24 OCTOBER 1958, Page 20

(2 The Pursuit of Elegance By STRIX TT is my

impression that men, unlike women, -lido not often talk to each other about clothes, and 1 was surprised to find myself, the other day, holding an agreeable conversation on the subject with M. Although we were both dressed more or less alike at the time (for we were being driven home in a Landrover after shooting) M's normal sartorial requirements are far more exact- ing and varied than mine. He moves urbanely at the centre of the nation's affairs, I move scruffily on the periphery of Loamshire's. I listened to his viewswith respect.

One buys clothes, he maintained, in order to wear them, and it is therefore almost always false economy to buy cheap clothes. A ready-made suit may be capable of giving just as much service as a suit made by a good tailor, but in practice it doesn't get the chance to do so, because after a comparatively short time one takes against it and it prematurely acquires a semi-discarded status. A good suit costs much more, but its active career is longer and it gives more satis- faction to the wearer.

He agreed with me that the purchase of boring things like braces or evening socks atrophies one's sense of time in a most curious way and as the years roll by still seems to have taken place only the other day. Once having nerved oneself to the distasteful and always overdue task of replacing these accessories, one cannot bring oneself to believe that the transaction will one day have to be repeated. 'Braces?' one says when the question of what the children are to give one for Christmas crops up. 'Oh no, I'm all right for braces, thanks. Only just got a new pair.' Only just! One bought those braces in Hong Kong in 1949.

The conventions governing male attire are much more humane and enlightened than they used to be. I feel quite certain that no small boy is sent to children's parties in the Little Lord Fauntleroy outfits which my brothers and I were forced, under protest, to don. The misgivings with which we faced the prospect of our private school were much enhanced by the fact that its uniform consisted of a knickerbocker suit and an Eton collar with a scarlet tie. For the last fortnight before we left home—an anxious, queasy interlude at the best of times—we were made to wear these horrible collars and ties so that we should get accustomed to their manage- ment. This was a sensible precaution, but it exposed us to the jeers of our cousins and cast a chill upon the last days of freedom. After a year the school changed to a more sensible rig, but by then the starch had entered into our souls.

Eton clothes were much the same as they are today, except that everyone wore a top hat and at Lord's, and also I think on the Fourth of June, one was expected to carry gloves and a black silver-headed cane with a light blue tassel attached to it. Nobody dreamed of going to Lord's in, so to speak, mufti.

Today a boy's first dinner jacket presents him with no serious problems, except that he has to learn to tie a single-ended bow tie. But in c. 1920 one was confronted with an intimidating set of paraphernalia—stiff shirt with studs and links, stick-up collar, double-ended bow tie; it was with a far from carefree demeanour that one joined whatever festivities were afoot, glancing down at one's crackling midriff to see if the studs were holding fast and fingering one's invisible tie which tended to acquire a deciduous, Quartier Latin droop.

One's earliest introduction to the profession of arms was dominated by puttees, a form of leg-wear with which the warrior's Laocoon-type relations constantly threatened to make him late on parade and *hose spiral convolutions never by any chance ended where King's Regulations said they should end. If anything was calculated to turn one into a crazy mixed-up kid, it was having to put on puttees at the age of fourteen.

A man who lives, as I do, in the country finds that any dandiacal impulses he may have had tend to atrophy. He mostly wears old clothes, for there is no point in exposing new ones to barbed wire and burrs and brambles and mud. His 'good' clothes are not, like the townsman's, in more or less daily contact with the upholstery of bus or tube or train; the elbows do not grow shiny on board-room tables, nor are Dry Martinis upset with any frequency down the trouser-legs at cocktail parties. The result is that his present- able suits long outlast the mode which was ruling when they were made. His lapels are wrongly cut, the buttons on his sleeve are too many or too few, his trousers too narrow or too wide. On my rare appearances in society there often comes into my head a sentence from some old, forgotten novel: 'Uncle Hector, too, was there, up from the country—a rubicund old fellow, dressed in the fashion of a byegone age.'

But people are more tolerant in these matters than they used to be. When I and my contem- poraries look back on all the sartorial hoops we went through in our youth—always with the object of conforming to the theory that everybody ought to dress exactly like everybody else—I feel that we have earned the right, if not to wear brown shoes with a bowler hat, at least to treat the dictates of fashion with a certain lackadaisicality.