Top hat and tails: the author goes full Fred Astaire

The devils that made me a dandy

My enduring passion for sartorial splendour was driven by a childhood addiction to the glamour of TV


This article is taken from the May 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.

Television. Way back in the 1950s and 1960s, it was the little flickering black-and-white screen with its cutely rounded corners, that glossily veneered boxful of miracles, which provided the source of my undoing: here were the very seeds of a subsequent and abiding addiction, dangled daily so very irresistibly before me, and with a beguiling artlessness, by the most sly and accomplished pusher imaginable. 

Between the ages of eight (when I was sent to prep school) and thirteen (when the ante was upped and I was packed off with, among much other lumber, stiff collars, indoor shoes, and a Sunday suit — all alive with Cash’s woven name tapes — to a boarding establishment in the middle of Oxfordshire) the blandishments of television had me by the throat. 

There was simply nothing else vying for my concentrated attention — because although I have, in one way or another, spent the whole of my life thoroughly immersed in the world of books, I did not grow up in a bookish household: I remember a dictionary, a Pears Cyclopedia, the four pastel-coloured telephone directories, and very little else. 

I knew nothing of the children’s classics, and I don’t think I had so much as ever laid eyes upon a poem. The Beano (not to say The Dandy, Beezer and Topper) collectively formed my literature of choice, though these were soon supplanted by Anthony Buckeridge’s quite wonderful Jennings books, and then — in one mighty leap and a bound — Ian Fleming’s James Bond.

I did not understand much about 007 (when plainly he could easily afford a hotel room all to himself, why would he choose to share it? And with a girl, for heaven’s sake! Also: why would he want his drinks to be shaken? I tried it once with Tizer, and it just went all over the place). 

But it was the underlying glamour of the world that Fleming had created — here was the great seductive thing. Mention of his hero’s tailoring and personalised accessories had me aquiver with envy, as I strained to imagine just how they would look, exactly — how all this Sea Island cotton, silk and cashmere could actually feel.

Because when I talk of the hold over me that television was daily wielding, and so very effortlessly, I do not at all mean the programmes themselves, which were largely lamentable (even I could see that much) but all the trappings that came with them: this tantalising vision of things undreamt of.

Some of my unstoppable fascination with the endless array of costumes sported by all the men who littered the screen may be partially explained, I think, by my having been an only child whose father died when I was but three years old. Leaving aside an occasional uncle, I never saw any men, apart from schoolmasters who would either demonstrate a strutting and unfathomable arrogance, or else were exuding a faintly rancid miasma of very possibly despair.

All of them possessed the air of having been born in the clothes they stood up in (which barely varied from day to day, from term to term: frayed shirt collars, V-necks knitted by their aunties, shiny trousers and quite exhausted tweed jackets with leather elbows, the breast pocket sporting a loathsome array of cheapo ballpoints). For yes — it was all the fabulous clothes I saw on TV that I constantly found to be most utterly compelling. Had I been let loose in the wardrobe departments of Pinewood or the BBC (and let’s not even get started on Hollywood) I truly believe that the ensuing ecstasy might have brought about in me an early seizure.

I was also very much drawn to the look of a professional gambler — Maverick

Initially, it was just about wishing to tog oneself up like any man at all who I saw on television (not newsreaders, obviously — they looked just like schoolmasters, and droned on and on about incomprehensible things in a similar and horribly tedious manner). Cowboys were the really big thing at the time — I remember with ease the names of all the programmes: Wagon Train, Rawhide, Bonanza, Davy Crockett, Roy Rogers, The Lone Ranger, Hopalong Cassidy, Bronco Lane, Whiplash, Gun Law, Wyatt Earp — and a cowboy dressing-up outfit was standard kit for every schoolboy (girls were stuck with being nurses, whether they liked it or not). 

