12/04/2012 12:50 pm ET Updated Feb 03, 2013

Beautiful Man Clothes

We took Little Dude to a family wedding this weekend -- his first -- and to mark the occasion with the solemnity it deserved, I spent a night trying to assemble an outfit for him from a collection of ratty jeans and outgrown button-down shirts. Watching me with curiosity as I tried to identify the pants with the fewest stains, Little Dude asked, "Mommy, will I get to wear beautiful man clothes?" Not entirely sure what the right answer was, I said, "Yes." Inside, I thought, Crap, what are beautiful man clothes? and How do I get some? and When did 5-year old boys start caring about what they wear?

Up until that moment, I assumed boys would wear whatever was put in front of them. This had generally been the case with my son. Except for a request for truck designs on his underwear and t-shirts, he would wear almost anything. As I looked at the khaki pants and the white shirt that technically had buttons even though the sleeves were a tad too short, I saw them in a new light. Was it possible my little car-obsessed boy was branching out? Was he a budding fashionista or just a kid who paid attention to what he saw in the mirror? Was my cavalier attitude towards his clothing a sign that I was pigeonholing him into a gender stereotype that didn't apply to him?

I am obscenely practical when it comes to kids and clothes. As long as you grow out of them, I buy them on sale, at a consignment shop or accept hand-me downs. I won't spend more than 10 bucks on a shirt that may or may not make it through a given season. I stockpile clothes from yard sales and save them until Little Dude grows into them. I do cave on underwear though, because, ewwww, gross. On everything else, there's nothing a good washing won't cure.

So even though I felt a little guilty about the patchwork outfit I had chosen -- it was acceptable but not beautiful -- I was certain no one would care or notice and that he would forget about wanting something more visually appealing. Honestly, I thought, it was just an outfit. I packed and we boarded our flight.

Later that night I told Dapper Husband about Little Dude's question. I was cavalier, even flippant. Dapper Husband was not. He took Little Dude's question seriously because he understood something that I did not. Where I saw a little boy being a too interested in clothing, Dapper Husband understood that this was not about style. It was about a boy wanting to dress like his dad. Little Dude watches his dad get ready for work in the morning and that ritual involves something more than a ripped pair of jeans and a cement mixer t-shirt. It requires slacks, a belt, the occasional coat and tie. Little Dude thinks those are beautiful because they symbolize what it means not only to be a man in general, but also to be the man who looms largest in his life. I think that is beautiful.

Which is how I found myself at a mall outside of Chicago a few hours before the wedding buying Little Dude his first jacket and tie. We steered our son to a well-known children's clothing store and left 30 minutes later with a garish tartan tie (Little Dude's choice), blue blazer (my husband's pick), a belt (on sale!) and a new white shirt that fit him perfectly. I cringed at the price tag and wondered if I could make his birthday party a semi-formal.

I let my misgivings go once we got back to our hotel. Little Dude listened as his dad explained how to tuck in his shirt and buckle his belt. He put on his socks and shoes and sat patiently as my husband knotted his tie and told him when it was ok to unbutton his jacket. I had nothing to contribute to this tutorial, having never mastered the art of the Windsor knot or how to match a patterned tie to a differently patterned shirt, so I sat on the sidelines, an observer to a rite of passage. I took pictures to capture this step away from childhood.

I watched as my green-eyed boy walked over to the mirror and puffed out his chest. He tugged on his tie and stared at himself with a look of sheer delight. He was so proud, it made my heart hurt. I looked over at the outfit I had originally chosen, still hanging in the closet, and wondered how I could have been so wrong about something so important. This wasn't about fashion or beauty, it was about belonging. Clothes don't make the man (or the boy), but sometimes they make a moment.

This appears in Issue 28 of our weekly iPad magazine, Huffington, in the iTunes App store, available Friday, Dec. 21.