Gentlemen, Be Suited

ROBERT FONTAINE is the author of books, a play, and many light articles for the ATLANTIC and other magazines.

The reason I look seedy and threadbare has nothing to do with my insecure financial position. In fact, we recently had a Civic CleanUp Week in my city, and the neighbors collected seventy-five dollars for a new suit for me, as part of an unselfish program to keep our city looking neat.

What prompts me to wear the same suit for ages is the indignity and the fatigue associated with obtaining a new one. I keep the old one on until the police start nudging me down the street and telling me to move on.

When I do finally manage to summon up the courage to enter a clothier’s, I try to make certain my wife is out of town or occupied. She has a tendency to pick out fabrics that would make nice slipcovers or drapes but which have no relation to my personality or needs.

I hesitate before the door of the store, staring in the window at the garments and feeling whipped before I start. The cause of my melancholy is the fact that the suit makers no longer make suits for me. They make suits for men who are six feet tall, weigh 135 pounds, and who do not mind if their trousers fit so snugly they have to stand up for dinner.

I finally enter the store, trying to get as far away from a clerk as possible and as close to an exit as I can. What I want is to look quickly at all the price tags, so I will be in the cheap section when the salesman pulls out something whose price I cannot see without my spectacles.

I have little success. A man with more teeth than necessary, all bared in a smile, approaches me. He is dressed impeccably, and I have an uneasy suspicion that he got his suit someplace else or that he was picked for his suit-fitting physique and not his intelligence.

He takes a suit and holds it up. It looks like a suit to me, nothing more, nothing less. I say, “Is that a thirty-six?”

The man smiles wistfully and replies, “This is a forty-two. Try on the jacket.”

“I took a thirty-six last time.”

“That was a long time ago,” the salesman says calmly, staring at what I have on as if I were an exhibition of Victorian costume.

I try the forty-two on, laughing. Astonishingly, it fits. I chuckle. “They must be making the fortytwos smaller these days.”

The cloth is a kind of wool, but I vaguely note on the label that there are a half dozen synthetic fibers thrown in, just to keep America’s economy strong and the woolen industry worried.

It is supposed to be navy blue. I never wear anything but navy blue, which brings out the beauty of my eyes. This navy blue, however, is fairly close to plum purple, at least under the stark lights of the store. I frown at the salesman. “This is navy blue?”

“This is the new navy blue. They don’t make the old navy blue anymore. It was too navy blue.”

“This looks purple.”

“Take it out to the street,” the salesman suggests. Salesmen always want you to take things out to the street. Usually, it is four o’clock in the afternoon and the sun is copper red, but they want you to see the fabric in daylight. One store I once patronized was open nights and wanted me to see the fabric in the moonlight.

I take the jacket out to the street. The light is dazzling after the poolroom darkness of the shop. People stare at me, some with half smiles of pity and scorn, as I hold the fabric to the light and try to decide what color it is.

The salesman grabs me quickly and rushes me back into the cool cavern of the store and says, “Try on the trousers.” He hands me the trousers and pushes me into a cubicle before which there is a flapping drape on rings.

I put on the new trousers and walk out, falling over my feet, of course, because the trousers are always a foot longer than they need be since the cuffs have not yet been put on.

Now I am led to a triple mirror. There is no other horror quite like this. It is bad enough when the barber shows me the back of my head, but when a clothing salesman manipulates mirrors so that I see the back and side of everything, I am aghast. Have I been abroad and unmolested all these days looking like that? Incredible! Where is the trim, handsome fellow I see in the small mirror in the hall at home? He has been replaced by this oddity who, when seen from all sides and the rear simultaneously, has all the faults of mankind multiplied in a geometric ratio.

I turn away hastily. The salesman says, “It’s your suit. It does something for you. I’ll get the tailor.”

The salesman never gives you a chance to argue. He gets the tailor right away. No use trying on any other suit, anyway. They are all cut skimpily and have tiny lapels, clinging trousers, shoulders so unpadded they show your bursas, and a jacket so short you feel a little like a woman in a Bikini at a P.T.A. picnic. But there is no choice. Furthermore, what is not plum is charcoal green or a hideous mustard brown.

Now the tailor comes out of the dungeon. All tailors, to me, are refugees from the Balkans who have been smuggled into this country in bales of tape measures and tailors’ chalk. They are bald except for a fringe around the ears that sticks out like the contents of a torn horsehair sofa. They are all about four and a half feet tall and smell like mothballs.

“Stand straight,” says the tailor, sneering. “How you want the pants falling? Up or down?” He pulls on the trousers.

“Just to the shoe tops,” I say. “Nothing drastic.”

The tailor shrugs and marks x’s with chalk all over the bottoms of the trousers. Then he goes behind me and marks x’s on my back and my seat. He pats my stomach. “Little pots here, hey? We let out. Little pots in back. We fix. Stand straight please, up! You got one shoulder lower than other. We fix.”

He stands back and stares at me, shaking his head and muttering something in his native tongue that no doubt, if translated, would suggest that it is an impossible task to take a perfectly fine suit and try to chop it up to fit a human being.

He goes away mumbling, and the salesman arrives with the bill, which I pay. I am given a check and told to come back next Tuesday. Even if the tailor has not a thing to do but read a native newspaper and eat box lunches his wife puts up for him, he will never have a suit ready before next Tuesday. It would be an affront to suggest that he have it tomorrow. It would imply he has nothing to do.

On Tuesday the suit is boxed, and I take it home and put it on. It is really quite purple. I can forgive that. What bothers me is that one trouser leg is shorter than the other and shows some of my wool sock, forcing me to list a little to the right to even things up. No doubt this is to compensate for the one shoulder that is lower than the other.

Nothing has been done about the pot. The sleeves taper and grasp my wrists high above my shirt cuffs, just as the trousers tighten and restrict the circulation at my ankles. Looking in a mirror, I have the uneasy feeling of roaming around in long, dark woolen underwear. Yet I know I shall wear it and wear it. Years will pass before I can go through that experience again.