Archive for the ‘Clothing Allowance’ Category

I Walked With A Crombie

crombie 2The Crombie is the ultimate male aspirational coat.  For over two centuries it has held a unique position in the wardrobes of the elite – popping up as overcoat of choice in many of the nation’s most famous recorded moments.

Unlike many of its competitors in the style-wars it has retained its status.  In need of proof?  Canary Wharf is akin to a huge open air catwalk for the Crombie’s ongoing appeal.  Also be sure to check out the winter-clad ranks of early morning commuters at your local railway station.  In many of their minds they’ve already arrived socially quite apart from any consideration of the physical journey to the big city.  Buttoned-up against the elements: buttoned-down against the threats to our way of life… they exemplify the Crombie as walking history.  A witness to the passage of time: yet essentially timeless.

As long as people have wanted to belong to that loosely-defined strata of the establishment the Crombie has been integral part of its outward display.  This sense of tradition has been cyclically refreshed – while quietly reaffirming the key embodiment of conservative values both personal/stylistic and also politically – with each new generation.  The Crombie’s continuing success reflects that there are still as many subscribing to this lineage as a reason for purchase as those admiring the cut and quality of the garment.

However, with anything that survives significant historical turbulence there is an inevitable process of subversion.  From being the natural province of royalty and political leaders; diplomats and men from the ministry; high-ranking business men and bankers – the baton was clasped in the early twentieth-century by the man about town… the film star, the style icon, the literary figure – the rich and famous of a generation removed from the usual political constituency but not beyond awareness of the considered aura of power and control that the Crombie bestowed upon the wearer.

“You can feel a compelling sense of control as soon as your arms gravitate to the deep pockets: the weight; the cut; the luxurious grip of the lining.”

 

From the 1940s onwards – gradually at first – the young wrenched the Crombie away from any simple reading of its inherent qualities.  This was all about the contrast.  Appropriating the coat of the establishment was a symbol of rebellion and pointed opposition.  These cultural protagonists saw that for most the garment peddled an illusion: fuelling self-aggrandisement rather than any perceived entry to the actual corridors of power.

Spivs, crooks; musicians and their band leaders gave way to gangsters and the brash new money men who were keen to advertise their demand for social standing – or their utter rejection of the stifling hierarchies remaining in the optimistic haze of a post-war land fit for heroes.  Their coats were more than likely flapping freely on the street as style statement but also as vivid expression of the winds of change identified by contemporary cultural commentators.

Such men have been defined fictionally by the likes of Michael Caine, Terence Stamp and Ray Winstone on film and for a brief time in the 1960s the worMichael Caine in camelcoatlds of fiction and reality blurred as crime figures, up-and-coming actors, socialites and scenesters mixed in a dubious representation of Swinging London.  It definitely wasn’t cricket as the Crombie became more and more the province of those on the periphery of polite society.  From spies to bouncers… also taking in any self-respecting mob boss whose empire building was of a different ilk based as it was on drugs, extortion, protection rackets and bank jobs of another kind.  These were gruff little men on the make and those impatient for a slice of the action.  The Crombie had seldom held such innate menace.

In this era the camel coat became cliché as the brasher cousin; the untamed relative serving time elsewhere: the colour contrast with the uniform blacks, greys and navies of the traditional Crombie being a statement for lives lived beyond the pale; symbolic of the broader push from those once in the shadows and smothered by the handed-down order.

It’s easy to think of a Crombie and break out in a cold sweat.  Not because of the fibres of the wool blend that is a characteristic of its fundamental success as a seriously warm coat but because of the most obvious purveyors of menace who – in the words of a harsher reality – made it their own: the skinheads of the late-‘60s/early-‘70s.   Less statesman – more men of the new estates – the skin subculture was another example of how the Crombie has embodied a position that very few brands or fashion items attain – of straddling two very different worlds simultaneously.  Depending how, when and why you wore it the coat defined cool: an item that conversely your father also might have felt comfortable wearing whilst happily oblivious to the connotations of your street-led alternative.

Personal experience of the Crombie came from the poorer street end of the spectrum.  The iconic red silk hanky in the pocket of those with the money to buy the real thing – the pocket square – was replicated by the imitation lining of the top pocket.  Seeking out an even cheaper copy than the high street meant visiting an army surplus store where a meaningful conversation went along the lines of…

“Hello… what can I get you?”

“I want a greatcoat.”

“They’re all great coats here mate!”

