McQueen for a Day

When I was in New York last week, I was happy to be able to make some time to visit the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Savage Beauty exhibit, which explored the work of Alexander McQueen. The retrospective has been so popular that I was encouraged to arrive at the museum before opening in order to get in line.

I got there about an hour early (I am not a subway master yet and wanted to be on the safe side) and enjoyed my morning on the steps (a la Blair Waldorf and Serena van der Woodsen). As promised, a line began to form. It grew and grew and grew until it stretched down the steps and along the sidewalk, prompting museum staff to establish a second line–which, instead of stemming the line, caused the waiting throng of people to seemingly double.

The exhibit itself was fascinating. While it draws from just a snippet of McQueen’s work, it seeks to explore the overarching themes and concerns of his designs. It moves essentially chronologically to give visitors a sense of the change in his work over time. For this reason, beginning with selections from his thesis collection, which featured exquisitely tailored pieces on rolling dress forms, situates the viewer in what might become his most conventional take on fashion.

The museum’s website for the show features some really wonderful photograph excerpts as well as the corresponding audio tour bits. You can also watch narrated video’s of McQueen’s shows to get an idea of how he turned the objective viewing of his work into a highly charged, dramatic experience for the audience.

The critics and even McQueen himself, in the quotations and commentary provided, return again and again to the importance of McQueen’s training as a Savile Row tailor. McQueen found the most inspiring part of his design work took place on the model as he fit her into the clothes. Fit was everything, and it’s clear throughout the collection that the impeccable marriage of clothing and model are at the heart of his accomplishment.

Although Project Runway has legitimized the purpose of the designer-as-tailor, it still feels like McQueen was of a different breed. In the show, he claims to work by hand, often himself, on the garments because he enjoys it, not because it’s some kind of statement on fashion. I think this love is present in the work.

The focus on craft is such a good reminder to me as a poet. Craft isn’t sexy because at its most accomplished, it becomes invisible. We strive to keep our seams from showing, to keep our reader from stepping out of the movement of the poem (at least on a first read) and down into the nuts and bolts of its language and structure. If language is our thread, the structure of our poems–as diverse among as the words we choose–are our signature stitches.

Artistic Temperance

If you’ve stopped by this blog frequently enough, or perhaps even just once, you’ll know that I have what I consider to be a healthy and lively obsession with Project Runway. This is somewhat odd because while I am a homosexual and therefore innately/magically sartorially gifted, I am also colorblind, pattern-averse, difficult to fit off the rack, and, above all else, cheap. However, none of these personal failings detract from my enjoyment of the weekly competition, and I look forward to its annual launch as eagerly as some men regard football or basketball season. I even have my own fantasy team! I am also so in tune with the judges’ values that I’m able to predict, 95% of the time, who will be eliminated based solely on their critiques. (Their issues are, in order of decreasing seriousness, poor construction, lack of taste, misguided styling.)

I’m thinking a lot right now, both in my life and in regard to the show, about artistic temperaments. I’m looking at Gretchen with some intensity right now because this week Heidi chided her for her reluctance to accept criticism–a trait previously seen in some memorable finalists, including Kenley Collins, Santino Rice, Christian Siriano, and Jeffrey Sebelia.

It’s not a ticket to Bryant Park/Lincoln Center, but it does seem to serve the contestants, that wall they have up. If you remember, Kenley flat out argued with Heidi and Michael Kors during her critiques, especially when it came to the yellow feathered wedding dress she brought to Fashion Week. Later, she threw a cat at her boyfriend. I don’t think anyone was shocked. Except perhaps the boyfriend. And I guess that says a lot about him.

Each of those contestants was wrapped up tightly in a cocoon of self-importance, bordering on self-righteousness. In the competitive atmosphere of the show, that cocoon buffered them from the aspirations and competing interests of the other designers. It protected them from the fracturing feedback of the judges, which can reduce some designers to confused/unfocused blobs of fashion roadkill (Valerie, Christopher, Ivy). The feedback can, along with the sour grapes of other designers, cause the “weaker” contestants to second guess themselves, thereby diluting their artistic output.

