In our society men are supposed to take a purely utilitarian approach to their clothes. If he is observed to be taking pleasure in the choosing or the wearing of them, a chap becomes suspect. Most other men and, regrettably, most women assume instinctively and without recourse to logic that there is something not quite right about him. He must be incorrigibly frivolous, downright lightminded, narcissistic and probably homosexual. Either that or he’s some sort of foreigner.
Fortunately for Britain’s substantial menswear industry, there is a growing body of evidence to suggest that this attitude is changing. It started a couple of years ago among men working in the music business, in films, design, television and fashion itself – all of which are concentrated in the capital. But the speed with which men working in more conservative industries and more provincial cities have responded indicates that there is a general readiness among the younger members of the male population to enjoy their clothes.
Women, of course, have always been permitted to enjoy their clothes. Since this was a frivolity not shared by men – unlike those other frivolities such as enjoying food or wine, novels or music, escapist movies or Match of the Day – it was somehow a much more trivial pursuit, worthy of mild if indulgent disapproval. This piece of sexist propaganda was readily swallowed by some women who concluded that, since enjoying dress was an activity men denied themselves, women could surely not aspire to be considered their equals unless they too denied themselves.
A case, surely, of putting the cart before the pig. For they thus conspired with every hairy-chinned, fat-bellied slob to make a scruffy, unimaginative appearance okay. More than okay, in fact. It was like a badge of high seriousness, political probity and moral health.
The thread of reasoning should, of course, go in the opposite direction. Dress is not unlike food – a skill to be acquired, a means of communicating many things including a shared sensuousness, a pleasure and a challenge to the imagination. Society has cheated men by excluding them from all that. Therefore, if there is to be a change, let it be in the sharing of the pleasure rather than in the sharing of the self-denial.
Obviously, there has always been a small section of the male population which has understood this and they have formed the vanguard for the return, after a century and a half, to male chic. It is by no means a mass movement yet.
As with womenswear, the very strong fashion looks require a well-proportioned physique, a good deal of confidence and a workplace where eyebrows are slow to rise. So, as with womenswear, the most rewarding part of the market for retailers is likely to be that for clothing which is basically classical in approach but with a generous admixture of fashion awareness, imaginative fabric and colour choices and a comfortable stylishness.
The stores are all putting research and effort into their menswear departments and new chains, like the Next menswear chain launched this month, are on the cards. But it will be some time before the provinces are as well served as London, a factor which influenced Hugh Ehrman and his partners, Jo and Gerry Farrell, when they set about planning their new mail order company, Huish Kerr.
“Both Gerry and I,” says Hugh Ehrman, “have always liked clothes and, because we enjoyed shopping for them, we had a good idea of what was available and what was hard to come by. It certainly seemed that there was a gap in the market for traditionally cut, high quality clothes with a sense of style and colour – and a particularly wide gap outside London. Since I already run a mail order business selling tapestry and knitting kits, it seemed an obvious idea to produce a highly selective menswear mail order brochure.”
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