There’s an image I can’t get out of my mind. It was planted no more than two weeks ago when I was walking up Manhattan’s Eighth Avenue in the low 20s. About 15 feet in front of me I saw a tall, very lean African-American man wearing black boots, very tight black trousers and a long-sleeved black shirt.
That wasn’t what grabbed my attention, however. It wouldn’t have if the outfit—ensemble, get-up—had stopped there. It didn’t. He was a man with copious dreadlocks, although that wouldn’t have been what made him stand out from the other pedestrians either.
It was the black stovepipe hat (I suppose all stovepipe hats are black) he wore atop his dreads. But even that might not have taken up more than an additional second or two of my scoping time.
Sticking out vertically from the top of the stovepipe hat was unmistakably a four- or five-inch-high bouquet of his dreads. It appeared he’d cut a hole in the top of his, well, top hat so the cluster of dreads could poke through. It did occur to me that perhaps he hadn’t cut a hole but had simply attached faux dreads there.
Whatever he’d done, he cut an indelible figure. Here he was, a tall man, who’d made himself taller by wearing a stovepipe hat—which even men in white-tie and tails no longer affect—and had then made himself appear that much taller with the upright dreads
It occurred to me that I was seeing a contemporary manifestation of Valentin le Désossé (“No-Bones Valentin”), the Moulin Rouge acrobat whom Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec drew and painted more than once. I was looking at somebody who’d turned himself into a Somebody.
I wasn’t looking at him for long, though, since he almost immediately swerved into a side street, and when I got to the corner to look for him, he’d disappeared.
Nevertheless, I kept thinking about him. I kept thinking about how he’d come up with a way to look—A Look—that made him noticeable, impressive, unique and, I want to say, in an understated way.
So few of us ever do anything like that. Probably, none of us has at any point in history. When so many of us dress so that we don’t differentiate ourselves from others, here was a man who’d thought about how he wanted to look just so he could differentiate himself from others.
Here was a man capitalizing on his attributes, when the very concept wouldn’t occur to most of us beyond wanting to look our best in the context of what is currently considered fashionable.
With the man’s appearance stuck to my brain, I decided I’d pan and scan the streets for anyone with as pronounced a personal style. I hoped to spot people drawing from fashions, no matter when they had been fashionable, to present themselves as having not just the up-to-date awareness of today’s dedicated fashionistas but as having that something more, that urge toward creativity in their dress that goes further than simply keeping abreast of the latest trends.
What did I find? Just about nothing, nada, zilch. I found countless numbers of people in the same apparel common to New Yorkers and tourists during the hot months. I saw plenty of T-shirts with slogans meant to be funny or shocking or both. There was one—you’ve seen one like it—that blared “Fuck You You Fucking Fuck” and another—you’ve probably seen this one, too—that blurted “New York Fucking City.” Neither was funny or shocking, of course, just old and tiresome, so pathetically 1990s.
Sure, I saw well-dressed people, although not in large quantities. Yes, people dress for comfort in hot weather. Who doesn’t these days? But comfortable doesn’t necessarily equate with drab—what most people go in for.
Nor am I holding out for loud costumes, the sort of combos that resemble clown attire. Speaking of clowns, I saw many people, men and women, who’d dyed their hair electric colors. One fellow in a moderate Mohawk had colored the tops of his curly tufts green, and that did have a certain savoir faire about it.
Still, I looked in vain for anyone whose clothing murmured, “This is who I am. Who are you?” What I encountered—I don’t recuse myself from any of this—was “I’m the same as you. So please include me in.”
Then something happened only the day before I sat down to the computer for this cogitation. I went into the Chase Manhattan Bank at Broadway and 73rd Street, and there was a woman in black stilettos, tight black trousers on narrow legs and a short black jacket flared at the bottom (a peplum, I suppose).
She wore no hat, stovepipe or otherwise, and it might be that she could be characterized as merely fashionable. Yet, her choices clearly indicated that she knows who she is and knows how she wants to look when announcing herself to the world. Fashion wasn’t wearing her. She was wearing fashion. Not only did her jacket have that flare. So did she. She was and is somebody who’s a Somebody, and more power to her.
More power to all of us in going that route.