There are words that disappear with time. Dapper used to be a word that one heard regularly. My father was always described as dapper. Tall, handsome, he always wore the best clothes that he could afford. When he went commercial fishing, under his coveralls or nor’westers, he wore a white shirt and a tie. He was never into scruffy.

This was a time when houses had small closets because people didn’t have a lot of clothes. A woman would have her everyday house dress and a good dress for going out or going to church and special events. A man would have his work clothes and a suit or slacks and a blazer. Given what people earned, clothes were expensive. The world had not yet been flooded by cheap goods from foreign countries.

A lot of Canadians were only one generation or, at most, two generations away from immigration. The struggle was to not have an accent, to ditch the babushkas and the shawls, the home spun baggy pants and dress like the English did in the city. To get ahead a person had to fit in, not be foreign, not allow oneself to be stereotyped. People changed their names, anglicized them, Canadianized them, shortened them. When you were looking for a job, you didn’t want some person doing the hiring saying, “We don’t want a Hunky from the country. Or a Goolie from Gimli.”

Knowing how to dress well created opportunity, even if that opportunity was simply having a job at a bank or Eaton’s. Those jobs were better than digging ditches or working in a laundry.

Hollywood provided models. Those dapper leading men in well pressed suits, ties, polished shoes. The war also had an impact. No scruffy airmen, soldiers, sailors allowed. I was looking at a picture of one of my uncle’s yesterday. He’s around twenty, snappy in his wedge cap and blues. If it didn’t do anything else, the armed forces taught the boys to pay attention to their appearance. When it came to looking for jobs after the war, the men doing the hiring were often ex-officers and the condition of your shoes mattered. Before I went out for an interview for my first job, my grandmother said to me, polish your shoes.

Then the 60s and the hippies came. Scruffy, hairy, disheveled, in rebellion against dapperness and discipline. Some, like the Beatles, turned that rebellion into fame and fortune. They didn’t start out that way. Early pictures show them coiffed and pressed. Coiffed and pressed doesn’t work when you’re trying to reflect a generation in rebellion.

John Kennedy was dapper. But he destroyed the haberdashery business by appearing in public without a hat. Until that moment, no gentleman would go out without a fedora. My father leaned toward Hombergs. Hombergs have a certain ambience about them, a slightly rakish but serious aspect. He looked smashing in a Homberg. He loved my mother to dress well. He bought her jewelry. They weren’t rich. Often times were hard financially but the way they dressed mattered.

They weren’t alone. My home town, Gimli, was made up mostly of the descendants of parents and grandparents of Icelandic settlers. Icelanders, having gone through terrible poverty and plagues, placed a lot of emphasis on dressing well. Halldor Laxness, the Icelandic Nobel prize winner, would skip meals to have the money to dress well. He knew that appearance mattered, that dressing well meant he fitted in with decision makers in the countries where he wanted his books to be published. I’ve heard it said about visiting Icelanders, “He has a fortune on his back.”

So, although I’ve never been dapper, I applaud Justin and Sophie and their spread in Vogue. How nice to have a PM and wife that have some class. Nice to have a leader who can set some style. It helps, of course, when the magazine loans Sophie a dress that costs $5,700.00. However, cost doesn’t define style. I learned that when I taught at a private women’s college and the most stylish of the students was someone who put together her beautiful outfits from pieces bought everywhere, including WalMart.

Of course, being Canadian, it would never do if everyone thought our leaders being stylish is great. Canadians love to carp and complain. Jealousy, sometimes. Resentment, sometimes. Political bitchiness, quite often. A lot of the time, though, just disgruntlement at someone else having something they don’t have. I mean, how many of us have realized our youthful dreams? Instead of saying isn’t it great that we live in Canada, we have more than ninety-eight percent of the world, some of us have turned into shriveled up gnomes who have forgotten how to be proud. Disappointment turns some people mean.

Anyway, JT and Sophie, you look great in Vogue. Fantastic that a fashion magazine thinks you are classy enough to grace their pages. My Dad would approve.

