Far from being a static enterprise, personal style is an evolving thing. Indeed, so many of the pivotal "firsts" in our lives—first jobs, first dates, first apartments—are marked in our memories by what we were wearing at the time . . . and sometimes just a twinge of embarrassment. In the following essay, Craig Elbert, now the VP of Marketing at the men's fashion brand Bonobos, reflects on his first internship in New York, as well as his own rather humorous introduction to the dress code of high finance.
A Fashion Low in High Finance
By Craig Elbert
The problem with using staples instead of cuff links to fasten French cuffs is not so much that it doesn’t work — it doesn’t — but that people tend to associate the look with an unattractive mental instability.
It seems pretty obvious to me now. A French-cuffed shirt requires cuff links. Full stop. However, 10 years ago, when I first removed the pins and packaging from a dress shirt and threaded my arms through the sleeves, I was that most hapless class of human being — a college intern. It was my first morning in New York; I had just woken up on my friend Dan’s couch in Murray Hill; and I had one hour to go before the scheduled start of my professional life. I was to be an investment banker, if I could just get dressed.
The bank’s welcome packet had advised that the dress code was Business Casual. I figured that meant something sharp, like a pair of Dockers. Or, since I didn’t own any khakis, how about these tan, five-pocket corduroys? One of the belt loops had come loose and, yes, the cuffs had begun to fray where the gaping boot-cut swallowed my shoes and lapped at the pavement. But these were not jeans and thus, by my calculations, were Dress Pants, perfectly acceptable for Sunday church back in Iowa and therefore equally appropriate for one of Manhattan’s revered financial institutions. Dan had already left for work, or else, presumably, he would have questioned some aspects of this logic.
My shirt, however, was another matter. This, I thought proudly as I removed the packaging, was a sophisticated garment. This shirt, I beamed while pulling it over my shoulders, was British. I had purchased it in Scotland on my study abroad trip, a week before my flight to J.F.K. It was the most expensive shirt I’d ever owned; a shade of royal blue that I convinced myself did not exist on the racks of J.C. Penney. I had not tried it on before this morning as doing so would have required confronting my inability to fold clothes, a deficiency particularly acute when it came to dress shirts.
I was about to button the shirt when I realized it. Something was wrong. The sleeves were too long. I have a spindly 6-foot-3 frame with arms that dangle like disturbed pendulums; sleeves are never too long. I brought the cuff closer to inspect. Where were the buttons? Why so many buttonholes? I stared dumbfounded, turning the cotton over in my palm.
Then it occurred to me. I had never seen cuff links, but I was somehow vaguely aware of their existence. This shirt required a piece of hardware that I did not own. My only other dress shirt was still in the packaging, a white version with the same complication. I glimpsed wide eyes of panic in a nearby mirror.
I called Dan. He confirmed my diagnosis, but did not own a set of cuff links. “Don’t worry though,” he comforted me, mentioning a nearby Brooks Brothers. “Just walk over to Madison and it’s only a few blocks up. They’ll sell you a pair.”
Would they be open? Was there time? Could I even afford cuff links? In my head these ornaments looked like sparkling women’s earrings holding my sleeves together, simultaneously emasculating and wallet-draining. Couldn’t I just use safety pins? Dan laughed at this. “On French cuffs? Safety pins? You can try!” I laughed too. Then I rifled through Dan’s drawers. He didn’t have any safety pins.
This was New York City, I told myself. There are storefronts everywhere. I would walk in the direction of my new office and evaluate options on the way. I had about 45 minutes. I would be fine. I was resourceful. Worst case, I calmed myself, there would be a stapler at the bank.
I did a lap through a corner bodega, but nothing inspired me. I paused outside a hardware store, contemplating the utility of duct tape before dismissing it as inferior to staples — too messy. Then, three blocks into my commute, I passed a tailor. I had never been to a tailor in my life, but I was suddenly confident that tailors handled situations like mine all the time.
The door chimed as I entered. Behind the counter a tired Asian man gathered a pile of shirts and wool pants. He transferred the clothes to a table behind him, placed a white slip beneath them and turned to me.
I asked if he sold cuff links. He narrowed his eyes, chewed his lower lip and cocked his head. “Do you have any cuff links?” I tried again, pulling out my loose sleeves for display.
“No, no,” he said, shaking his head vigorously. For reasons no longer apparent to me, this came as a surprise.
“Hmm,” I stated, to communicate my disappointment. “Hmm.” I looked back up at the man. Then I had an idea. “Couldn’t you,” I asked, pointing to a spool of thread, “sew my sleeves?”
He was no longer confused. He was horrified. “No, no, NO!” The shaking of his head became a rapid swivel. But the thread would have barely been visible! I could have slept in the shirt and worn it the next day! I tried to negotiate, I was practically pleading. There must be a price at which this man would sew my sleeves shut. He turned away, shaking his head, returning to the stack of clothes on the table. He had his principles. “No.”
Dejected, I exited the tailor’s. After coming so close to an elegant solution, the office stapler now felt, if you can believe it, unprofessional. Could one even staple fabric? I looked again at my sleeves. I did not wish to look like a pretentious Mr. Peanut, but if the alternative was ragged boxcar hopper, perhaps I needed to reconsider.
The Brooks Brothers ended up being just a few blocks from the office, and presented me with a variety of cuff link options, a few of which didn’t completely resemble women’s jewelry. I purchased a cloth pair and allowed the salesman to treat me like a 5-year-old, threading the cuff links through my sleeves while delivering a pedantic play-by-play, directions that would have spared me 15 minutes of confusion the next morning had I bothered to listen. Instead, I admired my cleaned-up appearance in the mirror. With the sleeves of my shirt tamed and my shredded cords hidden behind the counter, I finally looked like a sophisticated New Yorker.
Within weeks, the bank reverted to a dress code of Business Formal; I guess some folks just couldn’t grasp the nuances of Business Casual.
This essay first appeared in the New York Times, April 5, 2012
Illustration by Dschwen