As our great nation commemorates its Declaration of Independence, the colors red, white and blue are rightly before our eyes and on our minds. We Americans stand on the shoulders of giants, our Founding Fathers.
Reflecting in particular on the awesome meaning of the phrase “pursuit of Happiness,” these aren’t the only colors I think of on Independence Day. For me, there’s also black and white, the traditional colors of formal wear, which may seem odd, but I’ll explain how it relates to July Fourth.
William Shakespeare said “apparel oft proclaims the man” but that has not been my experience — not when it comes to tuxedos. There the opposite has held true. Whenever I’ve owned a good tuxedo, almost immediately my life has stopped being tuxedo-worthy.
Students of Greek mythology recall Daedalus and his son Icarus who, flying too close to the sun on waxen wings, plummeted to his death. Fewer remember the tale of Tuxedius, whose vanity prompted him to don a black dinner jacket during the Peloponnesian War. Standing amidst a sea of alabaster-white tunics, he was the first Athenian killed by a Spartan’s javelin. Pride cometh before the fall, indeed.
Truth? I made up the myth of Tuxedius. But it would have served as a useful lesson for me at the University of Virginia, where Thomas Jefferson’s spirit is alive and well, and the pursuit of happiness is taken seriously. There, my best friend in college, a bon vivant, successfully argued that we young men about town should buy our own tuxedos.
Why rent, he figured, when surely our dance cards would be filled with black-tie soiree after soiree? Confusing first of many with first and final opportunities — a classic underclassman mistake — we went all-in. Instantly, our formal engagements dried up faster than you can say that’s my cummerbund. All dressed up? You bet. Place to go? Not so much.
Chastened, I kept a low sartorial profile into my 40s, when my luck appeared to be changing. An exclusive black-tie invitation here, an evening at the opera there: the Fashion Furies, it seemed, had averted their vengeful visages. Perhaps it was time to revisit the tuxedo question.
My college getup, too garish even for Bela Lugosi in his prime yet somehow still in my closet, wouldn’t fly. That’s not entirely true. With favorable winds, the lapels were wide enough to render me airborne.
Styles change but human nature doesn’t, and vanity once again stormed the castle of my mind. I’ll look like Daniel Craig in “Casino Royale,” which will lead to more exclusive invites. And one sure way to serve on the opera board is for the chairman to like the cut of your jib. Or so I reasoned. I bought the tux.
Turns out it’s the man himself, not his bespoke tuxedo, that makes Daniel Craig look like Daniel Craig. I come off more like a dressy Martin Mull. And the board chairman surely likes a Beau Brummell, but what he really wants is someone with a passion for opera. As I still hear Elmer Fudd sing “kill the wabbit” during “Ride of the Valkyries,” I am not that man.
What does all this have to do with Independence Day? It was three years ago today when I finally figured out what I’ve been doing wrong all this time. The tuxedo must fit into my life, not the other way around.
Realizing this, I invited close friends and their young children over for an Independence Day cookout and swim.
When I met the parents at my front door, they froze like Amish elders handling iPhones for the first time. Why? Because I greeted them decked out in my tuxedo, and for a moment they were terrified they’d gotten their dates wrong. And the confused look on their young son’s already-goggled face? Priceless.
We all had a good laugh, mine the loudest. For in that blessed moment, my black-tie getup finally had paid for itself. It just took a long-in-the-making attitude adjustment by yours truly.
I’m grateful beyond measure to live in a country where I’m free to pursue happiness as I see fit.