I’ll work this over to poetry in a minute. Just stay with me. The only person I know for sure is still reading is Suzanne Frischkorn.

The Kenelys, Santinos, and Gretchens are fortunate because their artistic vision is so resilient it cannot be diluted. They are, at the end of the day, cursed with their own selfhood. They cannot escape their point of view, and, in the two former cases, it’s both what got them to Fashion Week and ascertained their loss. (Am I the only one who thought Santino’s “Auf Wiedersehen” panties were waaaay off base?)

Several of the winners–exclusive of Jay, Irina, Christian and Jeffrey, who I’d categorize with those above–also have a commonality. Many of them were working for something external of the artform itself. Chloe, for example, owned a clothing store already and was a successful businessperson, but needed the win to take her business and her clientele to the next level. Leanne, otherwise mousy and quiet but extensively brilliant, was working both with fashion as an object and fashion as a theory–nearly every one of her outfits was based in a kind of object theory or object lesson. And Seth Aaron had his family, his commitment to them, pulling him through.

Chloe, Leanne, and Seth Aaron were all grounded artists, tethered back to a reality outside of fashion, while my earlier examples were all riddled with a bizarre selfishness and self-importance that allowed them to live fully, absolutely, inside their art. They had no context for fashion because they were only fashion.

The only true commonality, though, is that all of these designers are immensely talented. Just, some of them are less palatable people.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the poetry world in the last few months, partly spurred by my departure from my job, and partly due to interactions I’ve “witnessed” (or “overheard”?) on Facebook and blogs and the like. The poetry world no longer exists somewhere else, like at an AWP conference or on a campus. It comes into my living room as often as I allow it and, oftentimes, makes me feel sad.

I had a colleague who used to tell me, when I was bummed out about interpersonal drama in the workplace, to “zip into [my] thick skin.” This always used to irk me to no end. But I’m an artist, I thought. Wearing my thick skin will take away the part of me that creates art. To some extent, I still believe this is true, but I also believe that I am the kind of person who, for whatever reason, will never really fit into a thick skin. I can pretend to wear it, and that I’ve done exceptionally well my entire life. But I will never really wear it. That is, it will never become a part of me.

I remind myself now, with the poetry world just a click away, how essential it is to ground myself in another world.

During grad school, my “other world” was the gay community. I was fortunate enough to have beautiful friends outside of my program to whom I could turn and not be a poet. They are still close to my heart, as are many of the writers I met during that time. But I was never fully dependent on either. I had a foot in either world, and this kept me grounded on either side.

I wonder now where my other place is. Certainly Beau keeps me grounded. Just this year alone, he’s earned a sash full of merit badges for all the poetry events he’s sat through. He may be able to recite most of my book from memory now. And my new teaching gigs are outside of that world, working with people who, in varying ways, are outside poetry looking in. That viewpoint is refreshing, revitalizing. It’s a reminder that, away from the politicking and backbiting and simple mean-spiritedness, people still love this art. People still believe in this art. People still do this because they want to be closer to art. Not because they care about prizes or fellowships or residencies or reviews. Because poetry matters.

Maybe now the connection to the fashion industry isn’t so oblique. If you want to know how catty fashionistas are, just ask Tim Gunn about Isaac Mizrahi. Or spend a while listening to Andre Leon Talley on America’s Next Top Model. Or pop in The Devil Wears Prada.

I’m grateful, now and always, to the kind and supportive poets who keep my faith.

To the rest? All I can say is, in poetry, you’re in one day and out the next.

It’s only a matter of time.

The Big Snapple

Some of you know my longstanding feeling about New York City.

It wasn’t kind.

That’s not to say I haven’t enjoyed visiting there. In fact, I’ve probably enjoyed it too much. My last significant visit for vacation, I was in my mid-twenties. It was me, a financial aid check, and every bar in Manhattan. Not to mention the shopping. I bought shoes, bags, a cheap fake watch and sunglasses in Chinatown. Whatever I couldn’t wear, I drank. And whatever I didn’t drink, I ate. It was a five-day loop of that, of waking up around noon, fuzzy-headed and warmed by the July sun spilling in through the windows of my friend’s Brooklyn flat. It was strange men in bars. It was spontaneous trips to Pommes Frites, to walk by The Cock and hear scandalous stories of its backroom (but not going in).

