Carefully lower your paper and let your eyes fall upon the first person you see. What’s your first impression? Posh, pikey, yukky or yummy? (Looking in the mirror is not allowed.) If you don’t already know the person – that’d be cheating – then how have you come to your conclusions? A forensic ability to scrutinise a person may be a talent you hold, or you could just be like the rest of us, and look at how someone is dressed.
We all do it, however subconsciously; yet fashion is never given the credit it deserves for being as powerful as it is. It’s invariably regarded as a silly, but necessary, vanity. No political party ever has “Clothes: why they matter” on its manifesto; the heavyweight minds of the world rarely turn to interpret its semaphore (naturally, I am the exception). But fashion is actually a wonder force, an “invention” more useful than radio, more capable of altering mood on a sixpence than alcohol, drugs and music combined (as any man who has had to wait while his partner refuses to come out of the bedroom because “nothing fits” will testify). We not only judge others, but we allow what we’re wearing to dictate how we ourselves behave: I’m still in my pyjamas at 2pm, I must be a slob; I have found the perfect pair of trousers, all is right with the world.
Last week GQ launched its best-dressed-men list. My first reaction was a snort of derision. Possibly because I didn’t agree with the number one – Rio Ferdinand (no man who wears his collar up can ever truly be regarded as well dressed); or perhaps because I think these lists should be renamed “best-dressed famous people”; or maybe it is because GQ is always such a disappointment as a men’s magazine – way too much analysis, not enough pictures of greased-up women with their arms above their head.
Such lists are further annoying because they will never acknowledge that my Parisian-by-abode uncle, Vittorio, is the most stylish man on earth. He invented the tone-on-tone look (shirt, suit, tie, socks, sometimes even shoes, the same colour) now copied by men of style partout . My uncle was wearing Christian Dior years before it got “trendy” – in fact when the label was being railed against by Sir Stafford Cripps, the president of the British Board of Trade at the time of the “new look” after the war, for being wasteful. And no men’s magazine had to tell my uncle that you didn’t have to be gay to wear cashmere.
However, when I’d finished snorting, I realised that it was good that dressing well was, for once, being celebrated. Why is it that fashion is generally regarded as so unimportant and flippant?
We clearly regard fashion as a shameful mistress, for we deny her constantly. “I never tell people what I do,” a fashion editor once said, “because after that I can’t comment on anything else without them thinking ‘Yes dear’, yet when people find out, the conversation always turns round to fashion, and everyone twitches uncomfortably.”
I second this, having once brought a high-level political dinner to a standstill by introducing the subject of men’s underpants, specifically boxers v other types. I left two hours later with all talk of the third way forgotten, but the phrase “any man who says boxer shorts are comfortable is a liar” ringing among the wood panelling.
Clothes are more important, at least initially, than education, where we live, what we drive, how we vote, our religion. I don’t mean having the latest thing – fashion has a trivial side that must be regularly ridiculed – I mean as a means of looking at and judging a person; because, unless you are visually impaired, we all do this to some extent. Anthropologists call it tribal identification. We look for identifiers that make us think a person is “all right” (the suit) or possibly “a threat” (hooded top, fat girl with midriff on show and a look of love in her eye). If we don’t look right, we may never get the chance to show a keen wit and a cohesion of thought as taut as one of Deirdre Barlow’s neck veins.
But if we do look right, lack of these can be overlooked – why do you think politicians always wear suits? Cultures that seek to enforce behaviour know that one of the most effective ways is to dictate what people wear. Take the collar – silly bit of annoying fabric round the neck? For 500 years it’s been a prime way for a man to show he doesn’t need to work, ergo is better than his contemporaries. When he was alive, Charles Dickens was frequently judged not on his fine mind, but the excess spill of his tie – he favoured the waterfall cravat, which he would barely tame with diamond pins. He was described as luxuriant and glossy (he had great hair) and a bit of a dandy. That’s quite at odds with how we think of him today, through his rather sombre, socially aware writing.
Thankfully, once we truly get to know a person, fashion’s signalling is redundant. But until then …
This article was first published in The Guardian on 12 April 2005.