Memoir: how I put an end to my extended adolescence
When I became a father, I decided it was time to make the long-delayed leap into adulthood. The best way to be a grown-up, I reckoned, was to look like one
One night four years ago, I was rocking my infant son to sleep and he looked at me with that soul-searching gaze all babies have. I could almost hear him saying, “So, you’re going to teach me how to be a man.” In that moment it dawned on me that I didn’t really know what it meant to be a man.’
Like many men of my generation, I’d lived an extended adolescence. Even as an adult, I bought all the toy robots I wanted and watched The Matrix on loop. I neither learned nor cared to learn the so-called manly skills of past generations: how to fix things around the house, how to polish my shoes, how to change the oil in my car. As a result, I entered many situations as a boy instead of a man, fumbling my way through.
On my 20th birthday, I wore a Grateful Dead T-shirt and ripped jeans. My dad looked at me disapprovingly and said, “You’re a man now. It’s time to start dressing like one.” I snickered at how old-fashioned he was, but later, thinking back to my father’s comment, I wondered: if I started dressing like a man, would it help me feel like one? I packed up my jeans and T-shirts and relegated them to the back of the closet. I decided to start wearing suits.
A suit asks a man to live up to a moral code: dutifulness, dignity, diligence, elegance. If I wear one I must be courteous, upright and gentlemanly. This is my image of a man. It stems from a photo of my grandfather, taken in Portugal in the 1930s. He’s wearing a three-piece suit with a boutonniere and a pocket square. Life was hard for him. My grandmother died when he was just a bit older than I am now, and, in poverty, he raised six kids. His expression is stern, and he projects more manliness than I have ever felt. I want to look like that—assured, reliable and strong.
I decided to have my suit made by a local tailor, hoping for an intimate and old-fashioned experience, like my grandfather would have had. When I first stepped into Frank Custom Tailor, in Dovercourt Village, the shop was impossibly cluttered, every surface covered with scissors, needles, scraps of fabric or knick-knacks, and it smelled strongly of mothballs. In the front room, a television blared Italian variety shows.
Frank, a 79-year-old Milanese, started tailoring at the age of 10. I tried my best to explain to this veteran my vision for the suit—one that would make me look and feel more like a grown-up—but something seemed to be lost in translation. When I asked for no pleats in the pants because they seem stuffy to me, he insisted that they make a suit “so much more elegant.”
A week later I had a fitting. As I waited in the street-level shop, I heard Frank walking on the floor above. He emerged from the back room, and I asked him if he lived up there. He explained that he had lived outside the city until his first wife died, leaving him with three young children. Since he owned the building, he moved his family into the upstairs apartment. That way, he could take his kids to school, look after the house and also be at work. He said all of this without any drama or self-pity. It humbled me.
Frank helped me into the suit. Well, it wasn’t so much a suit as a pair of pants and the suggestion of a jacket—all covered in stitches, only loosely constructed, with a sleeve missing. I looked at myself in the mirror, and instead of being excited, I started to panic. The jacket felt two sizes too big, and the shoulders extended well beyond my arms. I looked like a kid playing dress-up. “Everything feels too loose,” I told Frank, trying not to show my disappointment. He gave me a serious look. “Tightening it will cause creases under the arms.” But I insisted, and he agreed to take it in at the waist.
The next few nights I didn’t sleep well. Gnawing away at me was the fear that whichever way the suit fit, it wouldn’t really make a difference. Big and boxy or small and slim: would either transform me? I wanted a suit to help build my self-esteem, but it was only ratcheting up my anxiety.
A week later, the suit was ready. Frank watched as I slipped on the jacket. He’d taken in the waist like I’d asked, but the suit felt stiff and didn’t fit the way I’d expected. He saw my expression. “What can I change?” he asked, discouraged.
It wasn’t the suit that needed to change. I’d entered this process boyishly believing in magic. But standing there in the cluttered back room, I realized I had learned something from the time I’d spent with Frank: manliness was something I would have to work at every day. The suit alone couldn’t do it for me.
“No, no changes,” I said. “It’s perfect, thank you.”
A custom suit, I learned, needs time to break in. As I’ve worn it to the office and through life, it has softened up and moulded to my body. Now, it looks natural on me. It still doesn’t reflect that idealized version of myself, but a truer one.
The other day, my son asked, “Daddy, why do you look so fancy?” I explained that wearing a suit is a sign of respect, for myself and those around me. He looked at me for a moment, and then ran off to play. I took off my jacket and joined him.
Pedro Mendes is a broadcaster at CBC Radio, where he created the series Manthropology, about masculinity in the 21st century.
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