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27. December 2020

Growing Up


The Dapper Dilettante

Christmas may well be the time to say I Love You. But there exists a vast reservoir of partnerships where one side might exclaim under the tree: I Love You. But I Would Love You A Lot More If You Dressed Properly!

The sartorial master-slave relationship runs deep in most families. It starts with your mother forcing you to wear scratchy trousers, paired in winter with sensible leather shoes and wooly hats. Every other child would roam freely in shorts all year round and routinely upgrade to the latest sneakers made entirely of plastic. You, meanwhile, were dressed as if you’d been enlisted in Robert Falcon Scott’s South Pole Expedition. And we all know well how that excursion ended. The man in fetching furs from Norway won. 

Years ago, I had my own brush with a case of clothing colonialism. Not that I was presented with a tie of dubious pattern, or cream-colored cable knitwear that I was asked to casually drape around my shoulder. It was an altogether more subtle ambush. My then-girlfriend presented me with a weighty book called “Gentleman. A Timeless Fashion.” I was instantly intrigued. Not least because the male model on the cover posed in a parade of improbably outfits: a sand-colored suit; a set of brilliant white underwear; a morning-suit ensemble, and finally a dressing gown paired with velvet slippers. None of these attires looked as if I, having recently graduated from high school, would be adding them to my wardrobe anytime soon. 

Still, there was much to be gleaned from the content, like where to buy your shirts or why Huntsman stood apart on Savile Row or why unbuttoning your suit cuff was considered distinctly low-class. Under the Christmas tree that night, I tucked in with gusto. My mother, however, failed to muster the same interest in the reading material. Instead, she glared at the little red book like an offensive piece of pornographic print, the expression on her face not dissimilar to witnessing a gruesome spectacle, like a wasp slowly devouring a squirming slug. 

The next morning, she took me aside to enquire about the deeper significance of the gift.  Was this an attempt by my girlfriend to pry me from my dark cave of clothing confusion and bathe me instead in the bright light of starched shirts, crisp colognes and sumptuous silk? Was my partner not satisfied in what she had in me, she asked? I squirmed, slug-like.

It was at precisely that moment that my mother realized she had lost power over the way I dressed, and that she would instead have to yield to a younger woman who, it is safe to say, didn’t share her sense of style. In this race, my mother was Scott, abandoned in a windswept tent, while my Amundsen-girlfriend had triumphantly rammed her flag into my youthful chest. 

Fast-forward a quarter century, and much has changed. Some of the outlets recited in the fine Gentleman book are no more (Kilgour, RIP), some of the style tips are comically outdated, some protagonists dead or disgraced. But what remains is this: we all need a helping hand to find our style, be it through a book or a prodding partner. Most people I know didn’t benefit from effortlessly stylish parents. It just wasn’t a thing in the 80s where I grew up. So better to grab that young hand and let it pull you along. And what better way to say I Love You than in a set of brilliant white underwear. DDD/MM