The UK Daily Telegraph's style guru argues against Rod Stewart's dress code rant.
It should, they used to say, take 10 minutes to realise a man is well-dressed. Maybe. That's a grandiose gloss on traditional British understatement. But it takes no time at all to notice if he is not.
To get into character for this piece, I put on my favourite pink seersucker suit and looked at some old photographs of Rod Stewart who, this week, has become our arbiter elegantiarum in that journal of fastidious good taste, the Radio Times.
There's no end of choice in Rod's historic wardrobe, although my own favourite is a Roll-ing Stone magazine cover with our man in a faux-fur ocelot two-piece with radically tight trousers and drape jacket, two rows of black glass beads and the haircut that looks like a detonated chinchilla. The only thing certain about taste is that it changes.
From a Papuan's boastful penis gourd to Mark Zuckerburg's schlubby T-shirt, via a flatteringly waisted Huntsman suit from Savile Row or knowing when precisely and where precisely not to wear socks, male dress has always been a matter of status. Paraphrasing Brillat-Savarin on gastronomy: tell me what you wear and I'll tell you what you're pretending to be.
But in our atomised, pixelated, borderless culture, the old status norms are soon inverted. Now, there is a sort of party where the bouncers in chic black are better dressed than the guests in ripped jeans, low-rise Converse and plaid workshirts. It is chauffeurs who wear the neatly pressed suits while the internet billionaires in the back are dressed like refugees. Even my banker dresses as if auditioning for a boy band. (At least, when he comes to see me.)
So is it absurdly archaic to ask, as Rod Stewart suggests we now do, for a "dress code" in restaurants? "Dress code" is a precarious concept. At one level, there is certainly such a thing. It often appears as a sub-adult instruction on annoying invitations where someone decides that "smart casual" is the thing.
Many questions are raised. Is smart-casual more formal than semi-formal? If my Aloha shirt and cargo pants and flip-flops have been expensively designed by Sir Paul Smith, does that make my version of casual smarter than your mail order easy-fit slacks and comfortable shoes? Personally, I find "dress code" on invitations patronising and impertinent. You might as well put "behaviour code: no wife-strangling or spitting".
Outside churches and mosques, dress codes are helpfully explained with graphic symbols. Both at St Peter's in Rome and the Sheikh Zayed mosque in Abu Dhabi, you find a multi-faith proscription against men in shorts and wifebeaters, as if knees and armpits alone were deadly signifiers of blasphemous godlessness.
What would happen if restaurants had explicit dress codes? It would simply become an efficient mechanism for excluding undesirables. In Soho, where my pink seersucker suit is inconspicuous, where use of a tie marks you as a bizarre deviant, one club has a notice saying "No caps, hoods or tracksuits". What this really means is "No oiks".
Manners are only defined about 25 years after the behaviour that gave rise to them. Thus our quaint conception of dress code. The tie thing is revealing. Rod is now rarely in ocelot, but often in a tie. When the late Mark Birley attempted a liberating sartorial experiment in his posh clubs and briefly stopped anathematising jeans and became relaxed about neckwear, the results were so melancholy that the old code had to be reinstated.
In the Ritz, the tie-less will not be served. When this happened to me, I was told it was about standards. So when I asked the maitre d' if standards were his concern, why not exclude the fat and ugly from the dining-room, he had no answer.
At the recent G8, there was a wince-making, tie-less photo call. The wretched heads-of-government would not have looked more uncomfortable if required to pose without trousers and standing on one leg. There is a huge psychological as well as sartorial difference between not wearing a tie and merely taking your tie off. It's the cut of the shirt, stupid.
Lord Chesterfield was correct when he instructed his son that "dress is a very foolish thing; and yet it is a very foolish thing for a man not to be well-dressed". But whether you are well-dressed is a matter of context, rather than a matter of prescribing items of desirable and undesirable clothing. I will use my sporran, yarmulke or kaffiyeh with audacious independence, not when I am told to do so.
Dress codes do not work because if you need to be told, you will never understand in the first place. "Style", as Lord Chesterfield also said, "is the dress of thought". Our clothes cover our bodies, but reveal our personalities and sensitivities. Just as good manners make other people feel comfortable, so dressing well puts other people at ease. Dress, like any aspect of design, is simply intelligence made visible. Dress codes are quite the opposite.
THE DAILY TELEGRAPH, UK