A company named Foster-Miller, for instance, recently designed a textile with conductive properties: each thread can transmit electrical currents . . . so that Americans will one day . . . be able to recharge their cell phones with their polo shirts. . . . Technologically Enabled Clothing . . . has developed [a vest that conceals] . . . a “hydration system,” a back pocket for a water bottle with a straw running through the vest’s collar to the wearer’s mouth. . . .
Next Year DuPont will introduce a fabric that can temporarily imprison offensive scents—so that, say, a shirt that spent the night in a smoke-filled bar will arrive home at 5 a.m. smelling as if it passed the hours in a spring meadow. DuPont’s scientists have also developed Teflon-treated fabric; spills bounce right off.
The South Korean company Kolon, in turn, has developed the “fragrant suit,” treated with anxiety-soothing herbs.
—The New York Times Magazine, December 15, 2002
Ran into Reg Millipede sometime back. Reg’s a gaming crony from those piping times in Jolly Old when I stood as poetry editor of Dry Heaves: A Journal of Opinion. If the truth be known, the two of us gave as good as we got over whist and rummy at the Pair of Shoes or Lord Curzon’s Club on the street that bears his name.
“I get to your city now and again,” Millipede acknowledged as we stood on the corner of Park and Seventy-Fourth. “Mostly on business. I’m vice president in charge of customer relations for one of the biggest charnel houses on the Isle of Wight.”
I’d venture we swapped mellow souvenirs for the better part of an hour, during which time I couldn’t help noticing that my companion would sporadically tilt his face down and left, seemingly to siphon some beverage from what appeared to be a spigot discreetly camouflaged beneath the underside of his lapel.
“Are you all right?” I finally asked, half expecting the details of some unspeakable accident that culminated in a new-fangled ambulatory IV. “Are you on some kind of drip?”
“You mean this?” Millipede said, pointing toward his breast pocket. “Aha—you observant rascal. No, this is merely a masterpiece of engineering slash tailoring. You’re undoubtedly up on how the entire medical profession is suddenly bonkers about drinking lots of water. Seems it flushes out the kidneys, along with myriad ancillary benefits. Well, this tropical worsted has its own built-in hydration system. There’s a storage tank in the left trouser leg with a series of pipes that run around the waist and up to a faucet tactfully hemmed into the shoulder pad. I have a digital computer stitched against my inseam that enables me to activate a pump just behind some pleats that forces Evian through this fiber-optic straw. Because of its ingenious cut I still manage to maintain a dapper line. I’m sure you’ll agree the garment speaks for breeding.”
Examining Millipede’s suit with an incredulity usually reserved for UFO sightings, I had to admit it smacked of the miraculous.
“There’s this perfectly marvelous tailoring establishment on Savile Row,” he said, pressing its address into my palm. “Bandersnatch and Bushelman. Postmodern fabrics. I guarantee you’ll want to revamp your entire wardrobe—which mightn’t be a bad idea judging from that threadbare tribute to Emmett Kelly you’re currently sporting. Be sure and tell them I sent you round, and ask for Binky Peplum. He’ll do right by your pocket. Ta.”
While I pretended, for old times’ sake, to double up at Milipede’s Emmett Kelly slander, I wanted to impale him on a pike. His invidious comparison with the clown’s attire lodged in my bosom like a scorpion’s tail, and I resolved to invest in a bespoke ensemble the moment my frequent-flier miles swelled to underwrite a trip abroad. The dream became a reality at summer’s end when I at last entered the high-tech portals of Bandersnatch and Bushelman on Savile Row, where either the salesman or a praying mantis in gabardine eye-balled me like I was being cultured in a petri dish.
“One of them’s wandered in again,” he yelled to a colleague. “If I stand you a half guinea,” he said to me in a voice reeking of the judicial bench, “how can I be sure you’ll buy a bowl of soup and not squander it on lager?”
“I’m a customer,” I squealed, reddening. “I’ve traveled from America to refresh my wardrobe. Reg Millipede’s chum. He said to keep a keen eye out for Mr. Binky Peplum.”
“Aha,” replied the seller, checking for the precise location of my jugular. “Look no further. Now that you mention it, I do recall Millipede warning us someone of your stripe might be stopping by. Yes, he spoke of you—total absence of any flair . . . child of a lesser god . . . it’s all coming back to me.”
