Does An ‘English Look’ Still Exist?
When I’m describing a character, it’s tempting to fall into easy categorisation. If the person I’m writing about is ‘typically English’, it suggests a Golden Age detective novel description that was once ubiquitous. Ladies in floral frocks, gents in waistcoats and suits – now the idea seems ridiculous.
But then I read Dan Brown’s description of an English look (yes, I tried to read Dan Brown’s ‘Inferno’ – more on that another time) and fell about laughing. There are a handful of incredibly old shops left in Mayfair where gentlemen may have their suits and boots made, but these days the only ones shopping there are likely to be overseas visitors emulating an English look. The idea of having an account at Lockes is now absurd.
The average British male wears his shirt untucked, for example, a side effect of being considerably heavier than his predecessor. It’s worth remembering that the character Billy Bunter – once considered grotesquely fat – was described as weighing 14 stone, which would nowadays make him normal.
The English are divided into tribes now rather than classes, yet they keep shreds of that old look about them. Out come the hats in summer, on go ties for any vaguely smart social occasion. A certain type of Englishman going abroad still can’t resist the lure of a cream straw hat. Chain stores dominate European high streets, so we wear what we’re given, and for men over 30 that usually means a shirt and jeans.
We haven’t developed the American taste for beige slacks and cargo pants, and our men aren’t good with anything too patterned, yet we dress like fools in the sun. In Barcelona, sophisticated locals dress dark in summer and winter. Scarves appear in any weather below 20 degrees and only tourists wear loud colours. English summertime, a period marked by the rain getting warmer, still requires a coat. Northerners dress differently to Southerners – the clothes are more practical and generally smarter, except on girls hitting the town, where the look is rather more outrageous.
It’s taken a long time for English men to understand that smartness is more startling because of its rarity, and many younger men have now adapted traditional English looks to suit themselves. It’s safe to assume that David Beckham would not have chosen the clothes he now wears if not for his stylists.
I have trouble seeing an English Look at all, but I suppose the most common hip style for London males that I’ve noticed has been a narrower version of what my grandfather wore; button-down shirt, cardigan or waistcoat, slim-fit jacket, facial fuzz, slicked hair. It’s a look I like, a way of being modern while honouring the past.
Meanwhile, the great middle swathe of the country still bypasses all of this, going for the tasteful high street brands that render them almost invisible. But perhaps that’s the point of the English look – not to stand out in a crowd.