of the country.

Looking at pictures taken of me over the next couple of years, I can’t decide which is more embarrassing, the sweaters or the shirts.  One could argue that it’s the shirts because I wore them more often, since the vests only came out for special occasions.  That these special occasions included dates still makes me shudder.  I can explain away the shirts, even pretend that they were borrowed or used to change oil, but the mere act of putting on a sweater vest, well, let me put it this way:  My wife’s response when she saw a picture of me in a vest was, “Oh my God, I’m so embarrassed for you!”

This gives you a taste of the size
of my sleeves. My brothers
continue to be ashamed of me.

I’d like to sum up my series of poor decisions to illustrate how bad dressing is not inevitable.  I wanted to dress better, so I searched for a role model.  I chose Andy Garcia in When a Man Loves a Woman. Out of all of the outfits that he wore, I glommed on to his sweater vest.  I purchased three sweater vests at Marshalls and Mervyn's and accessorized with t-shirts that had oversized sleeves.  I wore these in public.  If I’d stopped before this final step, everything would have been fine.

If you look closely, you
can see where the sun
has faded the areas of
the t-shirt that were
not covered by sweater
vests. The vests also
left their mark on my soul.

Please throw out your embarrassing clothing, if not for your own sake, at least for the sake of those you love.  Of course, if they’re truly loved ones, they’ve already thrown it out for you.


Copyright Jeff Lewis, 2004