CALL THE FASHION POLICE NOW!

I’m pretty clued up. I know what’s going on in quite a few fields – music, film, politics, geopolitics, social entrepreneurship, sport, literature, art. There’s only field that passes me by and always has done. Fashion.


Thankfully there are not many pictures of me as a child or teenager. They would tell a sorry story of mis-shapen, ill-fitting, ill-chosen clothes and shoes which I could and do blame on my parents. The trend, however, continues to this day.


As I write, I am wearing a cool maroon corduroy jacket. Unfortunately it is sitting atop a 2 year old worn-out black jumper, a 6 year old baggy t-shirt, some 2 year old worn out adidas trainers and a pair of combat style grey trousers that are 3 sizes too big.  If I took my belt off they would literally fall to my ankles.


Anyone else would have taken them back to the shop. I just made do.


One time I went into a shop to buy a belt. Offered a bag, I declined, and said: ‘I’ll wear it now.”


When I put it on, I couldn’t even get the two ends to meet. It was a girl’s belt. They had already rung it up on the till, so I pulled my shirt down and walked out. £30 leather belt. I ended up giving it to my friend Carol. She took the piss out of me.


This all goes back a long way.


We were very poor growing up. All my clothes were cast-offs, second hand or ultra-budget. The local church turned up once to give my dad a box of clothes and some food handouts. He was mortified but we ate the cheese.


My dad had no clue about fashion and would think nothing of buying some piece of shit from one of the Asian discount warehouses in Luton and foisting it upon us. There was one, Sami and Salim’s in High Town Road, that contained the worst clothes in the world which only someone fresh off the boat from Delhi in 1955 would have worn. Guess where we got our clothes.


People think modern children are spoilt by their parents buying them designer clothes. I agree.


However, if you go out of your way to make your children stick out then you are asking for trouble. Children need armour. Anything that makes them conspicuous can have a terrible effect in the playground and therefore their confidence.


I can see that this environment knocked the confidence of all my brothers and sisters.


My cousins used to describe our home as Raggerty House. When I got my first bike, my friends in Stopsley said: “That can’t be yours – you’re too poor.”


One teacher, Mr Chapman, called me up to the front of the class when I was 14 and said: “Look at you. Your shoes are wrong, your blazer’s the wrong colour. Your hair’s a mess.” He gave me his comb and forced me to go to the toilet and comb my hair. It was not a pleasant experience and was clearly a major setback in my plan to fuck all the girls and the female teachers. 


Dad’s idea of a haircut was the £2 OAP special at a hairdressers in Wigmore Lane. I developed a real hatred of haircuts right there and then. My hair was floppy and blonde.  I was often mistaken for a girl. I had an unmanageable curl right at the front of my forehead which meant I could not cut my hair in any way that looked good. I associated that place with torture. Ironically, it was next door to the Co-op funeral parlour. Many years later Dad’s body would lay there for a few weeks while we waited for his funeral. When I was forced to go there it might as well have been piled high with corpses for all the nerves and terror it induced in me.


When you sit in that barber’s chair, you are the centre of attention and I would sit there prickling with embarrassment, desperate for the ordeal to be over.


From the age of 15 I took matters into my own hands – unwisely. I would snip bits off here and there and try and make my hair look like a rock star. Hmmm.


I don’t think I went to a hairdresser for another 5 or 6 years. When I realised my hair was thinning I began visiting a barber in Dalston. He was bald and I found that comforting. He advised me to have my hair cropped. First I would ask for a number one, then a half.


The first time I cut my hair very short was very memorable as it was also the first day I had worn glasses. I was working for the Civil Service in the East End at the time.


I picked up my glasses and tried not to fall off the pavement on Whitechapel Road as my eyes grew accustomed to the changed focus. I had my hair cut during the same lunch break and turned up for work looking completely different in the afternoon.


One of my colleagues said: “What’s going on? You look like you’ve escaped from Belsen.”


Ten years later, finally, in Barbados one day, I took a razor and shaved my head. No-one I knew would see me for a few weeks. No-one said anything when I got home. For the first time ever in my life I felt comfortable in my own skin.


If I don’t get the chance to shave my hair for 3 days now I feel like I’ve grown an Afro. I only developed any confidence once my cursed hair was gone. Samson in reverse.


People ask me all the time when I shaved it off and why as if I had suddenly opted for a dozen facial piercings. You can see people thinking: “Wow he’s brave.” But I watch people my age desperately trying to cling to their thinning, greying hair, and I realise I got off lightly. There is not a huge difference in the pictures of me now and 10 years ago. Sure your skin ages slightly but I look pretty much the same. Almost weekly someone finds out I am in my forties and says: “Wow you look good on it.” I went to a school reunion a few years back. I smugly noted that I looked as good as the best of them. Shallow but satisfying. And I had the best job too. REALLY satisfying.


