Filthy shades of grey
Why do people — and men in particular — dress so vilely now?
In some or other barely registered and subconscious level, I think I must have been aware for maybe even decades that people in Britain — and most particularly men — for a very long time have been dressing quite vilely as a simple matter of course. But the eye-opening and virtually universal truth of it struck me utterly and most forcibly while sitting in the back of a gridlocked taxi shortly before Christmas, having nothing to do but gaze forlornly at the huddled masses thronging the length of Oxford Street.
And while this pretty grisly thoroughfare might well be untypical of the country at large, still it is worth pointing out that despite the online inroads into its market, it remains the very mecca of shopping, and what people come to buy here is very largely clothes. But just take one look at them all! A dull and endless stream of indistinguishable humanity, all with the humdrum dress and bearing of a mass of downtrodden refugees just off the boat.
As the cab was making extremely slow progress from Selfridges all the way up to Tottenham Court Road, I saw, amid the thousands, only seven women not wearing jeans, trousers or leggings: one old lady was quite smartly turned out in what we used to call a “costume”, while the other half-dozen were wholly shrouded in burkhas.
And this had nothing to do with the winter chill, for I remember having casually observed precisely the same phenomenon in the summer: pretty floral dresses seem to be no more than a memory — we are doomed to seeing only the trudging squads of Lowry-esque trousered legs, and all of them in black or grey. And, of course, no one now would regard this as being any sort of “phenomenon” at all — it is merely the way things are, and have been for a very long time.
She sits, the result of hours of preparation — but opposite her is a man who looks geared up to pressure-wash the patio
Many of the Oxford Street women were burdened by a great number of carrier bags — mostly the large brown paper numbers from Primark — and of course they can’t all have been bulging with more of the same deadly monochrome duds. In them, there will also have been “party wear”, I’m afraid. Because for some time now, the younger women would appear to dress according to a mutually agreed and unwritten code: by day, they will dress as blokes: T-shirts, jeans, hoodies, puffy jackets — and trainers, but of course.
If going out in the evening, however — or pouting on Instagram — they seek to emulate what in the 1950s might have been seen to be a lady of the night. Clothes seem to be either a question of warmth and basic modesty, or else an unconsciously parodic display of a rather dated sexiness, not that far removed from the drag queens who long ago, for the sake of humour, adopted a wildly exaggerated version of Shirley Bassey pizzazz.
But still, to women, I shall doff my hat (being one of the few men who actually still wears a proper one, as opposed to the beanie, which instantly renders anyone an imbecile) for at least they will, on occasion, exact great pleasure from making the effort. One may observe the imbalance between the sexes, however, in any restaurant during an evening: there she sits, the result of maybe hours of planning and preparation — the hair, nails, make-up precisely as she wants it, the dress and jewellery just so — and opposite her is a man who looks all geared up to pressure-wash the patio, having just come from lagging the loft.
This is not just because he is idle and rude (although, of course, he is), but — crucially — because he can. In any given discipline, men will cleave to whatever they are allowed to get away with, decently or not, and since the 1980s women, somewhat inexplicably, have been idly sitting by and being extraordinarily accepting of the situation. But the men, oh dear me … men are the true and number one villains here, and it is men I am now going to lay into.
’Twas not ever thus. Glance at the advice given by Polonius to his son Laertes: “Costly thy habit as thy purse can buy, but not expressed in fancy — rich, not gaudy, for the apparel oft proclaims the man.” From which we derived the frequently applied though unattributable “clothes maketh the man”. And in Pygmalion, a Covent Garden trader concludes that Professor Higgins cannot possibly be a mere policeman because he is wearing what even to his eyes are very evidently a gentleman’s boots. For how long has all this been regarded as nonsense? It takes only a viewing of a clutch of old films on the Talking Pictures channel to remind oneself of just how it used to be.