In fact, the happiest thing this side of love happened to me in New York: I was name-checked–loudly–by Reb Livingston as I exited the Prada store on 5th Avenue. It was like a dream. Except in the dream I have a black AmEx and a poolboy named Brody Jenner.

Possibly I loved New York too much and knew if I lived there, I wouldn’t be living long.

But that’s not all of it. Tall cities are dark, depressing. Oppressive. I hate the streets like long corridors with oversized walls. The smells. Oh, the smells. If the air doesn’t smell like something edible, it smells like things that used to be edible, or were eaten and then, you know, returned to the earth, so to speak. Not to mention there’s a higher than normal incidence of body odor among people within Manhattan itself. I don’t know if there’s any correlation.

On previous trips to Manhattan, I felt like everyone around me was thin, smoking a cigarette I wasn’t able to smoke myself, and wearing black. It was like the entire city was populated by semioticians! Many of the people I met were either artists or bankers. I remember meeting a young woman–let’s call her Amanda–who mixed drinks at a bar that only had red lighting in it. It was like having a martini in a Soviet propaganda ad. She had a boyfriend, she said, but sometimes liked to make out with girls. I don’t know why that’s such a strong memory. She was blond; her hair was the color of blood in the light.

This time, here’s what I noticed:
> Manhattan men are having a fashion crisis
> It really does smell like I remembered
> It’s really fun

Beau and I hit the Guggenheim and I loved the exhibits. The permanent collection, with its Renoirs and Gauguins and Degas…es, was a treat, but my favorite exhibition was the Kazimir Malevich, a Russian Suprematist, whose cubist/abstract paintings were like Mondrian on psychotropic mushrooms. The current exhibition, Haunted, featured some really intriguing pieces too. Some were a miss for me. But it was such a great space in which to view art.

We bustled over to meet a friend of Beau’s for coffee. At her salon, while we waited, I had my first real honest-to-god non-literary real famous person sighting: Sigourney Weaver. I did a good job of not staring, although perhaps it was obvious I was trying desperately not to stare. Still–and not that you care or it matters–she is a normal looking person and she was very warm and kind with the staff at the salon. I like a nice famous person. I also like supermegapowerbitches too (Blair Waldorf), but only when they’ve earned it. I didn’t see one of those.

After a nice coffee break, we dove into The Strand, which was crawling with people. The only thing I wanted? A t-shirt to replace the one I spilled food on. They didn’t have my size. They DID have a big sign by one of the shirts with Dan Humphrey on it that said AS SEEN ON GOSSIP GIRL, which made it sting even more.

We walked about 800 blocks back to our hotel and then changed to go see American Idiot, the musical based on the Green Day album of the same name. We were really early. I won’t lie. We were wearing the same thing we wore to the Lammys. (Reduce, reuse, rewear!) Just about everyone else going to the show looked like Jesse James: jeans, West Coast Choppers t-shirts. Some people went fancy with a long-sleeved polo shirt and a pair of Wranglers. The show itself was great. I knew most of the music really well. The set is astounding–it goes up and up and up. At the top of a fire escape that goes almost the entire height of the stage, a lone violinist sat playing her music. I felt for her. Being up that high would have made me dizzy and nauseated.

The choreography was what I’d call “masculine,” meaning it was minimal and mostly punching and stomping. Some performances were great, some…seemed like they couldn’t sing very well. As you know, I’ve often said musical theatre is neither musical nor theatre, but I make exceptions when the source material is non-traditional (American Idiot, Mamma Mia! or transgressive in some way (Spring Awakening, Jesus Christ Superstar).

Afterwards, we sauntered back to the hotel, fell asleep, and then woke up early to get on our BoltBus back to DC. A quick trip! But, possibly the best kind.

The End of Summer

I really enjoyed my Labor Day weekend…a nice quiet before the storm of fall events and workshops start up again.

