Style lessons from my father

September 2013

A story about a father, son and the mark of a gentleman.

Your parents, unless you are the spawn of a certain kind of celebrity, are generally not your style icons. The financial and temporal demands of bringing up children rarely allow for much in the way of clothes shopping, and, by fifty, the older generation are not now that snake-hipped jockey which in old days squeezed into 30-inch jeans.

My father was an excellent example of parental anti-fashion. His off-duty attire was limited to different shades of cords, patterned woolly jumpers and when gardening, which was most of the time, a sturdy pair of Wellington boots. On formal occasions he would push the boat out with a dinner jacket or, at a military bash, his Light Infantry mess kit. The rest of the time he wore a suit.

Fashion never really concerned my father. In his childhood there was barely enough money to feed the household, let alone for expensive clothes, and were he magically brought back to life today the sight of my annual Mr Porter bill would be shock enough to return him to the grave. For shirts, however, he’d make an exception, and he’d gladly spend a small fortune on the premise that a good shirt was not an expense but an investment.

When I was twelve my father died and, as the shock set in during the following days, I was handed the first portion of my inheritance – his gold cufflinks and a few Turnbull and Asser shirts still wrapped in their cellophane, he’d bought them just weeks before and had never had the chance to wear them.

A Turnbull and Asser shirt, my mother told me at the time, was the mark of a gentleman. They were the shirt of choice for a number of celebrated Englishmen, from Winston Churchill to Sean Connery’s James Bond, and the Jermyn Street shop is like a time machine that leads back to Victorian London, all oak panels and polished brass. At ¬£200 a pop they’re not cheap but if looked after they will last at least a decade.

A good shirt is the staple on which a man’s wardrobe can be built. It can be paired with jeans, shorts or a suit, is suitable for any climate or level of formality and there are infinite varieties of pattern and hue, stripe and check to choose from. Above all a good shirt is timeless, it is not prey to the vicissitudes of seasonal fashion.

The shirts I inherited were a strange comfort to me growing up. I spent most of my teenage years feeling very angry, confused and alone but each day I took pleasure in dressing well for school in a good shirt with double cuffs bound together by the solid gold cufflinks that my mother presented to my father on their wedding day. To this day I still don’t own another pair.

My father, himself from humble origins, always told me that it didn’t matter what you could afford but that you should always buy the best quality things that you could manage and then look after them well. I have tried to follow that advice over the years. And so purchasing a fine shirt now is more than just an addition to my wardrobe, it is a little of my father’s style coming out in me.

 

Words ALEXANDER WALTERS (Alex is a freelance journalist who has written for The Guardian, The Times, The Telegraph, VICE Magazine, The BBC and others. He also works in digital development at the Financial Times)