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Sloppy Clothes, Shabby Manners

I shall spare you commenting on 957 pages of psychobabble, namely how the American version of Ahmad Chalabi became such a fluent liar. Bill Clinton’s opus about his “parallel lives” bores me stiff. As he always reminded us during Monicagate, we should move on. But he came to mind as I boarded an airplane to fly to the birthplace of selective democracy—Athens, Greece, to be exact. On board were two royal Greek princes, Pavlos and Nikolaos, both dressed impeccably and simply, the way gentlemen used to dress when traveling. I was a little worse for wear, pun intended, but with a blazer and proper slacks. Just as familiarity breeds contempt, informality generates disrespect. As soon as we were airborne, an obviously stressed stewardess addressed me by my first name. “How nice to know we were in school together,” I told her with a smile. I was using the Harold Pinter defense. The playwright has many faults, but he is a master of the devastating retort when he feels a lack of civility towards his person. When addressed as “Harold” by total strangers, he either ignores them or asks them about school. It might sound pompous, but Pinter was born very poor in east London and obviously learned good manners from his hard-working parents.

Clinton and his asides to students about his underwear are typical of the vulgar times in which we live. But he is not alone. At the G8 summit on Sea Island, Ga., the only man who dressed properly was—dare I say it?—the president of France. Everyone else was “smart casual,” but Gap dress does little to dignify high office. Man-of-the-people matiness was started by Bill Clinton, with his grotesque running shorts and sneakers while playing golf. The reason Clinton went for “smart casual” had, as in everything he did, an ulterior motive: “You can trust me, I am not wearing a suit.” Real ’60s stuff. Commenting on Chirac’s wearing a necktie while the rest lounged around in ugly “smart casual,” a man with the unfortunate name of Kenneth Dreyfack wrote in the International Herald Tribune that a tie makes one look priggish and a nerd, “exactly the kind of weirdo no one wants to get stuck sitting next to at a party.”

Sorry Dreyfack (I hope I’m pronouncing your name wrong), but it is exactly the opposite. There is nothing wrong with formality, and a hell of a lot wrong with familiarity. Wearing a tracksuit on an airplane might be comfortable, but I find it slightly disrespectful. “Clothes make the man,” said the Mississippi sage, Mark Twain, and casual dress has always shown itself to be a threat to good order and decorum. Those ghastly hippies, among whom Bill Clinton hid from the draft, not only lacked social graces, they made casual dress a uniform of disrespect for tradition and Western culture. The arrogant disdain shown by them was matched only by their selfishness and greed. And speaking of greed, Hollywood types, people like David Geffen and Oliver Stone, love casual. Geffen, extolling gay power, wears sneakers and a T-shirt with his dinner jacket. Michael Moore, a legendary slob, ditto.

Popular culture teaches us that fashion should be liberating. It is a clumsy argument made by philistines who possess the sensibilities of a Stalinist bureaucrat and the taste of Barbra Streisand. The shabbiness of the modern man—and woman, mind you—comes at the expense of a society unashamed of its vices. Smart dress has nothing to do with class or wealth. It has to do with pride, taste, and a sense of achievement. After all, when was the last time you saw a mugger wearing a tailcoat and top hat? Gentlemen, however, often do.

But more of Dreyfack. “It’s no accident that the first thing repressive institutions such as the armed forces or prisons do to establish control over individuals is to make them change their clothing,” he writes in the IHT. What can one say when reading such rubbish? It is a carefully embellished myth that dressing casual is in some way standing shoulder to shoulder with the electorate against the establishment, and that in being well dressed one is in some way decadent, snobby, and treacherous. This is why we have in one generation gone from a formal, well-behaved society into the casual modernity that uses the F-word constantly and sees soap-opera stars and badly-behaved, women-bashing multi-millionaire basketball players as role models.

Hollywood has a lot to answer for. High glamour ruled the place during its golden age. Remember that wonderful picture of the great Gary Cooper and Clark Gable in white tie drinking champagne? It was uplifting and as graceful as Fred Astaire, yet another gent. Now the aforementioned Streisand sports thrift-store cast-offs while pretending to be a woman of the people. But I’d hate to be a poor person trespassing by mistake on her property, or a young surfer landing on David Geffen’s private beach. (Unless he’s gay, that is.) Modern actors look like bag ladies and act worse. Somehow it is all dreadfully unconvincing. An average Joe does not have to look like a Hollywood slob, but then average Joes usually have far more dignity than Hollywood types and America’s 42nd president.

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