My dad passed away two months ago. When I think about him, which is a lot, he’s often in a fleece jersey and faded peak cap. In my mind, he’s striding around the tennis court for exercise in the watery Joburg winter sun. Or he’s tinkering in his workshop on a Saturday morning in a pair of vellies and an item formally known as a jersey. More accurately, it could be described as the shell of a beige pullover, held together by some attempts at darning and a couple of valiant threads of wool. Whenever I saw Gerald (my dad) in it, I’d think, “No doubt, some cutting-edge knitwear designers would proclaim the entire look to be seriously directional.” The “deconstructed jumper” had the air of something you’d see debuted by a young hopeful at Berlin Fashion Week. Gerald got the look with the help of a misfiring stationary engine, open flame, and leaking diesel.
But I’m making him out to sound like a vagabond, which would have displeased my father immensely. As a decades-long subscriber to Business Day, reading this, he’d have said, “You are totally misrepresenting me in this fine publication,” adding with a chirp, “Stop with the fake news.” Truthfully, Gerald was one natty dresser. It has only recently dawned on me just how much he influenced me sartorially. I always thought I’d got the classic-kit-loving genes from my mom, but really my father played a part too.
Last week, meandering to the boarding gate on a flight back from Cape Town, I clocked a young guy mooching at Mugg & Bean in his pyjamas. Gerald would have been appalled. He never went to an airport in anything other than good slacks, a collared shirt, and a blazer or jacket. In the days when he flew to the UK for work every couple of weeks, the outfit would be accessorised with a black-leather man-bag. For holidays he added a real Ecuadorian Panama hat (which got left everywhere, but somehow always found its way back home).
As I stood and silently judged the domestic departures shloomp, kitted out in my Breton-stripe shirt and a Panama too, it dawned on me that Gerald had taught me his Wasp-ish ways well. He loved a tweed jacket and a checked shirt. He had V-neck jerseys in every bold colour imaginable and went through a major braces-and-cravat stage. He wore the right kind of suits in the corporate years — and, thank the fashion gods, would never have considered a “fun” or club tie.
When my mom, my sister or I wore something he liked, he’d say, “Hell, you girls are hot stuff!” If we were wearing something that he wasn’t keen on and we protested, his response would be, “When I did my tailoring apprenticeship on Savile Row, that is not what they taught me.” Who could keep a straight face when a management consultant made that kind of totally audacious and blatantly fabricated claim?
Once, he returned from a London trip with a new Burberry trench coat for my mom in his hand luggage. It fitted her as though he had, in fact, tailored it on Savile Row. Dad was no great gift-giver, so when we marvelled that that one was wildly on the money, he said he’d spied a lady in the Burberry store who seemed the right size and made her try it on.
I hope I’ll inherit the trench one day — for now, I’m thrilled to have raided Gerald’s piles of jerseys and cardigans. They are over-sized, but, as my sister informs me, this is very on-trend. I’m not ruling out the burnt-beyond-belief workshop version either.
• From the April edition of Wanted, 2022.