In Vain Search of Newman’s Own Pants

The people at Banana Republic hate me. Not in an obvious way. They don’t throw things at me when I walk into the store or call me names to my face or tell me to “piss off” when I ask them questions. It’s not Wal-Mart, after all.

No, the impeccably dressed employees of America’s favorite overpriced khaki retailer express their disdain in much more subtle ways. Discerning looks, disapproving stares, gingerly upturned eyebrows and long, drawn-out sighs. Sophisticated ways, you might say. Sophisticated like pairing an argyle sweater with thick-rimmed eyeglasses or having a job that requires you to wear a name tag.

The sophisticated hatred of these sophisticated sophisticates wasn’t always so forthcoming, though. It only started last week, when, after realizing that I’d been wearing the same pair of jeans every day for two years, I decided to update my wardrobe. In retrospect, this was a terrible idea, but I’ve been in a weird slump with the ladies the past few weeks and I thought a new button-down might help. I just had to figure out what a button-down was.

Unfortunately, it wasn’t going to be as easy as strolling into a store and picking out a couple of new shirts. Unlike most Americans my age, I am morbidly afraid of shopping. Researchers claim that my demographic — the aimless, oft-drunk college student with too many credit cards — is a prime target for market-savvy retailers looking to sell worthless crap at ridiculous prices. If that’s true, then I’m the exception to the rule — particularly when it comes to dressing myself. There’s just something about clothing stores that makes me nervous. I get anxious. My head spins. I start to sweat. I stumble around and babble incoherently. I exaggerate a lot.

This time would be different, though. This time I had a plan. This time, I decided, I would directly emulate someone else’s style, saving myself the agony of trying to define my own look. After a brief Google search involving such keywords as “pants,” “shirts” and “how to look good in pants and shirts” I landed on a GQ article lauding the messianic fashion sense of recently deceased salad enthusiast Paul Newman. Apparently, in addition to manufacturing one hell of a balsamic vinaigrette, Newman was also the shit — cool, calm, collected; an icon. He made ill-fitting cotton sweatshirts look good. He wore dirty leather boots. He rode motorcycles. He rode motorcycles.

This was it. I would dress like Paul Newman.

I soon found myself standing timidly in the doorway of Banana Republic, my eyes blinking rapidly as they adjusted to the vague, noncommittal shades of beige that surrounded me. This was yuppie territory — a dangerous urban backcountry where people wear scarves indoors and where a man’s worth is measured by the thickness of his cashmere sweater. I’d have to be on my game here. I’d have to watch my back.

I walked inside and picked up a catalog. A quick scan of its contents revealed that the ideal Banana Republic customer is young, racially ambiguous and prone to such activities as walking little terrier dogs on foggy beaches, staring serenely out of windows and sitting in mahogany chairs.

Never having done any of these things, I was already feeling discouraged. My palms were sweaty. My leg was shaking. But I had a goal. I was going to dress like Paul Newman. “Pull yourself together, man,” I whispered through clenched teeth. “You can do this.”

“Are you finding everything alright?”

I turned around to see a short brunette in a wool sweater staring at me with raised eyebrows. She said her name was Kristen. Kristen the sales associate.

“No, just Kristen,” she said.

Excusing her insolence, I told her I was trying to look like Paul Newman.

“The guy from the salad dressing,” I explained.

“You know he was also an actor, right?”

Strike two, Kristen. But what she lacked in sense of humor she made up for in sense of urgency. Wasting no time, she scooped up a small pile of clothing and led me to a row of fitting rooms, where she instructed me to try on a brown cardigan and a V-neck T-shirt that prominently displayed my complete lack of chest hair.

Despite her best efforts, the ensemble made me look nothing like Paul Newman. I just looked like a guy who shopped at Banana Republic a lot. Kristen agreed. After seeing how awkward I look in a cardigan, she suggested I try on something called chinos, which, it turns out, are basically just pants.

“They fit all wrong,” I told Kristen. “I could never ride a motorcycle in these.”

I was starting to get desperate. She was starting to get impatient. I decided to take matters into my own hands.

“If I were to roll up my sleeves and put on a tighter pair of chinos and wear this belt, would I look like Paul Newman?”

“No.”

“What if I put on this hat?”

“No.”

“What if I put on this other hat?”

She walked away after that, but I got the feeling she was strangely attracted to me. Maybe Kristen and I had a future together. Maybe I’d move in with her and we’d buy a couple of mahogany chairs. Maybe we’d have a little terrier dog and stare out of windows and wear scarves a lot.

As I left the store, defeated, I noticed a group of employees watching me intently, their well-sculpted eyebrows cocked at disapproving angles, their stylish, bespectacled faces narrowed in muted hatred. I understood immediately. In some strange, unspoken ritual, I had been banished from the shiny hardwood floors and cream-colored walls of Banana Republic, never to return. My experiment had backfired. I was still a terrible shopper. Kristen would never love me. Worst of all, I had failed to become Paul Newman.

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