Things My Father Taught Me: Alex Williams

Clarity. Both in tone and presentation. This, above all else, is what I admire about the writing style of New York Times writer, Alex Williams. In addition to his duties to New York’s paper of record, he is husband to one-time contributor to this series Joanna Goddard, and father to song-and-dance man, Toby.


 Alex Williams copy

My dad taught me that you tell the world not just who you are, but who you want to be, by the clothes you wear. He was raised a working class kid on the south side of St. Joseph, Missouri, but as an adult, he dressed like Ben Bradlee in head to toe Brooks Brothers, which in the Carter years was highly unusual for an electronics-industry sales rep in Silicon Valley, where the reigning fashion aesthetic was more like Anchorman meets Boogie Nights. By word and example, he taught me to ignore fashion fads and stick with the classics, to focus on natural fibers and hand-crafted, Made-in-USA quality. And I adopted his lessons. At high school, I refused to wear anything that wouldn’t have looked sharp thirty years before, which is something nobody else I knew was thinking. It made me an early proponent of the “preppy” look. However, I didn’t go in for the fad version of it, with popped collars and pink shirts and such. I dressed more like a Cornell student in 1960, wearing Brooks Brothers button-collar oxfords, Bass penny loafers, and shrink-to-fit 501s while everyone else was wearing Rush T-shirts, Nikes, and flare-bottom cords. When it came time to outfit me in a suit, we didn’t go to the mall in Sunnyvale like all my friends did when they needed an outfit for their grandparents’ 50th anniversary. While they went to get a youth-model version of a leisure suit by Angel’s Flight, we drove all the way to San Francisco to the Brooks Brothers in Union Square where I picked up the future-power-brokers-of-America uniform: rep tie, charcoal wool pants, blue blazer. The level of respect I got from the salesman alone made me feel like somebody destined for big things. The lesson, on the surface, was one of timeless elegance, but the real lesson was more one of inventing in who you want to be and dressing to become that person. He did. And I guess I did, too. Years later, I read a great quote by Malcolm McLaren: “Clothes have tremendous power. They can change your mind about who you are.” But I really learned that lesson from my dad.

Alex Williams