Because you can't have depths without surfaces.
Linda Grant, thinking about clothes, books and other matters.

Wednesday, 4 June 2008

Guest post: On not giving up, by Harry Fenton, the Sharp Dressed Man

Introducing Harry Fenton, the Sharp Dressed Man,* who will be addressing questions of menswear from the perspective of a Londoner of a certain age.
* Don't bother googling, it's a pseudonym.

On Not Giving Up

By which I mean , the struggle to still care about clothes and what you look like.

Because when you get to a certain age you can wake up one morning and just be entirely underwhelmed by the clothing options that are in your wardrobe. Probably because the clothes there haven’t actually changed for a good few years.

But what once we felt was quite good/ quite cool/ perhaps stylish, is now, on closer scrutiny, looking decidedly boring. Or even worse than boring, a sort of a style vacuum. Dull neutral colours of the same old same old.

When I was a teenager in London in the Sixties, having failed to look like the Beatles, no sooner was one trying to look like the Who than we were introduced to the completely bizarre sight of the Mothers of Invention and Captain Beefheart. So I had to suffice with one of those surplus greatcoats from Kensington Market (I didn't know that they were to become the uniform for pimply physics students who listened to King Crimson).

In anticipation of wanting to cut a dash at university I bought an old pin-stripe double-breasted suit from an Oxfam shop and took it to a cleaners for the trousers to be tapered. They ended up looking a bit like jodphurs, but I imagined I was subverting some kind of norm. On reflection the suit didn't go that well with the Anello and Davide burgundy cuban -heeled boots. But I had wanted them for ages, ever since the Beatles had made Anello and Davide famous.

There was a terrible band in the late sixties called the Edgar Broughton band. basically a trio of thuggish guys from Leamington Spa who I had the misfortune to see a number of times. They were forever the support band to someone I actually half wanted to see. Anyhow the 'Broughtons' liked to finish their set with a heavy metal version of 'Out Demons Out'. Which some of us knew was the chant that Ginsberg and the Fugs came up with when they circled the Pentagon. Anyhow this provincial English travesty was simply appalling. But made all the worse by the fact that Edgar Broughton was wearing an identical pair of boots to mine. You can imagine my dismay. Shortly after that I think I wanted to look like the Incredible String Band.

Eventually I got a job. I went to work in an office. And went to a lot of meetings in other people’s offices in a number of different countries. Which meant that for years my clothes shopping was dominated by suits, shirts and ties. Work was the environment where it was most important for me to feel well dressed. Or, more accurately, well presented. And a suit that fits, and clean shoes, and a good tie can do that admirably.

But now I don’t inhabit the corporate world . And rather than reach for a suit I have actually had to start thinking about what to wear. And it’s not that easy.

Primarily because the default option is fraught with problems. Dress down Friday has become dress down the rest of your life. And there’s the rub. But more to the point , dressing down can so easily mean we look like a troop of older blokes gone casual. Slightly ill at ease out of uniform.

Because we probably haven’t given much attention to our dress down options. And the betting says that these options are stuck somewhere ten to fifteen years ago ( or even longer) So you are in danger of looking stale, or, more worryingly, (without it being a conscious decision), trying to look younger than your years.

Or , even worse , suggesting to others that you have the same approach to clothes as Jeremy Clarkson.

I don’t have a universal solution to this quandary. But it does start with actually bothering to think about clothes, and perhaps for the first time in many a year, trying to articulate what you do and don’t want to look like.

I have just three rules at the moment: I’ve got to like it. It must fit. There should be no visible logos.

But the biggest hurdle to overcome is that you have to start to go shopping again. Just like you did when you were a teenager. When it was, in some undefined way, important. And spending money on clothes made you feel good.

And going out in them on Saturday night made you feel even better.

*Clarkson is one of a few celebrities who have been blamed for poor denim sales. Louise Foster of Draper's Record, trade magazine to the fashion industry, is quoted as saying, "For a period in the late nineties denim became unfashionable. 501s — Levi's flagship brand — in particular suffered from the so-called 'Jeremy Clarkson effect', the association with men in middle youth."


Linda Grant said...

If you look carefully at the numberplate, you'll see that Clarkson appears to only have the Y chromosome. Which explains everything.

Toby Wollin said...

Ah, Harry - I'll have to point your introduction to my husband, who has two wardrobes: office(made up of suits and sportcoats/trousers, nice ties, etc.) and work-out-in-the-barn(made up of ancient blue jeans, horrid flannel shirts and boots). He definitely needs to pay some attention to the 'casual but very nice' part of his wardrobe.

Deja Pseu said...

