HERITAGE HABERDASHERY--A writer discovers that going back to his roots is a fashion-forward journey


First, I will tell you about Gay Talese's trench coat.

In the winter of 1992, the best-selling author's book, "Unto the Sons," had just been released. It was a rich and vivid account of his family's migration from Italy to the United States, and of his father's experiences among master tailors. Talese came from a line of brilliant tailors, some of them legends in Europe.

The night Talese arrived in Baltimore to begin a promotional tour, he wore a fedora, a splashy tie and a handsome, custom-made, striped shirt with a sharp white broadcloth collar, and an outstanding wool suit with a lapeled vest. Draped over this ensemble was a tan trench coat.

Altogether it was a handsome package: Talese, distinguished author, worldly journalist, honorable son of Italy, looked as though he had just emerged from one of his family's famous shops.

Some time after getting off the train at Penn Station, perhaps as he passed through a door or slid into a cab, his trench coat had snagged and torn, leaving a gaping wound on the upper right sleeve. Talese seemed perplexed by the ironic symbolism of the tear.

"Too bad," I told him, "the old tailors aren't here."

The old tailors would have healed the wound in Talese's coat, would have made it disappear. They were that good.

We knew this, of course, from "Unto the Sons" -- considered the Italian "Roots" -- and the 10 years of research that went into it. Talese's book resulted from his decision to know, at last, everything about his family.

He was not always so interested. He had spent a good part of his life in ambivalence, even denial, about his ethnic roots.

To write "Unto the Sons," Talese had to make a leap deep into his Italian heritage, then wear it, literally, on his sleeve. Though he always exuded a cosmopolitan style, Talese's reckoning with his past now seemed to color the very threads of his ensemble.

Such a profound interest in the personal past is not widely evident in the American mainstream today. As reflected in wardrobe, in home furnishings, in behavior, in style, ethnicity seems only rarely to be acknowledged and promoted.

Most of what American designers offer is ethnically neutral. If inclined, you must go out of your way -- though not as far as you might think -- to adorn a lifestyle with the simple accessories that reflect Who You Are in a way that salutes What Your People Were.

Recently, I visited the large home of a woman with whom I grew up. Her name is Gloria. She was first-generation Italian-American. She had married a second-generation Irish-American. As I stood in her home, I looked around for signs of the couple's ethnic ancestries.

That might strike you as an odd thing to snoop for, but that's what I do. I still see ethnic diversity as an American wonder. I think celebrating your roots is enormously important -- especially as those of us with European roots move away from the immigrant experience of our parents or grandparents.

Gloria's house was "pretty." It was decorated in what I call the Martha Stewart Lite Motif, resulting in something one might label Safe Contemporary Colonial. Lots of cherry furniture, wing chairs, fox-hunting prints, that sort of thing. There was not a single acknowledgment of Gloria's or her husband's family or their ethnicity. (Not a single sepia of an old man with a mustache!) The house reflected nothing about the woman's character or her personality -- not the Gloria I thought I knew, anyway! Hers was, instead, the model home for the American Anybody.

It was so very nice. But disappointing.

I prefer something with a little more spice. Something, ultimately, a lot more honest.

Consider my cousin Eddie's way.

I went to his house in Chicago last fall and found roots all over the place. I don't mean he had cured hams and provolones hanging from the ceiling. He does not live some cartoon version of the Italian-American life, nor does he play Italian-For-A-Day as many second- and third-generation, nouveau-riche Italian-Americans do. This is not a hobby. My cousin has found ways to incorporate his ethnicity into his personal style with reverence, fun and grace.

And let's face it: It's easy to do this -- incorporate your ethnic heritage into personal style -- when your roots are Italian. Or African. Or Hispanic. Or Asian. There's simply more to draw from -- clothes, accessories, artifacts, furnishings that are instantly recognizable as being from the Old World.

