PICADOR £12.99 (279pp) / £11.99 (free p&p) from 0870 079 8897

The Way We Wore, by Robert Elms

Stitches in time regained

PICADOR £12.99 (279pp) / £11.99 (free p&p) from 0870 079 8897

In the beginning, there must have been a long lunch with Robert Elms at the Groucho. "What we're really after," the person from Picador would have said with a glance around at the book deals being hatched on neighbouring tables, "is something with a Nick Hornby feel to it. Another reflective wryly-amusing biography of an obsession. Now, I know you love music and football but frankly they've both been done to death. So is there anything else you're mad about?"

That must have been the moment when the publisher noticed what the guest was wearing. Was it his charcoal-grey, double-breasted, wide-cut, big-shouldered Jean-Paul Gaultier suit, twinned with a spear-point white shirt and hand-painted tie? "My God", s/he exclaimed, "Of course. You're completely and utterly crazy about clothes!"

It would have taken several more glasses of wine before they both settled on a title which so cavalierly crashes the semantic gears. But no matter. Forget the awful title, forget the dispiriting spectacle of a leading publisher climbing aboard a bandwagon that has been trundling down the charts, and raise three cheers. This repetitive, indulgent book about how Robert Elms has always loved clothes is a delight: the authentic confession of a true obsessive.

By the age of nine he had already acquired a pair of Levi Sta-Prest slacks ("at a time when sharp creases were very important"), a Ben Sherman shirt and a Harrington jacket ("a weatherproof windcheater with shirt-cuff sleeves, an overlapping storm back, a stand-up button-through collar, and elasticated bottom and a tartan lining"). There's much more along those lines: over 270 pages on Robert and his socks and his shoes and his T-shirts and his ties and his sweaters and his underpants.

Along the sartorial way, people and events make brief appearances. There's entertaining and touching material on Robert's working-class roots, his days at school and LSE, his long fascination with soul music, on race riots, football hooliganism and his time as a boy writer on The Face.

But the stuff of life for Elms is cloth. "Cloth is good. It's the perfect combination of the tactile and the visual: you feel cloth; it wraps itself around you. Made up into something as precisely prescribed, yet infinitely varied as a gentleman's suit, cloth becomes better than good, it become a piece." It also becomes an aide-memoire: "I recall events by what I was wearing, a button-down chisel-toed, fly-fronted mnemonic."

Only occasionally does our happy poseur pause to consider that there might be more to life than clothes, to countenance the idea that he might look absurd in his latest rig-out, to reflect upon what else he might have learned if he hadn't been so relentlessly in pursuit of "a black, double-breasted tie-through belt overlapping storm back trench coat", or a pair of original Big E Levis, "where the E on the red tag on the back of the pocket was a capital denoting that it was pre-1960".

Neither does Elms have much time or space between his retail sorties for any sustained analysis of his own consumption. There are a few worthy attempts to link trends in fashion to political circumstances but, for all his admirable anti-racist sentiments and genial championing of working-class values, you sense that Capitalism and Revolution might only fully engage his attention if they were neon signs outside Soho clubs.

Women also get short shrift, and the only reason we ever leave the familiar streets of London is to follow QPR to an away game. None of this matters a jot. Narcissists can hardly be expected to provide us with a wider picture of the pond into which they gaze.

What does matter is the way Elms's obsession with clothes generates so much fine writing, so much contagious enthusiasm, so much understanding of why clothes can matter quite so much. This is brave, unexpected and rather wonderful book.

Laurie Taylor hosts Radio 4's 'Thinking Allowed'

Buy any book reviewed on this site at Independent Books Direct
- postage and packing are free in the UK
Arts and Entertainment
Beyonce, Boris Johnson, Putin, Nigel Farage, Russell Brand and Andy Murray all get the Spitting Image treatment from Newzoids
tvReview: The sketches need to be very short and very sharp as puppets are not intrinsically funny
Arts and Entertainment
Despite the controversy it caused, Mile Cyrus' 'Wrecking Ball' video won multiple awards
musicPoll reveals over 70% of the British public believe sexually explicit music videos should get ratings
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister and Ian Beattie as Meryn Trant in the fifth season of Game of Thrones

TV
Arts and Entertainment

book review
Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Far Right and Proud: Reggies Yates' Extreme Russia

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West was mobbed in Armenia after jumping into a lake

music
Arts and Entertainment
The show suffers from its own appeal, being so good as to create an appetite in its viewers that is difficult to sate in a ten episode series

Game of Thrones reviewFirst look at season five contains some spoilers
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench and Kevin Spacey on the Red Carpet for 2015's Olivier Awards

Ray Davies' Sunny Afternoon scoops the most awards

Theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Proving his metal: Ross Poldark (played by Aidan Turner in the BBC series) epitomises the risk-taking spirit of 18th-century mine owners

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne is reportedly favourite to play Newt Scamander in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

film
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars in dystopian action thriller Mad Max: Fury Road

film
Arts and Entertainment
Josh, 22, made his first million from the game MinoMonsters

Grace Dent

Channel 4 show proves there's no app for happiness
News
Disgraced Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson
people
Arts and Entertainment
Game face: Zoë Kravitz, Bruce Greenwood and Ethan Hawke in ‘Good Kill’

film review

Arts and Entertainment
Living like there’s no tomorrow: Jon Hamm as Don Draper in the final season of ‘Mad Men’

TV review

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Armenian genocide: To continue to deny the truth of this mass human cruelty is close to a criminal lie

    Armenian genocide and the 'good Turks'

    To continue to deny the truth of this mass human cruelty is close to a criminal lie
    Lou Reed: The truth about the singer's upbringing beyond the biographers' and memoirists' myths

    'Lou needed care, but what he got was ECT'

    The truth about the singer's upbringing beyond
    Migrant boat disaster: This human tragedy has been brewing for four years and EU states can't say they were not warned

    This human tragedy has been brewing for years

    EU states can't say they were not warned
    Women's sportswear: From tackling a marathon to a jog in the park, the right kit can help

    Women's sportswear

    From tackling a marathon to a jog in the park, the right kit can help
    Hillary Clinton's outfits will be as important as her policies in her presidential bid

    Clinton's clothes

    Like it or not, her outfits will be as important as her policies
    NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

    Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

    A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
    How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

    How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

    Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
    From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

    The wars that come back to haunt us

    David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
    Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
    Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

    UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

    Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
    John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

    ‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

    Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
    Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

    Let the propaganda wars begin - again

    'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

    Japan's incredible long-distance runners

    Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
    Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

    Tom Drury: The quiet American

    His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace