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Mad Dogs and Englishmen

It’s been my first day back in work after a lovely, beach and deck stretched week off. Good to see colleagues, good to be recharged and refreshed, good to be back and on game. But the heat and the need to dress for work has been a pain. I’ve swapped Nantucket Reds and a polo shirt for professional office dress, and it’s not coming easily.

I think that Noel Coward might have phrased his famous refrain slightly differently. I’m not sure where the mad dogs come into it, but only Englishmen wear wool in the midday sun.

One of the many reasons I recoil from the prospect of a sustained working period in London is not the natural rudeness of Londoners en masse, but the Dantean hell of the Tube in July. London has a particular type of oppressive heat. It’s different to the swamped humidity of Washington or the baked assault on the senses of a summered Paris.

Out come badly fitting shorts or, like drones, the working population dress as if it’s October in black shoes, dark suits, shirts and ties. It seems to the untrained eye that women sensibly take full advantage of the double standard to wear lightweight, comfortable clothes: summer dresses, light jackets, open shoes. Yet as gentlemen we tend to persist with the full suit.

Haven’t we moved on from The Empire?

I’m far from an ideological fan of the principle of imperial conquest and subjugation: those who know my politics are much more for Ghandi and Attlee, than Clive and Curzon. But you have to marvel at the insanity of a nation that coloured pink a quarter of the globe – and mostly the climatically inhospitable quarter – while clad in 28oz doeskin wool.

It puts me in mind occasionally of Michael Caine facing down Cetewayo and his armies at Rorke’s Drift. Granted, the less than welcoming approach of several thousand cheesed-off Zulu impi were themselves enough to make the gallant defenders a little sticky, but the truly British exceptionalism came with a magnificently moustachioed instruction from the severe regimental sergeant-major in ordering a red-faced and red-coated soldier to fasten his collar. General Gordon faced down the Mahdi’s hoardes in full mess dress, complete with fez. Kitchener conquered the Sudan in Wellingtonian red.

You get the drift. It’s stark staring bonkers.

Friends will know that I spend much of my time in mourning for the widespread demise of proper tailoring, which ideally would lead the men of this world to heavyweight wool for winter suits, lighter for the autumn and spring seasons. Summer wear would be a light flannel or a fresco, a light loose weave that allows the air to circulate. It is our loss that we no longer wear hats, as useful and practical in summer as in winter.

But there is hope, gentlemen. It’s professionally wise for me to skip lightly over making any comparisons with the elected representatives of my own country. Instead, let us celebrate the good. The example is set for us by Wales’s most successful democratic colony, and by its upper house. Built as it is on a Hill over a swamp, originally with copper roofs, the US Capitol is of necessity a glorious icon for summer dressers. Granted, the House of Representatives has its cowboy boots, bolero ties and the jazz-inspired swank of my former boss, Congressman John Conyers of Michigan, and his colleagues in the Congressional Black Caucus. But the cream of the tailoring is in the Senate.

The South has much to forget politically, but it is the haberdashed home of the bow ties and the spectator shoe, and the pinnacle of all, the seersucker suit. When the then (not much lamented) former Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott proposed the Seersucker Thursday it drew much media comment, but it is a great and glorious example of the sharply-cut and pocket-squared style that the Senators bring to democracy. It’s just a shame they’ve dropped the tradition.

So here’s an appeal to gentlemen everywhere. I will have to make one exception, when my choice of dark suit, white bow-tie, black gown and a natty red Oxford MA hood mean that it’s the annual sartorial occupational hazard of a university graduation ceremony. But that aside, this week I’m going for linen, cotton, lightweight wool, knitted and bow ties, spectator shoes and perhaps even a panama hat. It may draw comment, but I’m buggered if I’m going to swelter.

Men of the world, unite. We have nothing to lose but our suits.


Personal views of a wordsmithing, sartorialist, horn-playing, state school Oxonian dad, rugby ref, recovering politico, and fan of vintage tailoring, Ralph Lauren style, and sharp writing.

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