A friend of mine is a rare thing: a female tailor on Savile Row. Antonia’s an enterprising sort, as you might expect, and recently announced that she is setting up shop in Washington DC. She has observed, quite rightly, that this sprawling conurbation, which has one of the highest concentrations of wealthy people anywhere in the world, is appallingly dressed.
Men still wear suits in Washington, one of the last places where that is true, but they do not wear them well. The Washington power suit is generally a bland, baggy, big-shouldered affair, a declaration of political gravity not sartorial aspiration. Antonia, you will not be surprised to hear, is already a local favourite. English tailoring! Savile Row! Hems and fabrics and creativity and a touch of class sell fast somewhere as stylistically plodding as DC.
"It’s not that American men have bad style, it’s really that they have no discernible style at all"
This style vacuum in America extends well beyond the Washington beltway. It is a male problem and it is nationwide. I exclude African-Americans from this. And I also exclude gay men.
American gays are doing their bit to help, thus the runaway success of Queer Eye. But their valiant efforts are really a band aid for a bullet wound, insufficient for an entire nation of men crying out for a makeover. I actually met the boys from Queer Eye in DC recently, at a very stuffy beltway ball, where they sprinkled fabulousness and glitter on the drab tuxedo-wearing horde. They looked puzzled.
It’s not that American men have bad style, it’s really that they have no discernible style at all. If I think back carefully, over the past three years that I’ve inhabited this strange land, I can’t actually remember a single moment where I’ve even noticed what another guy is wearing. It just blends into a sea of interchangeable bros and dudes, beige pants and blue polo tops.
The way I know for sure that American men have no style is because people often compliment me for being stylish. This has categorically never happened in Britain, where I am a presentable, mid-table, second division sort of aesthete. But put on a suede jacket or a collarless shirt in America and suddenly people think you’re Beau Brummell. This is why British men punch above their weight when they cross the Atlantic.
I’m not just being an aesthetic snob here by the way. Style isn’t just artifice, it’s self-expression, creativity and making an effort when you leave the house. It’s part of what separates us from monkeys.
The question, then, is why do Americans fall so short? One issue, I think, is the frontier culture that still permeates American life. They invented jeans, great, but all too often practicality trumps elegance. Now that the frontier is well and truly tamed, it might be time to move on. Another is the ubiquity of sports culture and the now decades-long attempt to pass basketball tops off as a reasonable thing to wear to a nightclub.
"Put on a suede jacket or a collarless shirt in America and suddenly people think you’re Beau Brummell"
The real issue, though, I think, is complacency, born out of a lack of competition. As an Englishman, I try to dress well not just to look good, but because I’m worried and intimidated by my decorous continental neighbours.
The American male, however, has none of that highly evolved old-world style to match himself up against. (Neither, as it happens, does the Australian, who in his boardies and “thongs” surpasses even the American for dowdiness.) He is an entitled creature, generally left unchallenged by cosmopolitan mores and dressing in blithe parochial ignorance.
This explains how a man can turn up to a bar in a Miami Dolphins jersey, cargo shorts and flip-flops and expect to be taken seriously. It also explains how the baseball cap maintains its grim perch in American life. There are numerous reasons to feel leery about the red “MAGA” cap beloved by Trump supporters, but politics aside, they are an aesthetic catastrophe. At least the European far-right has a bit of style.
An American friend of mine, who is marrying a French man this autumn, sums it up perfectly. “I realised when I met him that American women are taken for granted,” she says. “I could never go back.”
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