The Man in Me

My father isn't much in the fashion advice section. He's given me precisely two pieces of sartorial guidance over the years: Don't buy things you need to iron, and really don't buy things you need to dry-clean. These were Abel Klein's two commandments, and with them I was sent off into the world.

As metaphorical guidelines on how to live, they've served me well. But after I graduated college, it turned out I didn't know how to dress. My office didn't require suits, but the higher-ups frowned on schmuck chic. So some remedial training was in order until I got the hang of business casual.

I think I've got it now. I can also knot a tie, make a fresh summer tomato sauce, mood-light a dinner party, fix a toilet, make the perfect bar snack, and smooth shirts without ironing (hi pops!) by hanging them on the towel hook while I take a hot shower. In short, I'm filling the toolbox of tricks, tips, and shortcuts that only those who've officially entered “adulthood” seem to possess. And it's all thanks to GQ and Esquire.

* * *

Post-pubescent masculinity was defined for me, like many teens of my generation, by the so-called “lad mags” -- Maxim, FHM, Stuff, and all the rest. They set forth that peculiar mix of testosterone, braggadocio, lust, and physical recklessness that appeared the ideal of young manhood. I rarely met the standard, being somewhat disinclined to jump out of moving cars or actually approach girls, but at least I knew what it was.

Then came college, and a serious relationship, and sustained exposure to feminist theory. The magazines waiting on my doorstep each month began to seem puerile and objectifying. A pity, because the lad mags, for all their faults, actually contained some gorgeous narrative journalism, written with a flair and aggression The Economist rarely musters. For a young writer searching for a voice, the lavish prose provided a powerful counterpoint to the dusty prose of the political and academic writings I favored.

My relief was great, then, when I picked up my first GQ. I'd never noticed the magazine before, writing it off as some sort of clothing catalogue (a not altogether incorrect impression, particularly during the ad-heavy fall months) devoid of written content. But a friend left one lying atop a coffee table, and I decided to glance through it. It took me awhile to leave the house that day.

Here was all the self-conscious, flowingly descriptive writing I'd loved, but without the immaturity I'd grown discomfited by. Who knew lad mags were merely men's mags for kids? Subscriptions to GQ and Esquire followed immediately.

* * *

I may have bought them for the long articles, but a funny thing happened on my way to the feature well: The first chunk of the magazine is a guidebook to a certain hyper-materialistic, bourgeoisie conception of manhood. It's packed with fashion advice (match your belt to your shoes), clothing suggestions (thin suits this year), how-to features (grill a steak, choose a wine), and first-date recipes (the perfect sandwich).

I didn't pay much attention to the section at first. But slowly, I noticed myself actually entering Banana Republic with my girlfriend, wondering if I might need a sport coat, and what precisely separated the garment from a suit jacket. Or I surprised myself by warning a friend not to grind his coffee beans in advance, as they release important aromatic properties when crushed. I don't even drink coffee.

In addition to acquiring the desires and expectations of a man with far greater earnings than myself, I picked up some useful knowledge. The coffee thing, for instance, or what sort of knot in a tie works with which collar. I learned how to fix various broken items around my house, and how to enhance or inexpensively improve others (dimmers -- as cheap as $5! -- are magical things). I ceased viewing fashion with unmitigated contempt and, if I haven't yet shed the schlub inside, I developed the capacity to summon an aesthetic when I needed it.

As time went on, I grew bored by the fawning, stylized profiles that extract 6,000 words and a characterological portrait from a cup of coffee the writer shared with some vapid sitcom star. That wasn't the sort of writing I wished to do. But I did wish to eat well, dress sharp, and figure out what a cuff link was. The men's magazines have proven the guide to adulthood I always expected but never got. So while I still don't iron, at least now I think about it. And I do occasionally dry-clean. Forgive me father, for I have sinned. But I looked damn good, and felt rather adult, while doing it.