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Thursday, July 17, 2008

The long and the short of it

My piece from today's Examiner (no pictures alas - go buy the paper to see!)

It’s not every day that I can solicit wolf-whistles, literally cause jaws to drop, and nearly stop traffic just by walking down the street. But then, it’s not every day – mercifully – that I find myself strutting about Dublin city centre wearing a stick-out-like-a-sore-thumb shorts-suit ensemble.

What inspired this act of sartorial daring/social hari-kari? Apparently, notions of what is acceptable as office wear are more fluid than ever before. A survey from the UK last month found that just 24 per cent of office workers are still required to wear a suit to work, compared with 37 per cent four years ago.

GQ magazine then went one further in their last edition when they trumpeted the cause of the shorts-suit look amongst men in London. “Shorts are becoming a natural summer staple for those who dress well in the city,” the magazine stated, hailing the sawn-off shorts-suit as “a bold fashion statement that’s totally tied to 2008”.

The leading men’s clothing chain, Topman, was soon reporting that its jacket-and-shorts combos were rapidly selling out, which prompted the question: if the shorts-suit trend is gaining traction in London, will it take off here in Ireland too? There was one sure-fire way to find out.

Last Wednesday morning, I put the look to the test, by decking myself out in a light grey fitted suit jacket, lilac shirt, white tie, grey knee-length shorts, black socks, and navy loafers courtesy of the flagship Topman store on Grafton Street.

My personal opinion of myself was that I looked like an over-grown schoolboy, or someone akin to Tom Hanks’ character in Big: a dorky, self-conscious teenager who suddenly woke up in the body of an even dorkier, more self-conscious adult.

I start my bare-kneed journey in my local area of Smithfield, right in the heart of the north inner city. The weather is not the best – of course - which makes me look even odder. Out on the main street, the very first reactions I get are from a man who does a double take, and a young woman walking her dog, who openly laughs. I approach her, and she seems relieved when I tell her my look is just for work, and not my personal style.

“I was just thinking, ‘What has he got on him?’” she says in between chuckles. I pass the Luas stop, and a bunch of Spanish students, who are not as reserved as the others waiting there, openly gawk at my legs, though I think their fascination had more to do with the paleness of my hairy pins rather than the shorts themselves.

I start making my way down the north quays. At one point a taxi passes me, and I can see the driver staring with his mouth open. He slows down slightly as he gapes, prompting a disgruntled blare of the car horn from the vehicle behind him. Fearing I may cause an accident, I move on.

While waiting at a crossing guard, a wolf whistle draws my attention to a woman leaning out of the window of a passing van, who shouts, ‘Looking sexy love!” I mentally decide to strip the comment of its sarcasm and take her at her word, for something tells me I’m going to need all the self-esteem boosts I can get.

As I make my way over towards Temple Bar, I note that the majority of women who pass me seem amused (or perhaps it’s bemused?), while men, in general, appear truly disgusted, even afraid. One man gives me such a dirty look that I momentarily fear for my life.

More than once, people talking on their mobiles stop mid-sentence as I pass them, only to then hear them tell the person on the other line, ‘Sorry I completely lost my train of thought there,” or ‘You’ll never believe what I just saw some guy wearing’.

On Dame Street, I happen upon a group of young kids on an outing, the most brutal of audiences because they are so honest. “The state of your man,” one calls out to the other. Touche, my boy. Touché.

Then, as a timely confidence-building remedy to that encounter, I get my first cheer and purring sound from a builder, who also gives me the thumbs-up as I make my way past College Green. A little bit later on Grafton Street, an elderly lady comes up to me while I’m getting my picture taken and says: “You look gorgeous – shame about the legs.”

Onto my final destination, Stephen’s Green, where I spot a group of young men and women in suits having a cigarette break outside an insurance firm. Some of their jaws drop as I approach them. One literally turns and runs back inside, while another girl calls a colleague inside on her mobile, imploring her to come out and see this. Those who remained gracefully give their opinions on my look.

Man 1: “I wouldn’t be caught dead in that, mate.”
Man 2: “No offence, you look ridiculous.”
Man 3: “I worked in London and Stockholm for years, and you would definitely see guys mixing casual and formal wear like that. But not here.”
Man 4: “Maybe lads would wear them if it was really hot or we had good weather all the time. But no way would I wear it.”

I think the verdict is pretty clear. We might like to think we’re as fashionable, cutting edge, savvy, and cool as Londoners or New Yorkers, but if this small experiment is anything to go by, we still have some distance to travel in terms of our acceptance of non-traditional fashion looks for men.

The experts are in agreement with that view. “The mix just won’t fly in an Irish business context,” says stylist Suzie Coen. “It doesn’t fall into any remit. Even on casual Fridays most people resort to the conservative chino and shirt look.

“I can’t see it being worn on business, or in the pub, or on the Nightlink bus home. From a stylistic point of view we’re just not ready for it.”

But what is it exactly about the look that doesn’t work? “I think it’s a leg thing – we don’t have the tan – and it’s hard to know what to do with the footwear,” Coen replies.

“I also feel the majority of men don’t want to stand out. They want nice clothes, but they don’t want to be on trend. I’d imagine very young guys, or musicians aged 20-25, would most likely try this look.”

Declan Leavy, men’s editor with Social and Personal magazine, offers an even harsher assessment of the suit shorts trend. “Personally I think it looks awful,” he states. “I was in London myself last week and I saw a guy walking into Harrods wearing a really smart suit jacket and a matching pair of shorts. He looked ridiculous, and got plenty of odd glances from me and other shoppers.

“From an Irish point of view, I don’t think society needs to be inflicted with our dodgy male legs in weird suit-shorts. They would not do Irish guys any justice. The David Beckhams of this world, who can carry off almost any fashion trend, would probably look effortlessly chic in suit shorts, but those specimens are few and far between here!”

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