Archive for the ‘Clothing Allowance’ Category
The balaclava is one of the most schizoid items of clothing ever conceived. If it were human it would be under a course of intensive therapy. Originally named after the Crimean town of Balaklava it was cold weather comfort aid for British troops in the Crimean War – a fashion statement which undoubtedly looked good twinned with a (Lord) Cardigan. Born out of homely practicality the balaclava’s bipolarity in its diverse cultural history is such that it is now perversely most closely associated with extremes – whereby its image summons up all manner of subhuman-human rights violations, death squads and terrorism.
It was all so innocent once… The head case for Mummy’s boys in short trousers with bare knees shadowed blue by winter chills: adults in waiting in miniature belted-raincoats lining the flint-walled playgrounds of youth the length and breadth of the nation. All jam sandwiches in brown – pre-Tupperware – paper bags and short back and sides. Which was just as well because the hand-knitted coverall was scratchy to the scalp and the plastered hair beneath struck static electric sparks and crackle when removed on a frosty morning as the regulation third of a pint of school milk ration was consumed.
Education Secretary Michael Gove has one of those faces that you just know suffered the indignity of sporting a balaclava in his tender years – they were the perfect calling card of the school swot/geek. The character of Roy Cropper in Coronation Street probably had one as a child too.
They were a staple of unlikely lads throughout the 50s and 60s. The kitchen sink movies of the British Realist school were full of angry young men who probably owed much of this volcano of bile to parental insistence on wearing a balaclava. It was a predominant winter feature until kids became too cool for school and rebelled fully at what Mum ordained.
A balaclava was a resident prop on gritty 60s documentaries of kids playing on leftover WW2 bomb sites. Synonymous with play emulating adult wartime daring – “I’m a cockleshell hero and you’re dead!” – it morphed from a devious item of heroic ‘noble’ though covert intent – dressed down for a cause; through an SAS pedigree to perfect reflection of the dark arts of warfare.
There was always an element of up to no good – night time poachers and peeping toms – however, it was in the early-70s that the balaclava as fundamentally ‘useful’ clothing item getting in with a bad crowd evolved. From popularly perceived, and inferred, as the choice of geeks and weirdoes previously it suddenly became a self-justifying cultural prophecy: the province of murderer Donald Neilson – dubbed the Black Panther – whose exploits did much to put the balaclava on tabloid front pages.
The cue simultaneously taken up by the likes of Black September and any other two bit terrorist organisation on ‘operations.’ Maybe the Mummy’s boys and weirdo psycho infants just grew up? No consideration would be complete without the IRA – whose berets and balaclavas combo formed a chilling backdrop of paramilitary display to over two decades of marching and news bulletins.
Lines have become sufficiently blurred that the balaclava has become staple of ecological and recent austerity demonstrators: when the need to protest or hide your appearance comes along they are the perfect standby. Bikers, outdoor workers and extreme sports fans have continued on their merry way in using variants on the theme but a lot of the practical necessities have been superceded by the ubiquitous hoody.
Cross fertilisation with the sexual has seen the balaclava contribute elements in a give and take relationship to the gimp mask. A unisex item that conveys a no sex androgyny – it has been utilised on the catwalk to focus attention solely on the clothes and as blank canvas for alien faces in numerous sci-fi presentations. There is apparently nothing that makes a balaclava wearer blush – not that you’d notice in any case: it appears it will open a cultural conversation with anyone. And from this it has been a short step to horror film serial killer motif par excellence. The hills have eyes but then so do balaclavas – horrible, disturbing anonymous slitty rapist ones: the stuff of nightmares. The boundaries of the imagination have been breached from Texas Chain Saw Massacre – where murderer Leatherface has a sort of homespun leather version – to the hockey goal mask style of the Friday the 13th film franchise and on to the various comedy mask/balaclava mutations of numerous other genre examples.
Pop music has inevitably dipped its head into the flow – think Slipknot, Pussy Riot and even Justin Bieber. Whichever way you wear it – it’s all a long way from the past and a grey winter’s morning getting ready for primary school…
I bought a waistcoat once. It was a long time ago. A youthful misdemeanour. If it was simply an adolescent crime it would have been forgotten; long wiped from the record. However, the cyclical nature of fashion means we are regularly reminded of our crimes. Not only that but we have to confront the victim of that crime every time we look in the mirror. I bought a waistcoat once and it’s still there – in the back of the wardrobe between the paisley shirt and the ill-advised boots that I had to have but that were ultimately too big – and I never got round to taking back.
At this distance it’s hard to remember that one day when owning a waistcoat was the epitome of cool desire… any more than it’s possible to concede that legwarmers, stonewashed denim or harem pants must once have seemed like a good idea to someone.
