Who Are A Little Wise, The Best Fools Be


I was once told by an extraordinarily forthright young lady at university that I dressed “as if I were 50.” She sneered at my varsity uniform of burgundy penny loafers, green cords, blood red jumper and green wax Barbour jacket and said; “Maybe you should dress like that when you’re middle-aged. But not now, you’re only 20!” As a statement it affected me more than it should have; after all, there were a number of others dressed in a similar fashion. But at such a tender age, the remarks of the opposite sex – however ill-informed and lacking in taste – echo relentlessly in memory. When I reflect on it, the value of the experience was that it served as a strong example of sartorial ageism.

We all know the phrase “mutton dressed as lamb” and how it is applied. Although middle-aged women are usually the target, men are often criticised for attempting to appear younger than they are by dressing after a fashion that is said to ‘belong’ to the young; a 46 year old in a hooded sweatshirt, baggy jeans and Converse All-Stars will attract ridicule from his own age group and those of others – particularly the group to whom such a uniform is so relevant. But this also applies to a 19 year old in a fedora, tweed suit and college tie cycling along Oxford High Street. It could be generalised that this is simply another example of the populace disliking things that are unusual and suggest individualism, or that the young don’t know anything and are slaves to the compass of popular culture. What is certain is that casually ageist points of view on clothing are tossed around frequently which serves to maintain the clear division between the young and the old.

“There is nothing that ages” a wizened, port-soaked chap once told me “like a hat.” He had gestured to a young man in our midst wearing a trilby with his overcoat and mumbled that if he took it off he’d look ten years younger. I regarded the young man with interest and realised that this wisdom had a greater depth than the dispenser had imagined; put a beanie or a flat-cap on the subject and he’d look younger – replace the trilby with a homburg and he’d look even older. Perceptions of age have a great deal to do with preconceptions about social escalation; the young man is just starting on his journey and so belongs in ‘beginners’ clothing, the middle-aged to elderly man is well into his stride and so is expected to reflect the fruits of his experience and success in his dress, hence, society’s intolerance of precocity in the young and overt preservation of adolescence in the middle-aged.

These two oddballs are at completely opposite ends of the spectrum and often have conflicting views on life; one has never wanted to be young, the other has never wanted to be old. One believes in looking to the past for aesthetic guidance, the other ties themselves to the perennial fashion of youth – whatever that fashion may be. Personality, however, is the guiding star for both; the former reaches out from his rock, the latter clings to it as it crumbles. The question that remains is: which one is the fool?


  1. Christopher White said:

    Who cares what others think? It takes a bit of nerve to wear either a Top Hat, or a Bowler, but the comments I have heard are always complimentary. I guess, if in doubt, then don’t do it.
    I love reading your comments here.

    November 6, 2010
  2. Robert said:

    That is very true. My fear is that as I get older this perseption will change so that it becomes ok to dress in surfwear even at 60. I will then be trapped in a time that I don’t belong aesthetically or satorially.

    Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that.

    November 7, 2010
  3. Mjuboy said:

    I have often heard a very similar comment on my dressing style – ‘Why do you dress like you are 50?’.

    But I do take pride in my dress sense and while few may give me strange looks, others look up to me for having the guts to dress completly against the trend.

    November 8, 2010
  4. Harry said:

    Indeed “people like us” hear this sort of thing regularly, I expect. But it does make sense with an awareness of the world around us, and of what signals/messages our clothes will send (whether true or not). It can be fun to stand out and receive the compliments or otherwise that we can predict from various strata of society. But if your dress elicits completely unexpected comments, be prepared to review. Anything else would be foolish. In other words, be well-dressed, bold and confident – but don’t be a fool.

    November 8, 2010
  5. Paul said:

    It’s an interesting subject. I’ve recently embarked on the sartorial route and it is far cry from what I used to wear. A related but not identical problem is in this case if you appear to your colleagues to have suddenly changed and started dressing ‘smarter’. Perhaps the answer is to gradually phase it in?

    November 8, 2010
  6. Adam L said:

    Experience has taught me that ‘phasing it in’ is an excellent strategy, Paul, though it by no means removes all commentary.

    I work in uniform all day, so the only time my coworkers and I see each other in plainclothes is on the way in or out – and most of them seem content to wear anonymous polos and shorts at best, gym clothes at work. My desire to dress a little sharper, even in those short hours to and from work, was tempered by some caution at first, yet still elicited a few jokes (I suppose the occasional ascot wasn’t exactly the most cautious move).

    But with confidence and time I’ve reached a point where even longtime friends and colleagues let bowties, fedoras, and watch fobs slip by with only a gentle rib at best, which is all the easier to greet with good humor now that I’m so comfortable with myself.

    November 8, 2010
  7. Adam L said:

    Sorry, ‘gym clothes at worst,’ not ‘work.’

    November 8, 2010
  8. Will C. said:

    This is a uniquely contemporary problem in our culture. Let’s remember that there was a time when most boys aspired to dress like men, and men never dressed like boys. That situation was reversed. Andy Warhol’s words: ‘I think we should have more time to be babies, now that we’re living so much longer,’ (or something like that). So, his fault, I suppose. However, I am not content to allow the conversation to be defined in these terms, for there’s a factor that seems to be missing: what ever happened to the wonderful archetype of the smartly-dressed cad?

    November 10, 2010
  9. Guest said:

    It’s understandable that people don’t want to grow old, but many don’t want to grow up, and this is reflected in what they wear. Ageism in clothes is silly; but the refusal of the young to learn from their elders, and the failure of the elders to pass on the traditions of good dressing to the young, have led us to the “uniquely contemprary problem in our culture” mentioned by Will C. above.

    November 25, 2010

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