One day in spring this year, I was walking the dog in our local park, listening to a music podcast and minding my own business, like the good north London dad I am, when I realised another dad was trying to spark a conversation with me. “I said, ‘When did you get those, then?’” repeated the dad after I removed my headphones. He was looking at my feet, or rather at my shoes, which were a pair of battered, sand-coloured Clarks Ramblers. For any readers who don’t know, Clarks Ramblers are a raw-seamed shoe from the 1970s, sometimes referred to as “pasties”, and associated in the popular imagination with nerdy, old-school geography teachers. They (the Ramblers, not geography teachers) were reissued in slightly remodelled form in the Clarks Originals range in 2010, when you would often see them being worn by people with corduroy trousers and cagoules as part of that Jarvis-Cocker-old-school-geography-teacher look that was fashionable at the time.
The curious dad wasn’t just asking me when I got the shoes, of course. You know that if someone asks you a question about a bit of slightly obscure footwear, they’re really offering a shared interest and, probably, vaguely shared values. The chances were that he was interested in the fascinating history of Clarks, and particularly in the way the Rambler, and its sister shoe the Oberon, somehow captured that 1970s eco-aware, back-to-the-land thing in wearable form. Knowing this, we struck up a rambling conversation while we watched our dogs chase each other in the March sunshine, and talked about shoes and British shoemakers, and then clothes in general, for about an hour.
It’s those sorts of chats that come to mind if I think about the phrase “dad fashion”. It can seem a paradoxical phrase for me, because when I became a dad was more or less when I had to acknowledge that “fashion”, in the usual sense, was getting harder to pull off. Some older men do seasonal fashion, I know, and good luck to them, but for me it’s a simple fact: had I worn, say, a Vetements DHL T-shirt aged 20, I would have looked victim-y but fairly with it; after 40, it would just look as if I worked for DHL.
But once that happened, I found I quite enjoyed finding more classic-feeling casualwear that looked and felt all right to wear. It can often lead you to new shops and new kinds of clothes and heritages (I never thought I’d be so interested in old French factories, or 1960s British rugby shirts, for example), and a more mellow sort of appreciation for the history and craftsmanship that goes into them. I suppose I was always interested in that sort of thing, really, but if anything, I find I enjoy talking and reading about it all more now. Maybe my peers and I just have more history to share, I dunno.
There’s a really great Facebook page that captures this spirit of blokes who have reached middle age to find that their interest in clothes is deepening rather than diminishing. It’s called Turn-Ups and Turnouts, and was set up by Terry Farleyof Boy’s Own fame, with his friend Chris Howell-Jones, a vintage-clothes retailer. It’s open to anyone (though there are questions on the subject of vintage denim to weed out obsessive former casuals, more of which later), but its core is men over about 30 who combine their love of clothes with a sense of humour. “We gently parody the idea that anyone over 21 should be this obsessed with clothes,” says Farley, “but at the same time we admit we are.” The tone has a lot of that slightly ironic, slightly piss-taking London enthusiasm. Underneath it all somewhere is the pleasure that comes from being able to buy the clothes that you’d wanted as a kid but your parents hadn’t been able to afford. When you’d wanted the Harrington jacket you’d seen in an American TV programme but had to make do with one from the market, as Farley puts it.
The posts might be about interesting stuff people have seen or bought, pictures of well-dressed men from history (Steve McQueen being the most popular), discussions about specific pieces of clothing, old and new. As for the clothes themselves, they can be pretty much anything, but at the heart of it all is a love of Ivy League and vintage American casual, military and workwear – and of the Japanese companies such as Buzz Rickson’s, Sun Surf and The Real McCoy’s.
What you won’t find much of are those bastions of modern mainstream dad style – football-casual fashion or comedy mod (that’s basically mod as done by Liam Gallagher acolytes, or “wellends”). Farley is “forever deleting pictures people put up of anyone remotely looking like a casual, because I cringe when I see grown men wearing Fila tracksuit tops or even reissue trainers. It reminds me of old men walking round in teddy boy suits when I was 16 and thinking they should have given it up 20 years earlier.”
