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The English Gentleman

Posted 15.01.14  - Style

What is the English gentleman? It is a concept, an idea, with little if any physical manifestation (much to the disappointment of London tourists). It is a paradigm. Indeed, it may be the most fertile paradigm in the history of menswear. From it have sprung multifarious regional and cultural fashions.

The French Revolution gave the English gentleman the start he needed. It made all the frippery and lace of French fashions deeply unpopular – dangerous even. The plain, practical clothes of an English squire became the clothing of choice around Europe, and gave us a nascent three-piece suit.

The paradigm of the English gentleman has always involved a touch of modesty and self-mockery.

Then the British Empire gave the English gent an unassailable lead. Governing a large swathe of the world, from India to America, Australia to Africa, his became the clothing of the civilised world. Tailors in Italy, copying the clothes worn by young men on their Grand Tour, ripped down the suit and made their own lighter, more comfortable version. In so doing, they created the most original tailoring tradition outside London. American schools, keen to mimic their English counterparts, adopted similar uniforms and gave birth to ‘prep’ – perhaps the richest vein of American fashion and one consistently mined today, particularly in Japan.

What’s remarkable about all these offshoots is that the English gentleman remains a consistent reference point. None of them have outgrown their roots. The French refer to ‘le style Anglais’; Italian men aspire to English flannel and printed silks; American prep, despite being very much its own beast, aspires to an abstract Englishness – just look at all the manor houses and rolling countryside in the advertising campaigns of modern prep-peddlers.

It could be argued that they all get one thing wrong, however. They all take themselves a little too seriously.

In clothing, this means moments of eccentricity, such as those ‘go-to-hell’ trousers so beloved of American trads. The point is not to slavishly pursue the perfect shade of off-pink twill, but to follow your own peculiarities. Do not preen or over-think, the English gent might be quietly telling you. Rather absorb the rich traditions of English style, then make them your own.

Simon Crompton - Writes for The Rake

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