One of the gentlemen accredited with conceiving dandyism, George “Beau” Brummel (who took the view that a pair of boots were best polished with champagne), made a famous remark that I have been turning over in my mind for some years. “If people turn to look at you in the street,” he pronounced, “you are not well dressed, but either too stiff, too tight, or too fashionable.”
It is interesting to remember at this point that the word “glamour” derives from an Old English word meaning “magic”. One extrapolation of Brummel’s insight is the pleasingly magical notion that the ultimate expression of dandyism is in fact a form of invisibility: that one might be so correctly dressed as to attract no attention whatsoever. Such a conclusion would certainly suit a dandy’s fondness for paradox: that the supreme sartorial achievement is a disappearing act — the point at which a perfectly dressed gentleman’s clothing becomes an invisibility cloak.
Over the years, while pondering life’s many mysteries, I have pursued this thought a little further in terms of concept, at least. Might the sartorial attainment of invisibility — taking Brummel’s point, and (to borrow from Quentin Crisp) “doing it like mad” — explain the relationship in fiction and popular culture between secret agents and their appearance, more specifically their suits?
For clearly the secret agent of popular culture is seldom too distant from dandyism. It has become a near truism, in the lovely world of spy thrillers, for the British agent to straighten his tie having socked a Soviet thug. Sooner or later, he is bound to have his boots polished with champagne.
These agents even have a literary and artistic equivalent in those authors and artists — spies too, in their own ways, on the workings and secrets of the world — who adopt extreme sartorial correctness as a form of disguise, ceremonial mask or transformative garment: the patrician dandyism of William S Burroughs, for example (hair flattened with water, side-parted, dark three-piece suit, cigarette held at chest height, thumb of free hand tucked in waistcoat pocket); or the eternal “responsibility suits” (their term) worn by the artists Gilbert & George; or the southern dandy white suits of Tom Wolfe.
Whether true (and especially so if not), I cherish the rumour that when asked about his iconic white suits, Wolfe replied that he wore them “to reflect his critics back to themselves”. Take that, New Yorker!
All of the above, however, when returned to the world of the common man, seems to beg an abbreviated, off-the-peg version. How might the average chap in the street acquire a look that is at once quietly gentlemanly, always modern (vitally), correct in every detail, and achieves the supreme balancing act of being flawlessly elegant yet making no “statement” (for what could be more gauche, for a gentleman, than “making a statement”)?
In short, how might a well-dressed man attain all of these things, to the point of being usefully, even glamorously, invisible — and particularly so, once 40 winters hath besieged his brow, and, more often than not, brought with them an advancing waist measurement? The tried and tested answer, here formalised, is simplicity itself: he must start to wear navy coloured clothes at every possible opportunity.
I learned this lesson nearly 40 years ago, when one autumn morning towards the end of the Seventies, I took myself off to a jumble sale (in those days, still common) that was being held in a suburban church hall behind a wall encrusted with oyster-coloured flints. Such events were hugely popular with the (very small) local group of would-be post-punks and their predominantly art-school girlfriends.
In a manner inconceivable today, with the advent of the loathsome “vintage” tag, lazily employed to describe pretty much anything, one could still find amid the musty, moth-balled, morbid heaps, and the ancient biscuit tins filled with stray buttons and spare zips (more than one of which I had seen put to new use in the back of a plastic skirt), clothing (from gauzy blouses to lead-heavy overcoats), costume jewellery, sunglasses, cigarette cases and so forth dating from the Twenties or even earlier. And these cheap treasures played a huge part in the invention of the post-punk, proto-new romantic street style.
This was a time, after all, when the original generation of boys obsessed with Joy Division, David Bowie’s Low, Kraftwerk and The Velvet Underground wanted to dress like Berlin bank clerks of the Thirties. Somehow, in the aesthetic marriage of an imagined past to an imaginary future, it all fitted.
