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Do men really care about fashion?

After outrage about the men’s outfits at London Fashion Week, a discussion on whether the suit, shirt and tie will ever be replaced

  • Charlie Higson and Alex Bilmes
  • Published: 17:00 January 18, 2013
  • Tabloid on Saturday

  • Image Credit: AP
  • A model wears an outfit by designer Hentsch Man for their Autumn/Winter show during Men's London Collections
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Charlie Higson, actor, comedian and author

If this is going to be about whether men are interested in the sort of fashion we’ve been seeing at London Fashion Week, then this is going to be like shooting fish in a barrel. (Actually, “shooting fish in a barrel” has been the theme of the McQueen show, with models dressed in wooden barrels full of carp, while other models dressed as crabs take potshots at them with sniper rifles.) There has been much outraged coverage in the likes of the Daily Mail of those pictures of an outfit whose main feature appears to be an exploded crate stapled to the model’s face. Of course, it’s not about fashion, it’s about PR. Nobody would give a toss about Men’s Fashion Week, there would be no articles or outraged Mail pieces, no one would be talking about the designers, if the shows featured what all well-dressed men are wearing grey suits, with a smart tie and a nice shirt. And this doesn’t just apply to men’s fashion — no one has ever been seen wearing a single catwalk creation after a fashion show in the whole history of the world, ever. If the question is whether men are interested in fashion in general, then I’d have to say — if by fashion you mean “do most men wear grey suits with a smart tie and a nice shirt?” — then perhaps they are.

Alex Bilmes, editor of Esquire

You'll be relieved to learn I’m writing this in a grey suit with a smart tie and a nice shirt. Quite a fashionable suit, I’m not at all ashamed to admit. It’s by Richard James, who is one of the many talented British menswear designers who showed his clothes this week during what we’re calling London Collections: Men (the colon is silent, as it should be). Richard’s catwalk show, like the overwhelming majority of the catwalk shows, consisted of models in sharply cut, beautifully tailored jackets and trousers and sweaters and shirts. The Mail, as ever, took the reductio ad absurdum approach, focusing only on the most outre and avant-garde collections and ignoring everything else. They chose to deliberately miss the point, but we know why they do this. The Daily Mail and its readers feel threatened by fashion. They see it as sophisticated, metropolitan, and therefore suspect. But we need not be like them. Fashion, like architecture, or music, or poetry, or comedy, is about trying to make the world a more pleasant, enjoyable and — why not? — better-looking place. I concede that there probably are men who are not interested in fashion, or in any of those things. But what a horrid, drab world they must live in, poor dears.

CH: Well that’s just my point, (E)squire: “Jackets and trousers and sweaters and shirts”. We’re being told that “men are more interested in fashion than ever”, but men haven’t changed the way they dress in about 100 years. The industry gets the attention for Men’s Colon Week by having some wacky outfits, but all the guys just come away wearing suits and ties. I’ve scoured the internet for photos of you wearing anything else, and come up with nothing (expect some shots where you don’t have a tie, you scruff), and you’re the editor of one of our few surviving men’s style mags. Perhaps it’s you, rather than the Daily Mail, who feels threatened by fashion. All designers can really do is tinker with the cut of a suit and change the position of the buttonholes.

AB: Busted. I’m a suits and ties guy. That doesn’t mean I’m not fashionable, or interested in fashion. It’s true that most, but by no means all, well-dressed men favour fairly traditional clothes. But they are still subject to the tastes of those trouser-tinkerers you refer to, sometimes without even knowing it. The silhouette, cut, fabrics, colours, patterns — in fact the entire appearance of the business suit changes dramatically over time. Look at a fashionable suit from the 1960s: single-breasted short jacket, skinny lapels, tapered, flat-front trousers. Then the 1970s: long jacket, wide, flappy lapels, bell-bottom trousers, bold check pattern, probably brown. Then the 1980s: boxy double-breasted jacket with shoulder pads, baggy pleated trousers, chalk stripe. Think of your colleague James Bond in his screen incarnations: Connery, Moore, that grumpy bloke in The Living Daylights. This is men’s fashion: slower-moving and often more conservative than women’s fashion, but still an overwhelmingly powerful influence on the way we dress. I’ve just Googled you, in return. Looks to me like you’re not entirely immune to the allure of the well-cut jacket, even the natty scarf. You’re a bit of a dapper Dan: good for you!

CH: It’s interesting how any discussion about men’s fashion inevitably ends up with James Bond. And interesting that you can’t remember Timothy Dalton's name. Even Moore’s Bond looks camply stylish now, but Dalton can never escape his ghastly 1980s styling. Also telling that Bond’s signature outfit — the tuxedo — hasn’t changed since the early 1960s, and is still the default look for men. I’m interested in what I wear, of course I am. I remember as a teenager, at the height of punk, when I was dyeing my hair, wearing make-up and all sorts of outre outfits. I don’t want to sound like a grumpy “things were better in my day” git, but I do rather feel that while men’s fashion shows have become more outlandish, the way men actually dress has become more regimented. Where are the extreme youth cults of today? The mods, teddy boys, punks or skinheads? The glam rockers and new romantics? Where are the businessmen going to work in brown and orange checked suits, kipper ties and Roger Moore-style safari outfits? It’s a shame that what a lot of young men wear is dictated by a jumped-up plimsoll manufacturer such as Nike and the rest of us fall back on black tie and wishing we were James Bond.

AB: This debate seems to have come full circle. Rather appropriate given the cyclical nature of the topic. Having argued that men’s fashion is not dominated by silly, unwearable costumes designed to shock, I’m now required to deny that it’s boring and staid and conventional. And I’m happy to do that, too! I know exactly what you mean about how pallid youth culture has become, but that’s not the fault of fashion, it’s a result of the mainstreaming of pop. That said, I think you’re wrong to accuse younger men of a lack of sartorial daring. Yes, the punk spirit may be dormant and fashion today may be more polite than it was when you were starting out, but plenty of the twentysomethings going about their business in London are incredibly stylish and not only in ways of which conservative fathers would approve. I see colourful trousers, flamboyant jackets, wacky shoes, trendy haircuts, an increasing willingness to experiment with new styles. I realise that we may not be entirely representative but the Esquire office is staffed by young men who come to work in a startling and diverse array of looks, from sportswear aficionados to formal dandies. Believe me, no one here wishes he were James Bond, but we certainly wouldn’t mind one of his suits. They’re by Tom Ford, a fashion designer who this week showed his new collection in London, in the belief that the world’s best menswear should be displayed in Britain, its natural home, where it can be best appreciated. I think he’s right.

— Guardian News & Media Limited

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