*Come summer, more than occasionally, I’ll wear white. All white. Nothing fancy–wash-and-wear button down shirts, tees and polos. Cotton pants. It’s light and cool and simple.
But it’s white. And over and again during the summer, I am asked how I wear white and keep it white during the course of a day. They ask this as if you don’t have to keep clothes of any color from getting dirty while you’re wearing them.
I understand the question, though. I mean, it’s white. Whatever gets on it, no matter how minuscule, you’re going to see it. Wearing white can be a challenge. “Ivory, it takes courage to be dressed like that while eating pasta with red sauce,” Tavis Smiley quipped when he happened upon my sidewalk table at an outdoor café one summer afternoon last year. I don’t know if courage is the word. However, sitting over a plate of whatever it was I was eating that day in all white does require a certain a state of mind. Keeping white “white” calls for different thinking.
In all white, you can’t just amble through the day as if you were adorned in grays, browns or evergreen. You’ve got to pay attention. Because when you’re wearing white, almost everything poses a potential situation.
That seat on which you’re about to rest your bottom has the potential to direct your day in ways you wouldn’t give a thought to were you in blue denim or black. That wall you’re considering leaning on looks and feels clean, but white redefines that word.
Eating a meal in white is when you come to appreciate the long disregarded ingenuity of the fork. Especially the prongs. You don’t consider just how much food you DON’T pick up using those prongs, until that piece of iceberg slathered with Italian salad dressing you are so eager to get into your mouth slides off the fork–you didn’t stab it–and falls into your lap, which you hadn’t completely covered with your napkin.
On white days, one must be cognizant of hugs. Maybelline is a silent killer.
The awareness has to begin before you leave home. If not wiped down, your very own iron or ironing board could do you in. Once dressed, in your abode you have to be as careful as you are in public. In white, you don’t simply saunter through the world unawake.
In pursuit of the unsullied canvas, for inspiration I often turn to memories of the habitually elegant and funky “Styles” Royce. A clothes pimp from my early L.A. community college ’70s, Styles maintained among his daring wardrobe of the hip, loud and happening an extensive collection of summer whites.
A black belt in all-day immaculateness, the tall, lanky Styles, could have, I’m convinced, gotten three, four days out of a single white ensemble if he wanted to. He prided himself on ninja fastidiousness; told me about the time he wore white while accompanying a young woman to her nephew’s birthday party, where the median age was a hyper, rambunctious three years old and the cake chocolate. Styles insisted he emerged without a speck.
With my own eyes I witnessed Styles one night in the parking lot of the Whiskey a Go-Go, whited up head to toe in an outfit anchored by an achingly cool white cardigan, drinking from a bottle of Welch’s grape juice. The man was fearless.
In any case, wear enough white among friends and there’ll be jokes. References to Mr. Clean and The Man From Glad. “I’ll have two scoops of strawberry. On a cone”…“[Handing me their keys] I’ve got the blue Hyundai”…“Oh, no, they’re coming to take me away….” Hardy har har, y’all.
I hear what you’re thinking. If wearing white can be such an ordeal, why wear it? Like I said, in the summer, it’s light and cool and simple. And, for me, the once irksome ritual that accompanies wearing it became a quiet, galvanizing ballet a long time ago.
That tedious protocol is, in fact, one of my favorite metaphors. If only I did for myself what I do on behalf of my whites: approach every moment of life awake and aware and conscious, looking after myself in all ways without having to even think twice about it–but thinking about it, plenty, of course–as I create for myself the best day I can. That kind of living is a tall and exciting order. I believe I can do it, though. I’ve got the Universe and Clorox on my side.
Steven Ivory, journalist and author of the essay collection Fool In Love (Simon & Schuster), has covered popular culture for magazines, newspapers, radio and TV for more than 30 years. Respond to him via [email protected]