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I stopped dressing like a slob and saw the sartorial light: better clothes make for a brighter day | Andrew Martin

I stopped dressing like a slob and saw the sartorial light: better clothes make for a brighter day | Andrew Martin

A year or so ago, I was about to go out to a drinks party with my wife, when she said: “You do realise that shirt’s dead, don’t you?” I was wearing a clean, ironed number, I pointed out. But my wife explained that death was a syndrome particularly likely to affect white shirts, as she took me to my wardrobe and showed me that all but one of my four white shirts had irreversibly lost their snowy glow. “Look at them,” she urged. “They’re grey. You might as well chuck them out.”

I was, at the time, approaching 60, and my wife’s shirt critique felt particularly pertinent in that context. Mindful of the looming milestone, she had been proposing a series of prescriptions for me, including not drinking four glasses of wine every day, doing pilates and resuming learning French (which I had given up in protest against reflexive verbs). While I acknowledged that all those things might benefit me, I pointed out that they would also make me miserable. When it came to the shirts, though, and clothes generally, I saw her point.

Here was an opportunity to give up a lifelong bad habit – dressing poorly – and take up a good one: taking pride in my appearance. I might compensate for my physical decline, I reasoned, cheer myself up and perhaps other people as well. Even if I didn’t try to emulate them, I’d long appreciated those middle-aged men who shame their fellow members of society’s dowdiest cohort by wearing flowing overcoats instead of those puffer jackets that make everyone look like a bug, or who choose a scarf for its colour as much as its warmth.

The “giving up” part of my programme involved a purge of my wardrobe, in which my wife (a former fashion editor) was final arbiter. As she watched TV in the living room, I’d walk in holding a shirt. “What about this?” “Dead,” she’d say, hardly looking up. As I paraded a jacket – a “suit coat”, as I’ve learned to call them – she said: “Get rid. It’s too big.” “But it’s a 40, my size,” I said. “Your size is actually 38,” she replied, as I remembered her mentioning a few decades ago.

It was mortifying to think how wrong I’d been about clothes. I used to wear them in dogged rotation. I’d put on a shirt or jumper just because it was clean: it was that garment’s turn to be worn. Or I might settle for wearing something boring because I didn’t seem to have much planned for the day, not realising that the prophecy could be self-fulfilling because of the clothes. I was dimly aware that things went better for me – owing to enhanced self-confidence – when I was wearing an item I actively liked, but I never thought to make every day a smart day.

I had been subsisting on a few scraps of sartorial advice. Nick Foulkes, writer and dandy, once came up to me at a party and said, with a sort of kindly exasperation: “Andrew, a tie knot is supposed to be a generous thing.” I’d be fleetingly inspired by glimpses of the very stylish Melvyn Bragg strolling on Hampstead Heath. I once saw him wearing a wide-brimmed black hat, like the man on the Sandeman port labels, and when I saw a similar hat in a charity shop, I bought it, but I only ever dared wear it once, and that was in an am-dram play. (One good thing about dressing thoughtfully, I now realise, is that you are always in a play of your own making.)

Heredity might have kicked in late, here. My father was sartorially engaged, and I remember him standing in front of a mirror in a vivid new tweed jacket. “It’s a tonic to wear nice clothes, Andrew,” he said, adjusting his tie knot, which was always a Windsor, a perfect equilateral triangle, tied on his thigh. He was right, I learned; it is a tonic to dress up a bit. The world suddenly seems more spacious and full of potential.

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But I have to work at it, and the language of men’s clothes is ever subtler and more complex. I turn the fashion pages of magazines more slowly than before, and I will dawdle down Jermyn Street (the dandy’s mecca), window shopping. I’m fascinated – but also depressed – by a man about my age who works in one of the poshest of those shops, because he has an elegance combined with outrageousness I could never approach. He’ll wear a beautifully cut suit with a T-shirt, or with the trousers stopping halfway down his calves. I aim for the secondary virtue of dapperness, embodied by, say, Bill Nighy or Paul McCartney.

If all this sounds an expensive project, it’s not particularly. I buy most of my stuff from charity shops – good ones, mind you, which I monitor regularly on my bike. White shirts, though, must be new, as I heard myself informing a friend, severely, the other day, just as though I’d known it all my life.

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