The Earth is six billion years old, but the oldest surface of the floor of its oceans – more than 70% of its area – is only two hundred million years old. At the boundaries between tectonic plates, rather like a geological conveyor belt, a process called subduction forces surfaces down, down, down below the Earth’s crust into its mantle. In such a way ancient surfaces are continuously, inexorably destroyed and renewed without any regard to human life, span or sanity.
I thought of this process reading a post by my friend @dirnelli. Dirnelli runs a well-known social media account of his trials of mainly secondhand suits, jackets, trousers and outerwear. He often has them “respoken” to his dimensions, and later directs readers to where they may acquire his cast-offs. A true samsāra. One reader asked him why he always seems to be selling garments he so recently has bought and altered to fit himself. My friend’s reply made me pause my needling because it resonated with me. Don’t seek the logic or utility of his #menswear actions, he explained, for he is in a permanent state of trying new things, keeping a few, selling the rest and moving on. Inexorably, like the merciless grinding of the planetary surface we stand on.
One of the most widely subscribed ideas in men’s clothing media is the revelation, imagined to be like that of a sculpture in a block of marble under the hands of a virtuoso sculptor, of a permanent self, attired not just in the fig leaf that hides the shame of our trope but in clothing of timeless elegance and indestructible quality. It’s the ideal behind so much writing about menswear, that there are a handful of totemic garments (from biker jackets to cap-toed oxford shoes) all men’s fashion derives from and returns to. And by extension, that only one or two makers create the Platonic ideal of each totem.
Dirnelli’s shown that’s not the case, pointing out for instance how a new (relatively) cheap ‘n chic label has improved on the cut and detailing of a certain famous maker’s classic blouson, and reminding us, over and over again, that a well-fitting and well-cut suit whose insides are fused or half-canvassed is better to wear than a handmade, hand-canvassed suit that isn’t flattering to your own body.
Over and over again.
That’s what I’ve needled my friend about, for he’s certainly already sampled the arguable best of suits (a suit made for him by our favorite Paris tailor), yet continues to cycle through the new acquisition and subsequent disposal of dozens of other garments from countless other labels and makers.
I had to pause my needling (no pun intended) because I, too, am caught up in that endless and inescapable process. #menswear discourse culminates with the “grail”: the magic vessel of uncertain identity that is supposed to mean the end of adventures. Except #menswear is full of grails. And those of us lucky enough to attain one or more of them generally awaken, as did Perceval in the hall of the Fisher King in the very first legend of the holy grail, to find the celebration over. Promised to contain all our style hopes and dreams, #menswear grails are leaky vessels.
So it was with this pictured rollneck, not just a grail but close to a literal unicorn: an ancient, mint condition substantial rollneck sweater knitted in Scotland for the defunct haberdasher A. Sulka… out of pre-ban vicuña. Before international restrictions on its sale were imposed a half-century ago, the vicuña risked becoming as mythical as its fellow ungulate the unicorn. Because it can’t be cultivated domestically (it’s thought that the alpaca, whose fur is a bit more wiry, may be a domesticated form of the vicuña), vicuñas were hunted and killed before they could be sheared.
Even before the ban made the price and the legend of its fineness skyrocket, vicuña’s softness and decadent backstory made it suspect in the popular imagination: for kept men (who can forget the line “As long as the lady is paying for it, why not take the Vicuna?” in Sunset Boulevard) and hustlers like Count Lippe in Thunderball, so unaffordable by honest work that it was a metaphor for luxurious corruption – the obituary of Sherman Adams stated in its very title that the former Chief of Staff to President Eisenhowerhad to quit after accepting a the gift of a vicuña coat from a friend.
I found an unbelievable opportunity to obtain the unattainable, and have spent years persuading myself each time I wore it that I didn’t mind its butter yellow color (yet another rarity, since vicuña is usually not dyed from the darker natural color of most vicuña). Or that its sleeves felt just a hair too short, or that I should prize it for anything more than it happening to be a trophy. Trophies (and grails, if we are to believe the ending of Raiders of the Lost Ark) aren’t used, they simply sit somewhere to be admired or forgotten.
Clothing is not a trophy. Like Dirnelli, I bought this garment to try, to experiment with it, to see how it felt (as an old friend 50 feet from the ocean once said, just “like a really nice cashmere”). I shall pass it on to someone else, not in dissatisfaction, but in subduction, the inescapable, shattering, flattening and ultimately chaotic release and renewal of our very substance. May my friend’s property be preserved.