It's OK to be glamorous, Mr Brown

Dressing to be dull does not help any sort of creed, says Richard D North
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The Independent Online
Tonight, Gordon Brown, the iron Chancellor, will don what he supposes to be the uniform of a man of his station in life to address the Lord Mayor's annual Mansion House dinner. His insistence on wearing a lounge suit is of course an act of spectacular rudeness. Like everyone else at the dinner, Mr Brown is the Lord Mayor's guest and if he were yours or mine, and coming to a fancy dress party, we would expect him to abide by the rules. These were in any case relaxed last year in "the people's" direction from requiring proper evening wear (white tie and tails) to the more modern dinner jacket.

Mr Brown's act of petulance is of a piece with New Labour's puritanism, the party's main distinguishing feature. Smoking, hunting, betting and junk food have all been frowned on. Now, dressing up is to be despised, as the party's historic agenda of theorising moral socialism completes its transformation into one of sermonising social moralism. They'll be banning plays next.

Mr Brown's gesture is doubly odd considering the real value of dressing for dinner. A caption for the V&A's Cutting Edge show about post-war British fashion remarks that evening wear has the merit of being durable. It is also cheap. In university halls up and down the country, young men whose families used to be working class are sitting down to rather dreadful evening meals in dinner jackets bought from Oxfam for less than 20 quid. They are learning frugality twice over: they will not need to buy another such suit provided they don't eat too much while wearing it.

The older these clothes are, the more likely they are to be exquisitely cut, but that will seldom be noted or matter. Average cut will do very well: this is clothing which strikes a blow for socialism because it is hard to spot the difference between Burton's and Savile Row. Men in dinner jackets look glamorous and are learning the peculiar alchemy by which a uniformity of dress - especially cunningly designed uniform - accentuates the wearer's individuality by drawing attention to the uniqueness of the face and any small affectation of decoration.

Doubtless Mr Brown thinks he is asserting something productive, serious, iconoclastic, and workmanlike in wearing his day clothes at the dinner. He would wear dungarees if he could, to show allegiance with the non-conformist producing and manufacturing classes as against those Popish effetes who merely trade in money and who will provide his audience. But the National Portrait Gallery's Pursuit of Beauty exhibition, on the changing fashion in bodies and dress, points out that the Roundhead army of Ironsides contained hardly less foppish men than its Royalist opponents. To dress in a dull way is not necessarily to be serious, nor is the fop always an idiot.

However, it is true that the killjoy is never far from the centre of affairs in British society. Northern Europeans always have to fight hard for moderation and freedom and pleasure against the dreariness and severity which blows southwards at us out of the Arctic, via the Scotland of Messrs Brown, Blair and Cook (who endears at least by being a tipster). Unfortunately this century has had to fight harder than any other for the right of men to be good, serious and lively. The Roundhead and the Cavalier may each be caricatures, but they are fair enough symbols of a real contemporary battle between opposed moral and political forces. Tyranny by lounge suit is only the farcical expression of this real struggle.

A hundred years ago last month, Oscar Wilde was released from Reading jail. The shock waves of his disgrace are still with us, as generation after generation of men live in terror that glamour is the same as homosexuality. Actually, Jonathan Fryer, the author of a new study of Wilde, notes that for years no one equated Oscar's flamboyance with sexual deviance. Indeed, for most of history, men have cheerfully, gleefully even, dressed to kill. Roy Strong, whose diaries are a chronicle in part of the only recent period when glamorousness for men was normal, says: "In the 1960s it was an expression of a kind of rebellion, but there was no connotation of homosexuality." No one thought Mick Jagger was queer.

All that is over, and we see the widespread affectation of wearing football "strip" by perfectly nice men who like poetry and opera but are anxious to show they are not aesthetes really. It comes to something when intelligent people are Fever Pitch-forked into mimicking yobs because they themselves happen to have escaped from lives on peripheral estates, or were lucky enough never to have known them. The affectation of sporting and motoring yobbery is of course an attempt to find a masculine imagery, made by modern men who sense themselves robbed of the right to appear sensitive.

Poor Mr Brown's job is to make people rich, though he'd probably rather lecture them. He probably mourns the way affluent young men, and older ones who should know better, are stuffing themselves with a diet of Loaded, gleaning ever more extravagant ideas about getting and spending. Their riches are poured into an orgy of commercialised bad behaviour and the anticipation of exploiting birds, and drowning any rebellious sweetness in booze.

Most of the displays made by modern men - whether in neon sportswear or dull business suits - succeed only in revealing how neurotic they have become. This is because they are crushing the gorgeous in their natures. Of course, this is not to say that Gordon Brown with his own bit of defiant self-expression is neurotic or in denial. Certainly, it is not obligatory to want to be anything like Eddie Izzard, whose masculinity and forcefulness are powerful and obvious, even under his make-up. Nor do we need him to ape the self-conscious splendour of a Roy Strong.

But we are entitled to invite Mr Brown to consider how it is that being rude to his hosts and looking dull helps any sort of creed, let alone that creed of realism and kindliness which people thought they were voting for the other day. Perhaps he hopes to remind us of distant days and exigencies, when rationing and utility clothing last saw a Labour landslide. If he does, he might remember the resentment which built up alongside them, and that Clem Attlee wore his tails without complaint.

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