Clothes make the memories, not the man

Brooks Brothers, clothier to Lincoln and FDR, is going back to the future, remaking classic suits and coats from decades past. They are pre-Woodstock style. Pre-hip-hop, too.

They are my style.

There are camel's hair overcoats based on patterns from 1956. Sack suits from Kennedy's Camelot. And Cordovan lace-ups dating back 50 years, perfect for novelist Sloan Wilson's "Man in the Gray Flannel Suit."

According to the papers, Brooks Brothers is banking on yesterday's tailoring to outperform so-called contemporary looks. With some modern-day tinkering in fit and construction, the company will be selling wearable nostalgia, period costumes from a time when open collars and chin stubble were more Skid Row than Central Madison Avenue.

Buy a suit and be Gregory Peck. Wrap yourself in Oxford cloth and squint like Jimmy Stewart. Who knew you could dress like yesterday's WASP warrior and stand out in a crowd? Maybe the real conservative revolution will be sartorial.

To some of us, though, clothes don't make the man. They make his memories. In fact, a recent trip through my own closet revealed a veritable suit museum. Mostly Brooks, with the occasional J. Press jacket and English shoes going back almost 30 years. Expensive stuff, but it wore like iron. Here in L.A., where black sweatshirts pass for formal wear, my city clothes rarely make the rounds.

Nonetheless, the suits of a lifetime remain. They are my youth, my romances, and so many good times with wonderful friends. They were with me when I shone and when I failed. Who knew my personal history might return to fashion?

There is a black chalk-stripe, two buttons,center vent. It took me to a new job where I met the woman I would marry. It was sleek and smart. It fitted like a second skin. After I proposed, my girl confessed she fell in love with me in that suit: "You looked so wonderfully put together."

I look at that black suit and think of being young and confident and sure of a bountiful future. And I recall the woman who is no longer my wife. Funny, the suit is now a classic, wearing better and longer than the marriage.

Further on, there is a tuxedo, vintage 1978. Peaked lapels. Still serviceable. Protected from moths and ocean air by an ancient garment bag. Oh, how I danced in that suit. With a dark-eyed Spanish beauty at New York's Colony Club. With my sister at her wedding to a man I disliked but have grown to admire. With a long-ago starlet who asked if I knew any decent agents.

Stopping at a gray pinstripe, three pieces with vest, I think of a chill January day in the 1980s. A steady rain mixed with tears in a San Francisco cemetery. I was 30-something and had come to bury of friend of 40-something.I dressed hurriedly that morning - never knew why I chose that suit. Now I can't look at it without remembering my friend's laughter, how he adored baseball and classical music and dim sum for breakfast.

There is, down the line, a small glen plaid pattern, three buttons, marvelous drape. Natural shoulder, of course. I would buy it again if I could find it. But I can't. In this suit, I met a couple of presidents, had my picture taken with Joe DiMaggio, and walked through Chasen's restaurant in Beverly Hills and gently collided with Natalie Wood. I asked if she was all right. She said, "What a good-looking suit."

Finally, there is a more recent hire, a 12-year-old herringbone, far too warm for LA, bought at Brooks Brothers on Boston's Berkeley Street. My daughter calls it my "professor suit." Tortoise shell glasses and a rep tie complete the outfit. I wear it once a year, mainly to parent-teacher conferences. Mr. Chips never looked so good.

So those are the suits of my times. There are a couple of overcoats and a trench coat as well - all antiques - as useful here in L.A. as snow shovels.

But all tell stories. Retiring them, I fear, might start me forgetting places and people and moments. My life on hangers. Joy, pain, love, and loss never go out of style.

*• Joseph Honig, a former CBS and AP journalist, writes for television.

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