A Life In Style Icons: By David Nicholls

The bestselling author on how a man matures into his clothes 

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When I was 17, I lied to my optician.

“Is that a ‘Y’? Or a ‘V’? I can’t… OK. I’m going to say ‘Y’. It’s a ‘Y’. Frankly, everything beneath that is just a blur.”

In truth, I had the eyesight of a sniper, but I wanted spectacles so badly that I was prepared to damage my eyesight to acquire wire-rimmed National Health glasses, just like the ones John Lennon wore.

Spectacles, I thought, would be the answer. Lying to that optician was my first conscious step to acquiring what I believe – in fashion periodicals – is called “a look”.

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Up until then my look was that of a boy whose mother bought his clothes.

Youth, rebellion and individuality didn’t really sit well on my sloping shoulders. I preferred the uniformity of school uniform to the mystifying world of fashion. Even a simple T-shirt and jeans looked like fancy dress on me, as if I’d come as Tubercular Cowboy.

At 17 my icons weren’t James Dean, David Bowie or Lou Reed, they were Woody Allen, Arthur Miller, Harold Pinter and Chekhov.

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I wanted that edgy, TS Eliot-thing going on, because if I couldn’t look handsome or fashionable, I could at least look troubled and intelligent. Professorial. Bookish. Who could resist? After all, it had worked a dream for Arthur Miller.

This was 1983, at a state sixth form where, unsurprisingly, the girls were not that interested in getting off with Andrei from The Three Sisters.

In fairness, nearly everyone in the entire world looked terrible in 1983, but even by those standards, “professorial” was not a sexy image. Arriving at university in 1985, I was startled to realise that it was not an original image either. There were thousands of us: jumped-up provincial Prufrocks; jotting down pensees in our notebooks over a new-fangled cappuccino; or polishing our spectacles on our beige linen jackets and sighing with unrequited love for girls with Louise Brooks bobs.

By the late-Eighties, the look had evolved with the mood of the times and I was alternating Oxfam overcoats, collar upturned, and EM Forster-pleated trousers with a harder, tougher, more “political” look.

I had always loved Albert Finney, Richard Burton and Tom Courtenay in Billy Liar and, especially, Dr Zhivago. In particular, there is a wonderful shot of him as the revolutionary student Antipov standing on the rear platform of a train with his heavy overcoat, all cheek-bones, flicked-back hair and those spectacles again. Idealistic, intellectual, angry, consumptive.

I wore plain black DMs and an immense heavy-donkey jacket that I bought at Oswald Baileys. I wore this everywhere, combining it with a sulky, glowering look and the Bertolt Brecht of the tarts and vicars party.

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The next quarter of a century of shifting fashion trends won’t detain us long. During a spasmodic acid-jazz phase, I decided to break out and buy a pair of white jeans which, combined with a white T-shirt, made me look like a funky ghost.  Rave and acid house didn’t touch me.

Unafraid to take fashion risks, I once wore a mustard-coloured corduroy shirt from Jigsaw for Men to a hardcore club on Coldharbour Lane in south London, while standing all night in a malarial sweat because nothing says techno techno techno quite like heavy corduroy.

Shortly after this, I met my current partner, a discreetly-stylish dresser who, over the following years, carried out a discreet but ruthless cull of the more fogey-ish corners of my wardrobe – culminating in the legendary Bonfire of the Chinos in 1998.

Button-down shirts from Gap disappeared in mysterious circumstances. “Moths” consumed whole cardigans overnight. Linen jackets vanished into air, only to materialise in local branches of Sue Ryder.

And now I’m 46, free at last of the obligation, or indeed the ability, to look young, and I’ve finally reached the age I was aspiring to at 17.

I still wear the same heavy overcoats, the jackets and the spectacles (though I no longer have to lie to my optician). The world-weariness has the stamp of authenticity now. T-shirts look more absurd then ever, and I’m contemplating retiring my last remaining scraps of denim and starting to wear a suit every day.

Not an immaculate city suit, or Bond-wear, and certainly nothing double-breasted. Instead something a little crumpled, a little worn and with pens in the pocket: the uniform of a writer.

I’ve also discovered, after all those years, the perfect exemplar of how I want to look from now on. I’ve developed an obsession with the films of Francois Truffaut. I like the look and the feel of them: those dark sweaters with the buttons on the shoulder that young Antoine Doinel wears in Les Quatre-Cent Coups which have heavy, oily wool in a navy-blue.

I love the shabby jackets, fat ties and beautiful shirts that Jean-Pierre Leaud wears in the later Doinel films, Domicile Conjugal and Baisers Voles (under-rated masterpieces, both of them).

I love the look of Truffaut himself – Google-image him – and even as a handsome young man there’s a kind of hang-dog stylishness there, in the way the cigarette dangles exhausted from his mouth while his suit jackets are too baggy or too tight.

For years, I thought the perfect shirt belonged to Woody Allen in the rooftop scene in Annie Hall. Now I think that it belongs to Truffaut in my favourite film of his, La Nuit Americaine: thick material, large collar, beautifully cut and sleeves rolled neatly up above the elbow.

In that film; however, Truffaut acts. He plays a version of himself: the put-upon director, Ferrand. Uniquely, he even makes the director’s hearing aid look stylish.

Now I have a tie – a dark grey knitted tie of all things – which I bought in Bonne Marche in Paris and its the most Truffaut-ish thing I own.

I love that tie.

It looks terrific with a thick white shirt, and beneath a well-cut dark-grey three-button jacket. I’d wear it in August if I could.

That’s what I was looking for, for thirty years. A grey knitted tie, cut square at the bottom. Finally I’m old enough to pull it off.

David Nicholls is an English novelist and screenwriter best known for penning 2011’s biggest-selling book, One Day

 

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