Clothes made the (Yale) man
When the seasons change I go upstairs to my daughter’s childhood bedroom and open the closet where I keep my off-season clothes. My eye never fails to rediscover an old wooden clothes hanger that has hung in six dorm rooms, an army barracks, six apartments, and two homes during the past 65 years. The wood has grown dark with age, but still clearly visible in black is printed: B. Gordon, Integrity Clothes, 11 Allen St., New York.
It is August, 1948, the month before I leave for college. My father and I leave the store that he owns to walk the one block to 11 Allen Street. It is time to outfit me for college, and we always shop here on the Lower East Side. New to this country, Dad came to this neighborhood to escort customers to the wholesale showrooms and to take goods on consignment from the shops on Orchard, Ludlow, and Essex Streets. He was what was called a “custom peddler.” He sold furniture, clothes, appliances, kitchenware, almost anything, to people who could not afford to pay cash, and then he would travel to their apartments to collect, or try to collect, small weekly installment payments, until the purchase price was paid off. Although he has risen to shopkeeper status, he feels most comfortable doing family shopping with the merchants he did business with in his peddler days.
Dad and Mr. Gordon exchange greetings as we enter the store, and Mr. Gordon escorts us up the stairs to the second floor, where the suits and sport coats hang crammed together on plain pipe racks.
I’m going away to college and I need some new clothes. Do you have any suggestions?
He extracts several suits and sport coats from the crowd. Not to worry.
I do as I am told.
These two really look terrific on you.
Do you really think so?
Absolutely. We’ll just need to shorten the sleeves a bit and cuff the trousers.
What do you think, Dad?
Looks good, but get whatever you like.
I am quite pleased as we leave, the owner of a new suit and sport coat and having been the recipient of such personal attention and expert advice.
My college is only an hour-and-a-half train ride from New York City, but it is a world I do not recognize. Grand buildings in Gothic and Georgian style surrounding green courtyards, ivy-covered walls, Harkness Tower with its daily carillon concerts. Today President Seymour is giving a Welcome Address to the freshman class, the first occasion to wear a suit and tie. As my classmates and I converge on Woolsey Hall it is obvious that they all seem to know something that I do not. When finally all seated, we have fused into a dark gray flannel blanket, with occasional dark blue flecks, with the sole misweave where my respectable, not quite electric, but decidedly sunny, blue plaid suit seems to glow.
How do all my classmates know that there is a college uniform, even for those not on an athletic team? Did they all shop at the same two stores? Impossible—they come from every state in the country. Was there some small print in the catalog or admissions letter that I missed?
These days I return to campus regularly for class reunions and always visit the college bookstore to buy gifts for grandchildren now, children in earlier days. On the way I must pass the corner of York and Elm, home today as it was in my undergraduate days of the men’s clothier, J. Press, the supreme authority on sartorial matters at my alma mater. As a student I recall that when I passed this corner, every year, every season, there was always a large window display featuring the uniform, several flannel suits in dark gray, albeit with various shades of dark.
When I see the B. Gordon hanger in my daughter’s closet I simply cannot forget what an outstanding student I had been. As I walked to class, it was impossible not to notice my other purchase, my purple corduroy jacket bobbing in a sea of Harris Tweed sport coats, many with leather elbow patches over unworn elbows.
I survived. Maybe my fashion exceptionalism built character. Or perhaps my classmates learned about diversity and acceptance. No matter. But I still wish that Mr. B. Gordon had been on speaking terms with Mr. J. Press.