Outward and Visible Signs

Theodore Dalrymple | Posted on 06/07/10

Of course, I grew up at a time when la vie boheme was still possible. It was still possible because bourgeois respectability continued to exercise what cultural theorists are inclined to call hegemony, though it was already in its last gasp, and true bohemianism is entirely parasitic on bourgeois propriety, on which it is but a commentary.

Considering the attention given to clothes in the press and elsewhere, and that many people list shopping (by which they mean shopping for clothes) as their principal pastime, it is astonishing how few well-dressed people one sees on the streets. On the contrary, most people approximate to the famous and apt description of the professionally bohemian poet Dylan Thomas: an unmade bed.  

In my childhood, adolescence and early adulthood, I would have applauded this as an advance in human society. Only very superficial people, I thought, judged people by their appearance; for the majority of people to dress in a sloppy or careless fashion therefore represented an opportunity for people to make deeper estimates of each other's character, dependent not on the outer, but on the inner man.

It would certainly not be true to say that from an early age I displayed an indifference to the way in which I dressed, for if I had I been indifferent I should have been a lot smarter than I actually was. It would be more true to say that I deliberately disarranged myself, to appear scruffier than I would have appeared without such an effort at disarrangement. It was with a certain pride that I walked in the rain with holes in my shoes (the sensation of the squelch of the water between my sock and the sole of my shoe is one that I can still conjure up in my mind's feet). I reasoned thus: if profound and clever men did not care for their appearance, then not caring for one's appearance meant that one was profound and clever. It took me quite a time to appreciate the fallaciousness of this so-called reasoning. 

Of course, I grew up at a time when la vie boheme was still possible. It was still possible because bourgeois respectability continued to exercise what cultural theorists are inclined to call hegemony, though it was already in its last gasp, and true bohemianism is entirely parasitic on bourgeois propriety, on which it is but a commentary. Without such propriety, there is no point in bohemianism, indeed it must pass completely unnoticed without it. Astonishing as it now seems to me, during my early childhood bourgeois women such as my mother went shopping in white gloves and hats, often with short veils attached (for reasons of fashion rather than for religious reasons, of course). When my mother died, I had to clear out her collection of long-unworn gloves, including elbow-length evening gloves, that are as alien to us now as, say, silk top hats or spats would be. In my childhood, again astonishing as it now seems to me, the wearing of such a thing as a black polo-neck sweater was taken as a sign of almost Parisian levels of loose living. Such a sweater was sufficient by itself to cause spluttering outrage, as if the end of the world were nigh. In a sense, of course, it was.

My mother's efforts to turn me into a nice little boy in smart grey flannels who raised his cap in thanks to motorists who stopped to let him cross the road were, in the short term, a resounding failure, though I hope they had better success in the long-term. As I have grown older, I have revised my opinions in my mother's direction, though I am now swimming against the tide in much the same way that bohemians once swam against it.

More than one thing has caused me to change my mind. In the first place, the mass-bohemianisation of society, in which people reject sartorial elegance almost as second nature, as a default position as it were, so that for a man to wear a tie is now almost a sign of rebellion, seems to me to result in an aesthetically unpleasing mass-society. Slobbery is a spiral that, like Time's arrow, goes in one direction only. One has only to compare the appearance of people on a crowded street fifty or eighty years ago with their appearance today to see how much better they were dressed then, and how much more refined they looked.

Of course, I know the arguments against what I am saying: that those same crowds that were smartly dressed lived in a world in which moral monstrosities took place, often committed by people who prided themselves on their appearance. No one ever alleged against Mussolini, for example, that he was careless over his appearance ("Too many spats! Too many spats!" as one Briton who met him was said to have exclaimed afterwards). This is the argument against the artistic greatness of Schubert: that concentration and extermination camp commandants were moved by his lieder.

When people are free from artificial constraint, the argument continues, what they choose to dress in is a t-shirt and scruffy jeans; therefore, the fact that this is how an enormous proportion of the population now dresses represents the triumph of freedom. Freedom is the exercise of your will without anyone saying you nay.

But there is more to be said than this. Having lived among really poor people in Africa and elsewhere, I know that to present a good appearance to others is for them a triumph of the human spirit and not just a manifestation of vanity or superficiality, much less a semi-intellectual pose like that of Marie-Antoinette playing shepherdess. The fact is that, given the laws of thermodynamics, it takes no effort to look like a slob; to be smart calls for care and attention, not only to one's clothes but to how one behaves. It also means that one must try to imagine what one appears in the eyes of others. Slobbery is the sartorial manifestation of solipsistic egotism; smartness is simultaneously self-respect and respect for others.

Recently I have been staying in an economically-depressed part of Wales. There used to be steel works and coal mines there, but they have long gone the way of all industrial production in the west. Life in the steel mills and coal mines of Wales was never easy, quite the reverse; I don't think anyone today lives such hard lives as the workers in them lived a few decades ago. But I have been deeply moved to see the old men of deeply-depressed towns, who themselves lived very hard lives, and who were the most working of the working class, dress smartly in ties, jackets and highly-polished shoes merely to go to the pub for a pint of beer or to do a bit of shopping. In today's world, I wanted to bow down before them with reverence and respect, amongst other things in recognition of the respect that they showed me (and, of course, everyone else) in dressing in this way, for it could not be easy for them and was the result of considerable effort. How splendid and dignified they looked!

In 1926, Arnold Bennett, a humane and decent man as well as a considerable writer, published an elegant essay entitled Clothes and Men, in which he was not ashamed to state the obvious - since there is nothing so easy to lose sight of, once you have achieved a certain level of education, as the obvious. He denies that one must be rich to be well-dressed, something that is worthwhile for the richest people who have ever lived, notwithstanding a crisis or two, to remember:

   The negligent man will object that he cannot afford to dress

   well. Not so. Every one can afford to dress well on his own

   plane of expenditure. It is a matter not of money but of

   interest in the subject. He who is interested in a subject will

   speedily acquire taste in that subject, and the skill to get the

   best effect at the lowest cost.


Bennett admits that smartness can go too far. But, he says:

   I would rather see a fop in the street than a man whose suit

   ought obviously to have been burnt last year but one. The

   fop has at least achieved something that is not an eyesore. The

   scarecrow is an eyesore and has simply left something undone

   from conceit or sloth. The fop is not without his use in

   society. He keeps tailors alert. He may often be an ass, but

   he is also an idealist, a searcher after perfection; we have

   none too many searchers after perfection, and an ass engaged

   in that quest is entitled to some of our esteem.

Bennett goes on to point out that, being a social being, man can escape neither fashion nor convention. The point, he says, is to make them good, morally and aesthetically. And aesthetically, we are like Satan evicted from heaven: Ugliness, be thou my beauty.    








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