Television Review

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The Independent Culture
WOMEN, who by and large handle these things with a careless assurance that leaves me awed, can hardly begin to understand how frightened many men are by the idea of buying clothes. If you doubt that, just look at the way the experience is portrayed on television - the narrow scrapes with sexual humiliation that customers were forced to undergo by the staff of Grace Brothers in Are You Being Served?, or the twin pervs on The Fast Show. These fantasies may be exaggerated, but they aren't created from nothing; on some levels, for at least some men, that really is what buying a suit feels like.

The experience got a rather more flattering write-up in Ready to Wear (BBC2), a new series on the history of fashion. Last night's opener - entitled, with shattering disregard for the male viewer's fragile sensibilities, "Suits You, Sir", looked at suits from the stuffy post-war years to the cool, breezy Seventies and Eighties.

Back in the Fifties, all men dressed alike - dark suits, stiff collars, and high-knotted ties. Everybody wore a hat; nobody took off their jacket (except, one interviewee said, to have a fight). Any hint of flashiness, an indiscreet splash of colour on tie or sock, risked having you labelled cad, spiv or poof.

The commentary adopted a disparaging tone, as if all this uniformity was self-evidently a bad thing, and there was footage - startling to modern eyes - of a whole beehive of City gents, all utterly indistinguishable. One or two ageing dandies came on to second that hostile view, speaking of the shocking discomfort of collar and tie cutting into the flesh of the throat.

But by and large, the memories gathered here were surprisingly warm. For one thing, in the days when four out of five men were married and buried in a Burton's suit, you couldn't tell a duke from a dustman, at least not at first sight (naturally, once they opened their mouths things would become clearer). One man described being measured for his first Burton's suit as a rite of passage, his initiation into manhood; and I suppose, as initiation rites go, this one beats being sent into the bush to survive without food for a week before being circumcised without anaesthetic. Another man recalled how everybody could tell when you were wearing a suit for the first time, and everybody would comment on it.

There was a prelapsarian innocence about all this - perhaps if Adam and Eve had covered up their nakedness with heavy-duty dark worsted, God wouldn't have minded so much.

But then came the Sixties, and the serpent fashion entered this Eden: suits blossomed into colour, trousers grew tight in the crotch and flappy in the ankle, and men began using hair-conditioner.

In 10 years - at least, as Ready to Wear told it - men had evolved from bees to peacocks. I'm not sure I believe it: liberated from the constraints of the old-fashioned suit, large numbers of men (I'm one myself) still try to use clothes as a way of fading into the background, an oblique expression of the manly conviction that appearances are trivial, it's what's underneath that counts. Ready to Wear looked flashy; but up close, it was distinctly threadbare.