Oh, make me over

As a complete fashion dunce, I was dependent on the kindness of sisters. Until my bosses took charge.

Published February 24, 2000 5:00PM (EST)

Late night TV is educational. Watch and you'll learn of the bewildering number of body parts and/or functions that can misfire, leading to countless syndromes and their corresponding public service announcements. Watching that parade of potential genetic deficiencies makes me feel much better about my own small trouble. I'm lucky -- with me it's only the style glands.

Still, not having a clue is no picnic. As a complete fashion dunce, I'm frequently at a loss, and, like a foreigner in Paraguay, dependent on the kindness of sisters. I simply lack any instinct for what's current and can only base my personal shopping on memorization and what worked last time. As any blind person could tell you, that only works until somebody rearranges the furniture -- and in fashion, that tends to happen a lot.

I never trusted fashion. Random, arbitrary, senseless, constantly contradicting itself -- if something looks good one year, why should it be a joke the next? Such nonsense was not for me. As a child my only fashion hero was Roy Rogers, and, had I been left to my own devices, so he would have remained.

Others have intervened, and frequently. In third grade, I had a shirt with vertical yellow, black, brown and white stripes. I unsuccessfully begged my mom to get me the matching pants. (Another time I actually asked her to give me a bowl cut. Overlooking the tremendous convenience factor, she refused. My mother is a saint.) Later, as long, stringy hair and Yes T-shirts became the uniform of my high school clan, I blithely let my fashion muscle atrophy as those crucial formative years went by, never to be recovered.

Now, in calcified middle age, I need help. And voila -- help arrives! Once again, the catalyst is television -- not only educational, but motivational too! Recently, I was selected to host "@the end," a new Canadian talk show on the CBC's Newsworld channel. Television demands attention to visual detail. Not even the Nashville Network will look the other way if the crack of your ass is showing above your tool belt, so it was time to face the inevitable. I needed a makeover.

The show's producers will be my fashion sherpas, taking on the guiding role that had, in the past, always been played by relatives. I will participate in the makeover too, the way wood participates in building a birdhouse.

My snazzy wire-frame glasses (central to a previous makeover attempt only two years before) are already judged passé. I sit fashionably still while various frames are posed on my proboscis. A striking black pair is selected, and damned if they don't look pretty cool. The process is under way.

From "Charlie's Angels" to "The Simpsons," hair is the most important element of any TV show. The chosen style might be selected for its trendiness or, if you go Ted Koppel, for its resistance to the elements. We opt for hep. The hair artist assigned to my case is a perfectly gelled, goateed wonder. As he works, Joaquin regales me with tales of his hot car and adventures chatting up Salma Hayek in a local nightclub. Maybe he's trying to break the effeminate male-stylist stereotype, but in the process he's just confirming another -- Mr. Slick, the empty package.

My mistrust of style often extended to the stylish. Fashionable people, it seemed to me, were only about fashion. Each of us has a limited amount of time and resources and a person who obsesses about style must do so at the expense of other things, like personality.

Fashion is a tyrant --you must tailor your life to fit your clothes. When I mention to a clothes-horse friend that it's tough to wear fancy togs on the bike I generally use in the city, she suggested simply, "You should take the car more often."

Other issues aside, the makeover process is for a sartorial simpleton just plain frightening. In some ways, it's not unlike learning Spanish phonetically. You can parrot certain phrases, but what if you screw up? There is a persistent and not unreasonable fear that your fraudulence will soon be exposed. Give a man a fish, the saying goes, and he will eat for a day. Teach him to fish and he will eat for a lifetime. What will I be when the makeover is complete? A guy with a fresh mackerel -- and no sense of smell. Down the road, someone is going to have to let me know when my once-trendy look starts to reek.

Ironically, it is unfashionable people like me who tend to get most attached to clothes. Cutting-edge style demands a ruthless streak. Once the expiration date is reached, yesterday's beautiful purchases are promptly mopping up spills.

Whereas I have a favorite sweater that is almost 20 years old. It seemed so magical when I bought it -- warm, bright, finely wrought -- that I saved it for special occasions. It breaks my heart to know that this noble garment's best years were spent in a drawer and, even worse, that it might now draw snickers. The street is a cruel theater.

I'm not just loyal, though, I'm also cheap. Shopping for new duds is a shock. A pair of dress pants is $150 at a well-known chain. I flee next door to compare prices, then flee right back, spend the 150 shekels and call it a bargain. Soon, I'm thrilled to be getting a cashmere sports jacket on sale for only $550. (No clothing allowance. I ain't Regis just yet.)

Once I choke back the sticker shock, I admit it feels good to have nice clothes. Still, the fear persists -- a vague dread that I will suffer for my pretensions. It's a feeling perfectly summarized for me when I attend a Vancouver performance of "The Overcoat," an innovative theatrical production currently on a cross-Canada tour (the Toronto run started Feb. 14). In this wordless two-act play based on a short story by Gogol, an office drudge springs for a fabulous overcoat and sees his stock climb. But, drunk with elation and champagne, he loses the coat, crashes to earth and in the final scene proudly models his newest raiment -- a straitjacket. As this dark tale has it, clothes not only make the man; they can break him too.

By now, however, there's no going back. Jacket, suit, shirts, pants -- I'm in for well over a grand (not counting glasses and 'do, which the modest "@the end" budget kindly shells out for). What's more, I'm forced to acknowledge that my reverse anti-fashion snobbery was based less on philosophy than a very routine fear of failure. The proof is in my reaction to the new me. True, for the first little while it feels like I'm wearing a full-body hepcat costume whenever I look in the mirror (and also true, most days I still succeed in looking like a schlep with cool glasses), but I'm actually quite pleased. Apparently all it took to get past my sneering pose was for the "in" crowd to let me into the clubhouse.

On Jan. 28, the show debuts. Man, do I look fabulous. Leaving the building afterward, the security guard stops me. "I was just watching your show," he says.

"How'd it look?" I ask.

"Well," he replies, "you should have had your earpiece in the right ear, not the left. Whenever you turned your head it was very visible."

Later I watch the tape. He's right. Cool jacket, trendy glasses, stylin' shirt -- but that little earplug, with the cord running back around my neck, is really what draws the eye.

Live by the sword ...

By Steve Burgess

Steve Burgess is a Salon contributing writer.

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