King Felipe of Spain (Photo by Tim Clayton/Corbis via Getty Images)

Dressing well is good for the soul

Against the tyranny of scruffiness

Artillery Row

Ever noticed how well people dress abroad? Go to Paris or any big Italian city, and you’re immediately struck by the care and attention the locals seem to take over their appearance. The weather helps, of course: far easier to look good in a crisp white shirt or simple linen dress when you don’t have to worry about the caprices of a climate where August can resemble February. There’s more to it than this, though. Here in Britain, we seem to have lost our desire to dress stylishly, as we don “athleisurewear” for all occasions, taking our cue from the US in matters sartorial as in so many other things.

Perhaps the British are inherently bad dressers, just as we have always had a reputation (much challenged in recent years) for being bad cooks. Yet, things weren’t always thus. People seem mesmerised whenever those clips of old footage from the 1930s circulate periodically online. The people in them, rushing for a train at Waterloo Station or milling around Piccadilly Circus, look strikingly well-dressed, without exception: the men in tweed suits, the women in neat pencil skirts and jackets. And hats — so many hats.

Back then, the desire for sartorial sophistication seems to have been universal. I think of my grandmother, who grew up near the Old Kent Road, worked in a factory as a young woman, and whose south London accent was pronounced. She wore twinsets, pearls, and trim suits from her teens to her eighties, and her hair was always just so; my grandfather wore a shirt and tie underneath his jumper at weekends and in retirement. Of course, they seemed terribly unfashionable to the teenage me, but looking back, I can see they had style. There was definitely a psychological element to these clothing choices — a sense of pride and “respectability”, an aspiration to push their way up from the working to the lower middle classes.

The way my grandparents dressed is long gone and never coming back. The fashion dial has turned countless times since then, and there has been much to celebrate in the many inventive and attractive styles that have followed. The progressive casualisation of dress began in the 1960s and intensified apace over the decades that followed. The more drastic abandonment of formal clothes even for formal occasions (notably, going to work) has been a recent phenomenon, though, accelerated by furlough and working from home. So extreme is the trend that it is now hard to find smart clothing even if you want it.

It was reported in 2021 that Marks & Spencer was no longer selling men’s suits at more than half of its larger stores, though market demand has apparently increased somewhat this year. Women’s formal workwear, meanwhile, has become a particularly elusive beast. Recently I had dinner with an old friend, now a judge, who was dressed impeccably for court. Surely she had the insider info on where to shop? Unfortunately not: she makes do with black dresses under an old jacket, because the suits she used to wear are “impossible to find”.

There is still an interest in dressing well. Witness last July’s Twitter thread about the King of Spain that went viral. Menswear writer Derek Guy (@dieworkwear) provided a tutorial on why the cut and the attention to detail in the King’s tailoring made him look so much better than other world leaders and Hollywood stars. (A photo of a recent NATO summit showed some particularly terrible trouserwear.) A monarch has limitless resources to fund his bespoke suits, but there’s more to it than money: the analysis revealed that Felipe VI was getting it so much more “right” than another man of means, our own Rishi Sunak.

Our turn towards the dishevelled speaks of a changing attitude to work

In any case, looking stylish is eminently possible on a modest budget. The key is to identify exactly what fits and suits, then stick to those cuts and colours religiously. Does that tunic drown your hourglass figure and make you look twice as wide as you actually are? Put it back. Does this season’s shade of taupe illuminate your complexion or make you look like a corpse? Choose maroon instead. This approach means ignoring the vagaries of fashion entirely and holding on to old favourites. The fact that “your” styles might be out of fashion for an entire decade or longer will undoubtedly be good for the wallet.

Many would argue that the abandonment of even semi-formal dress is a liberation, freeing us up from discomfort to get on with the things in life that really matter (though to my mind jeans are the most uncomfortable garment ever invented). I wonder if our embrace of scruffiness really makes us feel good, or whether it is reflective of something bleaker about our state of mind. The national mood is low and no wonder. The news is full of existential crises, the economy is trashed, politicians inspire no confidence, we are divided from friends and family by culture wars, and even the arts — customary bestowers of light, joy and meaning — are under the cosh. Our turn towards the dishevelled speaks of a changing attitude to work, the famous Protestant work ethic now a quaint notion as going into the office becomes something to be avoided at all costs. Our manner of dress seems to exude a collective sigh of “what’s the bloody point?”

Clothes can be a conversation-opener. Dress a notch or two up from the norm, and people will comment and compliment you. You suddenly become “visible”, standing out from the same anonymous “uniform” of jeans and trainers everyone else is wearing. A trivial matter, perhaps, but it is good for the soul. I have felt this particularly strongly recently, when going through a highly stressful period at work. The temptation might be to put on jogging bottoms, a shapeless jumper and a big puffa jacket, retreating glumly into a sort of daytime duvet. Instead, a tailored dress and a smart woollen coat instantly felt more purposeful and professional. Dressing better is quite simply better for our state of mind. As the old saying goes, dress as the person you want to be.

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