No country for old gentlemen: the death of formal attire
It was the comedian Groucho Marx who famously said "I'd never want to be a member of any club that would have me".
These words will be ringing in the ears of one Londoner just now. Businessman and PR consultant Peter Bingle has been banned from one of the capital's most exclusive establishments for six months after incurring the wrath of the owners.
His offence? Not, as you might imagine, picking a fight or complaining about the table service. No, his crime was to arrive in a suit and tie.
Mr Bingle, a man of smart tastes and even smarter income, was barred from Soho House after the management decided that his over-formal attire was unsuitable for their image. The club is a favourite haunt of media movers and shakers, and the last thing it needed was patrons scaring off the fashionistas.
"The club openly discourages the wearing of suits and ties as we are a club for the creative industries and like being a relaxed environment," said a Soho House spokesman.
What a world. Once upon a time a smart appearance was considered essential if you wanted to be taken seriously in the UK. One of the first things I was taught as a child was how to polish my shoes, and when I came to London in the 1970s it was still common to witness thousands of bowler-hatted businessmen scurrying across London Bridge on the way to work. Umbrellas neatly folded, fob watches gleaming beneath the traditional pinstripe suit, theirs was the traditional image of the city gent, and woe betide any employee who dared stray from this code.
Nowadays the only bowler hat you're likely to see on the streets of the capital will be worn by street buskers or someone on their way to a Laurel and Hardy convention.
And it's not just in the business world that times are changing. The veteran actor Sir Donald Sinden once told me of an occasion, just after the war, when he turned up for the read-through of a new production at the Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford-on-Avon only to be sent home again for not having shaved.
Nowadays, a six o'clock shadow is positively de rigueur if you want to be taken seriously in the arts. Scruffy, it seems, is the new chic. Patched jeans, a faded T-shirt and a tumbled out of bed hairstyle: these suggest that you're so successful that you don't have to try too hard.
Such seismic cultural shifts are not merely confined to matters sartorial. While watching the recent Test match at Lord's I got into conversation with a fellow actor, and one of Britain's most prolific, and wealthy, voice-over artistes. Colin has made a tidy living over many years from dubbing commentaries for BBC documentaries. Yet when I met him he seemed downcast.
"My agency have just told me they think my voice is too posh to be of much use now," he muttered bitterly over his cup of tea. According to him, his middle-class suburban tones, ones that have graced countless TV shows for two decades, are no longer considered representative of cool Britannia. "No longer edgy enough", the agency said,
The absurdity of this reasoning was only heightened when they explained they'd still be happy to use him, "as long as the documentaries were for the overseas market only".
Such shifting cultural mores seem destined to provide a king-size headache for the organisers of next year's London Olympics. With the opening ceremony less than a year away, what image should a host nation portray in the 21st century? Beefeaters and bowlers, or hoodies and high-fives? With an expected global TV audience running into billions, it's important we dress appropriately for the occasion.
Luckily a saviour is at hand. Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson, London's current mayor, has made an art form out of being able to combine every conceivable fashion statement in the same outfit.
Described by his supporters as representing "global chic", and by his detractors as dressing like a bag of muck tied up with string, his appearance for the handover of the torch at the finish of the Beijing Olympics back in 2008 amalgamated everything in one spectacular fusion: jacket unbuttoned, a Marks & Spencer shirt, a tie from China, a pair of shoes from Church's and with his trademark shock of straw- blond hair looking as if he'd just wandered in from a morning spent working on the farm.
As long as he's involved in the ceremony come July 27, we can be assured that Britain will be depicted in all its modern, shambolic glory.
Michael Simkins is a writer and actor based in London
Published: August 7, 2011 04:00 AM