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Dressing down

Why do 21st-century Englishmen turn into such slobs in summertime? Harry Mount laments the rise of sleeveless vests, baggy shorts and plastic sandals

31 July 2010

12:00 AM

31 July 2010

12:00 AM

Mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the continental midday sun. But at least the mad dogs don’t dress in vests, belly-hugging T-shirts or those cut-off trousers that make short men shorter and fat men fatter.

Why do they do it? How has it happened that you can spot Holidaymakerus britannicus in an instant, from the other side of the piazza — from the far end of the tapas bar? The romantic legend that the British provide a model of good dress still lingers on. The British invented the modern suit, so the myth goes, Savile Row stands for the best tailoring in the world, so those sartorial standards must be written into our dressing DNA.

Well, it just goes to show how difficult it is to dislodge a national stereotype. Frenchmen don’t wear Breton shirts any more, Greeks don’t wear skirts and tasselled hats — and the British are no longer able to dress appropriately, attractively or comfortably in the heat. Bad British summer dress isn’t restricted to a particular class or age group, and it’s at home as well as abroad. Walking along Hampstead Heath in 85˚F heat this summer, I saw men in their seventies in vests, with clouds of white hair exploding from beneath their armpits. We now care so little about our dignity that Crocs, the perforated plastic clogs designed for children, have become a smash hit among middle-class grown-ups. Knee-length shorts — with flapping, empty pockets that bulk out the silhouette — are particularly popular among public-school graduates.

It is primarily a male problem. Women dress better than men in summer — as they do for the rest of the year. Partly it’s because women are generally more interested in what they look like. But also they are better at dealing with exposed flesh; they expose more of it all year round, and so are well-practised at calibrating the relative dimensions of their bottom and bust, knowing when their upper arms are fit for sleevelessness or their upper thighs for hot-pants.

Man grooms less than woman. You might call him less vain but actually it takes a special kind of misplaced vanity to dress appallingly and still think you look good. The question ‘Does my bum look big in this?’ doesn’t appear in the male phrasebook. Men seem almost proud of their bloated bellies and often now walk around stripped to the waist with everything hanging out. A man’s feet should only really appear naked in private, padding between his bathroom and the bed — but come summer and British men are waggling their hirsute toes under everyone’s noses.

So why don’t Italian, French and Spanish men commit the same sins when they get dressed in the morning? Because bad summer clothes is not just a gender thing, it is also a north-south thing. Northern Europeans just aren’t used to intense heat. Our internal thermostats are constructed to deal with damp, cold weather for eight months of the year, and to enjoy a few brief appearances from a mild sun in the other four.

When temperatures go above 80˚F, those thermostats go into meltdown, and we start committing sartorial hara-kiri. The summer sun acts on the British male as the full moon does a werewolf. We begin to change, lose inhibitions, cast off sensible clothes and go a little crazy. We behave as if heat means holiday, and start wearing our special, ludicrous holiday gear to celebrate.

A Mediterranean native, on the other hand, has a different setting on his thermostat. When I tried and failed to swim the Hellespont on a boiling hot day this May — the 200th anniversary of Byron’s successful crossing — I was rescued by an immaculate Turkish fisherman in thick, golden retriever-coloured corduroys.

Mediterranean Man knows that there’s never an excuse for letting it all hang out. Whatever the weather, he remembers that he has to go to work, drop in to Mass; he knows he might bump into his mother-in-law in the street. Mediterranean Man, like Middle-East Man and Pan-African Man, also realises that covering up in thin cotton makes you cooler (in both senses) than exposing flesh. What’s to gain by frying your skin in self-basting Factor 2 in the middle of the day, when you could be sitting in the shade of a café umbrella, waiting for the cool of the evening before taking your evening passeggiata?

When did we change? When did the archetypal summer Brit stop wearing linen and embrace Lycra? I blame the arrival of cheap summer flights and package tours half a century ago. Before then, the British didn’t actually tend to go out in the midday sun — unless they were forced to because they were governing New South Wales.

The Victorian, Edwardian or pre-war British holidaymaker — as opposed to the colonial administrator — didn’t seek the southern summer sun like we do now. Rich Victorians and Edwardians took their European holidays in the spring and autumn; they would never have gone to Florence or Nice in August. A summer seaside holiday meant a British seaside holiday until the 1960s, when cheap air travel led to the new mass migration.

It is a mass migration in the wrong direction. Swallows and swifts arrive in Britain every spring for our lovely, temperate summer, before fleeing south in the autumn to avoid our filthy winters. Holidaymakerus britannicus is the only creature in nature who chooses to go south in the summer, actively in search of arid heat and the scorched, infertile plains.

Just when Britain is at its warmest, we perversely seek out the sort of heat that makes you feel nauseous and headachey; that engulfs you like an invisible curtain as you step down from the plane; where indoors is the only sane place to be; where to move is to sweat.

The last half-century is a blink of an eye in human evolution terms. Our thermostats haven’t yet adapted to our annual summer migration; nor have our brains. Still over-excited about the novelty of cheap deep heat, we haven’t worked out that humans aren’t built to move much in these southern temperatures, let alone sightsee, play beach football or hoover up industrial quantities of wine and beer in the middle of the day. Wait till the evening — or, even better, until the autumn. And try to keep your shirt on.

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