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The Way We Wore, by Robert Elms

Stitches in time regained

Laurie Taylor
Friday 15 April 2005 00:00 BST

PICADOR £12.99 (279pp) / £11.99 (free p&p) from 0870 079 8897

In the beginning, there must have been a long lunch with Robert Elms at the Groucho. "What we're really after," the person from Picador would have said with a glance around at the book deals being hatched on neighbouring tables, "is something with a Nick Hornby feel to it. Another reflective wryly-amusing biography of an obsession. Now, I know you love music and football but frankly they've both been done to death. So is there anything else you're mad about?"

That must have been the moment when the publisher noticed what the guest was wearing. Was it his charcoal-grey, double-breasted, wide-cut, big-shouldered Jean-Paul Gaultier suit, twinned with a spear-point white shirt and hand-painted tie? "My God", s/he exclaimed, "Of course. You're completely and utterly crazy about clothes!"

It would have taken several more glasses of wine before they both settled on a title which so cavalierly crashes the semantic gears. But no matter. Forget the awful title, forget the dispiriting spectacle of a leading publisher climbing aboard a bandwagon that has been trundling down the charts, and raise three cheers. This repetitive, indulgent book about how Robert Elms has always loved clothes is a delight: the authentic confession of a true obsessive.

By the age of nine he had already acquired a pair of Levi Sta-Prest slacks ("at a time when sharp creases were very important"), a Ben Sherman shirt and a Harrington jacket ("a weatherproof windcheater with shirt-cuff sleeves, an overlapping storm back, a stand-up button-through collar, and elasticated bottom and a tartan lining"). There's much more along those lines: over 270 pages on Robert and his socks and his shoes and his T-shirts and his ties and his sweaters and his underpants.

Along the sartorial way, people and events make brief appearances. There's entertaining and touching material on Robert's working-class roots, his days at school and LSE, his long fascination with soul music, on race riots, football hooliganism and his time as a boy writer on The Face.

But the stuff of life for Elms is cloth. "Cloth is good. It's the perfect combination of the tactile and the visual: you feel cloth; it wraps itself around you. Made up into something as precisely prescribed, yet infinitely varied as a gentleman's suit, cloth becomes better than good, it become a piece." It also becomes an aide-memoire: "I recall events by what I was wearing, a button-down chisel-toed, fly-fronted mnemonic."

Only occasionally does our happy poseur pause to consider that there might be more to life than clothes, to countenance the idea that he might look absurd in his latest rig-out, to reflect upon what else he might have learned if he hadn't been so relentlessly in pursuit of "a black, double-breasted tie-through belt overlapping storm back trench coat", or a pair of original Big E Levis, "where the E on the red tag on the back of the pocket was a capital denoting that it was pre-1960".

Neither does Elms have much time or space between his retail sorties for any sustained analysis of his own consumption. There are a few worthy attempts to link trends in fashion to political circumstances but, for all his admirable anti-racist sentiments and genial championing of working-class values, you sense that Capitalism and Revolution might only fully engage his attention if they were neon signs outside Soho clubs.

Women also get short shrift, and the only reason we ever leave the familiar streets of London is to follow QPR to an away game. None of this matters a jot. Narcissists can hardly be expected to provide us with a wider picture of the pond into which they gaze.

What does matter is the way Elms's obsession with clothes generates so much fine writing, so much contagious enthusiasm, so much understanding of why clothes can matter quite so much. This is brave, unexpected and rather wonderful book.

Laurie Taylor hosts Radio 4's 'Thinking Allowed'

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