Our friend Gay Talese wrote this piece, a profile of the late Joe DiMaggio, for Esquire in the 1960s. It’s considered by many to be the best sports feature ever written. I’m inclined to agree.
“People dress up for funerals. Why not dress up to celebrate that you’re alive?”— Gay Talese. (Quote taken from a fun Wall Street Journal article about Mr. Talese’s style)
Jesse just wrote a great response to some of the negative replies Put This On has been receiving over that Gay Talese quote. I wanted to clarify why I posted it, however, lest people like A Fistful of Style think I’m a “fucking asshole” and that I’m sickening Put This On with “rich-guy-itis,” as he put it.
I posted the quote in order to highlight two things. The first is that there’s an unfortunate trend towards regarding clothes more and more cheaply, in a way that I don’t think is happening to other kinds of products. In economics, we use the term commodities to refer to products that compete only on price because the products themselves are indistinguishable from each other. White t-shirts are a good example of this - most people only use price as a determination of which white t-shirts to buy. As an aggregate, Americans tend to have a very “commodities view” of clothing, partly because they don’t know how clothing should fit or what constitutes good construction or materials. Cheap $20 khakis are seen as mostly the same thing as a pair of Bill’s Khakis. I don’t think this kind of view happens in other areas, like technology, where cheap cell phones can be passed off as being more or less the same thing as an iPhone (perhaps because the differences are more self-evident to the uneducated buyer).
So the first reason why I posted the quote was because I wanted to highlight that quality clothes are worth considering in the same regard as other expensive purchases. We shouldn’t have a commoditized view of clothing. Good garments will not only fit better and last longer, but most importantly, they’ll look better, not worse, with age (as John Rushton well demonstrated).
The second reason was to highlight opportunity costs. I didn’t post the quote because I think one should to spend $2,000 on shoes and $5,000 on suits. I’ll never even get close to that kind of purchase myself. I’m a graduate student and I teach undergraduates that regularly get jobs with two or three times my current earnings (and we’re not talking about the ones with engineering jobs). I posted the quote to highlight that you can cut out other expenditures and save up for quality clothing. In San Francisco, my peers regularly spend $100 on a night out (the general cost for dinner, drinks, entertainment, and transportation here). I used to spend the same, but now opt for Trader Joe’s wine and organizing modest potlucks with friends. As a result, I’m able to buy $300-500 shoes after saving for a couple of months. Talese’s quote, to me, speaks this kind of spirit.
Before starting to write here, I was a huge fan of this site. I certainly hope that readers think I’m contributing, not detracting, from Put This On. I think the things I write about, such as Sam Hober’s ties, are things that reflect the two points above: quality things that most people can save up for. I also regularly write about sales (ex Gant, Orvis, and Levis), eBay deals, and have a new series called “For $50 You Can Buy.” In no way do I believe that you have to spend tens of thousands of dollars on clothes in order to look good. I do believe, however, that quality clothes are worth paying for, and that you should buy things that you will enjoy for years and years to come, not just for the few weeks after your purchase. I hope that my posts both give you a better sense of what you truly want to buy and tell you where some of the deals are. I also hope that my posts are just enjoyable for people who are enthusiastic about menswear and men’s style. Menswear for me is a serious interest, not just a shopping habit, so I don’t want this to just be about consumerism. Thus, for the times I do write about unaffordable things, I hope that you take them as an enthusiast’s interest in craftsmanship and men’s style, and know that I’ll still be posting about affordable deals for everyone who isn’t making a bajillion dillion dollars, which most certainly includes myself.
When we visited Gay Talese, Adam, Ben and I admired his home. It’s a beautiful multi-story townhouse in Manhattan. Mr. Talese told us how he and his wife bought the place. When he returned from military service in 1956, he and his wife invested his meager salary in one floor of what was then a run-down building in a lousy neighborhood. Ten or so years later, they bought a second floor, which they rented to friends. The friends eventually left, and by this time, Talese and his wife moved into more of the building. In the 70s, one of Talese’s books was optioned for a film - he used the money to buy another floor. Eventually, over the course of more than 30 years, they owned the whole place.
