Wednesday, February 15, 2006

A Lament on the Passing of Sartorial Elegance

If ‘manners maketh man’, the motto of William of Wykeham (1324 – 1404), then a fine dress sense must surely be the hallmark of the true gentleman.

Yet, in many circles of life, the art of dressing well in order to achieve a resemblance of sartorial elegance is fast becoming a forgotten skill. Maybe it has something to do with the fast pace of modern living, or the need by the younger generations to forge ahead with their own identities. Alternatively, perhaps it is the fear of standing out in a crowd and being seen as someone different.

Whatever the reasons behind such decline, sartorial elegance has nothing to do with fashion. It does, however, have everything to do with stability. The wardrobe of the well-dressed gentleman is marked by a distinctive continuity and is a style that can only be described as ‘classic’.

Being a well-dressed gentleman is also something that could be claimed as peculiarly English. It is, as Samuel Johnson put it, a style which is ‘familiar but not coarse, and elegant but not ostentatious.’ However, that said, it does not come easily to all Englishmen. For example, The Prince of Wales has it; Tony Blair, Alan Bennett and Richard Branson do not.

I lament the decline of standards amongst some of my fellow Englishmen, especially when it comes to those of a professional standing. If the man is the representative of his profession, then the clothes help to define the man and, thereby, contribute to the perceived standards of the profession. That said, it should never be the clothes themselves that are noticed. Rather, it should be the well-dressed man who draws the attention; a subtle but important distinction.

Neither is being well-dressed necessarily a matter of wealth or social position. It is widely understood that many women find a man in uniform to be attractive. The type of uniform is not always the factor; nor is his rank. A private soldier in ceremonial dress is equally admired as the colonel. What matters is how the uniform is worn. Once again, this is traditionally the preserve of the English, as observation of foreign armies will often support.

I also grieve for the well-dressed woman who, having clearly taken great care in presenting herself in an attractive manner, is taken out for a meal in an expensive restaurant, accompanied by a slouch of a man. Why do such men feel that a loose fitting, open-neck shirt worn with a pair of jeans and training shoes is a suitable attire to complement that of their lady? There, perhaps, as Shakespeare would have it, lies the rub. For why do the same women not demand greater values from their men? Why do they accept such slovenly standards?

Being well-dressed is all about selecting the right clothes for the given occasion. It concerns the style and cut of the material as much as taking care with collars and cuffs, ties and jackets, the pressing of the trousers. However, sartorial elegance is a charm of appearance stationed above being simply well-dressed. It is those carefully selected accessories which make all the difference; the tie pin and cuff links, the rings, the pocket-handkerchief, the rolled umbrella and, possibly, the hat.

For those who wish to ensure that they know the finer points of etiquette when it comes to such matters, and wish to understand those factors to avoid if a faux pas is to be prevented, then they can do no better than to obtain a copy of Oscar Lenius’s book, A Well-Dressed Gentleman’s Pocket Guide.

Finally, if by any chance, you happen to know a person who professes to never having spent more than £20 on a suit (as indeed, I was astonished to hear recently), then refer him with urgency to the nearest charity for the relief of the poor. For, if the great misfortune of being impecunious is not the case, then it is the most grievous expression of poor taste and bad judgement or, even worse, an act of parsimony to be avoided at all costs.

That said, there is only one area of greater concern. In that respect, I will leave the ultimate word to Hardy Amies, that most English of couturiers who, with a degree of finality proclaimed ‘it is totally impossible to be well-dressed in cheap shoes’.

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