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The trouble with fashion

David Whitehouse recounts his most memorable faux pas

The trouble with fashion

For my 13th birthday I was given a present that changed my life forever. It had no ribbon and I didn’t need to unwrap it. There was no receipt and I couldn’t return it. It was even worse than the time my dad wrapped up a used battery and gave it to me for Christmas. It was crippling self-awareness. For 12 years I’d had as much interest in how I look as a dog does, sitting in the park, barking at a puddle. No more. My days suddenly became a dizzying gauntlet of complex, tiny choices. My hair. My clothes. My shoes. I could alter the way I looked to make myself more appealing. I understood that now. I had discovered the concept of style, and would set about attempting to master it. When I had, Me Mark II would be born. The labour would last many years and the offspring would be dressed like an idiot.

Without the finances to attain the sartorial perfection I knew would finally alert girls to the fact I was alive, I chose to concentrate on the things I could control, like spots, nature’s contraception. I stole my mum’s foundation and liberally plastered it all over my face. They laughed at me in maths that day. I got home to find that it had dried in scaly brown patches. I looked like the magician David Copperfield with tertiary syphilis. I would never recover, but I was now in the business of styling myself. It seemed churlish to stop. I was on to something.

My thoughts turned to hair. I sought the advice of the only person I knew with even a passing interest in fashion. She was also, handily, a girl. My sister, seven years my senior, convinced me that there was only one haircut for the discerning modern man. She said it was a bit like Brad Pitt’s in Thelma & Louise. Yes, I thought, this sounds right up my street, putting aside the fact that I was 5ft 4in, rat-faced and with a rakish body that suggested my skeleton was in fact made from broken broomsticks bound by twine. She wrote its official name down on a piece of paper. I took it to Tony, the local barber, and read it out

as proudly as I could.

“I would like an ‘Exploding Mushroom’ please.”

“A what?”

“It’s the haircut Brad Pitt has in Thelma & Louise.” Tony laughed for half an hour.


When I was old enough to get a part-time job I turned to the Freemans catalogue. Those were the guys I wanted to look like. Models. I may not have had the height, the looks or even the upper-body strength required to sling a jacket over my shoulder with any panache, but one item at a time, at £1.50 per week, I’d be able to build a wardrobe like they had. At a rate of a shirt a year.

I agonisingly assembled a collection of one white shirt that my mum made me wear to school. For all the good it did my sexual prowess, I might as well have fashioned a skirt from a bin bag and hollowed out two watermelons for shoes. But, I’d learned a lesson from those heavily styled catalogue heroes. It’s not just what you wear, it’s how you wear it. And I knew who to copy, because copying is what fashion is.

Firstly, I looked to Jason Priestley in Beverly Hills 90210. But soon after, it became clear that every girl I knew fancied one man. His name was Jared Leto. I made it my mission to dress exactly like him, recording as many episodes of My So-Called Life as I could, and committing to memory the cut of his jib. With my first pay packet of any note I took the train 20 miles to Birmingham city centre, knowing that I’d be coming home a different man altogether, armed with a wardrobe I could already picture. The shop assistant in Diesel was the single most beautiful woman I had ever met. She had a haircut so cool it seemed like modern art. I didn’t even know you could make hair do that. She was an exotic bird, an icon, a stylish vision of my future peers.

“Yes,” she said. “That looks great.”

My entire £80 was spent on a blue shirt with vivid cerise diagonal stripes and a collar large enough to be called a neck brace. It was easily four sizes too big for me, and I think it was made out of Teflon. My mother went apoplectic. My brother called me Jared Netto. I wore it on my first forays to clubs. Everyone else had played it safe. I was the idiot at the disco. Had this been the Eighties and Boy George turned up, even he would have agreed.

From this I realised two things: firstly, a beautiful shop assistant can always make a fool and his money part easily. Secondly, successfully developing a sense of style takes years of trial and error. Only when well into adulthood are we free enough from the shackles of peer pressure to develop anything like a ‘look’. Only when you’ve been to Selfridges and spent enough to finance a coup on a shirt covered in embroidered parakeets that you will never wear, will you have the confidence to realise that simplicity is just as often the key. Only when you’ve been brave will you get it right. Only with age will we understand that no matter how hard we try, the majority of us will still royally balls it up.

Last New Year’s Eve, I turned up at the pub in a pair of leather-effect jeans. They were expensive, I was sober when I bought them and I swear they didn’t look like that in the shop. I was met with the question, “Hang on… are you wearing leather jeans?” I went home immediately. They looked great on the mannequin, but then, that’s his job.


British men consistently get clothes wrong. It’s our birth right. We lack the courage needed to stand out from the crowd because we fear humiliation. God forbid someone should think we’re dressed like a berk. No, much better to blend in with an identical pastel shirt. We’re a nation that would rather collectively look boring than individually take a risk that may not pay off. If you’re brave enough to overcome this, and we seldom are, great rewards await. But to get there, we need help. And so recently I sought it. I asked a friend who works as a stylist to come shopping with me.

“Who do you want to look like?” she asked. So I told her. David Beckham, Michael Fassbender and Tom Hardy. Separately, not in a Human Centipede sense. I am now the proud owner of a shirt Barry Manilow would consider too flamboyant and a pair of shorts tight enough to circumcise a mouse.

I shall never wear either. Perhaps you’re a grown-up when you dress for yourself. If that’s true then, like most men, I have a long way to go.

“I was the Space Cowboy”

Dave recalls a happy but deluded time he now refers to as ‘The Jamiroquai Incident’

Growing up, there wasn’t a lot of music played in my house. We had The Best Of Queen and an Abba record. So I’d never really heard Stevie Wonder, James Brown, the works of Phil Spector or Motown. That is why, when I first heard Jamiroquai, I believed theirs to be the funkiest, grooviest, hippest collection of sounds ever committed to record. And not only that, Jay Kay was the coolest man I’d ever seen. Youth isn’t wasted on the young. The senses are.

I watched the video for Virtual Insanity and knew two things. One, it’d be a right pain if your furniture moved around all the time, and two, I NEEDED A MASSIVE JAMIROQUAI HAT. Then everyone in the small, backwards-thinking town of Nuneaton, Warwickshire, would know that I was the slickest cat ever to walk its suburban streets.

I saved up for ages, dipping into my funds to watch Jamiroquai from the back row of the NEC. I might as well have been sat at the top of a massive stick on the moon for all I could see of the band, but it just made me want it more. And, finally, I got it. It was three-quarters of a foot tall, thick, blue and fluffy. I looked awesome. I was the Space Cowboy.

“You’re going to get your teeth kicked in,” said my brother. But I knew he was wrong. Yeah, all right, I was getting some funny looks from the lollipop lady on the way in to school, but what did she know? She wore a Day-Glo hat. That was so late-Eighties. I was cutting-edge. Everyone else was wearing the same pairs of Kickers so big they could sleep a horse in, and had gelled their short hair forward with such force it could be an extreme sport.

In class, I quickly became known as ‘Bin Head’, which wasn’t particularly imaginative. But I knew a style pioneer just had to bravely ride out the storm. That’s the problem with being ahead of the fashion curve, see. Everyone else is still behind it.

I made it to lunchtime, when the fourth chorus of Cosmic ‘Gimp’, at more than 20 voices strong and somewhat impressively part-harmonised, became too much to bear.

There is no shortage of reasons to dislike Jay Kay. This is mine.

Images: Rex