Dear Uncle Dysfunctional,
What age is too old to wear a leather jacket? I've always really fancied a sort of American flying jacket thing – a bit Top Gun, you know – but I've never been able to afford one before. And now I can, my wife says I'm too old. This seems terribly unfair and, actually, I mind more than I should as it would have been the fulfilment of a childhood dream and now, whatever I do, she's spoilt it for me. I'm not going to tell you my age, I just want your final judgment and I will abide by that.
Yours sincerely, Ralph
OK, Ralph. The rule is, you can't wear things with a practical application after the age you would realistically be expected to perform the job they're designed for. So flying jackets are pretty much off your radar after 30. Sheepskin, of course – the uniform of second division football managers – you can wear right up into your sixties but not if you're 20. Donkey jackets only if you're fit enough to carry a hod, and no one should be a navvy after 25. Pea coats: if you're too old to join the Marines, don't think about it. Cowboy boots you can't wear unless you actually are a cowboy or in a Status Quo tribute band, or over 60; there's something about a retiring gent in cowboy boots that looks sort of presidential.
So much of life is not about whether you're good or bad, or right or wrong, or can afford or not afford – it's just about timing. Wearing next season's look this season is as ridiculous as wearing last season's this season. There are five great ages of man – five moments when you need to reevaluate everything, clear out the cupboard and the wardrobe, and most importantly, your head. They are 13, 20, 30, 40 and 60. All men need to know this.
Thirteen is perhaps the biggest one – it's the end of childhood and the beginning of being a teenager. You get balls and can't sing "O for the wings of a dove" any more. Things you are already too old for at 13 include birthday parties with clowns, Nerf guns, a 10-second start, the light on, Valentine's cards from your nan, having your mum wash any of your body parts. But you can start swearing as part of normal sentence structure (and not just stand-alone expletives), and wearing T-shirts that have pictures or slogans that refer to contemporary music. You can do weird adolescent shit with your hair, you can offer your seat on the bus to an older person, and you can kill things – rabbits, fish, nits. And, of course, there are the three big ones: you can wank, drink and smoke.
Twenty is a tough age because it slips past in the middle of so much else – university, gap year, leaving home, getting jobs. The big birthdays are still perceived to be 18 and 21, but 20 is where you need to have a programme, to have a pogrom, make a bonfire of your previous life. So, 20 is the age where you finally, irrevocably put childish things behind you. "I forgot" is no longer an excuse, neither is "I overslept", or "If you rinse them out, you can use them again". Neither is wearing the same T-shirt or underpants for a week, or odd socks. At 20, you need to have a pair of leather shoes with laces, and a suit. At 20, you can't be sick in the street, or in someone else's Wellington boots. Twenty is too old to dump a girl simply because you want to go to a festival in Serbia. It's too old to shoplift or do wheelies on a pushbike. It's too old to run down the street with a pretend assault rifle, and it's too old to sing Whitney Houston songs at the back of a bus at midnight. But it's not old enough to marry, be a father or give up on learning stuff. Or to decide you're not good at anything. Twenty is the age when you start moving the intellectual furniture into the cerebral emotional house you've been building since you were two. At 20, you should be able to cook proper food, not just fried, stoned, dude-munchies. Oh, and no more tattoos. But also remember you're never too old to fold a paper aeroplane and fly it while making the noise of the Spitfire's mighty Merlin engine soaring over the South Downs on a perfect June day.
Thirty is the man-up year. You stop smoking and doing coke. Now, you really are too old to wear a T-shirt anywhere but in the gym, and you should be there for health, not beauty. You can't do hoodies any more, or trainers. No, really – no trainers. You should be able to tie a bow tie, have shirts that need cufflinks, and you can't play kick-about football with the other balding, paunchy blokes on Wednesday evening. You all look pathetic. Thirty is the age when you have to admit that you will never play any professional sport, you will never be needed for a national team, and you can't wear shorts in the city, or Speedos on the beach. From now on, your life is intellectual rather than physical, so you need to polish up your lounge act. At 30, you should have made at least one speech in public without using notes or nicking a Jimmy Carr joke off the internet. At 30, you shouldn't eat and sleep in the same room. You should be in a relationship that shares more than bodily fluids. At 30, when people ask, you should be able to say what you are rather than what you hope to be. At 30, you should already know what your favourite novel is – and it shouldn't be Harry Potter. And neither should that be your favourite film. You should own all the formal clothes you will ever need, and at 30 you should have taken your parents out to dinner.
Everyone knows that 40 is crunch time. Forty is the age you dread. Over 40, there is a dreadful, grey, terminal prognosis. It seems to be the pivot on the seesaw of life. Before 40, everything is acquisition; after 40, it's all conservation. Actually, 40 is the age where you need to have a moratorium on making big decisions; don't buy anything that costs more than £1,000, and don't get rid of anything worth more than £1,000. The best way to avoid a midlife crisis is to not buy one. Don't grow your hair or a beard; don't drive a car with a detachable roof. And no one at 40, except a policeman, should be seen on a motorbike, particularly a Harley-Davidson. Riding a Harley-Davidson should be a punishment, like community service or being put in the stocks. Forty is when experience should count for more than enthusiasm. By 40, you should have travelled to at least four continents. You should have made a success of a career, not just a job. Forty is when you check yourself for all the signs of being a kidult. So, no more jeans. Ever.
Sixty is harvest festival – this is where you pick up the fruit of your life. This is the age where you start smoking again, and doing recreational drugs. When you're 60, you can sing anything you damn well like at the back of a bus. And the best thing about dressing up at 60 is that you can start wearing other people's national costume: djellabas, kurtas, Austrian boiled wool, Sami hats. Sixty is the first age where it's not just acceptable but admirable to have a girlfriend half your age. Sixty is when you can offer opinions whether people want them or not. At 60, you can play with soldiers and Lego again, have naps in the afternoon and run down the high street with an imitation assault rifle. You can wear Speedos again because, frankly, who cares? At 60, you should be witty rather than funny, and you will know the importance of detail. The only thing you can't wear at 60 is a look of censorious disappointment.