The Way We Wore is part autobiography, part archaeology of post-war street fashion, and part apologia for an obsession. Obsessed as only a boy can be: with the "sartorial onanism" that has been Elms's ruling passion since he decided, aged nine, that he would be the most scrupulously dressed pint-size skinhead on his estate. From Bowie boy to soul boy, punk to Blitz kid, "take care, look sharp, stay ahead - first gleaned as a kid on a council estate" has remained his creed. Elms, a journalist, broadcaster and author, who cut his teeth in the style press of the early 1980s, celebrates the transformative power of dressing up. How the pursuit of elegance, correctness and one-up-manship in style could turn any "council house coxcomb" into a star. This is not really a book about clothes. It is about class, adolescence and desire. It is an insightful and passionate chronicle of an important part of British history and identity, as stylish and witty as the finery it obsesses over. I'm glad Elms has told this story, for it is in part my own story. And no doubt countless others' too.
As a 15-year-old aspirant "New Romantic" from Croydon, I was too young, too suburban and too skint to really be part of the scenes Elms chronicles. But I tried in my own small way. This meant spending all my meagre resources in Kensington Market and the Kings Road, flouting school rules with detailed deviations, and most importantly reading Robert Elms in The Face. That's about all I did read at the time. It was all that mattered. But what I discovered there was more significant and enduring than the pageant of pleat, pout and powder its pages staged. "New Romanticism" was the most consummate and perhaps the last flowering of the spirit of defiant dandyism Elms describes, before sports leisure wear became the alpha and omega of street expression. It was anti-fashion, the opposite of conformity. The question was not "what shall I wear", but "who shall I be?" Plundering the dressing-up box of style history to be a hero for a day. Being different, for difference's sake, and the buzz it gave you, of being stared at, spat at and sometimes menaced for how you looked. As Elms puts it, "even the insults and occasional assaults from Neanderthals made me feel I was doing something right."
This attitude, and some of its effects, stuck. Leaving school at 16 without an O-level to my name, I went to work in that Mecca of trendydom, Kensington Market, as a trainee hairdresser, and indulged my chameleonism to the full. One day I decided to adopt a Brideshead Revisited look (it had recently been televised), involving tweeds and flannels, floppy fringes and foppish things. I even picked up a copy of the novel (for research purposes), something none of my teachers would ever have persuaded me to do. And I loved it and avidly consumed more novels, plays, poems. From looks to books, from the style to the substance, I quickly discovered a new passion, and embarked on a belated education that would eventually lead to an Oxford fellowship in English literature. Like Elms, I was the first in my family to go near higher education, and I trace the origins of this journey to that yearning for expression, that restless need for re-invention first kindled by dressing up.
It is the transformative potential of clothes within the British class system that Elms celebrates, and regrets the passing of in these acquiescent times. Since Beau Brummel taught the Prince Regent how to dress, style has offered a way of breaking through constraints. For Elms, "the two great creative engines of youth culture, music and fashion, have always been black America and working-class England". The disruptiveness and desire of the various "trouser tribes" he describes were part of an English disease, which Thatcherism and the globalisation of "Dance" culture may well have cured. "For more than a decade now, the once-turbulent theatre of British street fashion... has lain dark". But, as Elms acknowledges, style's loss is equality's gain, and our more meritocratic, less divided society must perhaps also be "less creative, less well dressed".
The elegiac note in the book's title rings out clearly in its epilogue, which bemoans the middle-aged author's attempts to avoid fashion whilst remaining stylish. He laments how in this "supposedly anything-goes era" it is almost impossible to buy a simple white cotton shirt that will go with his early '60s-inspired bespoke whistle. I know. I've also tried. But surely discernment and desire are always accompanied by difficulty. And so the struggle goes on, Mr Elms. Keep the faith.
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