John Walsh: 'What's Obama doing in denim and trainers? Back to the skinny suits, please'

Tales of the City

Share
Related Topics

The Orange-winning novelist Linda Grant has been sounding off about her new book, The Thoughtful Dresser, in which she makes a heartfelt plea for the importance of clothing in our lives. Ms Grant, who likes to sport designer frocks and an abysmal (in the good sense) décolletage at parties, has no time for people who regard self-adornment as evidence of a trivial mind, and female designer-worship as proof of stupidity. She argues that clothes have a complex relation with our sense of identity; that they aren't just fine feathers that make superficially fine birds; that they tell us the kind of people we are and aspire to be. They assert our place in the world and soothe the assaults of fate.

Two details from her book stick in my head. One is that 11 September 2001 was the start of New York Fashion Week, and the Madison Avenue YSL store was expecting a consignment of silk peasant blouses, costing $2,500 each. Incredibly, on that morning of destruction, the store received 40 phone calls from women asking if the blouses were available. The other is the story of the women in Belsen concentration camp who were sent lipstick (nobody knows by whom) and seized it like a lifeline. "I believe nothing did more for these internees than the lipstick," wrote a liberating soldier. "At last someone had done something to make them individuals again; they were someone, no longer merely the number tattooed on the arm."

There's no male equivalent to the lipstick (I can't imagine camp inmates becoming excited by free aftershave) and history doesn't record whether the Ralph Lauren store on Fifth Avenue was inundated on September 11 with enquiries about a new range of gents' underpants. So does Ms Grant's argument apply only to ladies? Most men are herd dressers. They wear suits in studiedly neutral colours to fit in with each other; or they wear zip-fronted combat jackets and chinos to tell the world they're off-duty. Don't they get any more complicated than that?

Of course they do. Men can be quivering violets about clothes and what they say about them. Recently, I met a judge at a party (it's so weird when the High Court judges start looking younger) who told me how uncomfortable judges are with their new judicial garb. A year ago, the judiciary agreed to abolish horsehair wigs and black robes (except in criminal cases) and kit out judges in groovy blue gowns, designed by Betty Jackson. How, I asked, did the judges like their new look?

"They hate it," said my friend. "They think they lack all dignity and gravitas – especially if they're thinning a bit on top. They say they feel half-dressed without a wig." They're reduced, in other words, from stern embodiments of the super-ego to mere, humble, fallible-looking men.

Elsewhere, there are signs that chaps have gone a tad precious about chaps' clothing. The Daily Mail, always reliably dirigiste on garments, ticked off Alexander Lebedev and Andrew Marr for appearing in the latter's TV show in less than full canonicals. The paper called Lebedev "casually attired," but fairly smacked Marr around the head for wearing denims. "A disquieting sight," it shuddered. "No jeans, Andrew, please."

For some chaps, civilisation itself is threatened by the packaging of powerful men in working men's garb. In America, President Obama is under fire for his attempts to be casual in bright blue jeans and white trainers. "Get back into your sensible skinny suits pronto," is the message from the Democratic faithful: "Who do you think you are, George Bush?"

The semiotics of clothing is everywhere. Note how readily Sir Fred Goodwin got himself photographed by the media wearing his country-gentleman-at-a-shoot attire rather than anything that smacked of a) banking, or b) the City. Notice how Tony Blair, even in the boiling heat of Gaza, wears a tightly buttoned club tie to emphasise the unearthly gravity of his role as Middle East envoy; when he was PM, he'd have jettisoned the tie at the airport.

True, men don't go in for shopping as a leisure activity quite the way women do (Ms Grant is hilariously sexist about this,) nor do they, as a rule, possess the "must-have" gene that drives clever women to spend £1,300 on a Chanel bag. But we have our moments. Just don't ask us to give up our wigs before we're good and ready...

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

SQL Implementation Consultant (VB,C#, SQL, Java, Eclipse, integ

£40000 - £50000 per annum + benefits+bonus+package: Harrington Starr: SQL Impl...

SQL Technical Implementation Consultant (Java, BA, Oracle, VBA)

£45000 - £55000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: SQL Technical ...

Head of IT (Windows, Server, VMware, SAN, Fidessa, Equities)

£85000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Head of IT (Windows, Server, VMware, SAN, ...

Lead C# Developer (.Net, nHibernate, MVC, SQL) Surrey

£55000 - £60000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: Lead C# Develo...

Day In a Page

 

i Editor's Letter: Still all to play for at our live iDebate

Oliver Duff Oliver Duff
'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes': US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food served at diplomatic dinners

'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes'

US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food
Radio Times female powerlist: A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

Inside the Radio Times female powerlist
Endgame: James Frey's literary treasure hunt

James Frey's literary treasure hunt

Riddling trilogy could net you $3m
Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

What David Sedaris learnt about the world from his fitness tracker
Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

Second-holiest site in Islam attracts millions of pilgrims each year
Alexander Fury: The designer names to look for at fashion week this season

The big names to look for this fashion week

This week, designers begin to show their spring 2015 collections in New York
Will Self: 'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

Will Self takes aim at Orwell's rules for writing plain English
Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

Toy guns proving a popular diversion in a country flooded with the real thing
Al Pacino wows Venice

Al Pacino wows Venice

Ham among the brilliance as actor premieres two films at festival
Neil Lawson Baker interview: ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.

Neil Lawson Baker interview

‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.
The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

Wife of President Robert Mugabe appears to have her sights set on succeeding her husband
The model of a gadget launch: Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed

The model for a gadget launch

Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed
Alice Roberts: She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

Alice Roberts talks about her new book on evolution - and why her early TV work drew flak from (mostly male) colleagues
Get well soon, Joan Rivers - an inspiration, whether she likes it or not

Get well soon, Joan Rivers

She is awful. But she's also wonderful, not in spite of but because of the fact she's forever saying appalling things, argues Ellen E Jones
Doctor Who Into the Dalek review: A classic sci-fi adventure with all the spectacle of a blockbuster

A fresh take on an old foe

Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering