I have been looking at some architectural impressions of various new developments. I always find architects’ sketches an attractive source of optimism, a promise of a better future. But notice how the human representations within are always stylishly dressed: people who, one could imagine working in glamorous creative industries or finance.
When these creations get built, many do bear passing resemblance to the designers’ dreams of a corporate Utopia – but those who populate them most definitely don’t look the same. I’ve recently spent time in a few such places: the enormous development that is the Stratford Olympic site for one. For all the lustrous finishes of the Westfield Shopping Centre, for all the stylish shops that occupy it, the majority of the clientele actually sports jeans and T-shirts or branded leesure-wear; stylish they aren’t. Truly well-dressed people are few and far between: one wonders who actually buys the clothes on show in the windows – maybe it’s just foreign tourists? Snobbery might resort to the fact that this is East London – but the same was pretty much true of the Grand Arcade in Cambridge, Chapelfield in Norwich, the Highcross Centre in Leicester, central Manchester and Birmingham, not to mention the glamorous alien that has landed in distinctly humdrum Chelmsford – Bond Street.
Truly stylish people have become almost an extinct species in Britain. It’s not as though we don’t have a time-honoured reputation for sartorial quality – even the Italians have a soft spot for traditional British style, menswear in particular. But who wears it any more, except possibly City bankers and Sloanes in Kensington? And even there, I suspect standards are slipping – the workplace is the last bastion of formal dress in Britain, but that too is going increasingly casual.
Having done a little delving, there seem to be two issues that might be to blame: long working hours and a Protestant Anglo-American history.
Having recently suspended my own full-time employment, I can well appreciate the effect that it can have on one’s mind; when the attention is fully on the career, there is little mental space or energy left for the other aspects of life, let alone something so supposedly trivial as dressing artfully. And that’s where the second element kicks in: for all our supposed modernity, there remains a stubborn distrust of ‘show’ in British culture. A puritanical understatement is preferred, whether people are aware of it or not. I was inclined to blame America, the source of so many cultural evils, but there actually seems to be more interest with dressing well in the States than there is in Britain, if a quick web-trawl is anything to go by.
In fact, perhaps the mistrust is less spiritual and more societal: traditional British style still has strong associations with Class. People who choose to dress smartly are ‘probably’ either Hooray Henries, Toffs or other upper-class twits, and it isn’t cool to be identified as one of them. Much better to affect the inverted snobbery of wearing extortionately-priced sportswear and bling that make you look as though you’ve come straight from The Bronx.
Or maybe it isn’t even that: I suspect the majority of modern Britain either simply never thinks about how it looks, or doesn’t care, to the point of neglect. A concern for such issues only shows how shallow you are anyway, doesn’t it?
Well, I beg to disagree. True, taking care of one’s self may be unimportant when compared to huge global issues, but if every life is precious, then why waste it through neglect? Effort expended on small niceties adds colour and artistry to everyday life; it has a cumulative effect on the quality of that life and is a sign of self-respect. I challenge anyone not to feel better if they eat well, live in cared-for surroundings, and take care of their personal standards in general. Conversely, what does it say not to care about these things? That life is trivial, unimportant, not worth taking care with? It may be that your priorities in life lie elsewhere – but somehow I suspect that they actually just took their leave some time ago. I think it was the designer Tom Ford who said that dressing well is a courtesy to others; if he is right, then it cannot say much about one’s care for other people either, to deprive them of that small pleasure.
What is true of clothes is also true of food, standards of speech and conversation and all other aspects of social intercourse. Collectively, these things create a context and tone for social interaction. In Britain, we supposedly had a food revolution. It’s true, the quality on offer has vastly improved, but eating well is still for the special occasion rather than the quotidien, and I suspect that most foodie books and programmes are consumed vicariously. When one listens to what people actually say about their lives, casual junk and supposed convenience seem to reign supreme.
It takes courage to maintain personal standards when everyone around you is dropping theirs, but I suspect there is a sneaking respect for people who do. In the small town where I live, there is one gent, probably in his early seventies, who regularly steps out in tweeds, plus-fours, waistcoats and a natty line in caps. He is clearly untroubled by the fact that he stands out.
But, in a very positive sense, everyone knows who he is.