My buddy David turned me on to Acheson Country, a great little chronicle by Dean Acheson’s son about growing up Acheson. It’s a one-sitting read and is a delightful anecdotathon of WASP Ascendancy, conduct and deportment unique to days gone by as well as a glimpse of a Georgetown and a Washington D.C. that no longer exists. There’s also plenty of weigh-in on sartorial Acheson. And before you start wondering about the Belgians-Acheson connection, be patient. I’ll weave it together in the finale. I may no longer blog regularly enough to keep you aware of my highly prized techniques; but please let’s not forget some of the twisty-turny sorties that I’ve taken you on before. So settle down. And if anyone has to pee, I’d suggest you go and do so now.
Predictably, reading Acheson Country only whetted my appetite so I then read Acheson’s memoirs, Present at the Creation. I’d love to have Acheson and a few others at the table for a dialogue on their impressions of the current state of political discourse and on compromise and the high art of collaboration with the proverbial other side. My hunch is that Acheson and others would be appalled by our current wading pool of inside-the-beltway venom that characterizes Washington politics.
True to his WASP-ness, Acheson was concerned about how dress clothes conveyed his professional bearing and station…but not too much. Mr. Secretary was exacting in what he liked and wore and his attention to detail borders on excessive. I guess that similar to the reaction of some men included in George Frazier’s TheArt of Wearing Clothes, Acheson would probably be flummoxed by the idea that he was in a pantheon of exemplary Trad-Ivy style icons. Acheson was sartorially correct as opposed to Adolph Menjou’s over-studied precision. He was the properly sequenced sartorialist to the Kennedy clan’s delightfully dishevelled, unintentional Trad-Ivy BostonIrish Sprezzatura.
Here’s an excerpt from historian David McCullough’s introduction to Acheson Country. “I saw my first authentic, flesh-and-blood personage of history—my first Great Man on the hoof, as it were—on a morning in New Haven, Connecticut, in the fall of 1953. Or maybe 1954. I was a Yale undergraduate on my way to class, heading along York Street, alone and wrapped in my own undergraduate fog, when all at once, at the corner of where the high priced clothing stores were concentrated, out of the door of J. Press stepped Dean Acheson.”
“…there was no mistaking him. He couldn’t have been more conspicuous. Or I more astonished. Yet there he was not thirty feet ahead, the former Secretary of State, member of the Yale Corporation, Class of 1915 and for many of us he was something of a hero…for the way he had faced the attacks of Senator Joe McCarthy.”
“It wasn’t just that he looked bigger than life but that he seemed poised there on York Street, in drab New Haven, almost overdoing the responsibility of being Dean Acheson—the spectacular tailoring, the mustache, the lift of his chin. It was if some splendid actor in perfect Acheson dress had stepped suddenly from the wings and I was his only audience.”
Folks; this is the personification of personal style versus fashion. You can’t buy it in a store nor can you get schooled up on it by reading how-to manuals. You either have it or you don’t. And based on McCullough’s experience, the stuff was dripping off of Acheson. David Acheson devotes an entire chapter…The Well Dressed Man, to his dad’s sartorial proclivities. Here are a few passages for your enjoyment…
“There could be no question that Dad was a thorough, unreconstructed dude, a fashionplate. For the office he was likely to favor a gray or brown or slate blue or navy blue suit, often double breasted.”
“It was not vanity, I thought and still think, which prompted Dad to lavish great care on his dress. Rather it was one of many manifestations of a perfectionist drive that touched everything he did. His aesthetic sense was sharp. It would have offended that sense to put on clothes that in their cut, style, color combination or condition could not have withstood critical scrutiny.”
Treasury Department operative Stanley Surrey speaks of being in a meeting in the 1930’s with Acheson where litigation strategy was being vetted. After the meeting, one of Surrey’s colleagues asked him what the substance of the meeting was. “I haven’t the slightest idea; I was totally absorbed in my study of Mr. Acheson’s symphony in brown and its implications.”
David Acheson offers witness to his dad’s interaction with tailors…“Raise the damn collar—I’m not advertising shirt linen.” He also lists his father’s suppliers including…D’Elia and Marks, Sidney West & Co., Brooks Brothers in New York as well as “Farnsworth-Reed until they moved to a garish shopping mall in suburban Virginia. Subsequently, Dad patronized J. Press when he went to New Haven each month for meetings of the Yale Corporation. In the 1930’s Dad had his shoes made by Peal &Co in London, but their prices went beyond his means in the post-war years.”
Lordy, I’ve gotta tie all of this back to Belgians and our man Acheson...so here goes. I was completely tickled to read about the dichotomy of Acheson’s professional attire versus his weekend capricious assemblages.
“Away from civilization at the farm, Dad dressed for dinner with family and friends in a fashion for which outrageous would be an understatement. Summer dinner costume, often as not, was lime green slacks, no socks, sandals or Mexican huaraches on the feet, an orange sash falling to the knee. He had the panache of the portrait of Trelawney by Lawrence, without the turban.”
"To his family it did not require explanation that his outré dress supplied a release from pent up pressures of conformity. His family often tested the limits of outrageousness by giving him articles of dress that even he might think went too far. But it became clear that there were no limits. Green Belgian shoes, pink elephant socks, printed cotton slacks—none of these produced any response from Dad but delight.”
So it turns out that Dean Acheson might well be considered, togs-wise, the weekend High Llama of Fuzzy…the Godly Grand Highness of Go To Hell. And all of this draped upon a man who, as his son attests, on any given Saturday, might be sporting Belgians.
Onward. In Belgians. Dripping. With Delight.