I wanted a man who could dress well. But I also wanted someone secure enough to know that, deep down, clothes don’t make the man. In Frank, I could have only the latter.
On our first date, my husband wore a green shirt with epaulets that looked like something he’d borrowed from his mother. We dined at an Italian restaurant where he entertained me with thigh-slapping stories, and by the time I finished my melanzana parmigiana, I’d forgiven the shirt. Later, when he kissed me on the cheek, I happily agreed to another date, confident that, since we’d hit it off so well, he’d welcome my assistance with his wardrobe.
I was as green as his shirt.
As Frank’s self-appointed stylist, I spent years trying to convince him to chuck his Tevas with the glued-on soles and retire the puffy bomber jacket that fit more like a bolero. I bought him clothes that hung, tags on, in the closet, while dreaming of the day his favorite T-shirt disintegrated. The lone word across the front—Technicolor—had, ironically, faded, as if scrawled on a chalkboard, then erased. There was a hole in the back where the tag showed through.
I once joked that if Frank put his entire wardrobe in a box and advertised a curb alert, everything would still be there in the morning. Except perhaps the box.
The truth is, I’m hardly a fashion plate myself. I abhor clothes shopping. The maintenance, all that ironing. The agony of accessorizing. I have to muster enormous energy to look halfway presentable, and I’ve been known to skip events due to fashion fatigue. Though I have no aptitude for science, I’ve fantasized about slogging my way through nursing school just for the excuse to show up in scrubs.
What’s more, I know how it feels to have my fashion game scrutinized by the opposite sex. I dated a few style-obsessed guys before Frank came along. More deft than I with a blowdryer, those pretty boys knew how to shine shoes and roll shirtsleeves. And they never hesitated to inform me which skirt best showed off my ass, or how much of my camisole I should reveal. I found their judgment suffocating and, ultimately, unbearable.
So if I could empathize with Frank’s can’t-be-bothered attitude toward fashion, and if I knew how miserable it felt to be on the receiving end of a fashion critique, why did I view Frank as a prince in toad’s clothing? Why did I think I had an obligation (or right) to transform him? That he needed transforming at all?
I could blame my Southern roots, my priss-proper grandmother, who made a stink when my high school boyfriend showed up at her holiday party without a dinner jacket. Or my mother, who instilled in me a phobia about when (and when not) to wear white. I’d watched her purge Dad’s closet of high waters, just as I later observed my girlfriends take on the job of fashion police, managing their partners’ wardrobes and reinforcing my suspicion that behind every well-dressed man was a well-meaning woman with a lint brush and a J. Crew credit card.
Mostly I blame myself for putting too much stock in others’ opinions.
In trying to understand this overarching insecurity, I’m reminded of The Great Tie Debacle of 1986. It was my birthday, and we had dinner reservations. Standing by the closet of our microscopic West Village apartment, Frank wrestled with his tie as if it were a snake or a noose. Had he forgotten how to tie it? Had he never learned how? I watched, dumbfounded and oddly afraid. If a man couldn’t tie a tie, I wondered, how would he make his way in the world?
When we arrived, late, at the restaurant, Frank’s tie hung loose from his neck like a bolo, and we were whisked upstairs to a back table where the young woman seated next to us smacked her food. Her bra strap was showing. Shame engulfed me. Did I actually believe that Frank’s inability to tie a tie kept us from dining downstairs in the gilded light of celebrities and dignitaries? That our seat assignment reflected our worthiness?
Looking back, I feel embarrassed by my embarrassment. But I also feel something else: compassion for the young woman I was then—fearful, self-conscious, judgmental. I’d recently left a fashion-industry job on the West Coast to work at an agency that served pregnant teens on the Upper East Side. Part of me craved meaningful work that made a difference, while another was still enamored with style and prestige. I wanted a man who could dress well. But I also wanted someone secure enough to know that, deep down, clothes don’t make the man. In Frank, I could have only the latter.
Somehow I’d known, even then, that I’d rather be with Frank than some clothes horse with a cufflink collection. Still, I clung to my dream of a well-dressed partner, while Frank clung to his beat-up clothes.
And then one night while our younger son was getting ready for a middle school dance something shifted. “Don’t you want to wear that nice shirt I bought you?” I asked him, pointing to the new button-down hanging in his closet. He shook his head. “Girls feel more confident when they wear something new,” he said, “but guys feel more confident when they wear something old.”
Compassion for my son overwhelmed me. I wouldn’t dream of guilting him into wearing what I thought he should wear. I wanted him to be comfortable and have fun at the dance. Why had it taken me so long to realize that Frank deserved the same unconditional love?
Now, when Frank heads to the grocery store dressed like a faded hip hop dancer, I sigh and admire his lean legs. When he meets me at a nice restaurant wearing surf shorts and those Tevas, I acknowledge a familiar flick of disappointment but greet him with a warm embrace. Tolerance, I’ve come to learn, grows with practice.
Frank has been a good role model.
For nearly 30 years—through rough patches, bleak financial times, and significant parenting challenges—he has never once made a negative remark about my appearance or what I wear. If I want his opinion, he’ll offer it honestly but gingerly, and only if I ask. Even when I feel I look my worst, he compliments me. Frank sees me for who I am, not how I dress.
Now, instead of making him over, I want to be more like him. Comfortable enough in my own skin to wear what’s comfortable, and to be comfortable with whatever he chooses to wear.
I pondered this change the other night as we were getting ready for bed. Frank winced as he peeled off his well-worn Technicolor T-shirt. I thought perhaps he’d pulled his back out. “I got paint on it,” he groaned, holding the shirt tenderly, as if it were a wounded bird.
“What happened?” I asked.
“I don’t know! I was painting the dining room and—”
Once upon a time, I might have scolded him, told him not to wear a “good” shirt to paint the dining room. Now I simply suggested that he try holding the shirt under some hot running water.
I finished folding back the duvet, then joined him in the bathroom. A sliver of moonlight shone through the window as we stood together at the sink, scraping off flecks of paint with our fingernails.
“It’s working!” he said, beaming. I was finally offering him the only sort of help he needed with his clothes.
Rebecca Lanning lives and writes in Chapel Hill, NC. Her recent work has appeared in Brain, Child Magazine, The Washington Post, and 27 Views of Carolina Friends School. She was a 2014 cast member of Listen to Your Mother, Raleigh-Durham.