Personally, I really like the way the obsession comes through in the conversations about the way things are actually worn. “It’s summer,” reads one post as I type. “You’re in either a shirt or tee – no jacket. There’s no way you want a wallet or phone ruining the line of your trousers, and it’s too hot for a cumbersome bag – what’s your solution?” (Suggestions: Manhattan Portage mini bags, Herschel bum bag, vintage gun-cartridge bag, “get a jacket in the correct weight of cloth [such as] tropical wool, poplin, seersucker”.) The question of whether socks should be worn with loafers was floated at the beginning of summer and was still being debated in August (members being inclined to be pro-sock, but with plenty of other issues to raise, such as, “the real question surely is how to make a Weejun work with jeans”). Last autumn, you could enjoy a lovely survey of the gentleman’s glove market in London – “I would always go for function over form when it comes to gloves. Nothing worse than icy fucking fingers.”
Farley thinks the page demonstrates the fundamental truth that, despite what we’re told, “men don’t dress up to get women. Men dress up for other men – David Bowie nailed it in Boys Keep Swinging. Men say it’s about impressing girls, but it’s a cover story because they feel embarrassed.” It’s about sharing something as well, though. Earlier this year, a man called Andy Lavender joined the group. You could tell from his posts he was a funny man, a father – his daughter is the model for Harry Enfield’s Kevin the teenager by all accounts, but that’s another story – and a good sharer of memories of wearing cult garments (“Soul boys and punks ’75 to ’77, the mohair jumper. Any thoughts?”). For several months he shared opinions, purchases and recollections, and then, on May 7, he took everyone aback.
“Haven’t been on here long but it has been a pleasure,” he wrote. “Serious health issues look like I’m leaving this mortal coil in the near future so my last task is what attire to wear in the casket (wicker btw).” There was an outpouring of shock and affection for him, and those feelings only grew as he posted more about his illness and death, while never dropping the references to clothes and music. Members raised money so that he could buy a nice “turnout” to be buried in and his wife could buy a funeral outfit, too. Finally, there came an image of himself on a gurney, with mock fashion credits:
“Probably the last picture I’ll post, going into ICU at my local hospital, won’t look any better than this I’m afraid.
NHS gown ”
And shortly afterwards, members of his family, including his wife, who had joined the group, told the members that Andy had died. The dignity and style, as one member put it, of his passing left a lasting impression on people; there seemed to be a discernible feeling, the sort you sometimes get at times like that, of being a disparate, distant group that has somehow been brought closer together by something and someone unexpected.
Of course you can’t really know how other people feel, but for my own part, looking back at Andy’s posts, I wonder if some of the impact came from the fact that he had always talked about his interest in clothes. I realise that sounds ridiculous, but that’s sort of the point: combining frank talk of death and illness with an appreciation of some of life’s most superficial pleasures is moving and affirming precisely because it doesn’t make any logical sense. Taking pleasure in the small, beautiful details in life takes a good attitude. We’re all moved by births and marriages and family occasions, but we expect that; making the most of your ability to see and notice things, to enjoy the strangeness of a mohair jumper or the beauty of a good shoe, takes character. And doing it when you’re confronted by your own mortality may be a little victory for life over death, actually.
Yes, I know it’s just jeans and shoes and sweatshirts and what have you. And I’m fully aware that every time a man admires a Real McCoy’s A-2 jacket he isn’t contemplating the meaning of life (well, not always anyway). But I find that, as one gets older, one appreciates men who appreciate things; it means they’re facing outwards not in, and Britain has quite enough inward-facers at the moment, thanks. These are the best aspects of my favourite dad-fashion conversations. And while it might be a paradox to you young whippersnappers, I love them all the way from my nerdy shoes to my rapidly greying temples.
by Richard Benson
Taken from Issue 14 of 10 Men Australia – BOYHOOD, MAN, EVOLVE – on newsstands now.