On men’s fashion. Again.


A further blogpost moaning about men’s fashion

This follows on from a blogpost earlier this year on men’s fashion – see here. In part it’s because of further pondering as well as stumbling across some stupendously expensive items that I will never be able to afford.

A wardrobe for an office winter?

That’s basically what I’ve got – having reached the stage of life where garments can last several years. The second dinner suit I ever purchased during my civil service days still looks lovely even though it’s over five years old now. (I grew out of my first one as my routine changed following my move to London – far less exercise meant an expanding waistline!) Many of the dress shirts and waistcoats that I accumulated over the years from various discount and charity shops also still fit – not that I have many formal balls to wear them to these days. During the middle part of the last decade, the number of black tie events I went to during my regular ballroom dancing days (which was with this lot) meant that putting that little bit extra for some nice dress shirts (that were suitable for the office too) was money well-spent. I recall at the time TK Maxx were selling quite a few – certainly far more than now. Also, their variety was far greater than other traditional shops on the high street. One thing to note too was that the formal balls I went to were relatively cheap ticket-wise – about the same price you’d expect for entrance to a nightclub on a Friday night.

What should men wear in hot weather?

While the weather has been hot this summer, it also makes it difficult to work out what to wear. There’s still a part of me that has the ‘you wear trainers with shorts’ mindset from childhood. I don’t think I’ve ever had a pair of non-sport shoes that match anything other than trousers. Also, because of negative body image issues since my early teens, I’ve never been particularly comfortable with the idea of showing too much flesh. My two pairs of pale linen/cotton trousers have seen me through this summer, though one will probably have to be replaced because of the inevitable stains from when I’ve sat down on an outside wooden pub bench.

Making the effort to dress up

I was discussing this with a new social group that is evolving quite rapidly in Cambridge. Basically the website Meetup has a number of self-organised groups around a number of different interests and demographics. A number of people there seemed to find the idea of only meeting up for alcoholic drinks and nothing else a little bit tedious. Hence several have come up with a whole series of ideas and events – such as seeing some of the Cambridge Shakespeare Festival plays to days out in other towns.

I’ve also been to a couple of other events this summer where a number of people have expressed a desire to…well…have a reason to make an effort. That’s not to say such events need to have a rigid dress code. If anything, the dress codes are more rigid for men in terms of what we can and cannot wear – though the ‘expectation’ for women to bare more flesh is just as (of not more so) oppressive on them as far as codes are concerned. Men are covered up to their necks while women’s ballgowns often have bare shoulders.

Do social lives end at 30?

Nearly 600 people in and around Cambridge have responded with an emphatic “No!” if the number of people signed up to this online collective is anything to go by. Yet one of the things I learnt in my late teens was that I wanted more from events generally than going out and drinking coffee or alcohol. Throughout my 20s, I was also fortunate to go along to a number of events that, in years prior to that I could only have dreamt of. Many of them were dancing-related and were with familiar faces at the time. One particular highlight was going to a New Year’s Ball in Vienna in 2007/08. I’d be lying to say I didn’t miss events like that.

As I mentioned earlier, there are people in and around my home town that want to do group activities – such as team sports – but don’t really know where to start. Only this weekend when, following a fairly regular exercise walk, I heard some people in the pub saying how they’d like to play football again, but didn’t really have anyone to play with. It’s one of those things where perhaps we take for granted the impact of educational establishments to bring people together. I’ve kept hold of a couple of football tops from years gone by, but I can’t think of the last time I actually wore them to play a game of football. Much as I’d love to play football again, I’m in a similar situation: who to play with.

Dress codes for occupations

I remember for our teaching assessments at Cambridge Regional College’s Preparing to Teach course that we all ‘dressed up’ for the workshops that we ran and were assessed on. The chefs dressed the part, as did the art instructors. So when I ran a workshop introducing Parliament and Whitehall, I dressed all suited and booted. It was something a number of people commented on – saying that it added greater impact to the content of my workshop. In my first full-time job in a in the late 1990s, the expectation was that we’d all wear suits. It wasn’t until my second month that I was able to buy a suit. My first suit. The worst suit I had ever bought. A horrible 3-piece blue wool/polyester mix. But hey, we live and learn. There’s something about learning the things you don’t like as well as the things that you do. Which is why I try to avoid polyester in formalwear like the plague.

At the same time, I can’t help but feel that in workplaces, the workers should have a say in what the designs and materials of workwear should be. If anything because they are the ones that have to work wearing these things. During my banking days, I remember one former colleague complaining that back office staff having to pay for workwear they were compelled to wear was an additional cost – given that frontline staff were provided with uniforms (and the bank was making billions in profits). During my supermarket days prior to the civil service, I remember not having to worry too much about day-to-day wear. For just under half of the week, it was the uniform of the supermarket.

Pride in what we wear – especially in the work place

You could say it’s nostalgia for an age or a mindset that may not have existed, but I’m still fascinated by the frontline public sector workers that had all manner of logos, emblems and badges on their uniforms. In particular, those that worked on public transport in years gone by – you can still see examples in the London Transport Museum. It’s something that in part transfers over to the very ornate logos and emblems of trade union branches that date from decades and decades ago.

The flip-side of all of this is a mindset of the ‘militarisation’ of society – something that, anecdotally historians spoke of about for former Soviet Bloc. i.e. everyone having a uniform of some sort. Or perhaps the school uniforms where those that rebelled against authority would try to push the boundaries as far as they could get away with.

The historian in me quite likes the idea of wearing a smart military-style uniform. The pacifist in me on the other hand finds the concept quite horrifying. I’m a civil servant by training, not a soldier. When the UK goes to war, it automatically shows that both politics and the civil service has failed – i.e that we have to resort to the highest form of violence due to the failure of negotiation and diplomacy. The idea that we have to ‘dress up’ for it…exactly.

Dressing up – a right of passage?

The school/college prom has received it’s fair share of criticism from those who say it’s an additional burden on those that can least afford them. For the three sixth form balls I went to, I hired the dinner suits. For university, I went to a local charity shop to buy an ill-fitting number that I ended up never wearing because my university didn’t really do formal events. It was only during my post-graduate and civil service days that I made up for this – attending the May Balls at St John’s, Jesus and Darwin College over the years despite having never studied at Cambridge. It just happens to be my home town.

It’s a difficult balance between ‘right of passage’ in a community, and a sense of ‘shame’ that some might feel if they cannot afford to dress up for the occasion. One of the advantages of school uniforms is that they are a great equaliser. My days during the sixth form were an example of the opposite. There are a couple of fashion brands and/or types of clothing that to this day I refuse to wear on principle because people I didn’t like were slaves to those brands.

If we were to re-design what formalwear for men entails…

Because in the grand scheme of things, mens formalwear hasn’t really changed for the past 100 years. It comes back to the futuristic boilersuits that predictions from years ago said we’d be wearing today. What would formalwear for men look like if we said to designers to disregard past conventions and come up with designs in the context of: ‘Make an effort’? For example one that showed effort in the sourcing and manufacturing of the materials used. One that showed effort and craftmanship in the tailoring process. One that at the same time showed creativity and design flair…what would that look like?

Because in the grand scheme of things, ties are pretty random things for us men to wear around our necks!


2 thoughts on “On men’s fashion. Again.

  1. A lot of front-line public sector (and out-sourced to private sector) workers still have prominent logos, as putting a logo on the clothing gives tax advantages. If you issue people with plain clothes (that they could wear outside work) it’s a taxable benefit, but if you issue them with obviously work-related stuff (that you wouldn’t wear except at work) it’s not (within limits).

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