I have been looking around anxiously on the Tube in recent months. On the way to work, I am squeezed in between T-shirts and hoodies, feeling stuffy for having bothered to put on a jacket and tie. I keep an eye out for my fellow travellers but they never seem to come. When the Evening Standard recently moved to Liverpool Street, I expected to be on home territory, but even here at the heart of finance capitalism the dwindling of proper menswear is rapid and noticeable. What has replaced it is not good. Trainers and jeans are winning, and men of all ages across London seem to be regressing into Rugrats.
I suspect that many of us have stopped dressing like grown-ups because we’re not growing up
I suspect that many of us have stopped dressing like grown-ups because we’re not growing up. Sure, the physical process hasn’t stopped, entropy goes on increasing and apoptosis proliferates. But milestones like finding a stable home and raising a family have become harder in London even if you want them. Our twenties, thirties and even forties thus transform into an extended adolescence. This widespread infantilisation is also reflected in what we wear in our daily lives. And so there is the spectacle of chaps with greying hair and beards traipsing to work in battered trainers, baggy jeans and T-shirts.
But how did things get so bad so quickly? Because those at the top have recently thrown in the towel. Savile Row in Mayfair is now frequented by more rich tourists than rich Londoners — the elite have stopped bothering. In only a few years Whitehall, for example, has turned from a seascape of navy and charcoal suits, depicted prettily in the recent Bill Nighy film Living, to something totally alien. It is now a realm of denim jeans and shortened trousers. There was a time when shorts were for summer holidays, sports and prep school. Now whole government departments are run by men dressed in them.
Tech companies, desperate to seem unstuffy, have pioneered dressing badly as the mark of an innovative company, and so it has spread. A friend took work experience during his university days with a major London consultancy. It was a suit and tie affair. He returned two years later for a proper job and found chaos. Everyone was in T-shirts and shorts. Multi-coloured beanbags had replaced proper furniture. “They wanted to look like Google and they ended up looking like a pre-school class,” he withered. In this case, as in many others, Covid-19 seems to have knelled the death of standards.
‘Wear what makes you comfortable’ is a maxim that people who look good in anything say to those who don’t
But it’s not just lockdowns. Since the social revolution of the Sixties, prevailing wisdom has been that it is good to express ourselves and embrace our individuality, which we can do through clothes. Such easy-going mantras have always sounded good-natured. But they are not. “Wear what makes you comfortable” is a maxim that people who look good in anything say to those who don’t. Far from kind, it is a cruel raising of expectations. Only the very handsome can pull off bold, cool and casual looks. The rest of us end up looking scruffy and asymmetrical. The beauty of the old formula is that it was designed to smarten up all of us, no matter how podgy, lanky, short or tall. Far from snobbish, a yearning for the return of the suit and tie is deeply egalitarian.
Ethan Croft is deputy diary editor