I hate that bastard teacher for what he did to me that day with the dressing down and comb routine, but he set me on a path by confirming what I already knew: my hair and I were reluctant partners – a failed arranged marriage between two partners who had nothing in common. Something had to give. I am very happy with my hair now that we are divorced.


It doesn’t help that I have a big head.


With hair on, my head is twice the size of my body. Without, it’s just about the right size. It’s why I can’t wear hats.


I’ve always envied people in caps and hats – tall, thin people with understated elegance. I look like the fat one out of Abbott and Costello playing a garage mechanic.


I’ve tried lots of hats and caps, they just don’t fit.


I was in Austria with Beck and Margaret once and saw a wonderful wide brimmed hat a la Orson Welles. I remember wearing it on a train platform. I was probably in jeans and trainers. My head is so big that the brim poked out 6 inches. I looked ridiculous.


I wore it a few times in London with my cape. Er…yes, that’s right my cape. It had a silver clasp and was black with a red satin lining. Not the wisest choice for Wimbledon.


My colleague Archie said I was stupid and took me the length of Oxford Street once to buy a hat. “Of course you can wear a hat, I’m taking you shopping.” Twenty stores later she admitted defeat. “You’re right. You can’t wear a hat.”


These days I’m limited to a tight woolly one during the winter.


Clothes though.


My school had a strict school uniform policy. Black trousers, shoes and blazer, blue tie and jumper, white shirt. Any fool could get a handle on this.


One day my dad came back from town. He had seen a reduced price blazer. It was a bit big and had silver buttons rather than the black ones I was used to. I put it on.


It was actually navy blue. Very dark navy blue admittedly, but against my black trousers, it was obvious.


If mum had been in charge, I’m sure she would have taken it back. Not dad. It was cheap so that’ll do you for the next 2 years. Two years!


This was compounded by the fact that I was wearing brown hush puppies two sizes too big for my already large feet. Dad had been staying with his sister and been offered them cheap.


I looked like a comedy penguin. Buff brown shoes, black trousers and a blue blazer. How could it be worse?


It could of course.


The blazer was made of polyester. One day at nan’s, I leaned against her fire and melted a hole in the back of the blazer.  The melted polyster looked like a volcano.


I begged for a new one but I had not had it long enough. Dad got a pair of scissors and cut the offending square out and sewed in a piece of ribbed material cut from something else – something black. God the prickly head, stomach churning shame of it.


You may think I’m joking when I tell you I spent the next year or so walking backwards, positioning myself with my back to the wall wherever possible, but that’s what happened. The dinner queue was a nightmare. I might as well have grown a second head. Torture.


That was dad’s fault but all the other crimes of fashion I committed were purely my own.


I asked mum to take my trousers in one day. They ended up slightly too tapered which, with the over size shoes and blazer, made me look top heavy – like one of those figures, pivoted at the hip, that pop out of a Swiss barometer and bow.


I went to see The Jam with my friend Ross in 1982. My idea of a good judgement call was to wear one of my dad’s buff turtle neck sweaters. I must have looked a right sight because I remember our bandmate Steve Wallace berating me for wearing it.


Mum’s husband Callum had a buff safari suit. Callum must have been 6ft tall. I was 5.2ft if that. He also had a pair of aviator glasses. I actually decided to wear this to a night out at Stopsley Working Men’s Club with some friends when I was about 16. Eh what? I guess these days I could wear it ironically to a bad 70s fashion night – but then?


I remember buying my first pair of jeans from Luton market. I was very uncomfortable doing it. Talking to the dismissive assistant was like being back in the barber’s chair.


There was a little phase when I did feel Ok. The New Romantics allowed us to wear slip on shoes, white socks, black cardigans and skinny ties. I almost felt normal in that uniform.


We had a leaving dance at Putteridge – a bit like an American Prom except we didn’t invite partners to come with us. My gang of male friends and I arrived like a group of slightly groomed gorillas, terrified that we might actually have to deal with the girls but at the same time, testosterone dripped from us like snot from a runny nose.


I had bought some grey sta-press trousers and a silky grey shirt with a thin lemon tie from my Nan’s Marshall Ward catalogue. Doesn’t sound good, but that’s what we were wearing back then in those post New Wave days and I wasn’t too obtrusive. Unfortunately I couldn’t afford shoes as well, so I wore white plimsolls. Yet again, I had to bear the brunt of my friends taking the piss.


Just what you need before heading out on the pull.


In fact, I plucked up the courage to ask the girl I had admired from afar for 2 years to slow dance with me. To this day, if I hear Please Don’t Go by KC and the Sunshine Band, I am transported back to my dance with Sarah that night. Of course, I failed to follow up on it and my relationship with Sarah went no further until months later at VI Form. Though oddly, we’re still in touch 35 years later, so it was probably just as well we didn’t go out back then. 


