About a year and a half ago I bought a pair of brown Carhart overalls. As soon as I put them on I was in love. The perfect mix of rugged utility and comfort, I wore them everywhere. I cleaned the chicken coop in them, I did all my gardening in them, I picked up groceries in them. I even wore them to restaurants and on the occasional trip to the city. My Carharts and I were inseperable.
Then I got some pictures back from a New Year's Eve party my wife and I attended in Rhinebeck (can you believe I wore them to a New Year's Eve party ?). There I was in my party hat and overalls, and you know what? I looked like an idiot . More specifically, I looked like I did when, as a preschooler, my mother would dress me up in some pantsuit and send me off to a birthday party. Here I was, a middle-aged man with facial hair, looking like I'd just stepped off the Jolly Jumper. I vowed right then and there never to forget that, when it comes to clothing, context is everything. Just as I remember feeling silly one time when, while shopping for feed, I realized I was wearing a black leather jacket more appropriate to an East Village art opening than the aisles of Agway, I now know that that sense of propriety also applies when the situation is reversed. In other words, I've toned down the Farmer Paul look when I'm off the reservation. Yes, Carharts are rugged and well made and comfortable, perfect for mucking stalls and loading up the pickup at Herrington's. But, unless you want to look like the long lost seventh member of The Village People, don't wear them to The Village.
I guess I've always been a sucker for a costume. I could say it all started with those turtleneck/v-neck combos made popular by Lost in Space (my favorite TV show back when I was a regular on the birthday circuit), but my guess is it began much earlier than that (I opted for The Indian Guides because their outfits were so much cooler than The Cub Scouts). Never the strong silent type when it came to fashion statements, I always wanted my classmates to know I was cool, even if it meant hitting them over the head with the fact. “Look at me, I'm an astronaut!” my clothes had to say. Or, “Check it out, kids, I'm GI Joe!” Later it was, “See my peace sign? I'm a hippie!” I‘ve gotten better about it since reaching adulthood (okay, there was that rough patch fifteen years ago when Southwest was in vogue) but the overalls are proof that I still have that tendency to view clothing as a form of image advertising. For, just as I wore a biker jacket in college to prove I was tough enough to own a bike (okay, so it was a ten-speed), the Carharts were my way of saying, “Look everybody! I'm a farmer!” And just as a real biker would have surely kicked my ass in a dark alley, a real farmer would say, “Ten acres and eleven chickens does not a farmer make.” (Okay, so a real farmer wouldn't talk that way either.)
But this raises another issue, namely, who are the real farmers and who are the pretenders, and what do their clothes tell us about their authenticity? Well, sad to say, Carharts are fast becoming the Harleys of the farm fashion world, with only yuppie stockbroker types willing to shell out the money to look “authentic.” I suspect many actual farmers are buying the Carhart knockoffs that Agway sells for half the cost. Of course, knockoffs don't look quite as cool as the real thing, but now we're into asthetics, where what looks real and what is real are two entirely different things. For example, a “Farmy” t-shirt and a well-patinaed “Von Dutch” cap might look good on Paris Hilton but a real farmer wouldn't be caught dead in them. To pass in that world you need a cap made almost entirely of petroleum byproducts with a John Deere or a New Holland or—even better—a Cargil logo on it. A NASCAR t-shirt is about as far as a real farmer will venture into religion and politics.
All of which makes me a complete failure on the farmwear front. I'm too vain to wear polyester and too old to go adopting some newfangled sport like NASCAR (when it comes to sports, my religious affiliation is almost exclusively with the Cleveland Browns, a jealous god that shares its throne with no one). So I guess I'll continue to opt for the “idealized” farmer look rather than the real thing. I'll just be careful about where it is I model it.
Which brings me back to that New Year's Eve picture. This time around I rang in the new year with my Carharts safely home in the closet, having picked up a small piece of wisdom in the intervening twelve months: It's fine to dress like a cartoon character when you're attending a party for five-year-olds, but part of being a grown-up is knowing the difference between wearing an outfit and wearing a getup.
A Chicken Murder Mystery