Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Years of the Balaclava

Throughout my younger years, I tried many times to appear fashionable. I never quite got it right. Consider the evidence:

The early- to mid-1970s were, for me, The Years of the Balaclava. For those not up on obscure outerwear, a balaclava is a knit hat, not unlike a ski mask. However, because your full face is exposed (instead of just your eyes and mouth), you look less like a character from Dog Day Afternoon and more like a floating egg or a pasty full moon.

Additional balaclava material extends below the top of your coat, at the front and back, for warmth. On mine, cut-outs on the left and right sides kept the material from bunching under the chin. This worked—for a time. But as my head grew (and did it ever), the flaps drew up out of the coat and dangled like an oversized turkey’s waddle. Naturally, my balaclava—and attached waddle—were bright red.

Mittens knit by my godmother arrived each Christmas as the unappreciated appendage to the much-valued, cash-filled holiday envelope. We dutifully said “thank you,” every time, but outerwear as a gift leaves most kids a little cold (no pun intended.)

For the younger set, said mittens were connected by a long strand of yarn. The prevailing theory was that if mittens were more or less hard-wired to your clothing, you could never lose them. In reality, instead of losing one mitten, you always lost both. Besides, if you picked a pair too small for your age, a sudden movement forward with one arm yanked the other violently behind your back. I approximated many exciting kung fu moves in this manner, and lost street hockey games when I couldn’t raise my stick for a slap shot.

This is not to say I’ve never made attempts to be cool. At fifteen, I purchased my first black leather jacket, which I paired with a crisp white dress shirt with either two or three buttons undone. The choice depended upon just how cool I wanted my hairless chest to look. With my new jacket, dress shirt (collar up, naturally) and excruciatingly tight blue jeans (Jordache, I believe, or Cream), I was ready to do what we called “cruising.”

To cruise, one would walk in purposeful strides through public places, making very slow movements of the head from side to side in sync with an almost imperceptible bounce and hip-swing combination. Smiling was taboo, as this made you look approachable—ergo, not cool. Better to look angry and defiant, to do your clothes justice. When asked one's plans for the day, the standard reply was, “Juuuuuust fuck-in' ker-roo-sin!”

The leather jacket was never zipped, regardless of weather—this would bleed the jacket of all inherent style, and leave one open to harsh mockery. Another steadfast rule: one could never wear a hat (or balaclava), or gloves, or scarf, or anything else that would protect against wind or snow. Responding in any way to a driving Alberta clipper that made the bones of your nose hurt meant you were a “fag”. On the most bitter days, one concession was allowed: the tips of the fingers (not thumbs) could be jammed into the tops of the jean pockets, but only if the elbows were extended outward to make you look more imposing. To wear mittens would be to condemn oneself to style purgatory.

Before leather I went through a denim phase, which has its own rules. A jean jacket was only as cool as the ornamentation with which one adorned it, in the form of patches and buttons. Mine included logos for Van Halen and Molly Hatchet (neither of whom I cared for at the time, but the intertwined V and H looked awesome) and Iron Maiden. Did all rock bands of the 70s and 80s have logos? Why?

My buttons featured pot leaves, brands of liquor and the ever-popular “I refuse to have a battle of wits with an unarmed person.” Also, I enhanced my jacket by coating it with beer caps, affixed by pushing the tab from a loaf of bread through the fabric and into the cap.

Shirts with expressions were acceptable, too, as long as they made some reference to popular vices. We really thought women of all ages would want to know that as long as we had a face, they had a place to sit, or that without any expenditure on their part, they could enjoy a mustache ride. For some reason I still can’t fathom, my father was willing to let me have a T-shirt bearing the slogan Golden Nugget Saloon: Liquor in the Front, Poker in the Rear, but barred Save Energy: Fart in a Jar because it sounded “vulgar.”

With the full complement of images confirming that yes, in fact, I liked sex, drugs and rock and roll, I had to be cool, right?

Coming soon: Part II: The Adventures of ZebraBoy


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