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You can’t always spot a sailor by the cut of his clothes

2010 March 2
My dad and I were going through some trunks in the attic when I was a teenager, and I remember we found his uniform from World War II, neatly folded and stored for who knows what reason. I'd been too young to know him as a flier, but I knew this uniform: there were pictures around the house showing him in it, usually surrounded by a bunch of tired-looking guys standing under the wing of a bomber.

And there, underneath the folded jacket, was his hat. It was a classic "50-mission" hat: khaki with a brown leather visor, and the top was shapeless in the middle where his earphones had crushed it during long missions. In those old photos, he wore it insouciantly, cocked on his then red hair with a devil-may-care rake.

Today, kids think they're cool by wearing baseball caps backwards (oh, puh-leeze!), but in those days, the visor was crucial to keep the sun out of your eyes in the cockpit because the sun was always where the enemy fighters lurked. Fifty-mission caps were the mark of a seasoned veteran, a survivor, a man who had been to hell and come back.

"You know, I wore this a few times when I came home from the war," he said, and his voice trailed off. "But then it wasn't right."

I knew he'd also worn a leather bomber jacket until it literally came apart, so I asked why he'd stopped.

"Oh, the bomber jacket was fine, but pretty soon, all kinds of guys who'd never been in a plane started buying these caps at the surplus stores, and they'd beat them up to look like this one. I guess I didn't want people to think I was just another phony."

So that was it: Once the 50-mission cap became a fashion accessory, the real heroes didn't want to wear it any longer.

Flash forward 40 years, and I'm sitting in an airline lounge, waiting to make a connection somewhere. Across from me is a tanned guy wearing a polo shirt embroidered with the number 12 above a slash and then US-62. Aha, I thought, a 12-Meter guy … maybe even an America's Cup guy.

But I just couldn't come up with a Twelve that was US-62.

When he stood up, I stopped him and asked, "What Twelve was that?"

He looked at me blankly and then saw I was looking at the logo. "Oh, I have no idea what that means … my wife bought this for me. I think it has something to do with sailing."

I couldn't wait to get to a computer to Google 12-Meter US-62. And I quickly discovered it doesn't exist. There's no such Twelve. What we had was a fashion statement. Faux.
Since that time, I've become adept at spotting the ways that sailing has infiltrated the world of haute couture.

A couple unloading their luggage to check into a hotel had a brightly colored duffel bag with big sail numbers stitched on the sides. Faux. In another airport (I fly a lot!), I tried to start a conversation with a fellow carrying a briefcase of carbon fiber sailcloth bearing the name of an international sailmaker. Turns out he bought it on eBay because he'd heard that the dark gray carbon wouldn't show dirt. Faux.

I looked up a company that made sailcloth duffel bags and discovered part of the appeal in their sales pitch: "How does carbon fiber sailcloth compare to regular materials for a duffel bag? Well, for one thing, it's extremely cool."

They don't mean "cool" like it keeps your clothes from wrinkling in the heat: they mean "cool" like it's something Steve McQueen would carry if he were a sailor.

The cool of sailing seems to extend everywhere. There is an expensive, rephrase that, an incredibly expensive luxury car (OK, it's a Rolls-Royce Phantom convertible) that actually has planked teak decking on the panel that hides the top when it's down. No one is ever going to step on this very yachty teak deck. It's all about sailing cool. Faux.

At a mall, a sailing watch caught my eye in a case and I stopped to look. It had the usual count-down starting timer with five red balls for minutes but they didn't do anything! It was a fake! It wasn't even waterproof. Of course, it would look great at a cocktail party.

I saw a red Mount Gay hat on eBay recently. In fact, I saw lots of them. Once the province of elite ocean racing sailors, they're now everywhere. You can pick from Annapolis Race Week, Antigua Race Week, Big Boat Series, Bitter End Pro-Am. Cripes, you don't even have to endure the busted knuckles and late-night partying to earn one. Just have the winning bid. Faux.

So this brings us to deck shoes.

I've been wearing deck shoes of one kind or another for half a century. Topsiders, Sebagos, Docksiders, now some from West Marine that are comfy on my increasingly flat feet. I wear deck shoes all the time (not to bed, unless Mount Gay rum is involved). I wear them around the house, doing yard work, with my tuxedo and white dinner jacket. Oh, yeah, I wear them on the boat, too.

But if you look around, everyone is wearing deck shoes. They were once the province of sailors, who loved them even more when they had salt stains and looked a little ratty. She Who Must Be Obeyed draws the line at having the soles held on with duct tape, so I have to keep that pair in my shop for secret use.

But deck shoes are everywhere. Rednecks down here in Florida wear them to go 'gator hunting, pilots wear them in the cockpit, and they're de rigueur at cocktail parties a thousand miles from the nearest boat.

And now Ralph Lauren is offering the Barx deck shoe, which is too queasily close to barf for my liking, but his advertising notes it is finished with "sporty, nautical details." By nautical details, I don't think he's referring to the big nick on the side of one of my deck shoes where I kicked the anchor loose from the bow roller. Lauren adds the Barx is "a preppy sneaker taking style influence from the boat shoe."

Preppy? Yipes!

Like my dad before me, I guess I'm going to have to retire those 50-regatta Topsiders to a trunk in the attic. There are just too many imposters around these days.