But that was the trouble with these outfits: they were standard, generic, no hint of style — quite apart from being not even remotely authentic. The basic tunic and trousers were always adorned with the sort of frippery otherwise only ever seen on lampshades: zigzag piping, bobbles and fringing. What self-respecting cowboy would be caught dead in any of that? Apart from the Cisco Kid, obviously, but he was loud, worryingly foreign and also weird. The all-important hat would often sport a gaudy paper label saying “Sherriff”: that was whipped off in an instant. 

It was the subtleties and coolness I was after: slim, straight-legged trousers, supplemented occasionally with flapping buckskin chaps (I was still in prep school shorts, for God’s sake, so actually anything that went on down past the knee was close to the Holy Grail for me). Cuban-heeled boots with jangling spurs. I wanted a fitted shirt with a jaunty red bandana knotted to the side of the neck. A leather waistcoat that was never buttoned up, its little pockets reserved exclusively for plug tobacco and silver dollars. A dashingly curvaceous Stetson — and, but of course, the low slung gun belt, strapped to the thigh with a thin leather thong.

I was also very much drawn to the look of a professional gambler — Maverick, as played very winsomely by James Garner. Here we had a slightly showy elegance which immediately appealed (slightly showy elegance, I think, has been my watchword ever since). A smart black wide-brimmed hat (the hats of all the most attractive characters — the villains and the louche — were always black: this was a given), a frilly shirtfront, slim bow tie, and then — glory of glories — a shiny satin double-breasted waistcoat, complete with watch chain, and over this a sort of frock-coat that flared from the waist.

Another seductive little accessory was the tiny Derringer pistol concealed beneath his shirt cuff, and always so very handy for shooting dead anyone so foolish as to deal from the bottom of the deck.

I had precious little to work with, so what I ended up looking like may be easily imagined: the standard brown cowboy trousers, with the red and yellow piping painstakingly unpicked, a dark green felt bolero waistcoat, a neckerchief — chiffon, I’m afraid, but red, at least — and black leather gloves: all these belonged to my mother, who didn’t seem to mind. 

A rigid plastic belt with a pair of orange-fringed holsters (and me with only one silver Lone Star revolver to my name) and these were swirlingly embellished with the plainly idiotic legend ‘Laramie Kid’, which I tried to obliterate with biro, with predictably patchy results. I used the same black Bic in an attempt at a thin and rakish moustache (and this my mother did mind very much as it took her the best part of a week to expunge the shadow of the very last traces, by way of the vigorous application of some or other unguent which stung like crazy). 

And bloody wellington boots. These were a staple of all my outfits, as my only other footwear were round-toed school lace-ups, and Start-Rite sandals: I’m telling you, this fanatical devotion to dressing up — it was never going to be easy. There was also a Davy Crockett hat, but I would never wear that. What — a matted and synthetic recreation of an eviscerated animal with dangling tail stuck on top of one’s head? I didn’t think so.

My endless hunger for further get-ups was easily assuaged by a clutch of other types of programmes: all sorts of professions and callings were endlessly on display, and although I had not the slightest interest in any one of them (just as I never wanted to be an actual cowboy, being rather frightened of horses, not to say cows) still there were elements of their habit which I found most seductive (though I never craved a habit per se: monks and priests were the opposite of fancy).

A series called Boyd QC introduced me to the theatre of the law courts — though for once, the top man’s gear did not attract me: a judge’s red robe was pleasant enough, but they were always very, very old men whose full-bottomed wig rendered them akin to the dog in the Hush Puppies advert. But barristers — oh yes! The neat little periwig was clearly a good thing — but it was the swishing cape thing they all affected: that really did it for me. For the same reason, old-fashioned headmasters also had their points: that gown again, and also the bendy bamboo cane and mortarboard, with its cute attendant tassel. The doctor’s white coat (Emergency Ward 10) studiously left open to flap like a mantle, and the stethoscope casually slung around the neck — they were on my wish list. 

