17 MAY 1997, Page 55

High life

Dressing down


Just as familiarity breeds contempt, informality generates disrespect. Can any of you imagine Winston Churchill in a track suit? Disraeli dressed in blue jeans? FDR in Bermuda shorts saying, 'Call me Frank.'

What about the Queen? Is she supposed to arrive in a dressing-gown for a meeting with Tony and say, 'I'm Liz'? Talk about a Pandora's Box. When the Prime Minister says call me Tony and the Chancellor declares that he will be wearing 'working clothes' at the Mansion House next month, you know what has finally hit the fan.

Wearing a lounge suit at a grand occa- sion shows only one thing. Disrespect. Michael Foot's appearance at the Ceno- taph in a donkey-jacket is a case in point. Foot was trying to show his socialist cre- dentials, but he should have been thinking of those who had given their lives in order for fools like him to play the average Joe.

. It's the eagerness to play slob that gets me. As if we didn't have enough sloppiness already. Airports nowadays resemble lock- er rooms, with grotesquely overweight peo- ple waddling in their track suits and disgusting trainers. When I first flew across the Atlantic in 1948, we had beds in first class and everyone was dressed to the nines. In fact, I don't think they would have allowed anyone dressed in a sweat suit to board. This went on until well into the Sev- enties. Then came the peanut farmer, the first American president to wear a jumper and jeans while he addressed the people on the idiot box. Carter was a disaster, both sartorially and as a president. The Draft Dodger is another case in Point. He is a slob through and through, a terrible dresser who favours trainers and Sweat clothes when he plays golf. Elegance Is something Clinton knows nothing about. He and his lying cronies probably view ele- gance as a villain, an anti-populist conspira- cy of capitalism. Popular culture teaches us that fashion should be liberating. It is a clumsy argu- ment made by Philistines who possess the sensibilities of a Stalinist bureaucrat. High glamour once ruled Hollywood during its golden age. Now we have Barbra Streisand sporting thrift-store cast-offs, the symbol of cheapness and emptiness. Stars nowadays look like garage mechanics, which many of them were. Bruce Willis and Jack Nichol- son come to mind. Among the very few people I have seen dressed properly on Concorde are Lord Hanson and Conrad Black. The rest are travelling on company expenses and dressed like pigs.

Once upon a time actors spoke wonder- ful English with contrived upper-class accents. The old Central European Jews who controlled Hollywood insisted on it. The younger generation of Jews who con- trol it now think that there's more money to be made by dumbing down. It is the age of the common man, after all.

Well, yes and no. The shabbiness of the modern male comes at the expense of a society unashamed of its vices. The arro- gant disdain shown by the phoney hippie movement of the Sixties was matched only by their selfishness and greed. Madonna's sleaziness may be in vogue, but look what the likes of her have done to civility and common courtesy.

Harold Pinter, born Jewish in the East End, does not take the lack of civility lying down. Whenever some person he doesn't know addresses him as Harold, the play- wright asks, 'Were we at school together?' Quite right. It is not snobbery to be formal, it is simply being polite. Three years ago in Athens, I asked a young man working as a porter in the tennis club the time of my scheduled match. I addressed him in the plural. He answered in the singular and rather rudely, too. So I put my racket down, reminded him of my age and my family name and demanded to be addressed in the same way as I addressed him. He was dumbfounded. 'What's the big deal?' he asked, or something to that effect. Oh, yes, I almost forgot. I was dressed all in white, he was dressed a la Agassi.

No, Prime Minister. You have made a terrible mistake talking down your office. No, Chancellor, just because Kenneth Clarke, almost a slob, definitely a blob, did away with white tie and tails for a dinner jacket is no excuse. Smart dress has nothing to do with class. It has to do with pride and a sense of achievement. After all, lager louts do not favour tails. Gentlemen do.