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Only Her Hairdresser Knows

When Barack Obama, presidential hopeful and Men’s Vogue cover boy, was recently on the Late Show With David Letterman, the host was much impressed by how the guest was dressed. “This is a tremendous suit,” said Letterman. “I’d vote for that suit.” Watching from the couch, you couldn’t tell just how wonderful the suit must have been, but it was impossible to miss how well it was worn, the way that Obama, as he took his seat, made the last-minute adjustments to ensure he was flashing a bit of cuff.

The picture of Conrad Black in yesterday’s Globe and Mail represents the worst kind of thing that can happen to a suit. The shutter was released just as the suit was looking like hell. The jacket was falling away from the shirt collar, with a bunch of shirt exposed by the gap; the part of the shirt that should be shown, the cuff, was jammed beneath the sleeve of the jacket, sticking out just a fraction.

Of the many photographs featured in the insider’s guide to the trial that Maclean’s published back in March, I remember the one taken on the day of Black’s wedding to Barbara Amiel: his jacket gapes at the neck and there’s no sign of a shirt cuff. In this case, the fault could be the tailor’s; it looks like the fault of a tailor who made the sleeves too long. But a tailor can only do so much. It’s up to the tailored to engage in a certain amount of tugging, tucking, squirming and fidgeting to get the fit right.

Compared to 100 years in the hoosegow, this is no big misfortune, but when it comes to menswear there is no detail too small to matter, too trivial to notice. And once you start to notice, that’s all you can see.

Some cats know. In the liner notes of his latest CD, Tony DeSare, a saloon singer gaining attention in Manhattan, gives a grateful shoutout to his stylist, “for always making sure I pull my cuffs.”

But Conrad Black has come to court, not to the cabaret, and if his mind is not on finer sartorial points, it would only be understandable. In fact, as the trial goes on, media attention has been focused on testimony. Images have dwindled to headshots, often not even that much.

That said, there are some serious pitfalls to watching pictures of clothes too closely.

“It’s amazing the amount of tantalizing mischief that people will see in a picture of clothing,” New York Times fashion critic Cathy Horyn wrote recently, in a piece about reactions to pictures of the members of the British navy who had been released by Iran. Were the ill-fitting suits issued to the sailors meant to humiliate? Were they a rebuke to Western materialism? Did they signal the demise of the craft of tailoring? Horyn offered theories of her own, but was astute enough to also say, “Beyond the demerit of moralizing, there is a danger in reading too much into the fashion choices of a person, particularly, a public figure. Namely, you can be wrong.”

Faulty visual impressions, especially of fashion, are running high these days. As the Conrad Black trial has so clearly demonstrated, fashion commentary now crops up in the most unlikely contexts, often coming from reporters who may or may not know what they’re talking about, but who nonetheless feel the need to have something to say about what was worn. In yesterday’s Toronto Star, Jennifer Wells begins with a description of Barbara Amiel in “a tightly fitted, long-sleeved black T” that sounds as if it came straight from the Shopping Channel.

Far more convincing was the story in the Star’s Fashion section by Judy Gerstel. Let me disclose that I am with some regularity writing for that section on a freelance basis, but that has nothing to do with the fine account of how Barbara Amiel gets her hair to that gorgeous warm shade of brown. Nicky Calagero, from the DC Salon in Toronto where Amiel goes, explains exactly how it’s done, the full complexity of dye and comb. To a journalist, it was a lesson in getting to the source. Goes to show that while you might glean a little information from a photograph, nothing talks like a talkative colour technician.

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