Writer and broadcaster

It’s dress down every day in Britain. Published in The Observer.

We should never have got rid of starch. That’s what done us in. The moment we stopped starching collars and let them flap all over the place, like puppy dog’s ears, we were done for. Then the tie went, so the collar could disappear completely. Then a round-necked stretchy thing called a T-shirt came in and that was the end of dressing up, of making an effort. Never mind about what was going on down there – jeans, sandals, jogging bottoms, no socks, bad socks, trainers and all manner of slobellanea.

Now, here we are, with a Prime Minster who thinks it’s OK to attend any part of an official visit – in this case a barbecue attended by heads of government – wearing a sweatshirt. (Note that if he’d worn, say, a polo shirt with a collar it would not have appeared quite so inappropriate.) And we can laugh at Tone’s top, because our waistbands are probably elastic and can take it. And we recognise the sweatshirt because we have several just like it, although probably not from Nicole Farhi, like his was.

Actually, out of all his outfits on this trip to Australia for the Commonwealth heads of government meeting, this was the most representative, Blair’s most honest outfit. We have become a nation of slobs, so it’s only fitting that we are represented by a political leader in a top that requires minimal effort.

We like comfort, we crave it. We like our fabrics to be soft and stretchy. God forbid anything should dig in (as I write this I am unaware of where my body ends and my clothes begin). We like clothing that can be washed by a machine, and we will go to extraordinary lengths to organise our outfits around garments that do not need ironing. Fastenings we do not like at all, never mind the total bother that double cuffs or rouleaux buttoning give.

There is some hope. Buried deep in recent newsprint were tales of a few events that, although minor in comparison to the stories of celebrity gestations and super-fast-selling singles, might collectively change things, even for just a little bit.

The dress-down-Friday policies of various companies are being reversed; London nightclub Annabel’s, after a brief fling with relaxing its dress codes, decided to reinstate them (‘Some members introduced a degree of informality we hadn’t seen before’). And Moss Bros is abandoning its casualwear brand, Code, to concentrate on the more formal side of its business. Add to this the return of the matinée idol look for men this autumn (sadly, women’s wear is going down a different road, paved with flowers, love and peace). Deep down, however, I don’t think any of this will make a difference, because it’s part of our national pride to dress like we just don’t care.

‘We Brits,’ says Roger Tredre, editor-in-chief of the style-trend intelligence website WGSN, ‘certainly don’t dress up as much as the Americans or Italians do. It’s our puritanical side. We frown on, and are suspicious of, ostentation, someone whose shoes may be a little too polished, who looks a bit too perfect. We prefer something a little bit more natural.’

Tredre, resplendent in jeans and a jacket (very now), thinks ‘a bit more carefully’ however, about what he’s wearing when he’s doing business in New York. ‘I tend to wear a suit more often, not necessarily a tie but a suit. Because in New York they give you the “look over” when you walk into a room, and I’ve never had that happen here.’

Luckily, we can sink snuggle-deep in our zippy fleece jackets and seek even more comfort in having something to blame our current shabbiness on.

Our slovenliness, according to Professor Aileen Ribeiro of the Courtauld Institute, can be traced back to the Industrial Revolution. ‘After this, clothing became more sober to indicate that you were a worker; any sense of drawing attention to your clothing was frowned upon.’ Hence our embarrassment now at clothes that might hint that we think ourselves to be above our station (never mind our reflex reaction to a compliment: ‘What, this old thing?’).

Aside from history, we can also blame the posh folk. ‘In most societies, the standards of dress tended to be set by the higher echelons,’ explains Kate Fox, a social anthropologist and co-director of the Social Issues Research Centre, ‘and in our culture the standard has been set by the upper classes, who tended to dress down. Shabbiness, and a certain lack of concern about fashion, is considered appropriate; it’s only the “vulgar nouveau riche”, on the whole, who dolled themselves up.’ And since most of what’s left of our ‘upper classes’ dress appallingly – in fashions that are 20 years out of date and look like they’ve been fitted by postal correspondence – what hope did we have?

Anyway, now that we’re one big happy, classless society, we’re left with a different breed altogether to help us find our way through that cotton stretch jersey: celebrities. Here lies our error. Because we don’t seem to realise that when celebrities aren’t dressed up in borrowed £10 million dresses, they are wearing designer casual. Designer casual is a whole different set of baggy pants, which are cut to hang just so . Most of us don’t see the point of spending £50 on a Helmut Lang T-shirt, when Marks & Spencer will furnish you with 10 for that price, although the effect will be rather different. ‘Quantity over quality,’ sighs Ribeiro, ‘that’s always been our problem.’ Because secretly we feel guilty at wanting to be comfortable, we can’t countenance splashing out £300 on one pair of Calvin Klein trousers that look great but also fit so well it’s like wearing pyjama bottoms. It doesn’t feel right. Yet we’ll spend that amount on an ‘occasion’ outfit that we’ll fidget in once a year and hate. Thus the symptoms of slobbiness perpetuate.

So what of those signs that maybe we are turning into a society that dresses up more? There is nothing to cling to. Dress-down policies were reversed not because we want to see fewer trainers in the office on a Friday but because people got confused about what to wear (‘smart casual’ is the hinterland of fashion) and either just fell back on ‘chinos and a polo shirt’ or went a bit mad and started going to work in ‘club gear’.

Also, the mood in such circles is a little different now. ‘Three years ago, with the dotcom companies, people thought money grew on trees, and when you think that,’ says Martin Hayward, chairman of the Henley Centre, an international strategic marketing consultancy company, ‘you don’t care so much what people think of you. Now there’s a great sense of vulnerability in the workplace.’

And when a certain person feels vulnerable, he seeks his own form of comfort, in this instance in a suit.

Tredre confirms my fears that we’re not returning to a day when men looked like Cary Grant. ‘I’m afraid it’s just a blip. Menswear has definitely smartened up recently but the longer-term trend will be toward dressing down. We want more and more comfort in our clothing.’

In the mid-1990s, a report was published in America blaming just about everything – bad exam results, teenage suicide, muggings, the whole unravelling of its society – on the casual way Americans dressed. That’s all a bit exaggerated, but it’s true to say that clothes are a statement of our identity. And in our case, we could look better in the nation class-photo. What we do need to do is refocus. The days of little hats and gloves as everyday wear are gone (sniff), but that doesn’t mean that because we no longer dress ‘like that’ we can’t dress well. We can marry style and comfort – it doesn’t have to be one extreme, or another.

‘There are new ways of dressing up now – both for men and women,’ says Tredre. ‘Our definition of what’s dressed-up has changed radically. Before, if someone dressed up, they wore a tie; a tie is almost an irrelevance now, you can be extremely smart without wearing a tie.’

So what we need to do is to stop feeling guilty and accept that we like nice stretchy, soft things next to our skin, and invest money in our quest for slobbiness, our new ‘dressing up’. Believe it or not, we’ll look a whole lot smarter when we start feeling comfortable about wanting to be comfortable.