the semiotics of the blazer

The blazer first became a thing in high school. I’m sure it was required for church for years before that, at diverse times, but my first recollection of the blazer being A Thing was in 1988 when I went to the county Scholars Bowl tournament for the first time. Almost immediately, that single-breasted blue blazer became a regular part of my life – paired with jeans, a white Oxford, and a necktie that reached to the belt buckle. Not the greatest look, if I’m honest, but it was essentially my uniform, as much as any football jersey. It was not only Scholars’ Bowl, it was Constitution Competition and scholarship interviews and anything that required me to pass as a grown-up.

Maybe that’s where it started. I didn’t have a lot of utility for coat and tie in undergrad, not being in a fraternity, but as soon as I was accepted to grad school, I went out and stacked up three or four new blazers. As often as not they were remaindered from TJ Maxx, but there was a vaguely linen-look thing that suggested Miami Vice, a brown woolen thing that looked like an old professor coat, a grayish pattern that wasn’t quite tweed. Put it with jeans, a button-up, no tie at all, and I looked like the junior faculty I was aspiring to be.

And then, for a long time, nothing at all. We wore ties for my first year at National Geographic, but if we had any outerwear on it was for weather not fashion. I had a blazer for weddings and funerals, and that was about it; all my jacketology at the time was about functionality and climate, and I was more likely to top a shirt and tie with my Indiana Jones leather jacket than a blazer.

Things only shifted in 2012, when we were in New York City, and for some reason I was moved by the spirit to purchase a $30 cotton blazer from Uniqlo – and the look worked so well I bought another one immediately without even leaving the store. One blue, one white – definitely casual, but the sort of thing that you could throw over a T-shirt and immediately feel like you’d stepped it up ever so slightly. The blue one immediately became my chosen instrument for travel – Japan in 2015, London in 2016, Ireland in 2017 – and when it came up missing, I took the white one to Chile in the southern-hemisphere summer of 2019. Meanwhile, I was given the long-desired Harris Tweed blazer in 2016 and picked up a casual linen number at Muji in 2019 right before it closed and bought a seersucker one from Uniqlo for hot weather.

And then, out of nowhere, a month or two ago, I bought an Eddie Bauer Travelex travel blazer. Two, actually, one in blue and one in black – a little synthetic and a little static-y, but full of pockets and rumple-resistant. Those, at least, I understand – something that looks presentable while still turning rain and giving you a zippered alternative to the money belt for your passport and phone while running through the back alleys of Neal’s Yard or Bankside.

Maybe that’s part of it – the blazer has come to be identified with travel. But there’s more to it than that. I’d come to think of it as “Vandy mode” just because of the seersucker, but also because I’d be up in the city at one alumni event or another, and the blazer is the shortest route to feeling like a grown-up. It contains the imposter syndrome, somehow makes me feel more like I’m actually as I present myself. I wouldn’t go to a Vandy game without one (and honestly, haven’t, not since 2012; it’s practically expected of me). I can be slouched around the house in jeans and a T-shirt, and as long as they’re clean, all I have to do is throw on the canoe mocs and a blazer and suddenly I’m a functional adult who can absolutely be trusted with your Jamf instance or your cell phone decision making or your choice of stouts and porters.

And part of the problem, honestly, is that I’ve lived the last sixteen months in t-shirt and jeans and plastic Birkenstocks, with the occasional flannel shirt or work shirt for the rare cool moments. I need a blazer right now not at all, and maybe that’s a conceptually complex piece of information given everything above.

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