Gay Talese is 79 years old, and he still works full-time. When we visited him, he was exhausted from a two-week trip to Russia, following a temperamental opera diva for a profile in The New Yorker. Indeed, Talese has never stopped working - through innumerable highs and lows in a now more than fifty year career. In addition to his primary work as a newspaper and magazine writer, he’s written eleven books. It is no exaggeration to say that his work has changed the face of journalism.
Yesterday, my colleague Derek Guy posted a quote from Mr. Talese, describing how he acquired the wardrobe we saw in episode seven of Put This On.
You can dress well on a limited budget. It is a matter of how you appropriate your money. I don’t spend much on anything that doesn’t matter to me. Lots of people will think nothing of spending $3,000 for a new set of golf clubs, or $10,000 for a sloop, or $60,000 for a swimming pool that they’ll use four times a summer. I think nothing of spending $5,000 for a suit, or $2,000 for a pair of hand-made shoes.
The response to the that quote has been strong. A reader named Ian Taylor emailed and wrote, “You’re obviously entitled to post whatever you want, but please, for morality’s sake, don’t commend spending $5k on a suit in the name of a ‘limited budget.’ You just look stupid, or worse like a douche.”
The blogger behind “A Fistful of Style” wrote (under the heading “FUCK THIS NOISE” with the tag “GIANT BAG OF DICKS”): “I would like to make this very clear to anyone sitting in the back row. FUCK THIS ASSHOLE.” and “The ‘lots of people’ throwing around thousands of dollars on frivolities that Mr. Talese is talking about are, and again let me be very clear, FUCKING RICH ASSHOLES WHO HAVE A WILDLY SKEWED RELATIONSHIP WITH MONEY.”
Not all of the responses were profane or ad hominem.
On our Facebook page, Peterr Andreason wrote “I make a decent (for my age) middle class income, and I have no problem dropping big money on certain pieces over the course of a year. All of my friends have the same reaction, as say Oliver above. My response is that I don’t go to Las Vegas or Cuba or Mexico twice a year and blow $2000 on the tables. It’s all about allocation and opportunity costs.”
Wesley Wong wrote, “Although it might not seem when first time reading it, it does apply to most people I think. I’m a student who isn’t that wealthy. But from cutting the (for me) unnecessary stuff (an iPhone, a car, gambling, smoking, alcohol etc.) and investing it in quality pieces that last, I think I have built quite a respectable wardrobe over time.”
The blogger behind All You Need is Love wrote, “I rather spend heaps of mula on something I absolutely love than tiny amount on something I don’t really love. Its an investment; something my daughters and granddaughters will be proud of have.”
In the same article, linked by Derek, Mr. Talese explains why he believes in fine clothes.
Buy the best you can even if you can’t afford it. I learned early, being the son of a remarkably prideful tailor, that one cannot put a price on quality. You buy quality and don’t worry about the price tag pinned to the garment. There really is not that much difference in price from the very best to the middle-ranged commodity. If you buy the best, it will last longer, and it will also look good longer - it will hold up, the shape of the garment will not lose its shape and how it hangs on your body.
I told that story about Mr. Talese buying his home over the course of 30 years for a reason. I think it is illustrative of the kind of man he is. His life is a well-considered one. He is a builder, not a buyer. He is not a man who buys $3000 golf clubs or $100,000 cars or million-dollar Modiglianis for that matter. His home is beautiful, but also well-worn. It is his.
Mr. Talese’s majestic wardrobe (I was there - it is majestic) is the product of care, passion and time. When he says that he “thinks nothing” of paying $5000 to Cristiani (a firm which was run by members of his extended family, by the way) for a suit, he is not saying that $5000 has no value to him. Instead, he’s saying that the passion and care that goes into something that is truly fine makes owning it, for him, unquestionably worth the money. This means choosing not to spend on many other things, but that is his choice. It also requires a wage that can support a discretionary purchase at $5000. This is something Mr. Talese has worked a lifetime to achieve.
