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Dressing sharply transforms a man

Updated: May 19, 2013 7:37AM

It is my uniform: a brightly colored, solid silk tie against a starched white shirt with French cuffs and a dark, pinstriped suit.

Black spit-shined shoes. Matching pocket square. A dimpled knot in my tie. Check.

A dash of cologne — icing on the cake.

Clean-shaven or beard neatly trimmed, my bald head glistening, I step into the professional world dressed to impress whether as professor, journalist, speaker or author.

Mine is a heritage of men of the suit. Black men who worked as sharecroppers and field hands or in menial jobs, but who found a certain salvation in putting on a suit.

Some were men who often felt disrespected, relegated to society’s bottom rung. Men who discovered the transformative power, respectability and distinction of a well-pressed suit with all the trimmings.

It made them stand taller.

I grew up seeing brothers with style, swag and grace — shoes, socks and shirt color coordinated. Men like my grandfather and uncles who would boldly punctuate a suit with a Fedora, or a gangster brim.

Back then, when the family drove to the Redwood Inn smorgasbord in Kankakee, even the kids wore their Sunday best. We might have been poor, but we looked like a million bucks.

The right suit can make you feel that way. I am a man of the suit.

Still, I have heard the static for much of my career, the wondering aloud, “Why does he dress like that?”

“Hey, Slick,” a white bus driver greeted me once with a term I find denigrating as I climbed aboard dressed to the nines.

“You look like a pimp,” a black student once remarked in front of my class, taking in my black wool coat and Kangol hat cocked coolly to the left.

Huh? A what? The pimps I saw growing up looked like peacocks in their flamboyant green, pink and yellow garb.

Sometimes my students joke that they can’t imagine me in jeans. I take it in stride and we all laugh as I promise to wear my Harley gear on the last day of class and ride my Hog.

I do get compliments. But it is the “dis-pliments” that burn.

Once, a so-called distinguished professor at a downstate university remarked, as we sat with a group dining, how there is a direct correlation between low IQ and people who dressed really well or all fancy schmancy. I could have told him that a cardigan with elbow patches is not a safeguard against being a stupid jerk.

Just the other day, one of my colleagues — spying me off-duty in jeans and sneakers — said it was “refreshing” to see me looking, well, uh, suit-less?

I could have told him that I can’t help myself. That I have long been this way. That while it may be unfair to judge a book by its cover, truth is: We do.

And that as a black man I cannot afford to not look the part, or fail to try and draw some clear distinction between me and the stereotype too often unfairly pinned to all black men.

I might have said that I don’t believe the day has yet come that I can don a sweater and corduroys and still be seen and respected as a professor. Or show up to a press conference wearing shorts and Birkenstocks — like some colleagues — without raising a few brows.

And while I do know that a suit does not reflect the true measure of a man, I have learned it can at least buy a measure of respect.

And that is what I find most refreshing.

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