As someone who’s always been keen on clothes, I like to imagine I’m stylish; imagining myself as fashionable, on the other hand, makes me feel distinctly uneasy. I enjoy patting myself on the back for being a stylish fellow, after reintroducing the cardigan into my wardrobe when no one else was wearing them, for example, or on discovering what seemed to be esoteric drinks like dry sherry or the Campari spritz; but three months later I’d inevitably end up feeling like a bit of a dick when I’d realise everyone was wearing cardigans or drinking spritzes – I wasn’t acting on any innate, distinctive sense of good taste after all, I was just obeying fashion ever so slightly ahead of the herd.
We invest a certain importance in these distinctions between style and fashion. I’m fond of a famous quote by Quentin Crisp on the subject, but on reflection I don’t think it’s right: 'Fashion is a way of not having to decide who you are. Style is deciding who you are and being able to perpetuate it.' It’s an attractive thought, but one that quickly unravels once you start to unpick it – the truth is perhaps less black and white, more yin and yang: the two exist in a dance with each other, each with a little bit of the other one in their hearts.
When we polarise the two into opposing corners like this, style becomes a kind of elusive, unattainable ideal we look up to but can never quite grasp. 'Only great minds can afford a simple style,' says Stendhal; Plato’s chair could just as easily become Plato’s white cotton plimsolls, Plato’s brushed indigo shirt – impossible, untouchable ideals that exist somewhere above the times and the fashions. But of course in reality our sense of classic or timeless style is itself ephemeral and follows fashion – my grandfather’s sense of what timeless style was would be a far shout from mine, and a shirt cut to Beau Brummel’s eminently stylish tastes would look positively pantomime on a present day gent.
Like a river polishes a pebble, style evolves over time – the ideal collar of a shirt, the ratio of fringe length to ‘short back & sides’ (‘short’ being an entirely arbitrary quantity here), an item like the aforementioned cardigan coming back in from the cold so ubiquitously you presumed it had never left, a new heritage brand performing the confidence trick of convincing you you’ve always worn it – all imperceptibly small shifts in our sense of what’s timelessly stylish that in aggregate add up to a kind of fashion in slow motion.
If we imagine style as the high ideal at one end of the spectrum, then fashion’s relegated to the shallows of the other. To the great modern wits, fashion always comes off worst: 'Fashion is a form of ugliness so intolerable that we have to alter it every six months,' quipped Oscar Wilde. I remember recently showing an old friend from up north round Shoreditch. He was unfamiliar with the silliness and excesses of this square mile of London; we found ourselves laughing uncontrollably at the absurdity of the impromptu catwalk tottering up and down certain streets, at the rake-thin young men with raven black Joan of Arc bowl cuts in shit-catcher trousers MC Hammer would blush at.
Like my friend, when I look at these Hoxditch trendies with three haircuts at once, I haven’t got the vaguest idea what the Joan of Arc bowl cuts or MC Hammer shit-catchers signify. Our frames of reference seem to share no common ground. I’m only 10 years older (well, call it 15), but I gawp at these kids with the same blank look I see on the face of my dog when I try to teach him tasks involving basic logic.
I suppose the question on my gormless face is 'why bother?', but I presume it was ever thus. Like the shit-catchers of the Hoxditch rakes, Converse All-Stars or Levi’s 501s were once daft fashions, but they’ve now matured to the point they’ve been absorbed into the lexicon of classic style, as must have been the case when the upheavals of the Crimean War got everyone wearing the Wellington boot or the First World War introduced the trench coat. That absolute staple of the timelessly stylish wardrobe – the stripey Breton shirt – was derided with just as much suspicion in the Paris of Picasso’s day, worn as it was by communists or at least by suspiciously bohemian arty types flaunting their peasant work wear against bourgeois propriety. It’s surprising how porous the boundary between rebellious and even faintly ridiculous fashion and classic style can be, and how consistently the one matures into the other.
Photo by Carla Borel.