AA Gill... On Style

Our resident agony uncle on what men should really think about clothes

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Dear Uncle Dysfunctional,

I like clothes, I like to look nice. I've a favourite jacket and a jumper I'm sentimental about, but they're just clothes. You know what I mean? In the end, they're only the wrapping the important stuff comes in. I don't want to spend a fortune on them. In fact, I don't want to spend anything. Buying shirts is so far down my bucket list of things to spend cash on, it doesn't register. I look smart, clean and comfortable. I'm cool in summer and warm in winter.

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The thing is, my dad complains that I don't have the right clothes to visit my grandma or go to my cousin's wedding. And he had a fit when he saw me going for a job interview in the clothes that I wear to do everything else. I said that they only wanted me to talk on the phone, not to look like James Bond, but he wasn't having it.

Why do you lot – old people – all insist on having a dressing-up box to do different shit in? A suit for drinking tea. A tie to meet a bank manager. It's weird. And while we're at it, what's with all the clothes in this magazine? Are there really blokes who look at the pages of stuff and think, "Ooh, I must spend my Saturday searching for just the right mid-length spring scarf in this season's must-have maroon"?

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Dylan, via email

Dear Dylan,

Yes, there are. But let's step away from the absurdity of contemporary fashion, to strip your question down to its boxer shorts.

When I was probably about your age, my dad – who actually thought very like you, hated wearing a tie and would have liked to have worn corduroy wherever possible all his life, and would much rather be warm than stylish – went to China, then still a closed communist country under Mao Zedong, coming to the end of the Cultural Revolution. He brought me back a Mao suit – blue cotton, a baggy safari jacket with four flat pockets, a ghillie collar, single-breasted and chino trousers with a matching cap. It was the collective uniform of a billion Chinese of both sexes. It came in either blue for everyone or green for the military. And the answer to your question is yes, it was practical, cheap and it made everyone look the same on the outside and spared them the bourgeois worries of fashion, style, avarice and jealousy; they were never underdressed, always appropriate, it was a reminder that everyone is equal, and that what was important is what they did, said and thought.

I wore mine once, and cut quite a dash in Notting Hill Gate in the mid-Seventies. I looked like I was going to a fancy dress party, or playing in a movie. People pointed and laughed, and asked where I got it. Exactly the opposite of what Mao had wanted. It wasn't an expression of unity, but singularity, a statement of otherness. I never wore it again, choosing to look different in the same way as everyone else. But it was an irony with a lesson in the power of what you dismissively call fashion and I pretentiously call aesthetics. Personal adornment is the only cultural form that everybody in the world takes part in.

Even if you take the Clarkson line that if it covers your genitals, it's fine, that's a statement. Indeed, Jeremy opting out of fashion has made his look as recognisable and in-your-face as Grayson Perry's. You don't have a choice about fashion or aesthetics – you're in it, whether you like it or not. So you then have to decide, do you want to be good or naff at it?

The truth about Mao's suits was that they didn't relieve you of the insecurity and vanity of surface things, calibrate the intellect and the character, they demanded that everyone had the same character and thought the same pocket platitudes. Removing variety in dress doesn't uncover variety of personality. The biggest, most avaricious, style-conscious fashion victims in the world are now the Chinese. So don't assume that you alone can rise above fashion. It really isn't a good look.

And as for the tiresomeness of having to dress differently for different situations, just get over it. You wouldn't like it if your mother had turned up at your graduation in her wedding dress, explaining that it had cost her so much she thought she should get it out more often, and if it was alright for one then why not for all special occasions? Of all the myriad and voluminous ways that a parent can embarrass their children, dress is the easiest and the most cripplingly effective. There are a very limited number of potential occasions where you should have the appropriate clothes:

Obviously, you need a black tie: every man at some point in his life will have to wear black tie and, when choosing a suit, think, "Could my father or my grandfather wear this?" And if the answer is no, then you shouldn't either: black tie should be ageless. And learn to tie a bow – it's not difficult and there's no excuse for either a clip-on or the hideous Hollywood straight tie.

You do, though, need a straight black tie for funerals. Everyone has to go to a funeral at some time and you need to be dark and sombre, and in a black tie. Wearing a football scarf because he'd have appreciated it, or a Hawaiian shirt because he loved a laugh is not the point. Funerals are about respect for the bereaved, not a punch line for the dead.

You need something smart that isn't a suit. That probably means a blazer, the most versatile piece of clothing ever invented.

And you need a white shirt – not expensive, not fancy, just ironed. A white shirt is the ultimate result dress, the most seductive thing a man can wear. It's our equivalent of high heels and stockings. Every message a white shirt gives out is positive. It's unflashy but romantic.

Advice to men about dressing tends to be formal but every man needs to have a good fancy dress. The rules are "wit rather than guffaws", "amusing is better than hilarious" – laughing with you, not at you. And nothing that's made out of polyester: you become a sweaty static-magnet. Nothing with a carnival head. And nothing you couldn't hail a taxi in at four in the morning.

And a dressing gown, every man needs a good dressing gown. Not necessarily like Noël Coward but something that doesn't look like a DNA encyclopedia or evidence from a crime scene. Nothing above the knee, and nothing with dragons, eagles or Chinese writing on it. Oh, and not plucked from the Bangkok Four Seasons or a health club. It should be attractive enough for a date to wear it the next morning without gagging, laughing or regretting.

Remember that clothes can never make you something you're not: they don't fool anyone but they do let people know who you think you are. Nature gave you your look and there's only a limited amount you can do about that, but what you wear is the skin you choose for yourself.

More importantly than what it tells others, it reminds you of who you can be.


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