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How James Spader Helped Me Overcome My Fear of Pairing Formal Clothing With a Parka

Unexpected fashion lessons from "The Blacklist."
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Photo: 'The Blacklist"

Photo: 'The Blacklist"

I love "The Blacklist." It's best in class within the genre of cheesy procedurals driven by a lead character who is fallible yet blessed with talents so fine that viewers can rest easy knowing they'll be played as a trump card at the end of each episode. It follows a most-wanted fugitive and international criminal, Raymond Reddington, played by eternal dreamboat James Spader, who turns himself in to the FBI and becomes an informant, under the mysterious condition that he work with one agent only, a rookie who just started on the job. "What is their relationship? Is she his daughter?" literally everyone on the show wonders. We still don't know for sure, and it's season three. I've given up hope that the writers know where they're going with this, honestly.

I mostly watch the show for Spader's performance, hoping that through observation I'll learn to channel the confidence of a crafty white man in his mid-50s. Nobody does self-assurance like Spader on that show. He's unhurried, he's cheeky, he's in control; he regularly wears a fedora, and you don't feel weird about it for a second. If James Spader the actor wore a fedora out in public (and he has), you might be like, "Spader, man, maybe don't? You already look cool in the sunglasses." But James Spader's character wears a fedora, and you think to yourself, "That must be a very expensive fedora."

It's amazing what conviction can do to cast new light on a situation. And so it's thanks to Spader's extreme self-possession that I dissolved one of my biggest and most first world fashion concerns: That wearing a winter-proof, somewhat bulky parka over nice work clothes looks weird, and that I should be wearing a slim, technically "stylish" coat instead, especially to industry events like Fashion Week.

Operating according to a theory that dressing more nicely would be good for my professional life, I'd sworn earlier this winter to sub out my usual jeans, sweatshirts and black Timberlands for more formal clothing at least a few days a week. Put on a loose silk button-down. Maybe wear some heels. The bar was exceedingly low and required basically no effort to clear, but doubts crept in when I had to put on my coat and walk out the door. I didn't own an attractive wool coat, didn't want to spend money on one and knew from experience that a trendy option from Zara wasn't going to keep me warm enough. Though my dark gray North Face parka paired easily with jeans, it seemed discordant and too athletic on top of navy trousers and a pair of leather ankle boots. I felt like I was half-assing the "dressing like a professional" thing when I wanted to go all in, ass-wise. Was this really better than wearing a more casual but aesthetically cohesive outfit?

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Luckily I went on a "Blacklist" spree one Wednesday night, because it opened me up to the possibility that intermingling dress clothing with a parka is not only fine, but kind of badass.

On the show, Spader's character is a master of stylish functionality. In a recent episode, we learned by way of a small plot point that he rents storage units all across the U.S. to fill with useful items should he be in the neighborhood and in need. Among the more practical things a freewheeling criminal might want in a pinch (arms, motorcycles, a suitcase full of stolen cocaine), one locker hosts a refrigerator filled with his favorite Italian beef. You know, 'cause why not? It's a good analog to Reddington's personal style, which equally prioritizes panache and practicality. He usually wears a suit and tie — with a vest, which is so old school it sets your heart aflutter — but when he has to fly off to Russia or spend some time outdoors in wintry New England, he busts out a dark parka with a furry hood and doesn't think twice about it, because he is not fucking around with the cold. 

Yes, we're talking about a nice, expensive jacket here (Moncler or equivalent), but no matter how you cut it, parkas are sporty. They're not the chicest. It works, though, even with the dress pants and the dress shoes and the fedora that gets a pass when it really shouldn't, because James Spader has applied his James Spader confidence to the situation, and you just don't doubt James Spader, with his rich, gravelly man voice. And even if you did, do you actually think he cares? His job — his character's job; I'm just going to keep wildly conflating the two — is to extract favors from criminal acquaintances and get into a shootout at least twice an episode. Our guy wants no chinks in his armor. Feeling chilly makes you feel vulnerable, and vulnerability is bad for business. I mean, would James Spader even be James Spader if he sacrificed his bodily comfort and mental fortitude for a marginal fashion gain? Don't think too hard about it. James Spader would not. 

All this got me thinking about whether there's any material difference between James Spader the "Blacklist" actor and you or me, going about our jobs, writing about fashion or tinkering away on a line of code or serving up expert latte art. We're all people, trying to get shit done and keep warm when the wind threatens to rip through our outer defenses. Grab your parka, and get to work.

Update: As one reader reminded me via LinkedIn message, James Spader of course does not do his own costuming. The costume designer for "The Blacklist" is Christine Bean, who is clearly fantastic at her job.