Old chinese proverb says that we’re all louts with no trousers

The EU trade dispute with China may show that Peter Mandelson is useless in the trouser department, but it also tells us a lot about the state of the nation

And so I doff a grateful, slightly awed hat to human nature, for being what it is, it is impossible to imagine a trouser mountain without smiling. But when that monstrous heap of assembled waistbands, legs, seams, and zippered flies is the creation of the wily Chinese, the serpentine Peter Mandelson and an untold number of fretful Italian tailors, even the late Spike Milligan might have gazed in wild surmise.

I shall leave it to others to debate the folly of the EU’s attempt to buck market forces: what puzzles me is the number of trousers – some 18 million pairs – stranded in warehouses, and the retailers’ fears that they will be unable to meet the seasonal upsurge in demand at Christmas time.

As one who has seen more Christmases than he cares to remember, and might therefore be expected to know most of what there is to know about the season of goodwill and misbegotten giving, I’m astonished that people present each other with trousers on Christmas morning. Socks, yes, and home-knitted jumpers crafted with baboons in mind aplenty, but trousers?

The more I think about trousers, the more puzzled I become. We are, of course, a nation of trouser wearers, but beyond pulling them on in the morning and taking them off at night (and occasionally removing them during the day for reasons which, owing to limitations of space, I cannot go into here) we give little thought to them. Trousers, like sunny intervals in the South and deep depressions in the North, are a fact of life so commonplace as to be taken for granted.

And yet, examined more closely, they tell us something not only about ourselves, but also about the state of the nation. Observers more knowledgeable than I insist that fashion is a barometer of the national mood and an economic indicator. The most famous example is, of course, the miniskirt, invented in the 1960s and, with hindsight, a vivid metaphor for a decade marked by a brevity of reason.

I believe something similar is happening today. Look around and you will see that almost everyone is wearing trousers that fall well short of the ankle. This is the Norman Wisdom look, and perhaps more revealing of their feelings than the wearers are aware. For the information of younger readers, Norman Wisdom was a popular comedian in the 1950s. He bumped into things and fell over his own feet; his catchphrase was “Mr Grimsdale!”, a reference to his po-faced stooge; and, most importantly, Wisdom wore trousers that were far too short, and, on the side or back of his head, a peaked cap that was the ancestor of the baseball cap of today.

That so many Britons unconsciously adopt the dress of an accident-prone comic tells us much about the contemporary mood. Consider: ours is a nation in which a six-year-old passes GCSEs with ease; children are ordered to wear protective glasses to play conkers; local authorities employ pregnancy co-ordinators; the Government proposes to turn habitual drunks into continental-style cafe society imbibers by pouring more drink down their throats; television programmes are designed for the feeble-minded; mediocrity is the measure of celebrity; and John Prescott is Deputy Prime Minister. Mr Grimsdale!

That we as a nation should choose to dress as clowns is not so surprising. But it is more than a simple expression of the national temperament, it is also an act of rebellion. The essence of cool is that it defies convention. So, if a cap has a peak to be worn at the front, turn it to the back, if a shirt has tails made to be tucked in, wear them out, if a belt has a buckle, tie it in a knot, if denims are made in one piece, tear holes in them. And if trousers are intended to cover the entire leg, wear them at half-mast. Cool is the same as nonchalance, it shows that you are untouched by accepted norms, unmoved by the requirements of orderly convention, contemptuous of good taste.

Cool, though, like most wearers of cargo pants, is circular. When cool becomes the norm it is rendered uncool. When everyone is Norman Wisdom, it is cool to be someone else: Lord Heseltine perhaps, whose sleek pin-striped elegance was deeply unfashionable even at the time when he sauntered through public life. No wonder retailers are concerned. If those 18 million pairs of three-quarter-length trousers are left at the dockside for much longer, they will be well past their sell-by date. What price a pair of trousers designed for a pratfall when the world is ready for full-length chalk stripes with turn-ups?

One thing is certain: China will remain the fountainhead of trousers, unstoppable and supreme, however many fingers Mr Mandelson pushes into the dyke.

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