It was also a time when one could never be too thin, nor smoke too much — two most probably interlinked occupations at which I was then extremely proficient. Stiff-fronted dress shirts (minus their collars), gorgeous dusty pink silk ties and on one misguided occasion even a pair of spats had found their way into my wardrobe. But jackets and trousers from the same source eluded me, having all been made, seemingly, for men who were considerably wider than they were tall.
On this particular Saturday, however, fortune decreed that I found not just an accessory, but an entire new look: a tailored suit of perfect fit, comprising double-breasted jacket with burgundy satin lining, sternum high trousers with turn-up — and the fabric, a devastatingly sharp and pristine navy blue.
This would be my first experience of the near alchemical powers of navy blue: for somehow the suit made one look not only taller, but more defined as a presence. By way of congratulation, one of the art-school girls started wearing navy blue nail polish, on the shaky (but impressive, when said quickly) grounds that Angie Bowie (she claimed) wore it. Oh well… “My theme is memory, that winged host that soared about me one grey morning…”
As evidenced by suave British mid-20th century film stars such as Laurence Harvey, Sir Ralph Richardson, Dirk Bogarde, Olivier, Sean Connery (and so on…), navy worn well confers an air of aristocracy on the wearer — an air so persuasive that in the case of Bogarde, for instance, one could be forgiven for believing that there really was a coronet and a grouse moor tucked away somewhere down the family line. (An insinuation that Bogarde — for all his brilliance and glamour — did nothing to discourage, purportedly suggesting in all seriousness that his brother should address him in public as “Sir”).
But why navy? We can begin with implications of colour, for navy seems to literalise a point of transition: out of the blue, and into the black (with apologies to Neil Young, who meant something more profound — about mortality and rebellion — in his creation of the phrase). Navy seems to be at its most effective when one has to look twice at the fabric — and more likely than not study it in daylight — in order to tell whether it is blue or black or true navy.
Like blue-black ink for fountain pens, navy loans the authority of the officer class to civilians; it is grand without being pompous; it conveys in its poised position, tonally, between black and blue, gravitas, sobriety, formality, maturity and substance. And adding a shade of nobility to the colour’s already richly loaded palette of discreet but formidable attributes merely enhances its sartorial appeal.
The poet Charles Baudelaire — one of dandyism’s first and most serious interpreters — pointed out in his defining text on the subject that dandyism (as exemplified by what we might term “the correct use of navy”) is indeed a means of democratising elitism. Hence its enduring appeal — not least to the post-punks of the late Seventies, in search of their own time-travelling notions of sartorial exclusivity. “Dandyism appears especially in those periods of transition when democracy has not yet become all-powerful,” wrote Baudelaire, “and when aristocracy is only partially weakened and discredited.
In the confusion of such times, a certain number of men, disenchanted and leisured ‘outsiders’, but all of them richly endowed with native energy, may conceive the idea of establishing a new kind of aristocracy, all the more difficult to break down because established on the most precious, the most indestructible faculties, on the divine gifts that neither work nor money can give. Dandyism is the last flicker of heroism in decadent ages.”
What better livery for “a new kind of aristocracy” than the shade between black and blue? A colour betwixt the priestly and the imperial. For it is as though navy is encoded with the auras of power, seriousness and ceremony, but in an implied as opposed to official form.
Navy carries within its constitution as a colour a necessary nuance of informality, but it is no more than a nuance: a mere bat-squeak, barely audible, of elegance. Small wonder that many men default to navy (or ought to) as the “safest” colour — regardless of whatever cyclones, monsoons or global warming are passing through the capricious climate of men’s fashions.
Navy solves a problem on a more simple basis: for with a neat historical backwards roll, we discover that Brummel was absolutely right with regard to his identification of those qualities of dress and demeanour that could make a gentleman the object of unwanted scrutiny. For to be “too fashionable”, “too stiff” and “too tight” remain precisely the enemies of dress that will sink anyone’s look before they leave the house. And equally, these are precisely the qualities that navy — as if by magic, when correctly deployed — will overcome.