CULTURE: by Symeon J. ThompsonNews Weekly
The forgotten art of dressing well
, September 14, 2013
“Clothes make the man. Naked people have little or no influence on society.”
– Mark Twain.
There is a tendency among serious people to consider clothing unimportant, and those who have an interest in it to be shallow and unthinking. It doesn’t matter what’s worn, as much as what the wearer stands for.
This is true to a point, and the point is that what we wear, and how we wear it, shows to the world exactly what we stand for. More than that, what we wear affects how we feel and think about ourselves and our place in society.
This point can be read in umpteen style guides, from the air-brushed air-headedness of the girls’ glossy mag, to the seriously thought-provoking www.artofmanliness.com.
It’s also raised in debates over modesty, the “pornification” of culture, and the place of religious expression in society — “Ban the Burka”, etc.
But where it is not raised is arguably where it should be most raised — within political movements that favour family, tradition, life and humanity. It’s pushed aside as a purely “personal” matter in favour of weightier topics such as economics, elections and education.
It is certainly true that the weightier topics matter the most, and that how one dresses is, now, a purely personal matter. Moreover, resources for those who fight the Good Fight are scarce enough, so they oughtn’t be wasted on frivolity.
However, the reason that the Other Side is more or less running the show is that they targeted the simple, shallow things that could be easily changed, thus preparing the ground to go after the things that really matter. The revolutionaries have always pushed for loosening standards of dress, because once that armour goes, the things it protects becomes easier to attack.
Consider the fashion industry. It didn’t really exist till the mid-20th century. Clothes were made by craftsmen and women sourced from local, natural materials. They were practical and rooted in history and tradition and religion. They were something of which one could be proud, and they encouraged a thriving and creative economy. Each item would be utterly unique, but also signified a culture and a region and a people.
John Steed (Patrick Macnee) and
Mrs Emma Peel (Diana Rigg) in the
British 1960s series, The Avengers.
Now we have a fashion industry where mass-produced clothes of middling quality and utter uniformity are pushed onto the masses. Instead of localised, sustainable human economy, we have a global consumerist one, and all that this entails.
I recently attended the Mercedes-Benz Fashion Festival in Sydney. Some of the clothes were quite good, but the atmosphere was one of icy inhumanity. To be a catwalk model seems to mean annihilating one’s humanity in favour of being a walking coat-hanger. It’s doubtful if anyone involved was aware of their part in a tragedy — designers and models, like almost all artists, focus on what they do and ignore everything else.
A contrast was to be found in the Fifties Fair I attended a few days later. Suits, ties and floral dresses combined with swing dancing and vintage bric-à-brac. My companion commented how the attempt to dress better led to excellent manners and cheerful, family-friendly vibes. No one was perfectly fifties, but the very act of thinking about what was worn led to similar thinking about how to behave.
It is this insight that inspires an eclectic bunch variously known as the Young Fogeys, anarcho-dandyists, or Chaps — after their flagship periodical, The Chap. The idea is that our world is impersonal, bureaucratic and anti-human. Rather than seeking to change public policy, the Chaps strive to dress well and have excellent manners. True to their British origin, there’s a strong element of dry humour, but it’s not just affectation.
The Chaps have held a series of protests under the banner of “Civilise the Streets”, where they’ve protested against modern “art” and against attempts to set up global chain-stores on Savile Row. They may look like extras from Brideshead Revisited; but that novel is quite serious in arguing that Beauty, Truth and Goodness are one, regardless of our attempts to sever them.
I am not arguing that a political movement that seeks to make the world fit for humanity needs be run by dandies and dames, or that the next time one visits the publishers of News Weekly, the men will be in three-piece suits and the women will look as if they’ve stepped off a 1930s film-set — to be honest the women do look rather smashing already… but that “dressing up” has a real impact, that it encourages humour and confidence and grace, and that such qualities help convince a world deadened by depravity that goodness is actually rather appealing.
On that note, where did I put my sword-stick? No one ever said anything about anachronistic attire needing to be impractical, did they?
Amor vincit omnia. Cheers!
Symeon J. Thompson is a member of the Film Critics Circle of Australia (FCCA).