Joseph O'Neill: How Your Wardrobe Can Be A Time Machine

The author revisits his youthful sartorial flourishes

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One day – not long now – my sons will explore their father’s wardrobe in the hope of finding something interesting. I did the same when I was 15. In my father’s closet, I spotted a skinny little silver silk tie from the Fifties – very alluring to me, in 1979 – but not much else. Corporate Austin Reed shirts and ‘sports jackets’ of the kind Dustin Hoffman rocked in Kramer vs Kramer were not my thing.

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My boys are also in for a let-down. They will find a gloomy little cave with these sullen inhabitants: eight pairs of socks, eight undershorts, two not-cool suits, one jacket (a magically cheap, durable, and versatile number by Butler and Webb), three 10-years-old collared shirts and a slim pile of fading and holed mass-market T-shirts.

Oh, and a few trousers, of course way too large at the waist for the boys and, if they keep growing at this rate, way too short; useless, unless they want to be clowns. Man hands down misery to man. It deepens like an IKEA shelf. (My wardrobe is a one-door Swede named PAX.)

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Because they accurately see me as an unshaven housebound oaf, the boys are unlikely to be taken aback. I think they would be surprised – as I was, when I saw a photograph of my twenty-something father as a pipe-smoking hat-sporter – to learn that there was an epoch, somewhat exotic and baffling in retrospect, when I dressed like a character in an Hercule Poirot TV mystery.

I’m talking about my years as a student at Cambridge University, which I’m now able to view with anthropological curiosity. I’ll bet that quite a few men of my generation – those pushing 50, or just pulling away from it – will recognise this sartorial trajectory and, as they shuffle around in their Converse One Star skate shoes, will emotionally recall the brogues of their youth.

I had a skewed introduction to ‘English’ fashion. I grew up in the Netherlands, in The Hague, and belonged to a football and cricket club that by chance was populated by haut bourgeois or would-be-posh types. As far as I could tell, sweaters meant Benetton sleeveless sweaters with diamond patterns; socks meant Burlingtons, also with diamond patterns; and shirts, in summer, of course meant Lacoste shirts.

Beige Ralph Lauren trousers were big back then. Loafers were huge. The underlying dream wasn’t American preppy but mythic Britannic – le style Anglais, as our bon chic, bon genre French counterparts put it.  

The continental myth was fortified, first, by my older sister. She went to boarding school in England – a country I’d barely set foot in. She returned home with secret knowledge about how to eat and what nouns to use and what to wear; from her I learned that shoes were crucial, and that I should instruct our mother to buy me boxers, not Y-fronts. (The Sloane Ranger Handbook would soon make public much of my sister’s advice.)

The decisive influence was the television mini-series Brideshead Revisited, which aired just before I ‘went up’ to Cambridge. I recently tried to re-watch it and was dumbfounded by how gay it is and, by implication, how unconsciously gay I must have been.

Aged 17, I somehow missed the homoeroticism, maybe because I was too focused on the tweed jackets Jeremy Irons wore, which had cuff buttons that actually unbuttoned. Corduroy trousers, cufflinks, bright jumpers thrown around the shoulders and knotted by the sleeves, paisley ties under woolly V-necks: so it was all true, that was how they dressed in England. 

I bought my first tweed jacket at Billy Higgins, in Limerick: a gentlemen’s outfitters apparently staffed by prime ministers. The jacket was a Donegal tweed green check. It was soft to the touch because it had cashmere in it; cashmere was really big.

I wore my Higgins jacket during my first week at Cambridge, in combination with my brogues; and, just as I’d been led to believe, many of the other boys dressed the same way. It was a pretty OK, in-its-way urbane look, and sometimes a Japanese tourist took your picture.  The girls seemed not to mind or be weirded out: maybe they’d watched Brideshead, too, and believed that inside a secondhand suit from Hackett’s there might be a straight Sebastian Flyte. 

I wasn’t a millionaire aristocrat, unfortunately; my father was a construction manager from Cork, and my mother a French teacher from Turkey. That wasn’t fatal to the project of dressing up, because the point wasn’t to pass oneself off as a member of the English upper class – an unsustainable misrepresentation for 90 per cent of the chaps in dinner jackets, white linen suits and daytime bow ties (oh yes; you even saw cravats). What was the point, though? 

It’s not easy to say. I’d love to lay claim to an intelligent programmatic subversive dandyism, but I just wasn’t that well dressed. Nor was I ideologically sophisticated; not many of us were. We may have voted Labour, supported the striking miners, boycotted Barclays Bank over South Africa, and listened to The Smiths and The Birthday Party and The The; we may have not been invited to join the Pitt Club or go to hunt balls; but we did drink Pimm’s No. 1 at garden parties, and we even played croquet, for fuck’s sake.

When we graduated, most of us became lawyers and bankers and management consultants. As a barrister, I wore Thomas Pink shirts, court attire by Ede & Ravenscroft, and single-breasted suits made by an itinerant tailor from Yorkshire named Dale Rhodes. You don’t need to belong to the Frankfurt School to figure out that Cambridge did its job.

Dale would drop my chambers in the Temple, measure me up, and hand-deliver five weeks later. Those are Dale Rhodes suits hanging in my IKEA wardrobe. They have a boxy, baggy cut that isn’t likely to come into fashion soon.

But they connect me, through the upheaval of decades, to the last hurrah of a dapper self. The connection isn’t that embarrassing, not any more, and in any case doesn’t bear much examination. He was just a kid, that guy who I was, not much older than my boys.

Taken from Issue no. 3 of The Big Black Book: our biannual style manual on newstands now.

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