As I walk down Kentish Town Road, north London, in the driving rain, I fiddle nervously with the gold-plated anchor on my Miansai bracelet, and think: I am a fraud, and everyone knows it. On cue, my neon camouflage Valentino rucksack slides hopelessly down my arm. I hoist it back up, pull my plaid Cos cap lower on my brow, and wind my Etro scarf more tightly around my throat. A group of teenagers walk past, hooting with laughter. Are they laughing at me? They’re laughing at me. I pull my Givenchy man-clutch tighter to my chest and focus my gaze on a puddle up ahead. Man-clutch. What have I become?
None of this is exactly in my fashion wheelhouse, which can be summarised as: half stuff painstakingly chosen to make it look like I haven’t made an effort, and half stuff where I really haven’t made an effort. I operate a foolproof tripartite system – essentials from Uniqlo and MS; nice bits from Cos; the occasional adventurous jumper from Folk. And so the Guardian fashion team’s cheerful suggestion that I might like to try out a new look has taken me into unfamiliar territory.
I’ve never worn a ring, or a necklace, or even a festival wristband beyond the moment its utility expired, a fact that I consider a particular mark of honour. The first time I got a mobile phone was the last time I took a watch off my wrist. None of this is particularly thought out – it’s mostly just that I’m an inveterate fiddler, and the more things I have about my person to mess about with, the more I irritate myself. All of which is to say, as far as I’m concerned, an accessory is something you get with a computer, or something you are to a murder. Any other definition seems suspiciously close to something you might hear from someone who wore odd socks because they thought it was wacky.
This has always seemed a pretty mainstream male position. Lately, though, it has begun to feel as if the nude male hand, or forearm, or head, has become a rarity. Market research firm NPD Group found that the men’s accessories market grew 13% from 2012 to 2014, which means it is worth a fairly mind-boggling $13.6bn in the US alone; last year, GQ associate editor Robert Johnston told the Guardian that much of the rapid growth in the men’s fashion market in the UK can be attributed to an explosion in the same thing.
Credit (or blame, depending on how you look at it) Pharrell and his hat or Jared Leto and his fannypack, both of whom have brought disconcertingly tall hats and forearm-sapping bracelets into the male mainstream. You may even – God forbid – look to the dreary Pickup Artist scene and its obsession with peacocking, whereby you make yourself look as absurd as possible, the attention of a woman being more important than your self-respect. Either way, it is all over the place, and it’s not going away.
When the stuff arrives, I look through it with something approaching dread. My fear is that everyone will know I’m a charlatan. I’m always quite impressed by people who have the nerve to dress like a complete wombat in pursuit of idiosyncrasy, but I’m 31 now; it seems a bit late to make the switch. As I gear up for my first journey out of the office, I am certain I will be found out. It’s hard to put it all together, for a start: the scarf is so enormous that I half consider wearing it as a poncho; the bracelets cut off the blood supply to my wrist because I put them on so hamfistedly; I don’t know exactly how high to wear the cap.
Any reservoir of confidence is drained when I arrive for lunch with my friend Kirty, who sizes up the bracelets, scarf and cap and immediately falls about. “Would you be friends with someone who wore this sort of stuff?” I ask, a defensive reediness creeping into my voice. “Apparently,” she says drily, “I am friends with someone who wears this sort of stuff.” I quietly put my bracelets in my pocket and get on with the pasta.
This is roughly the response of most of my friends; my mother, meanwhile, is so completely mystified by the cap that I keep catching her losing her train of thought as her eyes drift to my forehead. When I arrive for dinner with a few friends without explaining my adventure in advance, the uncertain silence has a weight that you might expect if you walked into someone’s house in budgie-smugglers and a pair of flippers. I don’t think this is because any of these people are narrow-minded, though. It’s just that they know me, and an overnight transformation is always likely to seem a little false.
When I’m out and about, it’s a different story. Those teenagers were, of course, just laughing because one of them had farted or something. And once I’d got over my initial self-consciousness, I found my new wardrobe weirdly emboldening. It wasn’t the items themselves, exactly, which were definitely not the kinds of things I’d pick for myself even if I was to become a full accessoriser; it was the sense of donning a costume, a mask that mediates your relationship with the world, and somehow protects you. I understood better than I ever have why women sometimes refer to their clothes as armour.
“Nice day,” I said to the guy in the corner shop, and scrutinised him carefully for signs of hilarity as he handed me my change. “Lovely,” he replied, entirely unperturbed by my transformation. It occurred to me that this is the nice thing about a makeover: do it right, and no one will ever know that you weren’t that way from the start. You get to be someone else for a bit. It’s fun.
As I prepared to hand back my accessories this week, I felt a surprising sense of loss. Back to my conventional self, and the only chances for self-expression being in a wallet, or a statement T-shirt, or an especially avant-garde tie. I’ll miss suiting up for my forays into the world, and I’ll miss the confidence that comes with the sense that, even if you know you’re faking it, nobody else does. I’m not going to miss the man-clutch, though. Call me old-fashioned, but I appreciate a handle.