Putting On The Style

If I remember correctly Solli Sigurdson sings a song about putting on the style. It should be a popular  hit as nothing is as important today as style. Style costs money and credit cards pay for it. They pay for it so much that Canadians, according to an article in The Star, “the average consumer’s total debt load is” $26,221. Credit card debt is $3,556. Then, of course, there are mortgages. Car payments.

What made me think about this is the other day when I went to the RumRunners bar in Sidney and, overwhelmed by a desire to eat gluten free fish and chips, I didn’t worry about the price. Along with a diet Pepsi, plus tip, the bill came to 30.00. For one piece of halibut and a potato.

Today, I was at the strip mall to get some gluten free bread at Origen bakery and decided to check out the Old British Fish and Chips shop. They’ve got a sign in the window saying “Gluten free menu.”

Yup. They do. I had to try it. There goes my waistline again. One good sized piece of halibut and more French fries in a half-order than any sane many could possibly eat. $10.08.

So, let’s see. There was no atmosphere. I took the fish and chips home wrapped in newspaper. There was no view of the harbour and the islands. There was no cute waitress smiling and checking to see if my fish and chips were okay. There was just a woman at the counter who took my order and a woman dipping fish in batter, putting fries into hot oil. No linen napkins.

Fish and chips, 10.08. Actually, the order taker at the counter rounded the bill off to 10.00. Atmosphere $20.00. Man oh man, I should have paid more attention to the atmosphere. It cost me twice as much as the meal. I guess the extra twenty was so that I could put on the style.

I guess that’s what we’ve been doing with our houses. Putting on the style.  There’s a new house in Coquitlam. It’s got a “beautiful kitchen with centre island, wok kitchen, granite counter top, stainless steel  cook top and more, 7 bedrooms, 2 ensuites, crown mouldings, in floor heating” all in 5300 sq ft. The owners put it up for sale for 1,280,000 on March 10. Price drop, price drop, open house, open house, currently 998,000. Let’s see, my putting on the style cost me an extra $20.00. It’s going to cost them at least 282,000 plus closing costs. Maybe more. There’s no sold sign yet.

Putting on the style. Clink clink of cocktail glasses. “I have 20 feet of granite counter tops.” “Really, is that all. I’ve got 30 feet.” “We have seven bedrooms.” “Oh, seven, really, we only have five. But you should see our view.”

Putting on the style. I grew up in an 800 sq. ft. house. Three bedrooms. No bathroom. Washed in a basin. Bathed in a galvanized tub. Heated with wood, then coal, then oil, then natural gas. Never felt deprived. I was warm, secure, well fed, clothed. We went once every couple of weeks to a matinee at the local theatre. No car. We took the bus to the city, street cars and buses when we got there.

Putting on the style. I guess we did that with big home cooked dinners on Thanksgiving and Christmas. Nice clothes when we went visiting. Entertaining and feeding people on the Icelandic Celebration weekend. Having an occasional meal at the local Chinese restaurant.

My parents’ goal and my grandparents’ goal was to owe no money. There was no halibut in Gimli, Manitoba but there was lots of Lake Winnipeg pickerel, whitefish, goldeye. We’d never have thought to pay for it in a restaurant where it would cost us twice as much as the food so we could put on the style. It’s not something we would have considered even though we could have paid the bill in cash, not on borrowed money with a credit card. (There were no credit cards.) It just made no sense.

Having been through the Great Depression, neither my grandparents nor my parents wanted to owe anyone money. The saved until they had enough to pay for something and then they bought it. Eaton’s had a lay away plan. You put so much down, then paid them a bit at a time until the object was paid for then you picked it up. It was yours. You’d paid for it.

If my grandfather was alive today, I can hear him saying to me after I told him about going to the RumRunner. “How much did you pay? Thirty dollars for a soft drink, one piece of fish and some fried potatoes. Who were you trying to impress?”