Christopher Hirst: It takes a star to pull off a white suit

White clothing becomes a different colour shortly after you've put it on. In the grime of London, this period is less than 10 minutes

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How curious that a photograph taken 41 years ago should have produced two news stories this week. First we learned that Grade II-listed status has been granted to the zebra crossing on Abbey Road, north London, where Iain Macmillan snapped the Beatles on 8 August, 1969 – or, to be more accurate, it has been granted to a replacement crossing near the now-vanished one where the moptops trooped. Then it was announced that the white suit worn by John Lennon in the photograph is to be auctioned in Connecticut. Since the pallid attire raised $120,000 (£76,800) when previously sold in 2005, it seems a safe bet that some jive-crazed millionaire will fork out even more for what the auction house describes as "the ultimate in rock-and-roll collectibles".

This is all a little odd since the record itself is a patchy affair, far from being the best in the group's catalogue. For anyone with fond memories of Abbey Road, can I just mention two words? "Octopus's Garden". I might add another three: "Maxwell's Silver Hammer". These dire ditties did not mark the nadir of the waxing. Having just listened to the disc for the first time in three decades, I can tell you that Lennon's eight-minute dirge "I Want You (She's So Heavy)" richly merits the description in Ian Macdonald's classic biography Revolution in the Head: "nightmarishly tormented".

Still, its composer's suit is now an authentic icon of rock. Not that the purchaser will get a great deal for his money (it's bound to be a he). Kathy Braswell, the auctioneer, warns us that the suit is very small. "He was 5ft 10in and very thin. It's a slim suit." This will come as no surprise to anyone familiar with the sartorial memorabilia of the music biz. Rock stars have licence to indulge in every excess except poundage. Several years ago, I went round the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, Ohio, and all I can remember is the minuscule nature of the garments. They were like a wardrobe in the Doll's House of Rock.

If Lennon's suit lacks substance, however, it has an even more famous dearth: colour. I remember the great man explaining his fondness for wearing white: "It can be any colour you want it to be." There is some truth to this gnomic statement. White clothing certainly becomes a different colour shortly after you've put it on. In the grime of London, this period is less than 10 minutes. No wonder Lennon was reported as saying "Hurry up" during the crossing transits required for the photo-shoot. However fastidious the wearer, a white suit will inevitably become a Jackson Pollock of smears, smudges and stains.

I speak from experience since I myself went through an all-white phase sometime after the release of Abbey Road. Unlike Lennon's off-white suit, which was custom-made by Ted Lapidus of Paris, my outfit consisted of white jeans and an ill-fitting jacket. It was also far, far bigger than Lennon's. Still, I could manage Converse white plimsolls. I wore the ensemble in the manner of the master, with hands in pockets and hair flapping over my hunched shoulders. I was the definition of cool – at least I thought so until I went to a party in my snowy garb. "Hello," said my host. "Have you come as the White Tide Man?" This, I should explain to any reader under 60, was a gleaming figure in a television advert who promised that Tide detergent would "get your clothes not only clean but deep-down clean".

After that, I stopped wearing the white suit. So did my role model, though I could not say if anyone accused the rock god of looking like a soap powder salesman. In one of his more memorable mots, Lennon explained why he was unsuited to suits: "I always look as if I've just sat in something." At least we have that in common.

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