Who the heck was Henley?

Published March 10, 2009
“You’re not going out like that, are you?”
That was a common prelude to parting when I lived with my parents. My father believed in dressing nicely when going out in public. He probably inherited that belief from his father, who, a product of his generation, always wore his porkpie hat and often a suit when going out. Grandfather Whitacre at the least wore dressy shirts, and the only time I saw him, or my father, in a T-shirt was in the house. A T-shirt was not outerwear.
Being a product of my generation, in my youth I commonly wore T-shirts bearing the names of rock bands and jeans, the uniform of young people in the late 1970s. I wore baseball caps in the early 1980s, owning several dozen bearing a wide variety of logos. So looking back through eyes the age of my father I now think, “Did I really go out dressed like that?”
I should have taken a hint long ago. In college, the girls in my group of friends were always raving about a handsome, dark-complected student of Arabic origin, talking not about his looks but about how nicely he dressed. While the rest of us guys wore jeans and T-shirts, our Arabic friend wore sweaters and shirts with collars. It never occurred to me that I could dress that way, probably because I lacked that handsome dark-complected Arabic look, and also because I believed that we shouldn’t judge others and ourselves on our clothing and our hair.
Eventually I switched to what I call pie caps, which have a round crown divided into triangular sections and a flat brim; fedoras; historical-style wide-brim hats; and Scottish-style tams. I eventually sold or gave away all but two of my baseball caps, and I quit wearing T-shirts as outerwear. I don’t even wear them as underwear, preferring instead the three-button Henleys that promote a 19th-century look. (Can anyone tell me how Henleys got their name? Who was Henley?)
It’s not just the extreme casual look of T-shirts that I have come to dislike — it’s also that I have no need to broadcast a message on my clothing (or on my car either). I don’t wish to promote a music group at $20 per shirt or some cause no matter how worthwhile. I choose more subtle means to display my interests, such as a small music pin on a lapel or a button promoting Irish unification hidden under my vest. My manner of dress says something about me, and I’m happy to talk about my interests if you dare ask. I’m usually a quiet person, but I love to talk in great detail about scales used in Celtic music, for example, or fine points of grammar. (Last week some coworkers told me it was National Grammar Day, and I said that every day is grammar day for me.)
I have come to understand two things about clothing: we do judge people, right or wrong, by their appearance, which usually comprises our first impression, and we act the way we dress. We fill our own shoes, so to speak. When I dress casually, I act casual, but when I wear a classy coat, a fedora, a dressy vest and nice shoes, I take more pride in myself and carry myself differently.
I would like to start a campaign for better dress, like that high school student who braved his classmates’ wrath and began a no-swearing club. I would like to see people forswear T-shirts, sweat clothes and baseball caps at social functions. Baseball caps look odd with dress clothes, but it seems that most men who wear hats choose baseball caps, maybe because that’s all they can find. A pie hat or a fedora look much more appropriate with dress clothing, and you can find them if you search for them. The best source in this area is The Hatterie in Akron. But stores stock what sells, what customers demand, and if men demand nice hats, local stores will stock them.
Even though I dress better than I used to — and I like to think that my father is happy — I’m still not much for ironing. I think that goes back to the days of wearing denim and flannel shirts that needed no ironing, and I’ve just never gotten comfortable with a hot iron, creating more wrinkles than I started with, at best just moving the wrinkles around. So I still hear that familiar question when I leave the house, but now my wife is the speaker: “You’re not going out dressed like that?!” It’s like having Dad back.

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