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The Publisher's Desk

The Publisher's Desk

On clothes.


When the great Jeffrey Bernard of blessed memory found himself unable to file his weekly “Low Life” column for the Spectator, the editors would insert a notice informing readers that he was “unwell.” While Bernard’s health was appallingly bad, these notices were often a euphemism for “hungover.” (For a fine treatment of Robert Lowell, another writer who struggled with drink, see Micah Mattix on page 53.)

I mention this by way of explaining why I, the editor, am handling this column for the second time in as many years. To be clear: our publisher is not in the sauce. His wife has just given birth to their second child—a girl and, I am proud to say, my fourth goddaughter. When William asked me to fill in for him, he requested that I write about clothes, a subject about which he knows a great deal more than I do.

One thing I do know is that like most people I have far more clothes than I would probably guess if asked to put a number to it. Opening my closet I find jackets I have not worn in five or more years, Ice Cube T-shirts I had forgotten I owned, a signed Chase Winovich Michigan jersey that ought to be hanging up in a sports bar somewhere. (Helen Andrews writes about a closet of sorts on page 61.)

The number of articles of clothing the average person in this country will own during the course of his lifetime would have astonished seventeenth-century monarchs and Gilded Age tycoons. (For more about tycoons, see my reflections upon a visit to a private island on page 41.) Most of these items are, of course, of very poor quality; they will not last very long, nor were they meant to. While fast fashion is the inevitable consequence of de-industrialization, it is also a reflection of our own disordered consumer preferences. Our sense of who we are has been bound up in what we wear for centuries (it was certainly familiar to Petrarch, ably translated by A.M. Juster on page 59), but the decoupling of dress-related norms from occupation and other once-obvious markers of social class makes it all the more tempting to strike poses. In seventh grade, for example, I grew out my hair and began scouring thrift stores for paisley shirts in imitation of various rock and roll stars. (Jude Russo considers the life of a central figure in the history of the American counterculture on page 55.) A few years later I had adopted a very different uniform: white T-shirts, straight-legged jeans, a Carhartt jacket. From age twenty until around 2016—what I now think of as my “Young Fogey” period—I habitually wore a three-piece suit. Now I find that I am seeking out paisleys and Western shirts again, wearing jeans, and even a large straw hat. (Hamlet, who was indecisive about somewhat weightier matters than dress, is the subject of a report from Daniel Ortiz, our former editorial intern, on page 10.)

Many Catholics have strong opinions about vestments and clerical attire, including the pope, who has been known to cock a snoot at foppish young priests. (For a fascinating treatment of papal authority, see Thomas Pink’s essay on page 27; for the consequences of other decisions made by ecclesiastical authorities, see Kelly Lindquist on page 37.) Undergirding these conversations about fiddleback chasubles and the relative merits of clergy “suits” and cassocks is a sense that there are, or should be, limits to our ability to use clothing as a means of “self-expression.” A Requiem Mass is not a suitable occasion for distinguishing oneself from one’s fellows. My black funeral suit is remarkably similar to something that my great-great-grandfather would have worn on such an occasion. The only thing I am missing is a top hat.

Speaking of funerals—it was with sadness that I must announce the retirement of our “Correspondence” section. While many readers have spoken with appreciation of the occasionally amusing exchanges that have appeared in those pages, we have found that their appetite for contributing such letters does not match their enthusiasm for reading them. This problem is hardly unique to The Lamp and its readers. The internet and social media have made it much easier to share our opinions of things we have read, including with their authors. The leisurely pace of bimonthly print publication is at odds with the desire felt by most of us to unburden ourselves of our fleeting views about journalism more or less instantaneously. We could of course do what other publications do and solicit letters from non-subscribers by attaching P.D.F. versions of articles along with earnest requests for comments. We have no intention of doing this, but readers, especially those concerned about the state of our souls, should always feel free to reach out at

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