by Alexander Freeling

Unhappy is the man who assesses everybody’s clothes. Most likely, they will fail to meet his cultivated eye, and he will have no option but to write to the usual places about how standards are slipping, and nobody but him remembers the rules. But worse, one fine day he might find himself in a room full of bespoke, and realize that for once the hand-welted shoe is on the other foot. He will be on the receiving end, he imagines, of the same withering critique.

Comparisons are odious, but appreciation can take many forms. As the new students filter in to my university town this Fall, they collect in bunches, brought together by timetables and welcome receptions and that unconscious social gravity that binds people before they even open their mouths. One recent evening, passing through a crowd of them I noticed a corduroy suit amongst the usual jackets and coats. Ok, the lapels were anemic and the whole coat flat, like a larger size had been deflated to make it. But this young scholar had taken a ribbed navy cotton risk, and I applauded it.

Since this column is about recognition, gentle reader, you’ll not be surprised when I tell you indulgently that I saw a little of myself in that suit. Not in its cloth or design, but in the spirit of it. I recognized my early forays into tailoring: an unlined cotton jacket from H&M I wore until the pockets frayed open. A brown orphaned suit I wore as an odd jacket. An ancient tweed from a storied Italian maker, whose previous owner had clearly enjoyed a few thousand more good dinners than me. The best—by which I mean worst—was an elaborately finished and hopelessly dated navy suit, each trouser leg wide enough for two of mine, shoulder pads more appropriate for a sofa than a sleevehead.

I was putting things on to see what felt right. The same was true for the students milling around the lecture halls and pubs this week, liberated from the expectations of their childhood, unfixed and unpledged, trying out different postures, styles and ways of speaking. And in matters of style, as in more serious questions of character, so often what seems in the moment like free choice or sheer guesswork is ultimately a question of recognizing what you already know. The people and work and pursuits you feel, from the first days and hours, like you’d known for years. The decision which seems impossible until you accept that you already know the answer. The suit that looks right the moment you try it on.

Replacing my first jackets wasn’t giving up but learning from them. A brown odd jacket, but in brushed flannel with soft shoulders, not worsted super 120s and a ticket pocket. A plain navy suit, but one less than twice my age. The sartorial journey is not accumulating but refining. Not questing for novelty, or to have more things, but finding a better approximation of what charmed you in the first place.