I remember getting home, elated, and talking to my sister Beck who was in the box room bedroom. I was too embarrassed to tell anyone what had actually happened but this was a big moment asking someone to dance. Bonus that she said yes despite the plimsolls. Mind you, she was wearing Dexy’s Midnight Runner style boots and a big jumper so she was hardly a candidate for the next Milan catwalk at that stage.


When I arrived at VI Form I was dressed like all my mates from school. Pringle jumpers, bleached jeans, white trainers. We were the sporty crowd from Putteridge.


I had a secret life as a musician and artist however. I would see all these amazingly weird creatures at VI Form from other schools. Dressed in black, spikey hair, make-up, jewellery.


I wanted in.


One day I cracked. I got a pair of scissors, snipped off great wads of my floppy hair to help me make it spikey, put on a flowery cotton blouse and my mum’s bum length black coat and went to VI Form terrified.


The first thing that happened was that a beautiful girl in the corridor walked past me, looked up warmly and said: “Hello.” It was a woman called Tess who went on to become one of my best friends. The experiment was a success. I sat in the college common room. Other arty looking types then started talking to me. My old friends didn’t approve. It was time to tune into my arts side. I picked up a whole bunch of new friends and my life was changed forever. I’ve often wondered what would have happened if I had not cracked that day. Everything else that happened in my life from that point on was dictated by my decision to go arty rather than sporty.


Where everyone else in the Gothy crowd wore black, I wore grey and green. I couldn’t bear to be like everyone else.


I went to the King’s Road in Chelsea one weekend and bought a green army greatcoat. I think I was looking for something cooler than that, but saw nothing that looked exactly like what I was after so I plumped for something nothing like what I was after.


I had some grey trousers with an elasticated waist and some blue piping down one leg. Because I always had a scarf on, some of the girls called me Paddington. 


My best friends at the time, Adam Redgwell and Matthew Clemitson, wore black overcoats with thin lapels. Matthew was a style icon. Brogues, grey flannel trousers with a tiny turn up, belt, tucked in white shirt and skinny tie and a scarf. I tried my best to emulate this, but that look suits tall and skinny. I was neither.


I attempted it though. Margaret and I went to Live Aid in 1985. I wore a heavy overcoat, waistcoat, shirt and tie. It was so hot I had to ditch the coat under a bush. I hoped to pick it up after the gig but it had gone.


By the end of the night a combination of no sleep the night before, the extreme weather, my heavy shoes and shirt and tie, had left me virtually unable to walk. I remember the sensation of having locked knees which I haven’t experienced before or since.


That became my uniform. Trousers, pointy shoes, shirts, waistcoats and ties. I built up quite a collection of unfashionable patterned ties at VI Form.


Pleasingly I noticed a couple of lads a year down from me began dressing similarly to me. For the only time in my life, I was told that I was a style icon by a couple of them. Ace.


During my degree I was as scruffy as ever. Trainers, tartan scarf, oversized overcoat.


I lived in a flatshare in Maida Vale. I became friends with a strange but lovely woman 10 years older than me.


One night she took me out for dinner in Soho and over far too much wine confessed something terrible and was in a right state over it. I did my best to comfort her and her solution was to go clubbing at Stringfellows.


There’s no way I would have been allowed in without her connections. I had been at college that day and was in a right state – grey overcoat, tartan scarf, grey jeans and a scruffy pair of trainers.


I was so drunk, I remember her coming over to me at the end of the night on the dancefloor and waking me up. The club was nearly empty and I was standing there alone, swaying to a non existent beat. I threw up in our sink later on and I remember picking lumps of vomit out of the sink strainer. Yuck.


I bought a pair of coffin shaped leather soled shoes with a buckle. I looked like the Witchfinder General.


They wore out and I plugged the huge holes in the soles with bits of cereal packet. I remember going to see Lindsey in her new flat in Kensington in the middle of a bitterly cold and snowy night, my feet frozen and soaking wet because of the hole that had grown to the size of 2 x 50p coins. I just could not afford to replace them.


In my 20s I had not a clue about what to wear. The other night we saw a video clip of me in the audience at Who Dares Wins on youtube. I was wearing a bright red jumper with a polka dot shirt underneath.


I had a pair of luminous green tracksuit bottoms that I wore around Margaret’s student house in Wimbledon.


By the time I got to journalism college, I had a fantastic stripey yellow shirt that I thought made me look like one of the Beach Boys. Sadly, I was most likely to be seen wearing it with green jeans which destroyed the illusion somewhat.


