Fashion statement

It is hard to hesitate before calling all contemporary intellectual life a fashion statement (note the singular). I will not go so far this morning. I will only mention the temptation. And it is a temptation, to respond to fatuities presented everywhere in public life, with fatuities of one’s own. (“Resist ye not evil.”) In fact, diverse opinions are still held, and huge chunks of the population are hardly impressed by what, in the continuing absence of a more powerful term, we call political correctness.

The appearance of homogeneity — of a closed camp among the innumerable pseudo-intellectuals in media, academia, politics, law, the bureaucracies, &c — is created only by peer enforcement. There are still genuine intellectuals: men and women of real learning, capable of honesty, candour, substance, rigour, fortitude, humour, intelligent and independent thought. It is just that they are driven out of their livelihoods, whenever they are discovered.

But that is too large game, for a man with a short glass pea-shooter. Instead let me fix upon corduroy jackets.

My first, largely unintentional experiment in modern sociological research, was conducted in an Ontario high school. I wasn’t in it for long: only until the age of sixteen when I became legally entitled to leave. In the meantime I focused upon making myself obnoxious. One of my techniques was to pose as an intellectual, and come to class wearing a corduroy jacket. In retrospect, I now think that smooth velvet and a bow-tied cravat would have been more effective. But age is required, to develop imagination.

In the beginning, I was uniquely dressed. Within a few months, however, I was joined by others. The habit of jacket-wearing was spreading through the corridors of GDHS. But while I had carefully selected an olive-green jacket, as the proper tint for corduroy display, the copyists would wear beige or darker browns or ghastly light blue corduroy jackets, and sometimes they were of some other material.

This, notwithstanding one of my copyists had earlier taunted me, by my locker, for wearing a jacket at all, and accused me of being “a pointy head.” (Which was true, of course.) Kids do not wear jackets, he explained. It is simply not done. My understanding was that it had not been done, since the uniforms had come off, a couple of decades before. (I blame Hitler.) That happened to coincide with the plunge of pedagogical standards, to the absolute zero we have achieved today.

What can I say? I was delighted to establish my power as a gang-leader, but annoyed that my followers were getting their colours wrong. A corduroy jacket must be olive green. No other jacket may be in that colour. A velvet one, for instance, must be black. A blazer must be navy blue. A summer flannel jacket must be white. Tweed must be Harris. Motorcyclists must wear leather bomber jackets. My whole philosophy of jacket-wearing was forged under the pressure of events. Tuxedoes require silk lapels, and James Bond set the sartorial pattern. There is black tie, or white tie, by occasion. Should a man, however young, turn up at, say, a wedding feast, sans cummerbund, or wearing a polkadot tie, he should be told to leave. Especially if he is the groom.

My views have since been relaxed. The case seems hopeless. It becomes hard to draw a line, even at facial tattoos. I would describe our present environment as a zoo, except, the animals at least know how to dress, and even “at home” in their cages wear the correct furs, scales, feathers, &c.

It was the photo of Malcolm Muggeridge, accompanying the excellent article by Father Murray at the Thing today (here) that got me started. Muggeridge knew the right colour for corduroy; and how to look like an intellectual while sitting at a typewriter. (Note that his fingers are mischievously misaligned with its keys, as if he had confused typewriter with pianoforte.) He was not always a gentleman, but he could play it when required. (I knew his son John well, but to tell some stories would be “too much information.”)

The truth is, I have let the side down. At this very moment I am wearing flip-flops and jeans. I often feel, and ought to feel ashamed. My only excuse is Socrates, who, I gather, dressed daily in an almost provocatively sloven way, reserving finery for fine formal occasions, when he would suddenly appear as a dandy. But even the workman should be wearing his wool cap, and the butcher a tie above his bloodied apron.

For laxity is terribly contagious.

Now, your contemporary pseudo-intellectual, governed by the glib, with reasoning that is no reasoning at all, will say who am I to prescribe correctness in dress, while condemning it in political behaviour? And the answer will be a paradox, kiting far above his head. Men who dress strictly to code will express their uniqueness in other ways. Among, for instance, the strictly uniformed lads of the commendably backward British schools in Asia, which I had attended before that wretched high school, there was true variety in minds and faces.

There will always be regulation, in human affairs. But I would rather regulate dress, than thinking.