Keeping up with Gunnar: a meditation on becoming fashionable

Photo: Britt Wanberg Larrie Wanberg (left) struggles to be as fashionable as his “grandson” Gunnar (right).

Photo: Britt Wanberg
Larrie Wanberg (left) struggles to be as fashionable as his “grandson” Gunnar (right).

Larrie Wanberg
Features Editor

Okay! Okay! I’m giving into pressures to get with the fashion of the times.

I’m hanging up my grey and light blue Norwegian sweater, lovingly knit in a Voss pattern by my Norwegian-born wife six decades ago. Still today, it’s a comfort in the chilly Northwest winds of the Dakotas. Seems the colors have faded since I first wore it skiing on the high mountain slopes of Norway in the 1950s as a student at the University of Oslo, but it is always in my closet, if I need it.

Growing up in a small cowboy town in North Dakota during the “dirty thirties” of the Great Depression, my first two decades exposed to fashion were simple—faded jeans, a western-style shirt, cowboy boots, and a white Stetson that was given to me by an elderly neighbor who was one of the first settlers on the prairies. His name was “Bollig” and his name fit him.

This hat was so cherished by me, that it once blew out the car window in San Francisco 40 years later while driving to the Presidio Riding Stables and rested against the mid-barrier of the freeway. I got up the next morning before dawn when there was little or no traffic, retrieved the dusty hat with a few tire tread marks on it, and tried to explain it to a Highway Patrolman who pulled up. He scolded me. I told him my story and he let me go without a ticket, saying, “Now I’ve heard everything.”

For two decades in the military, fashion was easy. Everyday, it was the same—khaki. Working in a hospital, I wore a white coat over my everyday uniform. As a Lieutenant assigned to a military hospital in the South, we were authorized to wear khaki Bermuda shorts with light tan knit stockings to the knee. I loved them. But when I put on the white coat for hospital staff, it seemed as if I “just got out of bed” as the knees showed below the “doctor’s” coat. But, hey, it was in fashion for a time, it was “cool,” and I liked the comfort of wearing them.

For a decade after military retirement, I wore a dark suit, white shirt, and plain tie, while working as a corporate consultant. The message in the field at the time was “don’t stand out as a flashy guy.”

When I returned to North Dakota in the next decade, the dress code “doubled down” in rural communities—dress plainly like everyone else, don’t appear to be an “outsider,” and fit in with the roots of Scandinavian modesty—“Laws of Janteloven.” It’s the opposite of “keeping up with the Joneses.”

As my four kids grew up, fashion began to change for me. The whole family and the in-laws seemed to be connected to fashion in some way. It started with a marketing campaign of Seattle-based Nordstrom Department Store in 1980s, when my son Lars and his wife Annie were principle fashion models who engaged the extended family—each modeling clothes in large posters hanging from the store’s ceilings, published in advertisements, and in a special Nordstrom fashion catalog. The emphasis of the campaign was “fashion fits in families.”

I was living in Europe at the time and was not included, but I always wondered how some fashion director would fit me into that scene?

Lars, who went on to be a Ford model for ramp work in Paris and Tokyo, once told me about riding on a subway in Tokyo, seeing his pictures pasted on the ceiling of the coach, standing head and shoulders above the passengers and feeling embarrassed when young teenagers would point at the photo, then at him, and titter with excitement. Professionally, he moved behind the camera to become a fashion photographer for a decade, and now raises funds as a documentary-styled filmmaker for non-profits by producing stories of children to support needs for medical research.

His wife Annie is a professional stylist. His sister-in-law works in interior design. His mother-in-law was host of a TV fashion show, even when the screen was in black and white. His father-in-law was in visual merchandising as an executive at Macy’s in San Francisco.

My other two sons and their families in SF reflect the “fashions” of heritage in their home and in their daily activities in their chosen careers in banking and landscape architecture.

Currently, my daughter Britt is building a “fashion” business in creative attire for owners and their pets. She tells me that when she walks in town with her red field golden retriever, named Gunnar, prancing with genes from a lineage of Irish Setter, wearing a designed bandana of Britt’s making, other dog owners stop to talk, and their dogs seem to be envious of wearable fashion. If you doubt pet care and fashions as viable, it’s over a $50 billion industry in America.

So, you can see that I’ve been “out-gunned,” as I heard the old cowboys talk when I was a child. I’m starting to think of including more fashion in my life—replacing the old comfort zone with some color and style.

It’s not the “Joneses” who are my concern. It’s keeping up with our dog Gunnar in what I wear while walking with him at my side. I’m not into bandanas since leaving childhood, although he wears them proudly. I’m thinking of a baseball cap inscribed with “Grand Paw” and an image of introspective times with Gunnar sitting alongside me on a park bench or strolling through the streets.

Fashion is creeping into my life. Last week, I bought a new tie with some splash of color in it. I gave an old tweed sport coat to a thrift store. I started to ponder how I could fit into some classy, stylish clothes without overdoing it.

It’s a challenge, but I think I’m up for it.

This article originally appeared in the Sept. 26, 2014 issue of the Norwegian American Weekly.

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Larrie Wanberg

Larrie Wanberg, 1920–2021, contributed features to The Norwegian American for many years, drawing on eight decades of life experience highlighted by three career recognitions: as a researcher through a Fulbright Scholarship to Norway in 1957; as a health care provider in behavioral science through a 27-year military career and awarded upon retirement in 1981 the highest non-combat medal, the Legion of Merit medal; as an educator, through a 50-year career in college education, culminating in the 2010 Public Scholar award at the UND Center for Community Engagement. Wanberg passed away in May, 2021.