A Point of View: Why don't men's trousers cover their ankles any more?
Trousers which don't cover the ankles, suits which feel too small - the novelist Howard Jacobson reads the sartorial runes and sees in them a crisis of masculinity.
In olden days a glimpse of stocking was looked on as something shocking, now it's a man flashing his socks that sends us into a spin. Or at least it does when that man is chancellor of the exchequer.
Just in case anyone wasn't paying attention to George Osborne's appearance on the day he delivered the last budget of this administration - taking more interest, perhaps in the abolition of tax on the first £1,000 of savings income, or his new system for measuring deficit reduction - allow me to explain why his wardrobe raised eyebrows. It was calculated to show off his "mankle" - the mankle being what fashionistas call the talocrural region of the man when displayed for the purposes of fashion, usually under a suit whose trousers are shorter than any man's trousers, let alone a Chancellor's, have any business being. The masterstroke of George Osborne's final budget may well turn out to be the ill-fitting urchin suit he wore to deliver it.
Whether it will be enough to secure my vote in the general election I reserve my democratic right not to disclose, but I can so far declare my politics as to say I didn't care for how he looked. Whatever younger voters think of his tailoring, I was put off by its gamine skimpiness. It made the chancellor look too Audrey Hepburn-ish. The great British chancellors of the exchequer in our time - James Callaghan, Denis Healey, Nigel Lawson, Kenneth Clarke, Gordon Brown - have all been men of heft and substance. When some of them went on in later life to lose weight it was hard to believe they'd ever been chancellors at all. There is room for flightiness in politics - for loose-limbed men and women of slippery loyalties and sinuous convictions - but of those who hold our purse strings we expect stolidity. And stolid men don't wear suits whose trousers don't quite reach their shoes.
We discount the influence of suits at our peril. It would be a brave person who argued that what we wear counts for more than what we say, but in an image-driven culture our attention is always liable to drift away from words, however well-chosen, to tailoring. When Evan Davies took over from Jeremy Paxman as Newsnight's interrogator-in-chief we knew we were in for a style of probing which, superficially at least, would be gentler - a little more forgiving, more matey than mandarin, and infinitely less bored. But the first difference that struck us was how much less material his suits took up. This did not, one must assume, reflect any new policy of frugality on the BBC's part. Had Evan Davis wanted to wear more voluminous clothes, Newsnight would surely have indulged him. But Evan Davis was clearly anxious to come over as more cutting-edge than comfortable, and a cutting-edge suit must look as though it's cutting you in half.
On Paxman's return to television to grill Cameron and Miliband the other week, there were universal expressions of warmth. We like Evan Davis but it was good to see Paxo back. We'd forgotten how charmingly contemptuous he could be, how much terror he could strike in those he questioned, how insouciant he was when it came to managing the unforeseen. But in fact what we were really welcoming back were his suits. Not just beautifully tailored in the English style, but expressive, in their own right, of charming contempt. Suits structured in themselves to strike terror in those who beheld them.
That Jeremy Paxman doesn't give mankle except when he crosses his legs (and that's different) goes without saying. In this he honours what is to me the essential function of a suit, which is to hold things together. Just as gravity stops everything flying in all directions, so should a suit. We never entirely escape the state of animal disorder into which we're born, but a suit at least suggests it's possible to contain the chaos.
At the moment my suits are too small to contain just me. And this isn't because I've grown too big for them. As someone who doesn't like being fiddled around with by tailors, I buy suits off the peg and today's fashion decrees that suits bought off the peg should look too small - narrow in the leg, mean-spirited around the waist, pulled tight with a single straining button around the middle, in order to give the impression that the man wearing it is famished. You can see, in that case, why it's a look George Osborne favours. "I too," he might be construed as saying, "am a victim of the cuts enjoined on us by austerity. I too am miserable and hungry and can't afford trousers that reach my shoes."
The harshness of the times will not, however, adequately explain the emergence of famished man. Long before the banking crisis it was becoming difficult to buy generously pleated trousers or jackets you could exhale in. The flat front predates the banking collapse of 2008. The starved look was lurking some time before the Lehmann Brothers declared bankruptcy. It isn't an economist we must look to for an explanation of this but a historian of masculinity. Maybe even a zoologist. The change we have witnessed in the past decade is both ideational and animal. A shift from man as a grizzly bear who can protect his home from all marauders, to ratty man who has no home of his own to protect.
Some of us are old enough to remember that earlier state with affection. Our mothers liked men who had flesh on their bones and fed us accordingly. We were stuffed like geese. Given huge portions of bread and potatoes, both legs of the chicken, puddings made of jam and suet served with lashings of custard and double cream, and then, if our mothers still weren't satisfied with how much we'd eaten, both breasts of a second chicken. The lean and hungry look that frightened Julius Caesar frightened our mothers too. Such men weren't just dangerous, they were unhealthy. Even later, when we dropped dead in front of our mothers as a consequence of grease congealed in standing pools around our hearts, they ascribed it to some starvation diet our wives had put us on.
Along with meat on our bones our mothers wanted hair on our faces. I never saw my father without a beard and I was encouraged to grow one the minute I left school. A beard distinguished us definitively, not only from women, but from other men who couldn't be relied on.
Bearded men steered ships through stormy waters. Bearded men ventured into the woods and came back with the carcasses of antelopes around their shoulders. A bearded man was not subject to whimsicality and returned home at night.
So how has it come about that the very man our mothers never wanted us to be is now the very man the fashion industry - backed by the image makers of our political parties - does? More to the point, why do men themselves favour weasel chic? Is it an abandonment of a masculine ideal ultimately rendered ludicrous by feminist critique? Is it a hankering to be a boy instead of a man, a longing to be protected instead of having to be the protector? Or is it just a fear of looking like a banker?
Explain it how you will, what's evident is a crisis in the self-image of men. When the chancellor of the exchequer emerges from 11 Downing Street looking like Huck Finn on a raft, declaring "Never mind what's in the box, just read my socks!", it's time to admit we're in trouble. Could this be why, as though to claw the man back from the boy, beards as worn by castaways and hermits are suddenly the rage again?
Do they denote a realization in some men that infantilism has had its day?
The trouble is, the beard doesn't go with the mankle. Men who are backwoodsman above the waist, and dainty-mankled waifs below it, appear confused and precariously balanced. The centaur of Greek mythology, half man, half horse, was an altogether more harmonious beast. So we men stagger on, not knowing who we are from one day to the next. And after the mankle, what? Mutton-chops, beehive, tattooed midriff, Hitler moustache? I wouldn't put any of it past even Miliband in the weeks to come.
A Point of View is broadcast on Fridays on Radio 4 at 20:50 BST and repeated Sundays 08:50 BST or listen on BBC iPlayer
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