My husband-to-be dresses too sloppily for a New York lawyer

He's brilliant and I'm crazy about him, but the white socks with black dress shoes I just can't abide.

Published June 23, 2005 7:34PM (EDT)

Dear Cary,

I am 38 and in the most perfect relationship ever. We plan to be married in December. I love my boyfriend so much I get chills when he comes home from work. Here's the problem: He dresses like a flood victim. He wears his lack of concern for his appearance like a badge of honor and seems to think that paying the remotest attention to fashion would be evidence of vanity, a character flaw.

He is a brilliant lawyer, and to be with me, he relocated to a large, fashion-conscious city. I don't think he understands that co-workers can and will say, "Oh, you mean that clown who wears wool suits in July." He wears white gym socks with black dress shoes. He has a closet full of great ties from his mom, and yet still wears to work the ones that are visibly falling apart. He boasts about how he has "owned this suit since the '80s." (And it shows.)

I cringe when we go out to dinner at a nice restaurant because he looks so ridiculous at times (dark jeans, brown belt, frayed Izod shirt, white gym socks, black dress shoes). But I don't want to make him defensive, or he will just dig in his heels and make it worse. I hate to listen to myself nag, but perhaps a war of attrition, where he just gets tired and gives in to me, is indeed the solution. I honestly believe I would be doing him a favor if I didn't give up yet. But how should I approach this? Should I just poke my eyes out?

Preferring a Rain Barrel in NYC

Dear Preferring a Barrel,

It's tough to argue with a brilliant lawyer, but I think an argument can be made. It requires us to consider the nature of New York, which, one might argue, is a giant court before which litigants of the world both threadbare and elegant petition for variances in the zoning of their fate and the easing of rules that govern their fortune; they draft revisions of long-held, amply precedented definitions of art; they argue with passionate logic for the raising or lowering of tariffs and hemlines. As they do so they pray for approval, morning and night, of how they choose to dress as they appear before the court. For that will influence the decisions of their judges for good or ill.

Who are these judges to whom all who walk the streets of Manhattan must present their sartorial arguments and make their appeals? Why, these judges are the citizens of New York, both high and low. The man on the street, the dowager, the hipster and the child alike appraise you with immeasurable subtlety in a momentary glance, never losing a step as they file you away as a rube or a hick or a player. This court of immediate judgment is upon you every instant, opening the velvet rope or closing the iron door, believing your $500 shoes or turning you down on account of your tattered tie.

By what authority do they pass judgment? And what sanctions can they lower, what fines impose, what sentences pass? Why, they can lower the sanction of the withering glance that makes your hair stand on end! They can levy the fine of never a discount, never for you! Never a special and no little extras ever! They can pass a life sentence of indifference and scorn, cold disregard, whispered incredulity at your incredible dullness, a sentence of no promotion, no partnership and no invitations to the boss's parties until you prove you will not embarrass your hosts by your strange and slovenly dress.

As to the question of vanity: One does not call attention to oneself by dressing well in New York; on the contrary, one calls attention to oneself by wearing white socks with black dress shoes. It is not vanity that is required, but a special kind of humility: One must dress properly before the court.

In a small farming town, a heightened concern for one's appearance might signal something other than humility and respect for the public; it might signal that one has big ideas, not only an inflated sense of importance but plans for imminent departure. In communities whose economies depend on family continuity, the first question that arises is: And who's to do the work then? So in many places it's best to signal by your dress that you're content with things as they are and aspire to nothing more.

But just the opposite is true in a city like New York. It is not the ambitious but the slothful who seem out of place. If you're not a hustler, if you don't want to shine, what are you doing here? If you're not going someplace in a hurry, you're just in the way.

So I would ask your fiancé, What litigant in his right mind would appear before the judge in clothes that say he does not care whether he wins or loses the case? He is appearing before the world's greatest and quickest judges, the citizens of New York, allowing his case to be sized up and instantly dismissed before he even has a chance to say a word. He's probably bright enough to see the argument. So put it to him: He's prejudicing the judge and jury against his case. It's irresponsible. It's unlawyerly.

Time to shine the shoes and go shopping.

In adapting to these new standards, your fiancé may feel at first like he's overdoing it. But with clothing as with everything else in New York, the minimum is just a little bit higher; what might feel extravagant may be just what it takes to blend in and not be noticed.

Hopefully he'll get used to it. It's just a part of appearing before the court.

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