Between the 1930s and 1950s little seemed to change in the sartorial stakes despite the intervening war. Still a man would wear a suit capacious enough to allow for the taking in of lodgers, polished leather shoes, a collar and tie but of course, a big and enveloping greatcoat together with trilby or fedora. Comforting and comfortable clothes, accessorised with maybe a watch chain across the waistcoat, cufflinks, a tie pin, a cigarette case and lighter, and very possibly a raffish carnation in the buttonhole. They looked like men and one can only think that women (who so very much looked like women) might have appreciated this, if only for the sake of contrast.
And nor did it end there. Together with long and unbrilliantined hair, the 1960s ushered in the most glorious men’s attire – velvets, silks and colours, stuff not seen since the Regency, and all for the delight of the dedicated follower of fashion. And then … well then what? Glossing over the ugliness of the mullet hairstyle, flared trousers, shell suits and the garishness of glam rock, a new sort of functionalism and drabness has been willingly embraced. Following the very brief flowering of the showier post-punks with their Technicolor Mohicans, there came the pared-back brutality of the skinhead: everything stripped right down to mute aggression — those boots were made for kicking.
However, for the past 30 years — and this seems mighty strange to me — we have had to suffer the same grey and all-enveloping austerity that is seemingly unshakeable: it really does look as though it will last forever. New sorts of uniform that will do anything but lay down pointers as to the nature or status of the wearer: Egalitarians “R” Us.
Giorgio Armani and Steve Jobs — billionaires from the worlds of fashion and electronics, and both of them in a black T-shirt and trousers, all day and every day. That this look could be seen to be chic and in no way betray one’s wealth or lack of it immediately appealed to men the world over. Understated, they will tell you, but basically they like it because it is so bloody easy. Such an attitude echoes the only positive feature, maybe, of being a monk — a habit becomes, perforce, a habit. The T-shirt that started life as a GI’s undervest, and jeans (invented by Levi Strauss for the American miner) have become the accepted and ubiquitous garb for all.
And then there is the inexorable rise of the trainer. Even old men (old enough to know better, you might hope) will affect these grubbily bouncy things, often with tracksuit bottoms . Needless to say, they do no sport. The grey marl hoodie is another staple — complete with those two perfectly maddening dangling bits of string — much favoured by our youth, largely to evade detection on CCTV.
The baseball cap too seems reluctant to die, whether worn backwards or not. Many grown men now dress like American children on a trip to Disneyland, and the damned T-shirt is incomplete without some screamingly banal statement written across it, or else a blatant advertisement for the beer they like, the band they like, or even the people who manufactured the very rag they actually paid money for and are wearing with such smug and misplaced pride. There are occasional nods to the past — the bearded hipster’s waistcoat and granddad shirt, the Peaky Blinders baker’s boy cap — but these are really too embarrassingly self-conscious to even have truck with.
And alongside all of this horror there is the initially quite stealthily creeping but now quite mandatory aversion to anything that might even hint at formality. Those men whose work demands they wear something recognisably sensible (not too many of those left, I fancy) are increasingly reluctant to do so. So they seek to subvert it in some silly way, rather as schoolgirls in uniform are wont to.
So above the tie knot, an undone top button on an untucked-in shirt with no sleeves — and after work, the detested tie stripped from the neck, leaving a flapping collar which was expressly designed to accommodate it. Omitting the tie is akin to doing away with the laces on a pair of brogues, should they have heard of a pair of brogues. Jackets will be ritually hung on the backs of chairs, whether it is hot or not. And just look at Dominic Cummings, for Christ’s sake.
I think I am going to have to form an institution, a movement dedicated to the reinstatement of proper, well-tailored and correctly fitting men’s clothes. The reintroduction of wearing full-length coats in winter, instead of a bomber jacket, and a felt hat when it rains (or even when it doesn’t). All of it allowing for a touch of flamboyance. Of course I shall need a patron — and do you know, I think the Prince of Wales will do very nicely. Our future King: the best-dressed man in Britain. Always.
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