There has to be an explanation. If I was superstitiously inclined I could go back and check the confluence of moon and tide and time. I could plead temporary insanity. But that was evident enough in the act. I tried it on again recently. For the second time. But only when the house was empty; the landline taken off the hook; the cat – who knew something embarrassing was about to occur – had gone out to fill next door’s borders and the Jehovah Witnesses were sent forth to multiply from this house of Satan’s waistcoat.
I closed all the windows, drew the curtains, shut the bedroom door and opened the wardrobe that creaks provocatively speaking of a secret stash and slowly exposed the fashion faux pas from its lonely refuge. Had the years mellowed my perspective? Had I grown into my impulse purchase? Was I reaping the benefit of waiting half-a-lifetime – for the right time? Was it now rakish? Raffish? No – just rubbish. Irredeemably naff in a way that well, only the truly irredeemably naff can be… not an open wound – no extravagant thirty years of hurt – more an uncomfortable place from a scab thought long healed over.
In the Seventies when suits had large lapels, flared-trousers, uniquely awful colours and were made of even worse fibre mixes – the waistcoat was like an early incarnation of the Bogof. You took your purchase home and made it comfortable in the wardrobe prior to one of its rare outings and discovered what looked like an off cut with three buttons at the bottom of the bag. Oh; this is for me? I thought it was for a colour-blind dwarf feeding an outsize messiah complex.
The waistcoat was fashionable in an age of the deeply unfashionable – cheesecloth shirt anyone? Stripy tank top? Cloggs?! All representative of the Noel Edmonds school of fashion circa the Multicoloured Swap Shop era.
Weddings and funerals only… everyone turning up with sideburns stretching like hairy rope ladders to meet paunchy midriffs that were either perfectly enhanced or unnecessarily constricted – it was all about perspective and how much beer you had drunk – by the ace in the hole dimension of the three-piece combo. The super-tight waistcoat contrasting sharply with the billowing sails of trousers fit for an America’s Cup challenge, whose flaring routinely began from the bulging crotch, and the regulation polyester shirt with a hideous motif spilling/exploding from the gaps in the buttons like high street psychedelic vomit.
Once in a while I have a feel-good charity sweep around the house – fill a plastic bin bag from the competing monthly pile that drop through the letterbox as confetti confirmation of economic belt-tightening. No matter what the good cause I still hold on to the waistcoat. It’s like a dark secret… prison, bankruptcy, emotional breakdown, body odour, sex change operation, recurring nits, thrush, secret Steps reunion album? No problem – just don’t mention the waistcoat! I fear the fashion police will somehow trace my kind donation to the down and outs and hold me up to eternal ridicule… “These poor homeless people have suffered enough: do you really expect them to wear this!”
What really happens to all the waistcoats that are stuffed in plastic collection bags for faraway places? It’s true… I haven’t ever seen a Big Issue seller in one. There’s desperate and then there’s desperate. Maybe they’re the height of fashion in outposts of post iron-curtain eastern Europe? Is Africa full of them – all pulled over the top of last year’s Premier league shirts on the rare cold nights in what’s left of downtown Mogadishu? Or is there a secret anti-fashion sect of hipsters who meet in a dingy basement in an up an coming part of east London to celebrate the retro-cool of the hot colours and even hotter sweat-inducing cut and fabric? Maybe… I just don’t go to the right places?
“Relive what appeared the psychological clothes prop of the taste-less… the waistcoat was easier but no less sinister than clown make-up.”
Then one night I have a bad dream and see them all… All the waistcoats that ever existed – floating in a dubious cultural landfill in my tortured subconscious. Like a suicidal Willy Wonka in a fabric factory I twist and gasp and cry out in my troubled sleep…
Welcome to the nightmare provinces of comedians, magicians, lounge lizards, seventies entertainers, poker players and Butlin’s redcoats. When waistcoats screamed – “I’m here; I’m tired of just a supporting role!” Relive what appeared the psychological clothes prop of the taste-less, of anyone who had to put on a front; to con, or disguise who they really were – or convey the simple folly of acting jolly: the waistcoat was easier but no less sinister than clown make-up.
For a long period the tighter the waistcoat the smaller the mind. The Union Jack on overweight John Bull characters – symbols of empire – gorged on colonial plunder: red-faced and florid with divine right wing on their side. The local politicians and councillors – the mini John Bulls of planning disputes; car salesmen; racist comedians with certifiable mother-in-law issues – “It’s the way I wear ‘em!”
