I have three beautiful silk shirts, hand-tailored by Turnbull & Asser, English clothiers on London’s Jermyn Street. I ordered them without collars — just banded, with lovely mother-of-pearl buttons, a box pleat centered in the back and with a placket front. I designed beauty especially tailored for me.
I ordered them while on a trip to London. Weeks later they arrived by mail to Beirut, Lebanon, where I was living. It was a wonderful time to be young, single and successful in the glorious, slightly decadent days before the Lebanese Civil War.
Those days I believed we could all have beauty and pleasure: Just order it.
In those days journalists used to receive their mail at the Hotel St. Georges and one bright spring morning, I remember, the packet arrived.
I took it out on terrace where, as I was having my breakfast of fresh orange juice, Arabic coffee and croissant, I untied the string holding together the soft brown paper-wrapped package.
Revealed before me in the bright Mediterranean sunlight, I looked upon the most beautiful shirts I had ever seen.
I was reminded of those shirts when I went to the movies and witnessed Leonardo DiCaprio’s ecstatic Gatsby rain down, from a mezzanine high above his bed, dozens of shirts — silk shirts, cotton shirts, linen shirts — upon an astonished Daisy, who nearly speechless could only say:
“They’re such beautiful shirts,” she sobbed, her voice muffled in the thick folds. “It makes me sad because I’ve never seen such — such beautiful shirts before.”
I don’t recall Daisy referring to Jay Gatsby as “the man in the cool, beautiful shirts” when I first read “The Great Gatsby,” but I do remember hoping, as I first looked down upon my new Turnbull & Asser shirts, that someone, maybe that night at Les Caves du Roy on Beirut’s Rue de Phénicie, might notice my “cool beautiful shirt.”
The truth is those shirts, for which I paid, I am sure, a Gatsby-ish sum of money, didn’t change my life a bit. I still have them, they are still beautiful and like their owner show some signs of aging.
The first time I thought that shirts mattered — that shirts might make the man — was in high school, probably during my sophomore year in Manchester, when I noticed that wearing a pink, all-cotton oxford cloth button-down shirt had a certain cachet to it.
The cool guys with the cool girlfriends — you know, the girls who, scented by White Shoulders which masked, or perhaps enhanced, the pheromones they were exuding, dressed in Villager skirts and Peck & Peck white blouses with Peter Pan collars — those guys with the girls all had pink button-down shirts.
Each Peter Pan collar sported a perfectly placed circle pin — both a warning and a promise — each Peck & Peck blouse looked like the most beautiful shirt I had ever seen.
Each was as far away from me as the green light in East Egg.
There was probably a time in my life when I dreamt about becoming a white Anglo-Saxon Protestant. I wanted to wear madras plaid patchwork sport coats and have tassels on my loafers. I wanted a pink shirt. Once, I bought a pink shirt — it didn’t suit me at all — and my life didn’t change at all. I haven’t owned one since.
There were no pink shirts in my world. There were no slices of white Wonder Bread spread with peanut butter and jelly. No cucumber sandwiches.
In my world I ate an arous, a rolled-up sheet of Arabic bread spread with yogurt and filled with olives, lettuce, tomatoes, mint and olive oil. In my world I ate hummus with olives rather than cream cheese spreads topped with bits of pimento-filled green olives.
In my world there were no pink shirts, no pimentos.
In the 16th century, Indian mystic poet Kabir wrote:
“Of what is the warp made of, of what is the weft?
Which is the thread that has woven this (cloth)?
A wondrous Weaver wove this (cloth),
with the thread of karma as the warp,
Memory and attachment as the weft…”
Indeed, the most beautiful shirt I ever saw I came across by accident in a second-hand shop, just off Rue Hamra near the Commodore Hotel in Beirut. It was priceless. It had belonged to a lover. The shirt, a simple, cotton, long-sleeved T, was what she wore when I first slipped my hand through her arm and we walked together along the beach. I remember still how she moved in that shirt, how it clung to her, how she moved her arm — my hand at her elbow — closer to her body while wearing that shirt with, “Memory and attachment as the weft.”
Brooks Brothers clothiers, who probably made the pink oxford-cloth shirts I once coveted, recently released a Great Gatsby Collection. By deleting F. Scott Fitzgerald’s line, “It’s so sad…,” from the narrative, Brooks Brothers attempts to capitalize on the movie by appealing to men who desire “such beautiful shirts.”
Don’t succumb, as I once did.
Gatsby is over the top: a pornographic celebration of materialism, class, wealth and loveless indulgences. Gatsby is a stunning visual rebuke that cautions us to be wary of the indifferences, snobberies and brutality of the powerful.
Remember to love, then succumb to beauty and pleasure.
Embrace the simple long-sleeved T:
“Hold it very carefully. It won’t come into your grasp again.”
This column appeared originally in the Portsmouth Herald.