Tattoos are all the rage – so long as the skin they adorn is that of a ‘gentleman’

We laugh at heavily tattooed footballers, but love it when upper-class men get inked

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I don’t know about you but I have a very busy weekend ahead of me measuring my hat brims, bolstering my dress straps and letting down my hems. By which I mean that next week I’m going to Royal Ascot. The horse-racing event gives the modern woman much to think about, albeit the sort of concerns that most modern women could quite happily do without.

Dresses should be “of modest length”, with straps of “one inch or greater”. And don’t even think about hiding that three-quarter-inch strap under a jacket, ladies. “The dresses underneath should still comply.”

When it comes to hats, it gets quite bizarrely complicated. They’re a must, obviously. Fascinators are banned. Headpieces (headpieces?) only permitted if they have “a base of 4 inches or more in diameter”.

For gentlemen (the Ascot website insists on these formal terms of address, much in the manner a stern headmaster might call his recalcitrant pupil Master Smith even as he limbers up to cane him) it is no less strict: morning suits, no cravats and top hats to be worn at all times. There is also a two-page Picnic Policy, but that is an etiquette wormhole for another day.

It is all stuffy nonsense and yet, for fear of being rejected at the gates, I and thousands of others will meekly comply. And so the whole uncomfortable, stiff-neck parade will continue. Or will it? Etiquette is loosening up, getting hip.

This week Country Life, the 117-year-old magazine beloved by the landowning classes, revealed the winners of its Gentlemen of the Year competition. It launched in April with a set of publicity-friendly Dos and Don’ts – more rules – for the modern gentleman.

The Dos were rather abstract ideas of decency, notwithstanding the oddly specific commandment to “make love on your elbows” – do be on time, make your word your bond, eat what you’re given. The Don’ts were rather more Ascot-y – don’t drink Malibu, don’t wear Lycra, don’t put products in your hair.

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David Dimbleby has now been judged to be the epitome of these gentlemanly values, closely followed by Davids Beckham, Miliband and Attenborough and the butler from Downton Abbey, which perhaps gives some idea of how in touch Country Life is with reality. But there is more to take from the list than an unwanted insight into Dimbleby’s punctuality and sexual preferences. The top two gents not only share a name, they also both have tattoos.

Who’d have thought it? Not only are tattoos now acceptable in society, they might even be desirable. While Debrett’s has yet to catch up, offering only advice on tattoos of the Edinburgh Military kind, aspirational parents looking to raise a proper son need only “call him David and get him a tattoo”, according to Country Life.

Body inking was quite the gentlemanly pursuit in the 19th century; now it is “U” once again. Dimbleby, broadcasting royalty, one-time Bullingdon Club member, got his first inking last year, aged 75. Mark Shand, late brother of Camilla Parker Bowles, had tattoos of a serpent, a crab and a tiger. Samantha Cameron, a descendant of Charles II, has a dolphin on her ankle. Even HRH Helen Mirren has one.

And yet, not all tattoos are born equal. Leave aside the footballer John Carew who was aiming for “My life, my rules” in French on his neck, but ended up with words that could equally well be read as “My life, my menstruation”.

That is clearly the best tattoo of all time. It is not a question of aesthetics. There is little difference between a scorpion creeping up a right shoulder and a quote from Aristotle scrolling down a left forearm.

But where the scorpion is greeted with indulgent chuckles because it sits on a Dimbleby, the Aristotle quote is criticised for setting a poor example, because it belongs to Ross Barkley, one of several in the England World Cup football squad who were ticked off for their heavy body art this week. Just as race-goer Emily Wood, though dressed according to the Epsom code, was singled out for her all-over arm and neck inking by photographers last week.

There will no doubt be more clutching of pearls at Ascot when similarly adorned women (thanks to fashion, they will always be more visible than heavily tattooed men) make it into the enclosures.

It is not the tattoo – it is the class of the skin it adorns. Dimbleby may have shaken things up with his scorpion but that is because he is a gentleman and, back to Country Life, a true gentlemen does not “adhere too strictly to sets of rules such as this one”.

Confused? Honestly, it’s enough to make you want to get the Chinese symbol for chip etched on your shoulder.

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