A LITTLE while ago, I was invited to a Fathers’ Day barbecue. On the way there, my son and his girlfriend stopped at the supermarket to buy some things to contribute to the fare. It was a beautiful day so I waited outside in the sunshine. I was wearing a blue-and-white striped shirt, blue serge jacket and light-brown trousers. My shoes were tan leather and of the traditional lace-up variety. In other words completely un-noteworthy. Or so I might have assumed.
But it wasn’t very long before I began to notice that my appearance was in fact unique, in that I was the only adult dressed as an adult. Of the throng passing to and fro, every other person, regardless of generation, was dressed in what might be described as oversized children’s clothing. In many cases, very oversized indeed.
In the 15 years before my retirement in 2018, I wore a navy-blue pinstripe suit complete with waistcoat to work every day. I bought the last in 2012 from Marks & Spencer who always kept a good selection of these and similar suits. Not any longer. It is now impossible to buy such a garment anywhere in the High Street, which is the only location where I can afford to shop. None of the suits I looked at in M&S just yesterday even had a waistcoat.
In my search, I have been told by a couple of shopkeepers that the only way to get anything like it today would be to go to London and get one made in Savile Row. Which is out of the question and so this is really the point of this piece. It seems that traditional smart dress has, in a very short space of time, become beyond the means of the ordinary man in the street.
Such garments are still the norm for male ministers and MPs on both sides of the House, as a quick glance at any news pictures from the House of Commons will confirm. But if you venture out on to your local high street, I guarantee you will see few, if any, being worn by ordinary working people any more.
It seems that male sartorial smartness has been put effectively beyond the reach of the masses. As a result, increasingly the people who govern us are instantly distinguishable from those they rule over. This may seem new, but in fact it is very old indeed.
Many years ago, when the class system really was rigid, there were laws making it illegal for people to dress ‘above their class’. They were known as Sumptuary Laws and although the extent and severity of punishment varied widely from country to country, the basic principal and purpose was the same, to prevent people from ‘passing themselves off’ as being of a higher status than was the case. Japan had some of the most draconian laws, aimed at giving the Samurai aristocrats unique rights to identify themselves at the top of the ladder by wearing certain types of garments and carrying swords. The penalty for others crossing these rigid lines was death by decapitation. In other parts of the world, certain colours and the use of fine cloths such as linen were reserved for the powerful and well-connected.
For anyone growing up in the last 70 years, these long-defunct laws seemed barely believable, laughably rigid and draconian. More to the point, the very idea that anything remotely like it could ever return seemed completely preposterous. But if only a rich man can afford to get a pinstripe suit made, there is no need for legislation. Simple economics and supply-and-demand considerations will result in a similar outcome.
Coupled with the growing demands for digital identity cards and the recent restrictions on access even to such mundane places as supermarkets, we may yet be seeing a revival of a world of officially-sanctioned apartheid and discrimination, which was the principal intention of those medieval Sumptuary Laws.