Snooker players too boring for words but for whom no waistcoat was deemed too bright and primary-coloured; too sparkly or patterned to dance like queasy interference on your TV screen as an incarnation of the style devil to contrast Ted Lowe’s whispered reverence. The clack of balls referencing painfully awkward efforts in bringing garish “character” exhibition to the green baize matches in a manner echoed by Tie-Rack and Sockshop in later decades when their products were worn by stuffy commuters on dress-down Fridays.
This was the era when waistcoats were cool but only to the terminally unhip: those who dressed in the dark or had a wardrobe set on random. The dark days when wasitcoats ran through the fields of fashion suit-free. Among the lollipop ranks of children’s TV entertainers – stand up Timmy Mallett: oh, you are – and those who turned up at private birthday parties to unsettle young minds in person. Beardy folk singers and Morris dancers: MOR crooners with names like Dickie, Des and Matt. There were soul hipsters who nearly pulled it off and a young Jackson Five whose sense of fun and rhythm almost closed your jaw as their robin rocked.
In Hollywood fiction… DA’s in waistcoats met cops in a hurry – “You’ve got twenty-four hours to solve the murder or I take you off the case!” I wish someone had given me that ultimatum all those years ago when I murdered any taste I had accrued. Eighties’ yuppies: in the City boys with ties askew, sleeves rolled, up to their necks in takeovers – awkwardly adjusting waistcoats that barely concealed the unleashed greed. The straining spare-tyre advertising their trading floor prosperity: nouveau riche but stylistically bankrupt. The nightmare only ends as I stride the high street in my own green waistcoat – didn’t I tell you it was green? Hmm… must have slipped my mind. It was the garment that launched a thousand quips. Comments that build to a crescendo before I sit bolt upright in bed sweating like bad polyester.
But somewhen, somewhere, somehow… the waistcoat must have risen above this file of contrary cultural evidence. How in step, or deluded, I must have felt on the fateful day I visited that old school jeans emporium. Lee and Brutus; Levi and Wrangler: the four horsemen of the denim apocalypse. Green (double indemnity!) cotton drill. Mock metallic buttons. But definitely not cowboy style: I draw the line dance on that!
Perhaps I was exploiting the small window of opportunity in the careers of Status Quo – the nano-seconds when Francis Rossi and Rick Parfitt were hip instead of just shaking their arthritic hips to the factory grind of blues rock riffs: as if the double denim wasn’t bad enough guys? Hard to suspend disbelief? Yes – but then no more so in retrospect than Mrs Thatcher getting Meryl Streep to portray her at the cinema.
Look around today and who is pushing waistcoat chic? There are the usual suspects on the high fashion catwalks. Daniel O’Donnell and Sir Cliff – who both exist in a parallel universe of uniquely awful taste in clothes – fight the good fight and probably have God’s forgiveness in any case. Brand Beckham hasn’t really worked his magic on them to any great extent.
No, the likeliest recipient of the garment/accessory/proof of vacuity these days is the porky member of a boy band making up the numbers – come in number five your time is up! More likely to be Vestlife than a resuscitated waistcoat. Let’s introduce them to the adoring girls: here’s cute Kyle, hunky Harry, bulging Brad and delicious Dane oh, and er, Brian in his waistcoat. That’s right B-R-I-A-N. The fifth corner in a newly tight four piece. Still won’t make me a Belieber or a dedicated follower of the fashion…
The sea, clocks and spherical objects in the night sky have moved on… The colours are now relatively muted in comparison but the question still remains… What is it about waistcoats? They’re less a fashion statement as a form of silent swearing. A murmur. A fart at a social gathering that everyone struggles to ignore. A gentle excuse me in a world of loud look at me flatulence.
Some people have been known to keep their kids as hostages and sexual playthings for twenty five years; others still have their first porn mag dog-eared under the bed, a fully-functioning train set layout in the attic, their National Front membership card or everything Donny Osmond ever committed to vinyl… I have a waistcoat in the wardrobe.
“It’s like a dark secret… prison, bankruptcy, emotional breakdown, body odour, sex change operation, recurring nits, thrush, secret Steps reunion album?”
The boots? Well, I admit it was the colour really – not the fit. The paisley shirt? Whether I wear it or not there will be another psychedelic revival – I’ve lived through at least three already. But the waistcoat is like the terminally sad kid at school. Anxious to forget the past; no comfortable memories; no retro-cool – no reason to go to a reunion.
I bought a waistcoat once… It’s back there again – safely ensconced in an institution: my wardrobe – for my and other’s safety. Fashionably medicated to forget. Whisper… I can still get it on… oh yes; second time around it still fits! I can still cram two Mars bars in my mouth while stood on my head against the bedroom wall but like other colourful remnants of the past – would I choose to?