I remember being at the Hackney Gazette and buying a cream cardigan one day which I wore with jeans and knackered trainers. To my horror, halfway through the day, Rick Sky from the Daily Mirror called me and asked me to come with him to the Brits that night as his journalist sidekick Louise Johncox couldn’t make it. He met me at Bounds Green station in a limo dressed in Armani.


Oh the shame of walking down that red carpet, papps flashing away at you, hundreds of screaming kids wondering who you are, wearing something that was barely passable for home wear. My fellow attendees included Oasis, Madonna and kd Lang. Always the misfit. Always.


At The Times I bought a lovely black Woodhouse suit. I still have the jacket though it does not button up anymore.  It makes a nice cardigan.


It was not always thus and when I first wore it you could have got two of me in it.


It was eversoslightly too big for me and to make matters worse, I had the legs taken up a bit too far so you could see my ankles when I sat down. I looked like David Byrne in his Stop Making Sense big suit. The trousers flapped like the rigging on a ship in a light breeze. I looked bloody silly.


One day, I’ve no idea why, I wore white socks with it. I bought some lunch in the canteen at News International and when I got up to leave, some rough neck maintenance guys, seeing my white socks exposed by my flapping trousers said: “Hello dearie.”


I still have some of my dodgy tie collection and one of these old friends I actually wore at my wedding. This was a strangely sentimental thing to do and unlike me to look back with any fondness of that period by the time I was in my 30s.


I bought a light brown suit from Brown’s in Great Moulton Street for my wedding. I wore a white shirt and white desert Trek’s from Clark’s, my VI Form tie and a pair of rose tinted John Lennon glasses.


I was first outside the registry office and my uncle Brian told me that as he was driving up Baker Street looking for the wedding, his wife Betty said: “Look at that burk over there,” unaware I was the groom.


Everyone still says I wore a pink suit at my wedding but if you look at it (it’s in the cupboard I can prove it!) it’s quite clearly brown. I liked it anyway and it was the most expensive suit I ever wore.


I spent quite a bit of time trying to find a decent suit to get married in. I quite fancied going for a Paul Smith stripey blazer a la McCartney circa 1968 but nothing fitted my strange shape, so a suit it was.


Around that time I was at the BBC. My standard outfit of the time was tight fitting 60s style trousers, black desert treks and tight polo neck black jumper. One of the guys at work said I looked like a matchstick in negative.  I’m 51 now. I would consider that  a great compliment today. I’m more likely to look like “the only gay in the village” if I dressed that way now – though I still love desert Trek’s and must be on my 10thpair – despite the discomfort of their flat soles.


One summer Ben Sherman came out with a fantastic range of mod-ish patterned shirts and I bought several.


I remember being in the BBC Club one day and one of my colleagues saying: “I bet Shazna doesn’t know you’ve bought that shirt.”


Gradually, middle age has crept up and I’m now most likely to be wearing boring clothes – black jumper, jeans, Adidas 3 stripe trainers (what I’m wearing now actually). Very boring but probably wise.


There’s no sadder sight than being in America and seeing men my age with Free Willy bellies wearing Hawaiian shirts.


If I could afford it I would wear a black suit most days. I look best in a suit now. As any tailor will tell you, a well made suit covers a multitude of sins. My fashion sins, like my spread, are growing by the day.


The truth is, for most of my life, I was buffeted by the fashion dictates of the day. I actually had a double breasted grey suit in the 80s. I even wore trainers with it one day as if aping Phil Collins. What the fuck?


These days I go classic and subtle vintage and this is unlikely to change again. I interviewed Lemmy from Motorhead last year. He said the trousers he wore were a 60s design. “They’re classic mate. They never bettered the design so why change it?”


So did I ever wear any clothes I felt comfortable in? I’ve had my loves like anyone else.


I had a secondhand lime green top that I wore as a 10 year old. I bought a lovely Daniel Hechter suit from River Island which I wore on the first ever Channel Tunnel train to Paris.  I loved my Beach Boys stripey yellow shirt. I never looked better than wearing my black polo necks as a skinny guy. I bought a Carhartt hoodie once which defined my look for a while. I’ve worn faded jeans that made me feel very comfortable. I bought a psychedelic patterned shirt from a shop in Carnaby Street for a gig with the BBC (Phil, Adie, Eddie Fiegel, Mark Sheldon and I playing as The Ointment). It’s so small that Shazna now wears it. I must have looked “interesting” on the night with my Lennon glasses and white jeans.


But mostly, I’m afraid, wearing clothes for me is only one baby step up from being naked in terms of permanently feeling exposed.


My friend Sian once said to me, in a very nice way, that I always dress distinctively and seem very happy in my own skin. Ha ha ha ha.


I think it all goes back to those early days of being ashamed of everything I had to wear.


And that’s why I say, give your children armour, folks, give them armour.


 


 

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Published on March 18, 2019 10:12
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