But I was disappointed over weather. One thing strange to me about living in the East is this change-of-seasons thing they’ve got going. Last year I had a little heart attack in September when I suddenly realized the pool was closed for the rest of the year!

It was then I discovered that my joyful days of perfecting my tan well into October were over.

The pool closed last year after Labor Day even though our temperatures were still in the 80s and it was still humid. We still would have used it! It would have been wonderful.

This year, I was ready. I made plans to use the pool one last time over Labor Day weekend to sneak in a little more color (unlike many Scandinavians, I don’t blister when you leave me out in the sun). The weekend was beautiful, until…

Labor Day, when it rained. And was cloudy. And gloomy. No pool for me.

So, goodbye, summer! Farewell, tanning by natural light! I will see you on Memorial Day.

Next: cordouroy! The only good thing about autumn.

Dear DC,

An open letter to the fashionably-challenged.

Dear DC,

I’ve noticed you struggle to dress yourself effectively lately, and I thought rather than cursing the damned darkness, I could light this candle: a weekly blog briefing on some simple steps and guidelines you can use toward making good dressing–and shopping–decisions.

This week’s tip:

KEEP IT IN YOUR PANTS

There are three acceptable reasons for carrying a cellphone on your hip in a holster:

1. You are a lone cellphone gunslinger ready for a fight
2. You have a job in which your primary responsibility is to save lives
3. You work in IT and would otherwise opt to have your cell surgically attached to your body

I’ll give a temporary license to:

4. Anyone expecting a baby in their family, or a medical emergency with a loved one

Men are fortunate because nearly all our items of clothing contain pockets. Pockets are useful for holding many things: change, keys, even cellphones. Now that the techology has advanced to the point where we’re not obligated to carry bricks around with us wherever we go, it’s time to put the cell phone where it belongs: in the pocket.

In the age of declining privacy (or freedom from others’ lack of privacy turning into your social discomfort), I think it’s both fashionable and good etiquette to keep your phone under wraps. Not everyone on the Metro needs to know when you’ve gotten an email, text, MMS, or voice message, but your phone probably lights up, dances, or makes noise to let them know. The pocket cuts down on this. The pocket keeps you abreast of otherwise unnoticeable vibrations your phone puts out. Consider it a free sporadic massage.

I’ll advocate here for all of us keeping our phones on vibrate at all times, except at home where we only annoy the people who have to live with us because they’re emotionally or financially dependent upon us. Ring away.

Of course, with the rise of The Crackberry and the smart phone, phones are getting bigger instead of smaller. But this will even out again soon. Your iPhone is slim enough that it won’t draw attention in your pocket, and either your skin or your cotton khakis will protect that screen from unsightly scratches, right?

ON THE OTHER HAND

Gentlemen, take out your wallets. Is it plump, overstuffed, overflowing with junk? Is it difficult for you to find what you need when you go in? Are you unable to pull it out of your pocket once you’ve gotten it in?

If so, consider a lifestyle change.

I carry a very small, slim wallet. In a former life, it was a cigarette case. I like this because:

1. It’s bulletproof (probably)
2. My ATM card doesn’t snap in half from being stuffed into an overcrowded leather wallet
3. It forces me to make tough choices about what to carry on a daily basis.

My wallet essentials:

Debit card
Driver’s license
1 Credit card (emergencies only)
Metro SmartCard
Car insurance card
SuperFresh Club Savings Card (groceries, yum!)
Health insurance card

That’s all I really need, plus cash. All of it can fit into my slim wallet solution, which slips neatly (and demurely) into my front pocket. Anything else–my Express coupons and such–can float in and out as I need them. It also encourages me to spend out my small bills (the majority of my money, I’m afraid), as continuously breaking large bills overstuffs my wallet so that it won’t close.

Nothing is more detrimental to the male silhouette than a big ol’ butt bulge on one cheek. Better the people around you notice you for your junk in your trunk, not the junk on your junk in your trunk.

A man confident enough to travel with only what he needs is a man who knows where he is going, and perhaps that’s the sexiest part about it after all.

Dear DC,

An open letter to the fashionably-challenged.

