Opinion | I Want to Be the Old Man With the Orange Socks

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By Charles M. Blow

Opinion Columnist

In the late 1800s, when The Cleveland Gazette, a Black newspaper, published a picture of the acclaimed journalist and lynching opponent Ida B. Wells, the patriarchy kicked into gear to opine on her appearance rather than her craft.

Some found the picture unattractive: The Gazette apologized, writing that “the picture, though an accurate likeness, hardly does her justice.” Others took the opposing view: The Indianapolis Freeman, another Black newspaper, chided that Wells “makes the mistake of trying to be pretty as well as smart. She should remember that beauty and genius are not always companions.”

Wells, clearly a stylish woman, was also a serious journalist and a genius, and how she looked or dressed should have had no bearing on anyone recognizing that. Yet it’s often the case — now as then — that expressions of personal style among serious people are deemed frivolities. And for men, the sting of that perception can ‌manifest differently, as this purported frivolousness in a boorish society is sometimes ‌‌regarded as feminine.

I’ve slammed up against this all my life, and at every turn I’ve rejected it.

I believe that the ways we construct our visual environments, including the ways we present ourselves in the world, are reflections of ourselves. And insisting on bringing beauty into lives that can sometimes feel like an unremitting series of horrors is the only way some of us can survive.

I have seen this up close my whole life, growing up in a poor family in a poor community.

I saw it in my grandmother, the way she painted the modest house her husband built daffodil yellow and made flower beds from old tires. I saw it in the way her church hats seemed to get bigger and brighter as she got older.

I saw it in my mother, who made most of her own clothes so that she could afford to buy most of ours. I saw the way she studied the pattern books and ran her hands across the bolts of fabric. I saw it in the way she considered which buttons to buy and which trim.

Her sense of style was never about fashion as we consider it now — the consumption of things, the obnoxious accumulation of conspicuous class markers. It was about honoring the choices we have to make in the everyday, about the irrepressible human need to express creativity and the pride of wanting to demonstrate craft.

Even when our clothes wore thin, ripped or got stained, my mother would convert them into quilts, cutting tiny geometric shapes out of the garments and stacking them, grouped by color and kind, into miniature towers, like sleeves of saltines with the packaging removed.

It was in that poverty that I first saw how beauty and pride of appearance were used as ways of conveying dignity in a world intent on divesting you of it.

It is, I believe, the reason that parties, festivals, family reunions and cookouts are so intensely celebrated in many poorer communities, why people find ways to wear their finest. It is, on some level, an absolute insistence on expressing joy and beauty. Celebration becomes survival.

Years ago, I visited an organization in Harlem that provides supportive housing for formerly homeless and low-income individuals and families. The facility was not only immaculate; it was also filled with art and had an art gallery on the top floor.

When I asked the administrators why they put so much emphasis on aesthetics, one of them responded: “You don’t just give a person four walls to live in. You give them something to be inspired by.”

Well said.

I’ve always insisted on maintaining the part of me that embraced beauty. I used to scavenge for antique furniture and restore it myself. I painted with watercolors and drew incessantly. When I lived in Detroit, I started a small clothing company. When I was married, my wife and I spent many weekends combing the fabric stores in Manhattan’s garment district. And I once took a night class at Parsons School of Design, where, after working at The Times all day, I would drape muslin over dress forms.

I can make no sense of my life without design being central to it, and it never feels to me like a distraction, waste of time or diminution of gravitas. It feels like an expression of freedom.

I have become consumed with the idea of freedom, with running toward it, with embracing it. I want freedom in all things: thinking, working, loving and living.

That’s one reason I look forward to becoming one of those men with the quirky suspenders, bow ties and orange socks. I’ve often been delighted by how older men lean into sartorial whimsy when they exit workplace life, when the uniform becomes irrelevant, when the testosterone coursing through their systems slows to a trickle.

They become emancipated in this delightful way. I assume it’s the same way some women, often older, will wear all their bracelets at once. They return to that magic that we all enjoyed as children, in which dressing up and donning costumes were the expectation rather than an aberration.

So I bide my time‌‌, but if the years are kind and life allows, I want one day to be the old man with the orange socks.

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