Virtually all Americans born since the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution (not to mention their Baby Boomer parents) have the daily ritual etched onto their first, best souls. A clean-cut, slightly stooped man -- never young but never quite old -- enters a modest living room and greets his Television Neighbors with a smile and a gentle song as he swaps out his workaday coat and hard-soled loafers for a friendly zippered cardigan and blue canvas sneakers. Despite having one of those iconic sweaters (hand-knit by his mother!) on permanent display in the Smithsonian, Fred Rogers would probably not have held himself up as a sartorial exemplar, but having now rewatched the entire series curled up with my four-year-old daughter, I realize that’s exactly what he is.
In its particulars, Rogers’ wardrobe suggested a man who shared his generation’s understated enjoyment of clothes and had found a style that suited him. His “work” attire reflected his background as the son of a Pennsylvania industrialist and a Dartmouth graduate: natural shoulder two or three button sportcoats, occasionally a suit, flat front trousers belted high, white or blue dress shirts, and dark ties -- often plaids or muted paisleys -- neatly knotted and invariably held in place with a small gold collar bar. It had been a contemporary Establishment look in his early prime, and as fashionable proportions waxed and waned over the 33 years he produced the show, he kept it -- perhaps because he knew that the sartorial modulations that really matter don’t concern lapel width from season to season, but distinctions of context on any given day.
Those two basic onscreen outfits, of course, symbolize the adult world of work and responsibility, and a children’s realm of play and discovery. Another program might have made dramatic (perhaps even magical) hay of its host’s passage between them, but Rogers’ simply sung transitions at the beginning and end of each episode are almost incidental -- a shuffle of hangers and shoelaces intended to help young viewers understand their place in the larger world by presenting Rogers himself as part of it, just the way he is. The fact that his clothes change brings the comforting realization that nothing else does.
Dressing to put others at ease is the essence of dressing for the occasion, which -- beneath all the dandification some of us just can’t resist -- is the essence of dressing well at all. In our own age of hyper-individuated styles, heavy with identification and irony, it can be easy to forget that clothes can only truly “express” the dullest of personalities. It’s a lesson perfectly embodied in that moment during the 1997 Daytime Emmy Awards ceremony when actor Tim Robbins -- "creatively" resplendent in what appears to be a Cossack-collared straightjacket -- presented Rogers with a Lifetime Achievement Award. The last man anyone expected to make a fashion statement that night ascended to the podium, wearing a perfectly proportioned shawl-lapeled tuxedo and batwing bowtie, and offered a sweet little sermon about remembering all the people who’ve made us who we are. No one was paying attention to the clothes, and that’s exactly what made it the most elegant moment of the evening.
[Originally published in A Suitable Wardrobe.]