Alan Johnson: My Early Life As A Mod

The former Home Secretary on the first time he bought a tailored suit

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Old Polonius certainly knew how to dish out the sage advice. He may have been a foolish old windbag in his role as counsellor to the King, and it must have played on his mind that his daughter was having it off with Hamlet, but when his son Laertes leaves Denmark for France he delivers poetic wisdom that has influenced many lives.

I hadn’t yet read Shakespeare when I decided to be a mod. It was 1963. I was 13 and had come into contact with a proper mod through my older sister’s circle of friends. Beautifully dressed in a pale-grey suit with silver cufflinks at the wrists of a double-cuffed, crisp, white shirt, he explained the philosophy of the West London mods: “You may be poor, but don’t show poor.” I accept that such a phrase was unlikely to fall from the lips of Polonius. It’s certainly less well-known than the definition from The Who’s manager Peter Meaden. He called being a mod “clean living in difficult circumstances”.

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It was basically about clothes: tonic suits, Fred Perry shirts, Levi’s Sta-Prest trousers, Hush Puppy shoes and classic clobber that was worth saving up for. It was about having fewer clothes of better quality. Polonius put it better in his advice to Laertes:

“Costly thy habit as thy purse can buy,
But not expressed in fancy; rich not gaudy;
For the apparel oft proclaims the man.”

When buying my first suit as a 16-year-old, I proclaimed myself in Donegal tweed. It was a cheap suit, gaudy not rich, and purchased off the rack at C&A. It made me look like a migraine attack. Things improved sartorially through the Seventies, but I strayed from the clean-cut Italianate path onto the rougher ground of the Jason King look: flared trousers, pinched shoulders and massive peak lapels. By the time of the mod revival at the latter end of that decade, I’d had enough of Jason, and for that matter Bowie (having gone through Hunky Dory, Aladdin Sane and Young Americans phases). I had, however, remained in love with the suit. It was at that stage that I did something different; seeking to pre-empt fashion rather than slavishly follow where others led.

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In 1978, I decided to purchase a double-breasted suit. I soon found that while such suits had dominated menswear between the Twenties and the Fifties — from Al Capone to Humphrey Bogart — they had disappeared so completely that the only way to acquire one was to have it made to measure. I knew that Prince Charles was never seen without such a suit, but guessed he didn’t shop on the high street. I didn’t know then that this style was so integral to the royal wardrobe that the lower button of a four-button double-breasted jacket is called a Kent, after the duke who’d popularised it.

I wanted six buttons in two parallel columns. I also wanted soft shoulders, twin vents and turn-ups. I wish I could remember the source of my inspiration. Perhaps it was a film I’d seen or an old magazine photograph. It could have been my profession. I was a postman in Slough, and when I’d joined a decade earlier, we’d worn a blue-serge uniform with a red stripe down the side of the trousers and a loose, double-breasted jacket. By 1978, we had been re-uniformed in a dark-grey, single-breasted lounge suit. For the summer, we had a thin, pale-grey version with black edging at the collar and cuffs. As my wife at the time remarked, it made me look like a member of Showaddywaddy.

My diary records that on March 25, 1978, I headed to Burton’s in Slough High Street to choose the material and be measured up for my first properly tailored, hand-crafted suit. It was to be grey chalk pinstripe, and would cost £47 to be paid in weekly instalments; more than a week’s wage, but cheaper than I expected. Six weeks after placing the order,

I was invited back for a fitting, by now longing for the instant gratification that you get from off the peg. The suit looked too big and broad and old fashioned. To be fair, the pattern had probably been on the catalogue since Burton’s was founded in 1903. I sent it back for further alterations.

It took another six weeks before it was finally in my wardrobe. I was quite possibly the only twentysomething, non-royal, prototype mod in 1978 in possession of a double-breasted suit. By the mid-Eighties, it was impossible to buy anything else on the high streets of Britain. I’m not suggesting the two things are connected or that this heralded a golden age in men’s clothing. Indeed, the double-breasted decade was quite the opposite: the suits were invariably shapeless with awful padded shoulders and ventless jackets. Furthermore, they were too often worn with the jacket undone.

The inside button on a double-breasted jacket, known as a jigger, is entirely functional. It has to be fastened along with the outside buttons to hold the parallel layers together. Left unbuttoned, the jacket flaps around. Leonardo DiCaprio just about got away with it in The Wolf of Wall Street, but for we mere mortals the effect is disastrous: like tea towels on a washing line.

These, days the double-breasted jacket is confined to the pea coat, officers of the Royal Navy and our future king. My interest in reviving the fashion has just begun to stir again. The problem is that my Burton’s tailored, grey chalk pinstripe rarely left my wardrobe. In fact, I can only remember wearing it once — with a black shirt and co-respondent shoes — to a fancy dress party. I went as Al Capone.

Alan Johnson is a Labour MP and former Home Secretary

This article was taken from Esquire's Big Black Book A/W 2015, out in newsagents now.

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