Puff Piece: Gay Talese on the Art of the Pocket Square

Our tailored clothing correspondent offers his take on the accessory of the moment.
Photo: Rose Callahan

The author's favorite accessory in situ

Along with the boutonniere and rosette, a colorful silk handkerchief sprouting from the breast pocket of a man’s jacket is generally perceived to be a mark of distinction and self-esteem; but, depending on how it is viewed by various on-lookers, it may also convey a mixture of nattiness with narcissism. A defense attorney who appears in court wearing a suit embellished with a pocket handkerchief might be serving as a material witness against own best interests—he perhaps risks being seen by a jury member as elitist, or patronizing, or a foppish purveyor of guile.

I myself have never worried about such matters.

Every day of the week, throughout the year, I regale the breast pockets of my many suits and sports jackets with puffs of pulchritude representing many colors and fabrics, all in the hope of signaling to myself and to others that I am in a celebratory mood: I am still alive and ambulatory at the age of seventy-nine, and I am also dressing up for the interview I am about to conduct, and the story I will eventually write—again, I am celebrating who I am, and what I do, without any sense of modesty or mixed emotions. And this has been true of me since my earliest days as a young journalist aspiring always to be producing well-crafted prose while wearing exquisitely-tailored clothes.


Granted, during my formative years as a schoolboy reporter in Ocean City, NJ, I gained a superior wardrobe at little cost, coming to me in the form of gifts from my father, a fine tailor. Later in the 1950s, as I began working for The New York Times and paying for my own clothes, I continued to dress well not only in deference to my upbringing but also as a sign of respect for the journalistic profession I was learning to appreciate at The Times. I remember one morning, during my second or third year, I entered the newsroom and then paused momentarily at the door, watching quietly as hundreds of reporters and editors went about their business—talking on telephones, tapping on typewriters, writing headlines, laying out the paper—and I thought to myself: “There are probably fewer liars in this room, per square yard, than any other room in the entire city of New York.” I imagined the board rooms of big-time bankers, the trading floors on Wall Street, the halls of organized labor, the executive suites of the city’s merchant-princes, the offices of the municipal government—and the more I contemplated such places the more pride I took in being associated with my fellow journalists. Which was not to say that falsifications and fabrications do not occur in my line of work, but rather to emphasize that when they do other journalists will expose their flawed colleagues and eliminate them from the ranks. There are no cover-ups in my profession, as there are within the worlds of banking, business, unions, law-enforcement, and, alas, the clergy.

Photo: Rose Callahan

Man of letters, man of style: The dictionary in Talese's office, just as we found it.

Another reason I dress up for my work is that I think it contributes to my getting my foot in the door when I’m trying to get an interview or access to an important source for a story. Despite the sense of virtue that I’ve attributed to my profession I must concede that much of journalism is conducted in the manner of a door-to-door salesman, and, as is well known, appearances do matter. The eternal optimism of Arthur Miller’s theatrical salesman, Willie Loman, was burnished by a shoeshine and a smile—and, I might add from my own experience, the flamboyant flair of a pocket handkerchief.

Whenever I see a pack of sloppily-dressed journalists gathered in a public place awaiting the arrival of a newsworthy individual I assume, at best, that they will be greeted with condescension and a “no comment.” And yet I also assume that these same journalists would present themselves more fetchingly were they attending a cocktail party, or a graduation ceremony, or a bar mitzvah, or a wedding, or a funeral. Why is this? Why do these journalists not dress up for the story? Sometimes I am tempted to ask them, but I hesitate because they will probably dismiss me as a condescending old crank. Still, when I see poorly-dressed people of my own age, as I do everyday, walking into doctor’s offices in my neighborhood—shuffling along the sidewalk wearing their scuffed sneakers, their Windbreakers, their wrinkled chinos and their faded baseball caps—I keep reminding myself: When these old folks die, someone will dress them up for their funerals. If only these people would dress better during their final years on earth, they’d feel better… I often tell myself, wishing that President Obama’s health plan would appropriate sums of money to dress old people up and make them feel better—or so I prefer to believe would be the result.

And yet I think there is hope for the younger generation—the people in their mid-twenties and early thirties whose parents were influenced by the ’60s hippies and peace movement and who rebelled against their suit-and-tie ancestry of which I am a part. More and more young people are buying jackets and suits and stuffing the pockets with vividIy-colored handkerchiefs. What these young customers have discovered is that they can easily (and inexpensively) bring “diversity” to even a limited number of jackets or suits in their wardrobe by buying several handkerchiefs (some selling for as little as $20 or $30) and alternating them regularly so as to present a semblance of rejuvenation. These breast pocket handkerchiefs are thus the new flags of fashion.

Photo: Rose Callahan

The author in his home office.

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  1. John says:

    I love this guy.

  2. Pingback: A Tour of Gay Talese’s Hat Closet (Yes, Hat Closet) | Gilt MANual

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