Spring approaches, threatening a bloom of predatory
full-length mirrors and slacks that never fit off the rack. We are not particularly enthused.
We are fortunately not disfigured, disabled, handicapped or qualified to participate in Little People support groups. We merely stand some inches beneath the average American male height of nearly 5-foot-10.
"Ha, ha, maybe 5-7 with a tail wind" is the usual answer to the direct height question.
The question surfaces indirectly but incessantly this time of year, as the change of season turns us toward new clothes. The short man also anticipates the crack of the bat and the trill of swallows, the earth awakening in so many green shoots. But casting a shadow over such optimistic scenes is the curtain of a haberdasher's dressing room. Inside stands a full-length mirror. Step up and it offers disappointment and wry commentary: "So that's all there is, eh?"
How bad will it be this year, how much will the prevailing fashion emphasize one's shortness? How wide grow the ties and lapels? Will the suit jackets be all double-breasted? How baggy the trousers? Cuffs again? Marvelous. The world celebrates spring, the short guy practices damage control.
"May I help you with a size?"
The saleswoman means nothing bad by this, but in fact she cannot help with a size. It's a matter of fate, parentage and DNA. She might as well say: "May I help you with an IQ?" She refers in all earnestness to another embarrassing personal statistic, the inseam.
4 "Inseam? Ha, ha, yes, I have one of those. ... "
One learns to approach this subject with irony. One should probably wiggle the first two fingers of each hand in the air to indicate quotation marks: "inseam." A "length" of leg, so to speak, after a fashion, as it were, as it might be.
"What length were you looking for?"
Of course, they don't have the right length. They never do. The numbers just don't go that low, not in America. Everybody's too tall. Try buying pants in Burma. One always winds up having the pants shortened here, adding a few more dollars to the cost of each pair. One comes to think of it as a federal Short Guy Tax.
"Thirty inseam? Ha, ha, nice try, but no. Trust me, you don't have the right size. Really, don't bother looking. Do you have anything in single digits? Check the pile of Bermuda shorts. Ha, ha, ha."
Funny how one quickly one runs out of inseam quips. Those who are up on the press reports may note this is no laughing matter. Every so often another study documents the inseam's terrible power to determine one's station in life. Taller men, the studies say, are perceived as smarter, more capable, more mature, more confident. It seems the bored little tailor with the tape measure draped around his neck and the eyeglasses on the end of his nose measures more than your inseam. He also figures your earning potential, your place upon the corporate ladder, your standing in the eyes of other men.
Name a recent American president who bought suits from the rack marked "S." Name one who faced the advent of spring fashion with anything less than utter confidence. Nothing to fear but fear itself.
"So," the tailor might say, looking up at the short guy from a crouch, chalk sliver in hand. "I see you are, ah ... middle management, tops. Yes? You prefer no cuffs, yes?"
Right, no cuffs. Nothing horizontal. The short guy must fight back in the haber--ery. He must resort to illusion, sleight of hand, or cuff, leg, lapel. So advises "Man at His Best," a guide to fashion put out by Esquire magazine.
"Because they can camouflage a multitude of problems," says the book, "clothes can be the great equalizer among men."
Esquire suggests short guys do their best to create the illusion of greater height. Avoid bulky accessories such as big wristwatches and cuff links. Avoid anything but understated plaids. Stick to vertical stripes, skinny lapels, skinny ties, teensy, tiny necktie knots, tapered trouser legs and no cuffs. Get vertical, man. Vertical fashion, vertical moves up the organization. Illusions of soaring, power.
Of course, cuffs are in these days. And lapels and neckties are growing wider again. You want to look fashionable, but as a short guy, you have decisions to make. People can look at you and think one of two things: "Nice clothes, but what a runt." Or: "This guy needs to update his wardrobe, and stop trying to look taller."
It could be worse. It could be the 1960s when the fashion lords formed a cabal against anyone who stood less than 5-foot-9 and was not built like a coat tree. Everything big, everything wide, everything screaming in Peter Max colors: This guy is at least as tall as a fire hydrant.
What short guy could ever forget the first time he tried on bell-bottom slacks and looked in a full-length mirror and saw staring back at him a mailbox with sideburns?
Imagine the emotional damage done by those psychedelic neckties, wide as lobster bibs and in colors suited to a carnival act: "Hurry, hurry, hurry. Step right up and see the Incredibly Short Guy try to look like a member of the Mod Squad. ... " And those idiotic Sgt. Pepper jackets with the lapels modeled after the Flying Nun's headgear. You had to take hallucinogenics just to look in the mirror.
But the fashion lords weren't done with us yet. We moved into the 1970s, and suddenly young women were all wearing platform shoes. Every college dance looked like NCAA women's basketball tryouts. A date was like a visit to a planetarium.
The 1980s were much better. Lapels narrowed to less aerodynamic width, and conservative colors and patterns prevailed. But with these changes came pleated pants, in which anybody under 5-8 looks like a sack of onions with eyes.
What now? Rumors on the new season suggest more mixed blessings. On the one hand, pleats appear to be on the way out. On the other, the unthinkable horror has become thinkable. Yes, a return to the 1960s. A recent fashion dispatch tells of the reappearance of low-rise flared pants, the kind they used to call hip-huggers. Word is that colors will look like an acid flashback: hot pink, chartreuse, mango and violet.
Behind so many dressing-room curtains full-length mirrors wait, pitiless, chuckling in anticipation, humming a tune by Sonny and Cher. Ah, sounds of spring.