A friend once wrote to me, in an awful panic, practically begging me for help. His email was littered with exclamation marks and his written manner, though frank and to the point, evidenced his trepidation. He needed sartorial advice – specifically, on etiquette. Halfway through my verbose instructions, I began to ponder the situation. “Here we have an intelligent young man” I told myself. He is attractive, relatively confident and interesting and yet when it comes to suitable clothing for a particular event, he is in a state of utter confusion. Not uncommon, agreed. However, my chum was not in this state because of a lack of basic knowledge; I was confident that he had, at least, the most rudimentary understanding of the dress code. His panic was that, while he wanted to follow etiquette, he wanted to stand out – and stand out some way: his goal was that of impressing a young lady to the point that she might single him out for special appreciation.
This push and pull between sartorial etiquette and individualism has often vexed even the most seasoned style men of my acquaintance. Though some might subscribe to the Wildean idea of “being a work of art”, others might argue that the real art is in restraint. I have been rather undecided. On the one hand, I can see the beauty and simplicity in following etiquette; a man dressed appropriately, if dressed well, would walk in to knowing nods of approval and whispers of “Classic, simply classic.” He would have no concerns about his ensemble, enabling him to put the idea quite out of his head once amongst the throng. There would be none of that John Bull gawping; only side glances of envy and concealed respect.
On the other hand, I can see the other argument; that etiquette on these occasions is for people with little interest in clothing and no idea how to dress well. Women are far more capable of adapting to this philosophy. They pay respect to conventions where appropriate, but they are more pragmatic than males in the sense of adapting costumes of etiquette to outfits more in tune with their own personality. The man who flaunts and violates wildly, without fail, will indeed make a mistake. However, it is revolutionaries and not conservatives that have shaped the course of fashion. Heroes like Edward VIII, latterly the Duke of Windsor, had an extraordinary ability (though his influential position in society did no harm) to break the rules without offending. The time at which Edward began to ignore certain starchy conventions, little had changed since the Victorian and Edwardian period, was ripe for radicalism. The Great War incited cynicism about the values of the past; Europe had given up on jingoism and reverence to tradition. Jazz filled the dance halls; there were political revolutions, a rejection of the continuation of a patriarchal society and His Royal Highness, swanning around in a dinner jacket at a function for tails, merely provided the coup de grâce.
Nowadays, it is rather different. There is neither the atmosphere nor the taste for radicalism. The men lauded for their sense of individualism and style are scarcely revolutionaries; they are more likely to be conservatives with quirks. And to my mind, this is a product of society, not because of a want for visionaries.
In completion of the instructions to my friend, I encouraged him to experiment a little. I informed him I would not tell him how to dress; that would simply be a conformation to another etiquette – my own. I offered him ideas and options and informed him that standing out as an ‘individual’ really required ‘individualism’ and that, truthfully, he possessed it in spades. It simply needed digging out.