From the skinhead time – through the Prog rock era – and into straight competition with the Dexy’s Midnight Runners inspired earthier working class appeal of the donkey jacket – the Crombie held its own.  Re-appropriated once again at least intellectually – though some might say class-based – as electronic, industrial, shoegaze and indie rock continued throughout the decade and into the ‘90s: Ultravox, Joy Division, Echo and the Bunnymen and a legion of others contributing to its appeal.

Some were lucky enough to get hold of the real thing in second-hand or charity shops; or taken from Dad’s wardrobe though the height of aspiration in most cases was a fashion copy at a tenth of the price.  Becoming an accepted generic term for any particular coat that copied the essential style elements was a signal of the Crombie’s success over time – if also a testament to lost profits.crombie lining

The Crombie is not just a socially defining coat but also physically defining as well.  To wear one is to be self-contained; almost armour plated – in a smooth yet solid testosterone swagger.  You can feel a compelling sense of control as soon as your arms gravitate to the deep pockets: the weight; the cut; the luxurious grip of the lining.  It has a true hand in glove feel.  Masculine, because curves – unlike the emphasis on exaggeration or enhancement of many female garments – are smoothed and realigned.  From shoulders to knees there is a straight line pulling in belly and buttocks with a grand wall-building functionality.

Whatever your take on the Crombie – and somewhat inevitably/understandably you won’t find the alternative history on the official site – it is a very successful survivor in a hugely competitive industry.  The only blip on the radar of recent times has been a concern about the company’s off-shore tax regime.  It isn’t the first British style institution – a brand that bases their intrinsic marketing strategy on waving the flag and selling off the back of its history – to be challenged at its willingness to pay tax here.  Immoral or just playing the corporate game?  You decide… but as with every institution of the establishment there is always a squalid little secret or bastard child waiting to be discovered.   In the fashion if not the financial world the Crombie remains truly iconic at a time when the word and all it bestows is debased by its overuse in cultural currency.

Ooh What A Balaclava!

"Blimey Esme... rickets, nits, rock'n'roll still to be invented; the welfare state barely in its infancy and the legacy of the Luftwaffe everywhere and now you tell me Mum's knitted a bloomin' wooly hat for school that covers all me 'ead?!"

“Blimey Esme… rickets, nits, rock’n’roll still to be invented; the welfare state barely in its infancy and the legacy of the Luftwaffe everywhere and now you tell me Mum’s knitted a bloomin’ woolly hat for school that covers all me ‘ead?!”

Nigel could never have guessed that losing his balaclava that day would preclude a promising career opportunity as a left-wing revolutionary

Nigel could never have guessed that losing his balaclava that day would preclude a promising career opportunity as a left-wing revolutionary

"Never mind dahling I won't let that beastly Mr Hitler blow up your balaclava."

“Never mind my dahling I won’t let that beastly Mr Hitler blow up your balaclava.”

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.

Little did they know that those annoying caps like Daddy wears would be replaced with something far worse.

Little did they know that those annoying caps just like Daddy wears would be replaced with something far worse.

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.

What is it with bikers?!  They can't sell anything without a girl in a bikini!  Balaclava Babes Issue Four...

What was it with bikers she thought?! They couldn’t sell anything without a girl in a bikini!  Luckily Lauren had always wanted to be in Balaclava Babes

A timeless classic... What the well-dressed paramilitary is wearing -and it doesn't cost a bomb.

A timeless classic… What the well-dressed paramilitary is wearing – and it doesn’t cost a bomb.

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.

Sexual, political, anonymity, social revolutionary, pop - Pussy Riot putin all the connotations.

Sex, politics, anonymity, social revolution, pop – Pussy Riot putin all the connotations.

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.

Leatherface was just never the same after they laughed at his balaclava at high school...

Leatherface was just never the same after they laughed at his balaclava at high school…

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.

The Bieber balaclava - the minds of pubescent girls the world over are suitably boggled.

The Bieber balaclava – the minds of pubescent girls the world over are suitably boggled.

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

"If only he could see himself... What does he look like?  Hmm; keep smiling..."

“If only he could see himself… What does he look like?  Hmm; keep smiling…”

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.

Waistcoat nirvana?  Not on any level.

Waistcoat nirvana? Not on any level.

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 Loopy?  No just fashion illiterate."

Snooker Loopy? No just fashion illiterate.

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 BrutusLevi 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.

Optical Armani... an eyeful of waistcoats on the catwalk.

Optical Armani… an eyeful of waistcoats on the catwalk.

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?

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