“Certainly my goal has never been to play the fop,” I explained. “I’m here simply to be measured for a sensible outfit.”
“Are you interested in any special aromas?” Peplum asked, pulling out his order pad and winking at an associate.
“Aromas? No, just a classic blue three-button, conservatively cut. Perhaps even a few shirts. I had envisioned Sea Island cotton if it’s not too dear. Although now that you bring it up, I do detect the faint scent of frankincense and myrrh.”
“That’s my suit,” Peplum confessed. “Our new line offers a wide variety of odors. Night-blooming jasmine, attar of roses, balsam of Mecca. Come here, Ramsbottom.” Another salesman darted over as if waiting to be cued. “Ramsbottom is wearing freshly baked rolls—the aroma, that is.”
I leaned in to sample the delicious smell of oven-baked bread. “Very tasty suit. I mean it’s a lovely mohair,” I said.
“We can imbue your raiments with any fragrance from patchouli to twice-cooked pork. That will be all, Ramsbottom.”
“I just want a simple blue suit. Although I’ve toyed with gray flannel,” I chuckled with an impish grin.
“Here at Bandersnatch and Bushelman we’re not about simple fabrics,” Peplum said, leaning in to me conspiratorially. “I beg you, don’t hang back with the brutes.” Talking down a natty pinstriped jacket from the store dummy, Peplum offered it up to me.
“Look here, try and stain it,” he said.
“Stain the jacket?” I asked.
“Yes. I’m sure, even knowing you so little as I do, you’re a man who deposits a vast amount of ichor on your clothing. You know, butterfat, Elmer’s glue, chocolate creams, cheap red wine, ketchup. Have I captured you accurately?”
“I guess I’m as prone to soiling a garment as the next man,” I stammered.
“Depends how slovenly the next man is,” chirped Peplum. “Let me provide some samples for you to try.” He handed me a combination plate with assorted sauces and ointments, each life-threatening to fabric.
“You really want me to?”
“Yes, yes—spread some blackberry currant on the jacket, or the Fox’s U-Bet syrup.” Summoning the courage to defy years of social conditioning, I ladled on a dollop of axle grease only to find that it could not be made to stick or leave its trace. This held true for soot and tomato juice, toothpaste and India ink.
“See the difference when I apply these same substances to your clothing,” Peplum said, shaking a generous portion of A.1. sauce on my trousers. “Note how it actually discolors the material permanently.”
“I see, I see, yes, it’s horrendous,” I said, stricken.
“Good choice of words,” Peplum chortled. “Ruined forever, and yet for a few hundred quid extra, you’ll never have to think bib or consort with common dry cleaners again. Or let’s say the wee ones finger paint on your vicuña sports coat.”
“I don’t want a vicuña sports coat,” I explained, “and rather than get too pricey, I prefer to take my chances with a little naphtha.”
“By the way,” Peplum noted, “we also have a fabric that will reject any odor. I mean, I don’t know what your wife’s like, but I can just imagine.”
“She’s a very handsome woman,” I quickly said.
“Well, you know, it’s all relative. I might look at the same face and see something you’d find for sale in a live-bait store.”
“Now, just a minute,” I protested.
“I’m theorizing. I mean, let’s say you have a receptionist with a rear end you can’t keep your eyes off, long, tan legs, ample cleavage, and a pout—plus she’s always running her tongue over her lips. Get the picture, friend?”
“Perhaps I’m obtuse,” I said weakly.
“Perhaps? Let me limn it more graphically, pilgrim. Let’s just say you’re bouncing this little slab of cheesecake at every motel in the tristate area.”
“Please. Your secret’s safe with me. Now, you come home and the ball and chain perceives the subtlest trace of Quelques Fleurs on your Tattersall vest. Starting to have the epiphany? Next thing you know, either you’re sweating to keep out of alimony jail or the immortal beloved goes ballistic and you wind up like one of those old Weegee photos with a suppurating excavation between the orbs.”
“This is not a real problem for me,” I said. “I just want something relaxed but elegant to wear on special occasions.”