I very much enjoyed your musical references, having been neither pimply nor a physics student, however a big King Crimson fan.

My hubby leans very "preppy" in his wardrobe choices, but as we get older, I'm starting to be more thankful for that.

eduserve said...

At last someone is willing to broach the awkward topic of fashion for the older man. I would welcome some comments from Harry on the troubled question of the trouser. If one eschews the patch pocket and the rivet, how can one avoid the appearance of a rural vet or member of the hunting fraternity? A question: at what age/dimension do men appear foolish/ugly when wearing jeans?

California Dreamer said...

Harry, I read your entire post to my husband, who (apparently unusually) addresses the what-to-wear question with some thought. His work wardrobe must adapt to California casual or button-down East coast, and his casual wardrobe encompasses the almost-dressy to crawling under the sink to fix the plugged drain. If I can just get him to change out of his wool trousers before he grabs the pipe wrench...

But I am confident that I will be reading future posts to him in the future. Welcome to our community.

Anonymous said...

Welcome, Harry! Enjoyed your insightful comments and happy to see you upholding a high sartorial standard. The generalstate of dress here in the States is abysmal.

Toby Wollin said...

Dockers(Levis Strauss and Co.) have a LOT to answer for in terms of the degradation of office dress, particularly for men. Millions of men go to work now thinking that khaki trousers, loafers and a knit golf shirt are business attire.

lagatta said...

Personally, I don't think the jeans are what is wrong with the way Clarkson is turned out. The messy part is the clothes on his upper body.

Odd, I see Clarkson is only 48! He looks much older.

My dearest is 59 and looks splendid in jeans, especially black ones. But he is one of those fortunate slim fellows...

But there are other things to finetune among such European intellectual-types.

e said...

i wasn't really interested in a male view on this wonderful blog, only because i'm not a male and i'm currently single! but harry's view that "it must look good, feel good, fit" is universal, all genders, all ages.

Anonymous said...

I agree with Lagatta. He looks at least 60. And his top half needs the makeover. Is there a male equivalent of "mutton dressed as lamb" -- old rooster playing cockerol?

Another thought, men seem to take such free reign in criticizing women's appearance. What does it mean for society, feminism, gender equality, when women start seriously bashing men's clothing choices?

I think men of any age can wear jeans. But no skinny jeans past 40.

Dave Hill said...

Wouldn't anyone like to buy a third-hand Mod suit?

Toby Wollin said...

My DH and I had quite the discussion about this last night and his pronouncement on why the state of dress for men over a certain age in the US now is that: "There is no incentive for most men to dress any better." Now, I don't agree that once the courtship dance has been done, the kids grown, and one is staring retirement(early or not) in the face, that there is no reason to dress neatly, nicely and stylishly. As a matter of fact, given society's attitude about people who are NOT young, dressing better is probably a smarter idea.

Harry Fenton said...

Apologies to deja pseu for the disparaging comment about King Crimson fans. I did see them once, at the time of their first album. They were very well turned out. Greg Lake wore some fine trousers; embossed velvet, and flared ( everything was flared back then)

Deja Pseu said...

Harry, no worries, no offense was taken. I'm always amused when someone mentions some of the (now) obscure stuff I used to listen to back in the day. (Which certainly did draw those nerdy types. And the pot smokers.)

lagatta said...

Harry, so glad to hear from you. This is lovely.

Rollergirl said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Rollergirl said...

I think it's actually quite simple. You stick to a uniform of sorts then update with accessories - this works whether you're male or female. EG- Classic Levis Vintage Jeans with well-cut Smedley sweaters if you're in good shape or chunkier Margiela/Ralph Lauren/Gap ones if you're a bit paunchy. The same jeans or (nicely-cut) chinos with loafers or desert boots and a bright sock is good on the footwear front. In summer find some plain or two-tone stripe T-shirts and buy them in bulk. Comme and Margiela do good ones - not too loose or tight, with maybe a pocket for detail. Uniqlo apparently is good quality if Always a nice leather belt -maybe plaited?

If your outfit so far feels boring add ONE jazzy accessory like a silk scarf or a hat. I like a beret, Kangol flat cap or trilby for smart. It's just a touch dandy but not too camp. If the hat and scarf idea is too out-there then a good watch will suffice but essentially as long as the clothes are good quality then you'll cut a dash. I love seeing well turned out men but especially those that are a bit older and really give a damn about how they look. Ones that come to mind are David Hockney, Paul Smith and Tom Waits.

HODGE said...

SPOOKY ! ! ! harry fenton used to be a mens clothes shop on Putney high street. bet that's where you knicked the name from ! HODGE