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Over the weekend I went to the Lehigh Valley Mall. It’s just outside of Allentown, Pennsylvania, and would rank as the most popular (and second-most swanky) of the malls in the region. It’s standard-issue, two-levels, lacking a proper food court (although it does have what they call a “lifestyle center,” which was added in 2007, and which is basically a strip-mall add-on with stores slightly more upscale than the ones inside).
Recently I have become concerned about my own wardrobe. I have been somewhere just north of a slob, pretty much always wearing blue jeans, a t-shirt and a button-up over it. Unless it’s the summer: then the jeans get swapped out for a pair of cargo shorts. I never really gave it much thought (obviously), but recently have been forced to reevaluate after a small blow to my vanity. I'm growing up. So I went to the mall.
The standard-issue enclosed shopping mall hasn’t changed much since its popularization in the 60s. They are uniform, convenient in their climate control and their stacked arrays of retail concerns and their vast seas of asphalt on which to park, cemented into popular culture by
one thing or the other, depending on your demographic. I grew up in them like everyone else in the suburbs, and the Lehigh Valley Mall is no different than the malls of my youth, which was not making it any easier to figure out which dudes to talk to about pants.
The inciting incident regarding my vanity, between you and me, was an acquaintance, having heard that I once acted in plays, asking if I’d be game to audition for a show. Tempted, I asked to see a synopsis of the production, and quickly realized that I was a candidate for a character described as "fat and balding." Now, I may be above my optimum weight, and there’s a big difference between thinning hair and baldness, but whatever, vanity wounded! Time to start to get my business correct.
The problem was, how to go about my business and getting it correct?
Starting with pants was a no-brainer. Shirts, I have some that I like, that make me look good (or at least feel like I look good), shirts for dress, shirts for working, shirts for gadding about. Pants are another issue entirely. I never thought that I was shaped unusually, but the pants manufacturers of the world have convinced me otherwise, as I have very rarely encountered pants that have fit me like they are supposed to. Either the seat is drooping off me or I’m rolling them up or the fly hangs down to somewhere mid-thigh. Not that I’d given it too much thought—no, it was a mild nag, maybe one that I’d assumed was just how things were supposed to be, that some fellows were just born to have their pants make them look like a hamper.
I thought about asking my very stylish wife for advice, but that would break down into me expecting her to confirm my utter attractiveness and then getting my feelings all inadvertently hurt. I could ask friends, but that could blow up into a Fashion Intervention worthy only of cheap sitcoms. I’ve had a subscription to Esquire for years, but to actually turn to the clotheshorse pages would feel like betrayal. I wasn’t looking to stand out; I was looking to fit in, for once.
I needed to talk to dudes: to sharply dressed dudes.
It was about lunchtime on a Saturday, and I was confident that finding the right guys to talk to about pants at the mall would be a cinch. Surely a bunch of kempt fellows would be lounging around the railing on the second floor, or sitting together and munching on snacks. Who doesn’t love talking to a journalist? Or at least a guy pretending to be a journalist.
“Excuse me,” I’d say, whenever I found a dude in pants, “I’m a reporter working on a story about… clothing. Do you have a minute to answer a couple of questions?” They each perked up at the word “reporter,” but then each withered when the topic was revealed. They tried to answer questions honestly.
Here are some highlights:
• The number of pairs of pants owned by the average guy? Single digits, ranging from 2 to 9, except for: “I don’t get a lot of clothes, so, like, ten.”
• Hey, dude with the Van Dyke, do you spend a lot of time thinking about pants? “Not really.”
• Of all the things these guys care about, how much thought is given to pants? That got a big blank stare that required some prompting: "Toward the top? Towards the middle?"
• How does the average guy know when to get a new pair of pants? “Whenever I feel like it. It depends on my mood.”
• Hey, guy with only jeans and shorts in your wardrobe, what do you do for weddings and funerals? “I usually go out and shop, for, like, a special occasion.”
The best brief interview conducted was with Dylan, who was 19, and who I ambushed as he passed the American Eagle Outfitters. He was happy to chat. Although, he was embarking on a summer job as a landscaper, so his opinions on pants were pretty practical in nature. “But do you have nice pants, you know, for going out?” Not so much. Every time I thanked them and wished them a nice afternoon, and clicked off the recorder as I jotted down their name/description, it felt like I was losing.
But all along I wasn’t really working on a story. I was looking for tips, for consensus. There were a couple guys that seemed like they would’ve been receptive if not voluble, but frankly, I didn’t like how they were dressed. There was the dad and his twenty-something son, laden with bags from Boscov’s, but they were both in shorts and tees. There were two guys loitering in front of the FYE, but again in shorts, and not just T-shirts, but heavy metal T-shirts. How would the story benefit from dudes dressed as bad or worse than I dress? Scratch that, how was I supposed to learn something, is what I meant. The two separate guys I talked to who were stationed at kiosks fit the bill, almost, but they were admittedly on the dress code clock.
And I’d asked if they thought that the word pants was funny, to (clumsily) lure them into a more free-flowing conversation. Think about it: David Letterman’s production company, Worldwide Pants, the caustic yet dismissive nickname assigned to Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab (the Underpants Bomber)—it’s truly a funny word, especially compared to trousers. But sadly the question was interpreted more like part of a quiz than an occasion to open up.
My mission, talking to dudes in a mall about pants, was not at all a failure. It was, in fact, instructive. What have we learned? That I was not alone in being someone who is not taking his pants as seriously as maybe he should be. That there are many other dudes out there in the same boat. That dudes are not used to talking to dudes about their concerns about their pants. These seem like things that should change. At least, this is all true outside of Allentown, Pennsylvania, in the general vicinity of the Lehigh Valley Mall and its connected lifestyle center.
This content was created for our partner Life Khaki from Haggar.