Style Essay: Why I'm Scared Of Suits

Former fashion editor of The Times and The Guardian explains her sartorial fear

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It goes without saying that Don Draper is a charismatic character, and one that my box-set alter ego would happily shag. With his notched lapels, white shirts and tasteful pocket squares (“Laura, you have an eyelash – here, let me get that for you”), he is the quintessence of immaculate ad-man style. In real life, however, I’d give him the cold shoulder. Because I’d be terrified. Because I am scared of suits.

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Had subtle, windowpane-check jackets been strewn haphazardly over chairs in our kitchen, had starched shirts been strung like butch bunting along the washing line, perhaps this fear would not be present. But men’s paraphernalia did not feature in my childhood, because there were no men.

There is one lone black-and-white photograph of me, aged five, standing with my grandpa in some Scottish seaside resort. Despite the casualness of the location, my grandpa is wearing a tweed jacket and a shirt and tie. Two months later, he was dead. Still, at least he lived long enough to have his photo taken with me, which is more than can be said for my father, who died before I was born. This is a cheery little story so far, isn’t it?

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My mother had found “everything she ever hoped to find in one man”, she told me, whenever I asked her why she’d never remarried. If she dated, she kept the evidence well hidden. There were no random size-ten shoes cluttering up our hallway. The house may have been bursting at the seams with women’s stuff, but vestiges of masculinity? There were none.

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If familiarity breeds contempt, what blossoms in its absence? Fear? Perhaps suits still symbolise authority when your father comes home from work in one, but their foreboding is surely tempered by the man within. They are not just suits: they are daddy’s suits. I like to imagine this familiarity stays with you; that, in adulthood, you pluck up its warmth from the depths of your memory and use it as a salve in situations when you are confronted with an unfamiliar one.

My first significant unfamiliar suit manifested itself when most people’s probably does: at a job interview. I suppose I got off lightly: he was wearing Comme. It was the Nineties, so the Comme was navy and oversized (“Too big!” as I remarked later to a flatmate), worn with brown suede shoes that suggested an informality not found in their sterner leather counterparts. I worked for this man for four years, learning later that he was one of the most stylish in London – not that I could discern this for myself, because all suits seemed the same to me.

My second job interview was conducted by a man dressed even more informally: no jacket at all, just chinos and an open-neck shirt. “A well-tied tie is the first serious step in life,” according to Oscar Wilde. Clearly nobody had told the editor of The Guardian. Job three was granted not by a man in a suit but by a woman in a shift dress, who worked alongside a swathe of men in serious suits.

How to tell them apart? How to memorise their names if not by the time-honoured tradition of “Fiona, the one who likes to wear leopard-print pumps”? “Ian, the one who likes to wear a blue tie” distinguished no one. Most of them wore navy suits with pale-blue shirts, or navy chalk-stripe suits with off-white shirts, or… oh, I dunno, just suits in varying degrees of crumpled and stained disrepair. The editor favoured grey ones, and sometimes wore a dicky bow. He was a true gentleman, and his suits reflected this. At least, I imagined they did. Having suffered all my life from suit-blindness, however,

I couldn’t truly be sure.

Try as I might to open my eyes and educate myself about the subtle nuances of suit-dom, I always flounder. Grey chalk-stripe with a saccharine-sweet pink tie. Navy linen with a kingfisher blue one. Double-breasted black wool with an off-white shirt and a knitted navy tie (funeral?). Some people can decode these combinations and tell you exactly which job each man does – estate agent, journalist, accountant, whatever. Not me. I just see one big, amorphous sea of conformity. This is probably why, despite working for 20 years as a fashion editor, I tend to stick to critiquing womenswear. I’ve been begged to cover the menswear shows on several occasions, but have always declined. “Too busy,” I said, which was true. But “too scared of getting it wrong” would have been just as accurate.

My fourth job was given me by a man who appeared to wear a modern sort of a suit (navy, single-breasted, slim lapels), though, again, I can’t be sure. When he left, he was replaced by a man in red braces. The red braces seemed very City, very old school, very Fleet Street. I never saw him wear a jacket, but no jacket was required: he was still the most intimidating of the lot. I felt about those braces the way a man might feel about a pair of high, spiky, studded Valentino heels. Why would you wear them when there are more practical options? Like a belt?

There has been no fifth job – not in an office, anyway. Mine is now an elasticated-waist existence, and life is commensurately informal. In some ways, I have come full circle: suits are as absent from my life in middle age as they were in childhood. My children’s teacher wears a fisherman’s jumper. My yoga teacher wears navy trunks. My barista wears a Nirvana T-shirt. My husband belongs to the swelling ranks of freelancers who only wears suits at weddings and funerals. He will probably be buried in a plaid shirt. Which is fine, as he looks as weird in a suit as I do. Let the suits carry on being suited. Maybe it’s all they’re suited to.

In the great wardrobe of life, some people are better kept casual.

Laura Craik is a fashion writer and former fashion editor of The Times and The Guardian

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