“Sure you do—but with an eye to the future. We don’t just make suits, we clothe our customers in a postmodern environment. What do you do, Mr.—?”
“Duckworth, Benno Duckworth. Perhaps you’ve read my volume on anapestic dimeter.”
“Can’t say I have,” Peplum said. “But you impress me as the mercurial type. Moody. I’d venture even bipolar. Silly to deny it. I can see even in the brief time we’ve spent together how your psyche oscillates from benign and avuncular to frazzled or, if the right buttons were pushed, homicidal.”
“I assure you, Mr. Peplum, I’m stable. My hands may be shaking now, but it’s because all I want is a blue suit—not an environment. Just something that suggests accomplishment yet is understated.”
“And here I have exactly the item. A fine Scotch wool. But loomed with our own secret cocktail of mood elevators to provide you with a constant sense of well-being.”
“Unmotivated well-being,” I snapped with emerging sarcasm in my voice.
“Well, it’s motivated by the suit. Let’s say you lost your wallet with all your credit cards and you get home and the little kumquat’s totaled the Lamborghini plus you find a ransom note demanding eight times your net worth if you ever want to lay eyes on your kids again. With this garment on your back you never lose your good humor or affable manner. The truth is, you actually enjoy your plight.”
“And the children?” I asked, terrified. “Where are they? Bound and gagged in some basement?”
“It won’t be as it appears now—not while you’re caressed by one of our antidepressant textiles.”
“Right,” I parried, “but when I take off the suit, won’t I experience withdrawal symptoms?”
“Er, well, there are some weak sisters who tend to become more introverted once the jacket is removed. Why? Would you ever contemplate ending it all?”
“Yes, well,” I said, backing toward the fire exit, “speaking of ending it all, I must go. I have a pet raccoon at home that needs milking.” As the fingers in my pocket closed around my pepper spray should any attempt to hamper egress be made, my attention was caught by a stunning navy swatch that Peplum had not yet presented.
“Oh, this,” Peplum described when I queried him on it. “The threads are interwoven with thousands of conductive wires. The garment not only drapes beautifully but will recharge your cellular phone when you rub the instrument on your sleeve before placing a call.”
“Now, that’s more like it,” I said, envisioning the finished product to be at once stylish yet practical while announcing indirectly to my peers that I was indeed a member of the avant-garde. Peplum, seeing that he had hit pay dirt, pulled out a purchase order and moved in on me to close the deal with the lethal economy of Philidor’s mate. As I pulled out a check and accepted his Mont Blanc, my heart racing with promise of this sartorial coup, it was none other than Ramsbottom, his face drained of all color, who came bolting in from the other room.
“Problems, Binky,” he whispered.
“You’re ashen,” Peplum said.
“Our cellular recharging suit,” Ramsbottom bleated, “the one we sold yesterday—remember?—cashmere microscopic conductive wires. You know, the kind you can just rub your cell phone on to get it juiced.”
“Not now,” Peplum said, coughing. “I’ve a, you know,” he said rolling his eyes toward me.
“Huh?” Ramsbottom murmured.
“You know, there’s one born every minute,” Peplum shot back.
“Oh, yes, sure,” the nervous cohort chattered. “It’s just that the bloke who put on the cell-phone-charging suit stepped out of our showroom, touched the handle of his car, and ricocheted off Buckingham Palace. He’s in intensive care.”
“Hmm,” Peplum mused, rapidly computing every possible liability. “Probably didn’t realize it’s fatal to make contact with metal while you’re thusly clad. Oh, well, you notify his family, I’ll give heads-up to legal. That’s the fourth time this month a conductive-suit customer has had to go on life support. No, where was I? Oh yes, Ducksauce? Duckbill? Where’d he go?”
Let him try and find me. High voltage in a pair of pants is exactly the kind of thing that sends me ricocheting directly to Barneys, where I bought a marked-down three-button job off the peg, and it doesn’t do anything postmodern unless you count picking up lint.
Woody Allen is a writer, producer, and director based in New York City.
This text is an excerpt from Mere Anarchy (Random House, 2007).
Credit: “Sam, You Made the Pants Too Fragrant” from Mere Anarchy by Woody Allen © 2007 by Woody Allen. Used by permission of Random House, an imprint and division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved.