Thingward ho!

Humor is not a mood but a way of looking at the world. — Ludwig Wittgenstein

You admire and envy, don’t you, those people who can wear any crumpled, disorganised, unplanned mess, and still manage to appear attractive?

You are at a party, say, and two male figures, in unpressed, unmatching formal attire, Bollé sun-glasses and designer stubble, let themselves in. It is not clear they have been invited, since no one appears to know their names, but they add to the still small crowd that touch of studied desuetude and are allowed to stay, for decorative purposes.

Or perhaps it is a club or bar …

Little constellations of self-proclaiming stars gather in every nook and corner, competing for the attention of any earthling with a telescope. There are a few dresses sewn together with things sparkling at the blue end of the spectrum; a few others announcing their social awareness with autumnal and earth-motherly oranges and browns. (I am referring mainly, of course, to places reserved, by unspoken agreement and the certainty of embarrassment, for people over thirty, since, being too ugly, too old, and too well-heeled, I would not be welcome anywhere else.)

Go any Friday or Saturday night to the streets of any major city and see how sartorial decisions follow occupation or preoccupation.

Young women in creations with fluffy shoulders and considerable padding can be seen accepting invitations to study at the School of Hard Cash. They are not prostitutes. Like many young women these days they have been confused by feminism. If one, by chance, happens to sit at your table in a café, obviously because there is nowhere else to sit, and you get to talking, you might eventually ask what it is she looks for in a relationship. She will begin by telling you she wants someone to support her, rich, tall, strong, handsome, as well as sensitive—not a ‘yobbo’—and end by saying she would like to have a career. You might think, as I did, of objecting to this contradictory selfishness; but at least Simone and Germaine have taught her one good thing.

Recent survivors of Grammar School, now, perhaps, settled into a job somewhere close to the stock market, declare their aspirations to achieve the karma of serious money in tuxedos with satinised lapels.

During the day these same new recruits can be seen dressing down in Country Road and Sportscraft, or up, if they are regular readers of Arena, in something that convincingly imitates Jean Paul Gaultier (when at work, minus the designedly torn jeans) or Hugo Boss. The shoes will have been bought (that is to say, in the future perfect, on credit) at a shop frequented by people with less important things to worry about than money.

They need a face and body to go with all this, of course, because without those the effect is rather like cooking porridge up as soufflé. Though having both the face and body which make Gaultier look at home, there is no need to wear him for the purpose of attraction.

The new recruits know it is not at all fashionable to be too fastidious. For $300 anyone can get an adequately tasteful double-breasted suit with more buttons than NASA; and if you do this you had better have plans to live on the moon. Seriously and ambitiously fashionable people know the immoderate effort and expense which must be endured to achieve the effect of relaxation.

… And that is the nub of the modern fashion problem, the veritable crotch of sartorial philosophy. For the sufficiently well-to-do, a shirt, jacket, pair of pants, shoes, and a few accessories, visible and invisible, are asked to carry the weight of a terrible cultural and personal problem—to be visual proof that the wearer is, in just the right degree, ‘thingwardly aspirational’, but also, down deep, where it really counts, a spiritually and psychologically balanced ordinary guy. Clothes do not make the man: they turn man into art.

An artfully clothed body is popular culture’s version of a mystery novel with the last page torn out. So long as the body keeps its mouth shut, and has no distinguishing marks, the dénouement of its promised satisfactions can be delayed while the reading goes on. Perfect fashion imagines undressing and, when it is lucky, or irresistible, carries its plot with it into the bedroom.

The thing is to keep the mouth shut, if it is likely that what is going to come out of it does not precisely match, or exactly compensate for, the artifice of one’s clothes. There can be no reason, surely, for the expense of even an attainably cost-moderate Country Road image if the shortest conversation convincingly demonstrates the model is in a state of permanent emotional anaesthesia. If you have created the impression of being management material you must not natter like an intellectual twinkie. To be an unemployed Shakespearian actor with matching wardrobe is a socially acceptable misfortune, but you must not talk about it endlessly. Dressing for sex is, by definition, attractive. Verbal bonking is not.

So, beyond all the things which hang on the surface, much deeper and more important, there is the ultimate fashion accessory, which must be tailored and worn most carefully. —Not art-print boxers. I am thinking of speech, the sound a body should make a short while after thinking, the physiological antonym of wind.

You cannot imagine how pleased I am to make this discovery. It is only a personal discovery, though. There is nothing here I can patent or bottle. It is true that I am ugly; no one has been cruel enough, yet, to tell me this outright, but facts of this sort are known inwardly and should be admitted. Also true is I can, with some concentration and planning, turn out a phrase to make Arctic hearts melt, delivering it with conviction.

The more expensive fabrics of chatter are not necessary to achieve good effects and, in fact, these days, they can be a hindrance. In the fashions of speaking, as in everything else, quality and originality are important. (A little cribbing is OK, to gain momentum, but steal from the best.)

If you are, like me, one of the unfortunate multitudes for whom wit and charm must compensate for a paucity of attractiveness, you will be pleased to discover, if you haven’t already, that skill in their fashions can be learned, and memorising a few, simple rules of thumb will set you along the right path. Practice and more practice will enable you to play any part, to be, at a moment’s notice, the common bird admiring peacocks and the one they all want to take home with them, or Oscar making yet another American debut.

Keep these points in mind as you set out to develop your verbal wardrobe …

As with suits, so with words: you will be assessed by clarity of cut and shape of line. The speakers at the cutting edge of verbal fashion are always cutting out when too many others have cut themselves in.

Stream of consciousness is the Hawaiian shirt of conversational arts. Make sure your partner has one packed before you don yours.

Satire is proper and fair only among people capable of comprehending it, otherwise you’d might as well be wearing art-print boxers.

Sarcasm is verbal pugilism: it is best to let other people do it, while you take bets.

It is important to avoid clichés and any terms you have learned from newspapers, television, or in the workplace. For example, at very boring parties someone is bound to start talking about the economy and they will use words like ‘trickle-down effect.’ This is really the most insulting concept in economics. To most people it sounds rather like being pissed on from a great height.

Avoid truth and morality at almost all costs. These are the two most destructive forces in human relations. Besides which, they are a little like reigning monarchs: no one planning to have a really good time ever invites them to parties.

Self-deprecation is in most cases a more effective strategy of endearment than egotism, but you must try not to be too convincing.

Prepare and memorise about half a dozen casual and witty remarks which can be easily transposed for use in different situations and among people of different political (and even sexual) persuasions. For example, in the wealthier suburbs of our major cities, it is quite proper to begin a conversation with a remark that, “The New Right’s idea of entertainment is sneering at breadlines”, but if you have any ideas of laying your pre-eminently fashionable interlocutors it may be necessary to add, “—The Government’s idea of entertainment is making them.” Don’t be embarrassed about wanting to bet both ways: in the bedroom everyone pays lip service to Glasnost.

And as you reach for your Nautilus Vocab Expander, remember that it is only fashionable to be blonde by will if you have the audacity to show the roots. Words are the clothes, but the way you wear them on the tongue will show you either as a work of art or a bread pudding.

Then it is only necessary to color co-ordinate mouth with wardrobe. In many cases this is easy. Dressing in Country Road or Sportscraft you only need murmur nostalgically about life on the farm and express vague alarm at any harsh turn in the conversation. In Gaultier you are expected to be more aggressive and darkly witty, and the effect of such clothes is completely lost without some sullen and misanthropic complaint about the complexities of life. Wearing Yves St Laurent is an overture to talk which is mostly serious and always sensitive.

Matching inward and outward appearances, word with deed, mouth with wardrobe, you are fit for any conquest and thingward ho! But one more thing …

If you are ever cornered and asked to explain exactly what it was you meant by what you said, and suspect yourself of saying nothing and meaning less, remember Dr Seuss— “I meant what I said, and I said what I meant. My clothes say a mouthful, one hundred per cent!”