Look: neither Derek nor I is a rich man. Derek is a graduate student in the social sciences. I’m a public radio host. Derek gets all of the ad revenue from this site, which is much less than his work is worth. Derek comes from an immigrant family. My divorced parents went to graduate school in their 40s so that they could become a community college professor and the founder of an NGO. I didn’t make $30,000 in a year until I was 28.
At Put This On, we have dedicated enormous resources to the idea of elegance for the man who doesn’t have it all. I’ve written extensively about buying second-hand clothes, buying at outlet malls, buying on sale. I’ve also written about buying less, and buying in a considered manner. Let it not be unsaid that we have suffered financially because of this focus. Advertisers do not queue up to advertise on the blog about buying stuff at the thrift store.
I really believe in and care about this subject, just as Mr. Talese does. I care about the beauty of clothes. I care about their meaning. I care about the craft of making them. These values are not only for the rich, and I don’t like the suggestion that they are.
If I read a blog about art, I do not necessarily expect that I can own every Picasso that’s covered. If I read about cars, I know that I will never own a Ferrari. I still think Picassos are moving and Ferraris remarkable.
We got some of this criticism when we presented our pilot episode. “Who spends $300 on jeans?” people wrote, angrily. Often with some profanities mixed in. We chose to feature Rising Sun not because we were demanding people spend more on denim, but because we believed it was a beautiful effort, coming from a soulful, considered man. There is more to learn from an artist or craftsperson than there is from an assemblyline, whether or not that person’s product is your financial priority.
It’s easy to be defensive about money. “Well, I’m not some f*cking rich guy.” I think that has as much to do with the speaker as with the rich guy. Certainly, in a consumption-driven society, it can be a great burden not to have the resources to consume ad infinitum. What Mr. Talese was arguing, I think, is that rather than adjusting your price point down, perhaps you should consider consuming less, but consuming something special. Prioritizing something that pays a person who is creating a product that approaches art, rather than approaching widget.
Until fifty years ago or so, tailors made people’s clothes. Working men had one suit, maybe two. It was made for them by a craftsperson. It was expensive, particularly relative to their wage, and they wore it for decades. Today, people spend thousands a year at H&M and Old Navy. So whose values are messed up?
I don’t believe that as part of a moral life, dressing well is an act of immorality. I just don’t buy that.
“You can dress well on a limited budget. It is a matter of how you appropriate your money. I don’t spend much on anything that doesn’t matter to me. Lots of people will think nothing of spending $3,000 for a new set of golf clubs, or $10,000 for a sloop, or $60,000 for a swimming pool that they’ll use four times a summer. I think nothing of spending $5,000 for a suit, or $2,000 for a pair of hand-made shoes.”— Gay Talese
Put This On Episode 7: Personal Style
Episode seven of Put This On explores personal style - elegant, quirky, distinctive and everywhere in between.
Field correspondent Dave Hill visits the annual meeting of the Corduroy Appreciation Club, held each year on 11/11, the date which most resembles corduroy. He discovers a magical world, dedicated to the promotion of that most bookish of fabrics, and to the denigration of the sworn enemy of the wale: velvet.
Then Roxana Altamirano brings a new Nerd Boyfriend segment, with an investigation of an icon of eccentric style, Andre Benjamin, aka Andre 3000 of Outkast.
Plus: a conversation with one of the world’s most elegant men, Gay Talese. He’s not just one of America’s most celebrated magazine writers and the man who invented the contemporary magazine profile. He’s also one of the best-dressed men in the world, the son of an immigrant tailor who imbued in his progeny a love of fine clothing. Besides that, he’s got his own lapel shape!
Stay tuned to putthison.com for more information about season two. If you or your business is interested in sponsoring season two, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Directed by Adam Lisagor
Editing & Second Camera by Benjamin Ahr Harrison
Hosted & Written by Jesse Thorn
Featuring Dave Hill & Roxana Altamirano
“Dressing conscientiously is exalting in the act of being alive.”— Gay Talese