So my cousin Eddie, the lawyer, prefers a suit with a contemporary Italian cut. He is loyal to a single tailor. When he walks the streets of Chicago, he pops in and out of espresso joints, and he frequently shops in the delis that carry European imports. (Food makes having an ethnic conscience quite easy). After a long bachelorhood, Eddie married an Italian-American Roman Catholic with fabulous dark, curly hair. (I call it the "Adriatic Goddess" look.) They had a baby, named her Francesca and took her to Italy to be baptized in the Calabrian town where my cousin's ancestors were born. Italian is spoken from time to time. There's an espresso machine on the kitchen counter, and lamps made from terra cotta wine jugs in the living room.

To many people, this might seem extreme, or anachronistic, maybe even tacky or cute.

Many Americans, after all, are quite uptight about all this "ethnic stuff" and they prefer living the Martha Stewart Way. Many of my male friends, especially those of European ancestry, are content with dressing according to an American WASP ideal, without a single tie, hat or pair of casual shoes that symbolizes the Old World. It's easy. It's socially safe.

Growing up in a WASPish community in New Jersey -- "olive-skinned in a freckle-faced town" -- Gay Talese was bored by his father's stories of the old country; he, like many men and women of his generation, wanted to assimilate on the fast track.

It was years before Talese broke a self-imposed stricture and made the effort to research his family and, ultimately, write "Unto the Sons."

Talese was relatively late in coming to this. In the 1970s, AleHaley's "Roots" was a best seller. More than that, it marked an awakening in the American conscience and ignited interest in genealogy nationwide. That interest, however, seems to have passed, especially as reflected in personal style.

With a few notable exceptions -- African-Americans who wear exquisite kente-cloth patterns and who incorporate ancestral exotica into their decorating, come easily to mind -- Americans, particularly those of European immigrant stock, have been party to a blanching of the Great American Melting Pot.

We have been Ralph Laurened, then Gapped and J. Crewed. A huge segment of America lives at Bland's End.

The old-money, prep-perfect ideal in fashion still holds, by and large, and what we are offered as the epitome of style is something uniform and precise, appropriate and safe. Middle-class men, in particular, are into "the classic look," idealized by Lauren in the 1980s with his East Coast WASP, well-tanned patrician attitudes reflected in clothes and home furnishings. The son of a Russian immigrant named Lifshitz, Ralph Lauren made his fortune exploiting the American desire to be on the fast track for assimilation, the crowning glory of which is symbolized by a blue blazer with a crest on the breast.

Obviously, many people aspire to this ideal. It's disappointing. But understandable. Nothing about the immigrant experience -- in all its forms, from slavery to the ghetto -- has ever been glamorized or idealized or made fashionable.

And yet, there are ways to celebrate your ancestry in personal style. It takes work. It requires an attitude.

The way you dress, the way you decorate your home, the way you entertain, the music you listen to -- all of this can reflect your heritage. (And I don't mean dressing in native costume!) Greek, Italian, Polish, Irish, Jewish, Japanese, African, German, British -- every culture has something to offer.

I bring all this up as a practitioner, and as a true believer in the idea that Who You Are must acknowledge What Your People Were.

I'm of the generation that cares to remember what our parents wanted to forget -- the old country, the poverty and, for some, the persecution; the hardships and humiliations of being an immigrant. All of it, good and bad, must be remembered. It can be integrated into personal style.

There are many ways to pull it off: As simple as selecting a tie or sweater made in grandfather's homeland, or collecting folk art -- from the old country, or presenting the foods of the Old World at a dinner party. An article of clothing or accessory, an artifact, a souvenir or a prominently displayed heirloom -- objects with family history -- anything that announces, or even whispers, your ethnic heritage presents an American story the fashion designers and mass-market trendsetters have mostly missed.

And, as soon as I say that with the confidence of studied observation, I meet a man from Bolivia.

He's working in an office in Baltimore. He's wearing a blue chambray shirt with an interesting pattern embroidered on the breast pocket. Marvelous. Of another world.

"Great shirt," I tell him. "Where did you get it?"

"Gahp," he says. "Spelled G-A-P."

"Yeah, the Gap. Right. Got it."

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