Dear DC,

I’ve noticed you struggle to dress yourself effectively lately, and I thought rather than cursing the damned darkness, I could light this candle: a weekly blog briefing on some simple steps and guidelines you can use toward making good dressing–and shopping–decisions.

This week’s tip:

NO MORE PLEATED KHAKIS!

The majority of men who still own pleated khakis should take them to Goodwill. They aren’t flattering for most shapes and they tend to cause some unfortunate “package draping” of the “man-parts.”

You should wear pleated khakis if:

1. Your waist size is 4 inches larger than your inseam

You should not wear pleated khakis if:

1. You are anyone else.

Here’s why:

The pleats in the khakis create the illusion of length. One of the pleats is always ironed to flow directly into the crease of the pant leg as it runs down the entire length of the leg, punctuated at the leg opening by a cuff. Cuffs do two things: visually, the punctuate the leg and add further stress to the illusion of height; they also add weight to the pant leg to keep the pleats from bunching around the waist.

Flat-front khakis are the right choice for anyone because they are a classic wardrobe staple. They will never go out of style. That makes them a more important purchase than any other kind of pant. Flat front khakis are also more versatile, easier to dress up/dress down with different looks, while their pleated cousins tend to look stuffy, fussy, and less hip.

A CAVEAT

With any item of clothing, fit is the most essential element of style. If your clothes don’t fit you, you may as well wear a barrel. Your pant legs should “break” over the shoe for almost everyone (unless you are uber-hip and wearing a slim-silhouette style suit–if you don’t know what that is, you shouldn’t be doing it).

If your pant leg, while standing, reveals your sock or even part of the opening of your shoe, they are too short. Likewise, they shouldn’t drag on the ground.

Why wear clothes that fit you?

Because a man wearing a good-fitting pair of pants leaves just enough to the imagination–but gives us plenty of options to consider.

Dear DC,

An open letter to the fashionably-challenged.

Dear DC,

I’ve noticed you struggle to dress yourself effectively lately, and I thought rather than cursing the damned darkness, I could light this candle: a weekly blog briefing on some simple steps and guidelines you can use toward making good dressing–and shopping–decisions.

This week’s tip:

TRY IT ON!

A few things men need to accept about shopping for clothes:

1. Not everything is going to look right on you
2. You are a different size at every store
3. Your clothes have a huge impact on how people see you

People who work in retail know that if they can get you into a fitting room to try stuff on, you’re exponentially more likely to leave their store with a bag and a receipt. That is, until they meet me: I am the guy who pulls one of everything off the rack (with some exception, true) and takes it al back to the fitting room. Why? Because if I didn’t:

1. I’d probably buy some really ugly and ill-fitting things
2. I’d never take any risks with color, styles, and fits

Having worked in retail, I can say that one of the great gender divides involves fitting rooms. Frankly, women use them; men don’t. Women take loads of options in; men take 1 or 2. I think this is because men tend to shop for an item, like “I need a pair of jeans, so I’ll go by jeans,” while women may go to the mall with a similar agenda, but are more likely to shop for outfits rather than pieces.

The fitting room is the greatest thing ever. I’ve saved myself countless dollars by not buying the wrong thing, and I’ve taken some calculated risks by trying on ugly things that actually look good with a body inside of them.

If something does not fit in the store, I do not buy it! I do not tell myself it will shrink in the wash/can be stretched out on a rack/can be hemmed or pinned or tacked. I’ve learned from experience it’s better not to buy something than to wind up carting it off to Goodwill after just one or two wearings.

You should try multiple sizes of things on to make sure you’re fitting yourself correctly. In some stores I am an XL shirt, unless it is short sleeved, in which case I am an L or an M. Sometimes I’m a L shirt, sometimes nothing fits me right. I can’t shop at Old Navy–nothing fits me there (I’ve tried; I like being frugal).

No matter what your body looks like, clothes that fit you correctly are the single most important consideration when getting dressed.

As we take this journey together, DC, I’ll return again and again to fit as our touchstone for making good fashion decisions. Until then, your homework: go try something on. Try on something you think looks ugly on the rack! You might just be surprised.