Simon Heffer deplores the fashion for dressing down. It’s ugly and disrespectful and leaves men looking like idiots
We all know that life under the Blair Terror can be pretty grim, but I am beginning to fret about the increasing signs of a collapse in national morale. I do not refer to the well-documented exodus of Britons to live abroad, or to our sense of defeat in the face of rising crime and seemingly unlimited taxation, or even to the semi-formal establishment of the Church of England as an arm of the light entertainment industry. I refer, of course, to the demolition of our pride and self-respect to the extent that many even quite civilised men can no longer bring themselves to dress appropriately when they go out in public.
This topic has been of great interest to old bores for most of the last century. We recall, for example, His late Majesty King George V’s stinging rebuke to Lord Birkenhead, a picture of whom the King saw one morning in a newspaper. Birkenhead had been summoned from the country to attend an emergency Cabinet meeting on a bank holiday, and was wearing a rather smart tweed suit. The King was outraged that one of his ministers should be seen in London attired in such a fashion. Then there was Evelyn Waugh, who took the spendid step of writing to every man who attended his daughter’s coming-out ball wearing a black tie to upbraid them for not wearing a white one. These may be taken as extreme representations of the concern, but in the last few years the lowest common denominator has taken a serious plunge downwards.
Sitting in some of the plusher seats at Covent Garden the other night — thanks to the generosity of a friend — I could not help but notice the general dishevelment of many of those around us. A fair proportion of the men in the audience were, like me, in dark suits and ties, either because they had come from work or because they quite correctly regarded a visit to a grand opera as an event. Many others, though, had no tie. Yet others had no suit or tie. Some were wearing what could best be described as polyester jerkins. It may be that if you have had to spend £175 on a ticket for the opera you cannot afford proper clothes, in which case I would almost applaud such people’s priorities. Sadly, I suspect what we were witnessing was yet another manifestation of the I-just-can’t-be-bothered demoralisation of the modern Briton.
There used to be such a thing as a sense of occasion, and those participating in the occasion — whether it be a night at the opera or an invitation to dinner or to a religious ceremony — would avoid insulting their hosts or diminishing the event itself by not turning up for it dressed as if for an afternoon in the garden or at the dog track. That now seems to have gone by the board. Formality at recreational occasions is regarded as utterly absurd; and, indeed, conservatism of dress in the workplace is now increasingly frowned upon, as indicating a range of unsavoury attitudes including a hidebound mentality, political incorrectness and class-consciousness.
I went to a wedding recently at which the groom didn’t wear a tie, even though the male guests did almost to a man. The groom is, however, at the cutting edge of the public-relations industry, so this lapse could be explained away by the fact of his conformity with his tribe. I then attended a country christening hosted by a well-to-do family. It being a Sunday in rural East Anglia I chose — appropriately, I thought — the sort of tweed suitings favoured by Lord Birkenhead, to find that the only other man in a large congregation to do so was the grandfather of the family. Everyone else, though participating at full throttle in a joyous occasion, appeared to have dressed not for that momentous event, but for the reading of the papers that preceded it and the happy hour or two at the saloon bar that would come later. For having got this wrong I blamed my atheism: if I attended routine services of the Anglican Church more often, I would no doubt have realised long ago that regular worshippers no longer regard church as something that merits the bringing out of the Sunday best.
It has never occurred to me, in nearly 25 years of working in London, to turn up at my place of work or to a business lunch without being properly dressed. Our greatest living playwright, Ronald Harwood, noted recently that his mother had told him always to wear a tie when out in London ‘as it is the respect a man shows to a great city’. Perhaps Mr Harwood and I have both insulated ourselves too much from the utter lack of greatness of London, and have failed to comprehend that the meanness of its streets, the shabbiness of its buildings and the lack of ambition in its atmosphere now drive people to dress meanly, shabbily and without aspiration. Unless you regularly attend a gentlemen’s club — and there are campaigns in some of them to scrap the rule about wearing a tie — you can go through quite a smart life in London without being smart at all. I have now become inured to seeing men without ties in very grand restaurants, where the bill for two equates to about the average weekly wage. At first I used to think they were ill, or quite possibly foreign, but now I realise the truth: they can’t be bothered any more either.
Or is that always the truth? Is it not also the result of ideological terrorism by levellers in high places? I had a very stimulating lunch with a friend from the BBC not long ago, and he arrived at the rather swish restaurant tieless. Since he had always hitherto been impeccably attired, I inquired politely after his health. He said that, these days, were a man of his distinction to turn up at the BBC with a tie on, it would be thought he was taking the piss, and he has a glittering career to think of. When I see BBC reporters who are not in war zones or the tropics broadcasting without a tie, I would assume they were hoping for a substantial redundancy settlement; now I realise their motivation is quite the opposite. The de facto abolition of the tie in serious and respectable circles ought to be seen as comparable with the moment, around the time of the Great War, when serious and respectable men stopped wearing frock-coats.
Perhaps this is all the fault of the chippy sociopath Gordon Brown, whose downright rude assertion on taking office that he would never wear a black tie to dinner was viewed by so many plonkers in the liberal elite as a final assault on the class system, by attacking the incarnation of its gradations through dress. But at least Mr Brown always wears a suit and tie, like the good Calvinist he is. Despite the overwhelming evidence to the contrary, perhaps even he realises that dress is about manners rather than class. And the Prime Minister looks dashing in the white tie he wears each year to the Mansion House. Trailing behind as usual, the Conservative party is now seeking to ditch its standards in the pathetic belief that dressing down will make it more appealing to the public. At a fine party given last autumn by Lord Saatchi at his company’s offices in Soho, shadow Cabinet types who attended tieless looked variously silly, patronising, obtuse, scruffy or cynical.
Does it matter? Are we so shallow as to judge people by their dress? No we are not, but then, really, we never were. I have known some utter shits and charlatans who dressed properly, but at least they showed a basic respect for their surroundings and their métier. Scruffy people are thoughtless either about themselves, or others, or both. Almost the only sacrosanct occasion left is the funeral, where even the most radical of men still feels the need to wear a tie, even if (regrettably) it is not a black one. Inherently, men at such an event even now can understand the need to show respect. What a pity that so many of the rest of us must wait until we are dead to have it shown to us.
Simon Heffer is a columnist on the Daily Mail.