Much has been said and written about the Englishman: his insouciance, his nerve under fire, his reserve and, if you believe the French, his penchant for homosexuality. More recently, the emphasis has been on his bald-headed brutishness and drunken belligerence – less effortless charm than charmless effort.
But all this overlooks the most significant and enduring facet of the Englishman’s character: his complete lack of dress sense. GK Chesterton famously said that when a man stops believing in God he does not believe in nothing, he believes in anything. Similarly, when an Englishman stops wearing a suit, he does not wear nothing, he wears anything.
The lamentable evidence is all around us. You see it in the shorts worn in summer, the football shirts worn in winter and the trainers worn all the year round.
City firms exposed the Englishman’s unique ability to clothe himself as if he were bereft both of colour vision and self-awareness when they introduced dress-down Fridays. From the moment of its inception, finance halls were transformed into a fancy-dress party for down-and-outs and retired clowns. Given the freedom to be himself, the City gent morphed into a cross between a scaffolder’s mate and a road runner. No one had told him that a string vest and tracksuit bottoms are not what is meant by dressing casually.
In the US, where dress-down days began, the man-about-town knows it takes just as much care, possibly more, to dress smartly and casually as it does to dress up.
But there is no changing the British male, who is nothing if not set in his ways. Which is why an enterprising German looks set to make a fortune over here.
Stephan Bohle spotted a newspaper ad in Germany for clothing made by convicts. His genius was to see the potential in stressing the provenance of the garments.
“Prison authorities wanted to sell their shirts but did not want to advertise where they were made – and that was their problem,” he explains.
“But this weakness has become the great strength of our clothing, all of which is modelled on items the prisoners wear themselves. It has been such a success that we now have factories in 12 German jails.”
He plans to extend his manufacturing base to jails in England and to sell a range of shirts, jackets, trousers and boots – all bearing prison ID tags and the proud label: “Made in Jail”.
Years ago, prisoners used to sew mailbags, not clothes. In the Twenties, when the MP and fraudster Horatio Bottomley was serving time, a visitor passed by and remarked: “Sewing, Bottomley?” To which he replied, “No, reaping.” Those were the days: when politicians, then as now, were crooks but, unlike today, were redeemed by a self-deprecating wit.
Interestingly, Bottomley, like the former MP Jonathan Aitken, who also spent some time inside, was a one-time journalist, which probably goes to show that former newspapermen, unlike born-and-bred politicians, lack the guile to stay out of jail. At any rate, I suspect that even Herr Bohle, with his undoubted gift for marketing, does not realise quite how rich is the soil in which he plans to plant his new venture. English men, who have for years striven with mixed success to dress like an escaped convict, may now do so knowing that their efforts are blessed with authenticity.
At long last the sartorially challenged Englishman can junk his wardrobe of baseball caps, combat trousers, pedal-pushers, replica football kits, Hawaiian shirts, a sombrero from Spain and a kaftan from god-knows-where, and stock up afresh with items chosen for him by discerning convicts – men whose crimes, unlike his, are not against fashion.
In Germany, Herr Bohle markets the range under the label Haeftling (German for “jailbird”) but he will need something different in this country.
Having given the matter some thought, I may have the answer. At first it occurred to me that some kind of celebrity endorsement could be in order: the Jeffrey Archer range, for example, might have a certain cachet. But that could open the way for the Yorkshire Ripper Collection, which would be of dubious taste.
I then opted for the label “Porridge” but although it’s snappy and instantly recognisable it might be confused with the TV series of the same name. So I turned to “Bird” which was OK; “Stew”, “Jug” and “Stretch”, which had a kind of street cred; “Clink” and “Cooler”, but that sounded outmoded; and “Chokey” and “Calaboose”, too American. I finally settled on PRAT, which stands for Prison Authenticated Togs.
This has the immediacy and appeal of French Connection’s stupendously successful FCUK logo but with the added merit of accurately describing the kind of people who choose to wear look-at-me acronyms on their chests.
I apologise to female readers for dwelling at such length on the problem of male attire. But women have it so much easier, as a stroll down any high street shows. All that is required to look right as a young woman is a crop top and a roll of belly fat. It’s much harder for men.