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."

More grooming, more fun

The Telegraph today has a piece on the new July Vogue style at any age issue and how to stay visible at 50. I like the advice from two grandes dames of British fashion, Vivienne Westwood and Joan Burstein. I can vouch for the fact that Joan always looks amazing:

Covering up necklines, legs or slack upper arms can be seductive in itself, insists 67-year-old designer extraordinaire Vivienne Westwood:

Everyone knows my clothes are sexy. It is playing with the idea of being clothed and then eventually unclothed. It’s much more sexy to be dressed. But for me, at my age, can I have a pair of high-heeled shoes? What really touches me is the woman who is chic, she knows herself, doesn’t buy into mass marketing or publicity, but takes the trouble to look good and shows off her best assets. This shows her to be generous yet discriminating and wishing to gain from her experience in life.

The older you get, the more grooming you require — but it’s also important to have fun, says Joan Burstein, fashion pioneer and owner of the Browns boutiques:

I am 81, so I’m very aware of the areas older women are concerned about. It’s all about deflecting from those areas. If you’re worried about your shoulders, upper arms or bust, buy a beautiful fine shawl and wrap it dramatically around yourself.

Also, use bright colours around the face: not white, which can be draining, but pale pink, blue or vivid — but not lurid — deep orange. And pay more attention to your hair and nails, because those are the things that pull you down.

If you go to the opera or out to dinner, swap your normal handbag for a smaller and nicer one, or get a professional make-up artist to make you up. These little things lift the spirits.

On the question of visibilty, having sold two of my Anya Hindmarch bags on ebay, I went yesterday to buy another. I knew I wanted a smallish cream bag which would go day to night. I did a lot of research, found the one I wanted on the AH site. When I actually saw it in the shop, it was exactly what I was looking for. Until the sales girl showed me another bag, in cream patent, the Alessandra, which simply had a bit more fizz. I bought it. Do not go entirely classic into that good night.