The first verses about clothing that I ever heard were sung by a gyrating young man on television who was very attached to his blue suede shoes. Soon afterward, in first grade, a sweet nun read our class a poem I remember as "New shoes, new shoes / Red and white and blue shoes / Tell me which would you choose / If you were to buy." Those two takes on shoes, which Charles Simic praises for their "mute patience" in his poem "My Shoes," foreshadowed the diverse approaches to clothing I discovered reading poetry as an adult.
Growing up in a family with two older sisters and a mother who not only paid close attention to clothing styles, but also sewed many of their own outfits, surely heightened my awareness of apparel. I remember my sister Judy clueing me in on how to make my parochial school uniform look "cool"—no mean feat given the required white shirt and mud brown pants and tie—by wearing penny loafers and white socks. Of course, the effect was not as cool as the look attained by the Parisian zazous of the 1940s, who wore white socks and inspired verse. Fortunately for my sisters and me, my mother could affordably indulge our eye for style with her employee discount at our suburban New Jersey branch of Bloomingdale's, where she tracked the marking down of prices with the diligence of a stockbroker waiting to buy low.
Years later, I was happy to carry on the family tradition by providing my own children with a well-used discount on clothing while working as a copywriter for Lands' End. Early in my career there, I had to sell a men's plaid sportcoat that could best be described as, in contrast to Simic's shoes, loud. One art director, seeing me at a loss for words, unhelpfully called it a "horse blanket." To this day I would defy any poet to make that sportjacket's copy "sing."
Given my background, it isn't surprising that the insights into clothing that I came across while reading made a lasting impression. In "The Dawn In Erewhon," a story with characters who spend most of their time joyously naked, Guy Davenport quotes a Russian formalist: "Life flows, Viktor Shklovksy says, in staccato pieces belonging to different systems. And adds: only our clothing, not the body, joins together the disparate moments of life. Clothes are symbols and constitute a system, a language. Clothes say that we reserve to ourselves the symbol of our body as fate." In another story Davenport points out that the Japanese even have a word for one of his character's favorite leather jacket: "wabi, an accustomed and familiar garment, as comfortable as a sock." The "red-haired boy" in Thom Gunn's poem "Black Jackets" feels this same kind of intimacy with his own leather jacket. As he stretches back in a bar with friends he can hear "Leather creak softly round his neck and chin."
But what of the charge so often leveled against clothing, and fashion in particular: that it is all vanity? Calvin Trillin, John Updike, and others have poked fun at the excesses of "the rag trade." And yet it's hard to deny the beauty of a Chanel dress, or the elaborate Japanese geisha costumes that still manage to mirror nature, or the truth of this fashion statement by Remy Saisselin in her article "Baudelaire to Christian Dior: The Poetics of Fashion": "...let us admit that a dress may be at some moment of its existence, a poem of form, color and motion, and that at such a privileged instant the dress may transform the wearer into a poetic apparition." Taking this metaphor of dress-as-poem quite literally, Sonia Delaunay designed and wore a dress with the text of a poem by the Dadaist Tristan Tzara sewn right into it.
If you need further assurance that clothing is not frivolous, consider the work of the classics scholar and poet Anne Carson. In a New York Times Magazine profile of her, Carson described seeing Catherine Deneuve playing a philosophy professor in a movie and wearing a sweater just like one of the poet's. The connection led Carson to write a poem/essay on "My Life as Catherine Deneuve." In another poem, "Father's Old Blue Cardigan," she "dives into the mind of her deceased father" by slipping on his blue cardigan. "Sweaters are key," Carson said in the Times. "You inhabit somebody through their sweater."
Of course a more common way to inhabit other people is through their art. So when you come across some of the many poems about clothes, I encourage you to try them on for size.