The case of the well-dressed but blushing American

It is the season for gifts, to be followed immediately by the season for self-reform. Each year the fashion world takes advantage of the near-coincidence of Christmas and New Year's by setting records for retail sales while trying to make over the shaggy American male into a dandy.

Open a magazine, and you will find dudes staring out of designer-name ads - looking right past you in search of the nearest mirror.These narcissistic young poseurs don't look a bit like your Uncle Franklin, or anybody else on your Christmas necktie list. They are wearing clothes you have never seen on any uncle, or, for that matter, any living being.

Solid red shirts shout from behind jackets featuring alternate panels of blue and rose, with a couple of squares of black thrown in.

An orchid peeps flirtatiously out of a lapel.

In the center of all this busyness, a striped bow tie introduces colors well off the far end of the rainbow.

White trousers abut a vest with quirky little diamond designs, left over, it might seem, from a wallpaper remnants sale.

This, we are instructed, is what the well-dressed man will be wearing in 1984 . Get with it!

From year to year the manifesto varies. Sometimes we are told we are about to experience the New Elegance. Sometimes it is the New Formality. Words like Edwardian get bandied about.

But the essential message is the same. The American male, mousing about in his timid-little-wimp wardrobe, is about to be transformed into a peacock, with an accompanying improvement in his personality, and maybe even his character.

Alas, the propagandists of high fashion underestimate the roots of resistance in the natives. Elegance, grace, style - the American male concedes these virtues to Europeans, if (some inner voice growls) they are, in fact, virtues. For we are, after all, the sons of those frumpy Colonial farmers who ruined what was left of their pant creases, crouched behind the stone walls of Concord and Lexington, while the redcoats marched by in self-destructive nattiness.

The designer-name folk call it elegance, grace, style. We call it decadence, and head for Jerry's Army-Navy Surplus.

Oh sure. A dapper little part of us can be appealed to by the fashion issue of Esquire or the new masculine-chic magazine, M, dedicated to ''The Civilized Man.'' Now and then a faltering uncertainty sneaks into our baggy-pants strut, and we feel a subversive impulse to play Cary Grant or David Niven and be suave in a drawing room.

But most of the time, we see our model as John Wayne - a laundry bundle of scruffy buckskins, framed by a shapeless hat and dilapidated boots, all piquant in the saddle.

Inside every well-dressed American male - and how few there are! - a slob signals wildly to get out.

Even those who truly want to be well dressed - and the rest of us must grant this ambition, though we can't understand it - betray a certain anxiety in their eyes. As small boys, these true dudes were jeered at by other small boys when they wore shoes instead of sneakers - and then polished them.

No wonder the well-dressed American minority, still hearing those snickers, dares so little. For all the multihued ads, the American male sticks to dark wools like a security blanket.

To get us to try anything else, you have to put ''English'' before it, as in tweeds.

All but the most subdued plaids make us feel like a bookie. Anything approaching evening dress makes us feel like a head waiter. What's left? Charcoal-somber - the gamut from gray to gray that makes us feel like a banker. If we have to dress up, we'll settle for that.

But do we have to? The high-fashion pundits refuse to understand. About the only adjective connected with clothes that can relax an American male is ''casual.'' When it comes to weekend, we can pile on the lumberjack shirts and wild and woolly sweaters and blue jeans and green corduroys, all topped off with a comic hunter's cap.

We have no trouble playing Huckleberry Finn. It's playing Little Lord Fauntleroy that makes us blush.

Who has been well dressed in American history?

Swindlers with stickpins, kid gloves, gold-knob canes, and nicknames like ''Diamond Jim.''

Or movie gangsters played by George Raft and Edward G. Robinson, with even worse nicknames like ''Silk.''

On the other hand, Abraham Lincoln looked like an unmade bed.

The poet James Dickey once suggested that sartorial shagginess is simply the preferred national form of affectation. He characterized his own neo-frontiersman outfit, from leather hat to denim jacket to khaki pants to loggers' boots, as ''tough, gaudy, and phony.''

So be it.

The name-designers can tug at our frayed sleeves as they will. To be sloppy is to have integrity - for better and for worse, that's the American code, and when next it's roundup time in the old garment district, pardner, that's still the way it's going to be.

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