What the Well-Dressed Man is Wearing

When Bertie Wooster’s Aunt Dahlia commissioned him to write an article on ‘What The Well-Dressed Man Is Wearing’ for her magazine, Milady’s Boudoir, he reflected afterwards that “if I had had the foggiest notion of what I was letting myself in for, not even a nephew’s devotion would have kept me from giving her the raspberry. A deuce of a job it had been, taxing the physique to the utmost. I don’t wonder now that all these author blokes have bald heads and faces like birds who have suffered”. Well I hope that after writing this I won’t have a bald head and a face like a bird who had suffered, although I can’t make any guarantees about your head or face after having read it, and if they respectively end up bald, and like a bird who has suffered, then you will at least not have to worry about what the well-dressed man is wearing; you’ll have bigger fish to fry. We’ll see.

Anyway, university students, if I can remember that far back, are taught that before embarking on an essay it’s useful to define one’s terms. Assuming that you are not so sunk in sin and lost to drunken excess as to have forgotten the meaning of the words “man” and “wearing”, what chiefly concerns us here is what it is that constitutes being “well-dressed”. A common mistake is of course to confuse being well-dressed with being extravagantly dressed or overdressed. You will, I am sure, recall that in chapter 7 of his memoirs, Casanova complains that “A man in court dress cannot walk the streets of London without being pelted with mud by the mob, while the gentlemen look on and laugh”. You may have similar and painful memories of your own. But resist the urge to blame the mob– being pelted with mud is, surely, a sign that one is not in fact well-dressed. The mob are always refreshingly keen to volunteer their advice in these matters– to paraphrase Sir Thomas Beecham, having witnessed a camel defecate on stage during a performance of Aida, they may have deplorable manners, but they are at least honest critics – and it’s advice worth taking. Oh we can all return home, the jeers still resonating in our ears, and indignantly attempt to convince ourselves that we are feared and resented for our innate sensitivity and superiority, and that that’s why the mob have pelted us. We are not understood in this miserable epoch, but one day we shall be free to wear purple nail varnish and snorkels on the no. 43 bus. Alternatively we can consider the possibility, however slight, that maybe we went out looking like a cock. Does Terence Stamp ever get shouted at? No. Pierce Brosnan? No. Pete Burns? Yes.

This is not to say that one necessarily need be conservative in one’s dress, or that one should appear dull and neutral, so as to avoid the opprobrium of burly simpletons. Instead, the effect we are looking for is that described by Wodehouse in his preface to Joy In The Morning, where he writes that his “white and gleaming” spats “fascinated the passers-by and caused seedy strangers who hoped for largesse to address me as “Captain” and sometimes even as “M’lord””. This is much more like it, although these days of course, spats are more likely to achieve the effect that marred Casanova’s stay in London. Oh don’t worry, I’m sure he found other compensations. But while spats may be out, and from Wodehouse’s description of them– “white cloth and buttoned round the ankles, partly no doubt to protect the socks from getting dashed with spatter but principally because they lent a sort of gay diablerie to the wearer’s appearance” – then I would strongly suggest that they are; one can at least strive to attain the gay diablerie they lent to the wearer’s appearance, and, equally importantly, the deference of seedy strangers. This, then, is the aim of the well-dressed man– to win the respect of the mob, to exhibit a gay diablerie, and, if we’re honest, to gain the attention and approval of the opposite, or the same – there’s nothing wrong with it – sex.

But where to begin? In fact a well-dressed man’s wardrobe is deceptively simple. Suits, jackets, shirts, good shoes, and jeans– yes, jeans; this is after all the 21st century, and as talented and admirable a man Boris Johnson might undoubtedly be, one does not aspire to look like him; in any case, he’s got that market sewn up. A wardrobe consisting only of the above will of course elevate you above the wearers of fleeces, anoraks, hooded tops and sportswear, but this is the least we should be aiming for. The well-dressed man must know how to accessorize. And, starting at the top, that means hats.

Prison doctor and rightwing newspaper columnist Theodore Dalrymple recently wrote an impassioned defence of the traditional hat in an article in The Spectator, claiming that “To the hat, or rather to the lack of one, is to be traced the source of all our ill-deportment. Bare heads, or heads accoutered in the wrong kind of headgear, cause our want of self-respect, and therefore our want of respect for others. What we need, therefore, is more hats: proper ones, from cloth caps to trilbies, homburgs, bowlers and toppers”. The key here is of course the word “proper”. Any hat made of a stretchy fabric, designed to be worn by skiers, or skateboarders, or the young, is a hat the most that can be said for which is that it keeps one’s head warm. The equivalent, therefore, of wearing newspapers around one’s feet. The etiquette of the proper hat, writes Dr Dalyrmple, “was drummed into me as a child as being a stage in the taming of the natural savage”. Of course, Dr Dalrymple admits that the wearing of a hat is “no guarantee of moral rectitude”. And one would hope not, since what we’re interested in here is dressing well, not moral rectitude– the most depraved and lecherous dipsomaniac is equally capable of dressing well, as you’ll no doubt be relieved to hear. Accordingly Dalrymple is careful to avoid claiming a direct causal link between hat-wearing and civility, dapperness and courtesy, as it could well be that it’s civility, dapperness and courtesy that make a man wear a hat rather than vice versa. However he suggests that “the encouragement of hat-wearing might lead to improved levels of public civility”, and says that, “It should not be beyond the wit of the government to promote the wearing of hats by fiscal and other means”. Public civility, and the taming of the natural savage, would be welcome by-products, if you like that sort of thing.

Well this is all very well, and it’s always nice to see a proper hat, but they’re not essential. Nor, though equally desirable, is some sort of neck accoutrement; a tie or cravat. You don’t need me to tell you that they should bear some relation to the shirt with which you’re wearing them. You are wearing a shirt, I hope. All that needs to be said here is to avoid, at all costs, anything that smacks of novelty. We all have a favourite Looney Tunes character, and yours is, I hope, Foghorn Leghorn, but there really is no need to announce this on one’s tie. Fortunately cravat makers have yet to discover the riches to be made from these types of franchises, but cravat wearers need to be equally careful. You will look camp in a cravat. Also louche, debonair, devil-may-care and contrived. I cannot recommend them highly enough.

Ignoring shirts, jackets, coats, trousers and tops – which frankly are your problem; just make sure they fit and are in classic styles, and aren’t suitable to wear in a ski resort – socks have stirred surprisingly volatile emotions for what is, one might think, a prosaic item of clothing. Witness John Prescott MP’s dismissal of Sir Christopher Meyer, chairman of the Press Complaints Commission. The Deputy Prime Minister described Sir Christopher as a “red-socked fop”. And yet Saki – arguably a greater mind even than Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott – has a short story entitled Ministers Of Grace, concerning a character called the Duke of Scaw, whose socks, writes Saki, “compelled one’s attention without losing one’s respect”. This, I think, is what we are aiming towards. Traditionally, a gentleman would match “cloth with cloth and leather with leather”. That is to say that a man’s shoes would match his belt, and his socks would match his trousers. This makes sense if you’re wearing a suit, but the chances are that you’re not, in which case you could do a lot worse than match your socks with whatever garment you’re wearing on your upper body. Women, I am given to understand, notice things like this. It is, of course, quite possible that having noticed this they decide, as you so fervently hope, that you are the kind of meticulous, go-getting, high-achieving perfectionist who takes so much care over every minute detail of his life that he can’t fail to be precisely the kind of man they want to be with. It’s also possible that they decide that you are the kind of pitifully deluded fantasist who genuinely believes, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, that a pair of socks, if co-ordinated with some other footling aspect of his outfit, is going to be able to mask and obscure the many thousands of faults and shortcomings in his character that are so very painfully aware even to the least perceptive of observers. I don’t know. I suppose it depends on the sockwearer. All I would say is that it can’t do any harm.

Shoes should, of course, be either black or brown, and well polished. There is a place for trainers – if one wants to lend an informal touch to a smart pairing of jacket and jeans, but beware of making them one’s default footwear. Well-dressed man Stephen Fry tells a story in his autobiography about going to the casino at the Ritz Hotel with Peter Cook, who was told he wouldn’t be allowed to enter wearing trainers and was offered alternative footwear. “What?”, demanded an enraged Cook, “take off my lucky Reeboks? Are you mad?” Be careful, and sparing, if you are over 40 and not Peter Cook.

Otherwise I would simply advise one to wear cufflinks, if at all possible. Oh I know it means wearing a double-cuffed shirt, and that they’re more difficult to iron, but they’re the only item of jewellery you really need; and it’s not as though you’re having to decide between various pairs of earrings that then need to be forced through your earlobes. In my view the best cufflinks are oval shaped, with a large coloured glass stone of some kind that complements the colour of your shirt, but you can’t go far wrong with cufflinks, even if you ignore this advice. Unlike ties and waistcoats, a bad pair of cufflinks is likely to be better than none at all – novelty cufflinks, in the shape of hot and cold bathtaps, or working clocks with two different time zones, or members of Dollar, are too small and too discreet to offend in the way that a novelty tie can, and will.

In short, it is in fact so easy to be a well-dressed man that one has to wonder about the motives of those who aren’t well-dressed. But this is, of course, not our concern; our concern is to win the respect of the mob, to exhibit a gay diablerie, and, if we’re honest, to gain the attention and approval of the opposite, or the same – there’s nothing wrong with it – sex. And I hope and trust, and know, that I have equipped you to do just that.

Andrew Ward