The Buccaneer made me yearn to dress like a pirate — oh, let me count the joys: a tricorn hat bearing the skull and crossbones! A vast and drooping moustache! An eyepatch! A ridiculously broad belt with gleaming buckle — and, rammed into it, not just the crescent of a scimitar, but also a flintlock pistol! The loose and flapping boots were simply the icing on the cake (and so of course I worshipped the Three Musketeers and Cavaliers for most of the above reasons).

Knights in armour (it was all about the plumed helmet, really) were only glancingly attractive, as I think I must have perceived the inherent discomfort of clanking about in the full fig. Nineteenth century militaria, however, was an altogether different matter. As ever, the get-up was all (I had no desire to be a combatant in battle — what in heaven’s name do you take me for?) but the blinding splendour of the uniforms and accoutrements, they held me in utter thrall — though that of only the highest ranking officers, quite naturally. 

Against the red coat, the massed clusters of all those medals — the braid, brass, swords and sashes; I confess that my utter adoration of the thickly encrusted golden epaulette with its dependent ringlets toppled over into the fetishistic.

You will note that thus far I had been wallowing in a love for costume from times gone by. As my attention was gradually caught by the twentieth century, I found that pickings were slimmer, but no less potent. The lure of the military was bound to wane (khaki is hardly my colour) though with one rather unfortunate exception: the uniform of the Nazi SS.

Speaking purely from an aesthetic point of view (difficult, I know) the look is strikingly powerful: the stark contrast of black and red, and then the attendant insignia. I have long been aware of the horrible irony that the swastika and the Star of David are, I think, the most perfect graphic symbols ever devised. And as to that colour scheme, the red silk lining of his floor-length black cape was wholly responsible for my abiding regard for Count Dracula (the Devil has all the best hues).

Do you know, not once in my life have I ever been invited to a fancy dress party?

And now for something completely different: Fred Astaire…! Also no stranger to a dashing cape, but the awe-inspiring revelation to me was the top hat, white tie and tails (as he stepped out, my dear, to breathe an atmosphere that simply reeked of class). That hat, as glossy as an LP record, supplanted the epaulette at the very summit of my ever-growing roster of unhealthy obsessions. I must have been the only ten year-old boy in existence to covet a black silk topper above anything else the world had to offer: Lord, how terribly strange. 

And please don’t mention to me that little word “spats”, or else I might have to retire to a darkened room for a lie-down. Another television hero of course just had to be John Steed of The Avengers — for here again is that slightly showy elegance, which he utterly exemplified. He would often wear a stock and stick-pin in place of a tie, and those beautifully cut three-piece suits, well — they were just suave perfection (as, indeed, was he — though when I later learned that Patrick Macnee, the actor who so ably played him, cared nothing for clothes, and was actually a rather scruffy individual, it practically broke my heart).

Steed’s Chelsea boots (wanted those) would often be the identical colour to his tailoring — and so was the bowler hat (he being the only person ever who could carry off a bowler so as not to look like the Homepride man) as well as the slim umbrella (actually a swordstick: and you can put that on the lust list, pronto). Following on from Hardy Amies, Pierre Cardin was responsible for all of this — and the original round-collared lapel-less suit, as worn by The Beatles, was credited to him as well (and of course I wanted that — pined for it quite piteously, along with their Anello & Davide Cuban-heeled boots). 

As I was a teenager in the 1960s, in theory I ought to have been free to indulge in a Technicolor orgy of Carnaby Street’s cornucopia of delights (and in particular those plum and kingfisher velvet frock-coats as worn by The Kinks) — but alas, I was not just still imprisoned in that boarding school in Oxfordshire I mentioned earlier, but also quite penniless, and so for me the Swinging Sixties were hardly more than a rumour: as ever, I was doomed to merely witness with envy the endless and gorgeous parade from a mute and miserable distance.

And do you know, not once in my life have I ever been invited to a fancy dress party? Too cruel, really — though I think it might have taken me a year to decide who to go as. In the end, I think I might have plumped for simply myself: Joseph. Though doubtless in a coat of many colours.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover