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  • Writer's pictureMike Matson

You Are What You Wear

This column was published July 8, 2023 in the Manhattan Mercury.

 

A recent blowout in a penny loafer got me thinking about clothing choices. I describe my style as “gracefully aging preppie.” “Gracefully aging” is a relatively new phenomenon, but the “preppie” has been with me for decades. Much of it driven by career choices, but it has felt comfortable from the first Polo popped collar.


It’s a basic look, with multiple variations – pressed khaki trousers, lightly-starched button-down Oxford, Navy blazer, penny loafers. I’ve been a preppie since high school and when a former girlfriend introduced me to Ralph Lauren (figuratively, not literally) in the early ‘90s, it brought structure to my natural sartorial inclinations.


The last few Decembers, it’s not unusual to find my wife and I in Las Vegas. I’m not a gambler, but I like the bright lights, the cuisine and the vibe. The fulcrum on which our Vegas visits are balanced is the National Finals Rodeo, tickets secured by friends in the cattle business – real cowboys. I like rodeo as much as the next man, provided the next man is not Garth Brooks, but I am not a cowboy. I’ve never owned cattle, and you can count the number of times I’ve ridden a horse on one hand.


But when we go, I tog out in my pleated Wranglers and square toe cowboy boots. If I were to wear my traditional uniform, I would be the gracefully aging preppie outlier and as I ascend the arena stairs to fetch my wife a sno-cone, all the cowboys and cowgirls would wonder to themselves, “How’d that guy get in here?” I wear jeans and boots to the rodeo for a very simple reason. To fit in.


I own a pair of “dress sneakers,” leather wingtips on top, rubber soles on the bottom. They look fine, send the vibe of being hip and make me appear to fit in, but wearing them just feels a bit off. On the other hand, the style looks perfectly natural on my 30-something son.


Popping the collars of my Polos still feels right to me, but when I do, my wife is hot on my heels flattening them, muttering, “…this is not 1985,” sparing me the “…that dude is livin’ in the past” impression, writ large.



It could have been much different. My early childhood was spent on the farm. When my father grew weary with the debt involved in that culture, he sold the farm, changed careers, packed us up and re-planted in Wichita. Farm to city in the time it takes a moving van to get from Rooks County to Sedgwick County.


I often wonder how my life and style choices would have turned out had we stayed on the farm. Would I have grown a mustache/goatee, donned a pearl snap western shirt and straw cowboy hat and felt as comfortable as I do today in the penny loafers?


Maybe that’s why I’m fortunate to call Manhattan home. We’re a college town, which exposes me to generational and cultural juxtaposition much sooner than if I lived in say, Ness City or Fredonia.


But we’re also a land grant, and when the flowers of Ness City’s and Fredonia’s youth come to town, they bring their culture with them, in the stock trailer and on their backs. Go to Aggieville any night, and chances are you’ll find a young man in Wranglers, cowboy boots and a trucker’s cap, enjoying a cold one next to a kid with gaged ears, tats and a man bun.


When it comes to how we present ourselves, whether we think in terms of style and fashion, or we don’t think about it at all, we are communicating with all whom we encounter. It’s human nature to draw conclusions based on impressions, first, or otherwise.


A health care professional in scrubs. A white-collar exec in business casual. Yankee pinstripes. Pleated Wranglers with cowboy boots. Army battle dress. Navy blazer and penny loafers.


The uniforms we wear define us.

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