Middle-aged men of Britain, have you been shopping for summer clothes on the high street lately? Well, in a word, don’t. Out there, among the racks and rails, believe me, it’s utter carnage. And if proof were needed, consider this: Marks & Spencer are trying to get dads into white jeans.
For hidden among the comfortable Blue Harbour navy polos and billowing linen shirts are stacks of (I would hazard soon-to-be remaindered) pairs of slim and skinny-fit stretch denim in a hue of nuclear white that, when rolled up over a sockless ankle, might look the part on a nut-brown twentysomething chilling in an Ibizan beach bar.
However, on a fuller, fiftysomething frame – and M&S’s white jeans come in a 42” waist – locals would be well within their rights to alert the fashion police.
And it’s not just M&S who seem to have it in for men in their midlife. For the unsuspecting Gen X-er looking for a new outfit to keep him in the fashion loop without making him look ridiculous, the high street is strewn with booby-traps.
This summer, as with the several previous, Next has decided that what men want are slubby cotton vintage tees and tropically patterned short-sleeves shirts. For the middle-aged man, Top Shop is a barren land of ice cream- and candy-striped tees and neon-bright shorts.
And as for Gap menswear, get past the wall-to-wall beige chinos and over-stuffed rails of creased shirts with button-down collars in shades of blue and white, and it’s a veritable kaleidoscope of brights and loud logos you wouldn’t be seen dead in.
Like most middle-aged men, I hate shopping for clothes at the best of times. It makes me feel… unusual. My reluctance stems back to the time when, as a skinny 20-year-old, I was talked in to purchasing a pair of bright red leather high-top sneakers to go with an equally ill-advised pair of skinny black jeans. I looked like a charcoal stick insect on his way to a Flashdance audition who’s only just noticed his feet are on fire.
Which is why I now tend to buy my clothes online. I’m not a mod – I don’t put the hours in – but, when in doubt, I’ll opt for something I think Paul Weller would approve of. So generally I end up in a pair of smart jeans, beige desert boots and a polo shirt by Lyle & Scott or J.Lindeberg. Anything more ambitious and I’m seriously in over my head.
A man of my age has to be careful what he wishes for in the clothing department. You can’t just give up trying to look good, cool, whatever, but you also can’t over-stretch the laws of probability. For example, I’ll look at a top or a jacket on some young buck and think “That’s a bit of me”, only to be reminded by the wife that I’m actually thinking of a different me, one from a considerable time ago. She’s got a point: you don’t want to look like the oldest swinger in town.
However, with summer having arrived, I still feel the urge to seek out a brand new look, especially after she told me to “get out of the house and get yourself a new wardrobe so you don’t look like Tom bloody Hanks in bloody Castaway”.
So this weekend, I headed to Brighton for a day of stand-offs with over-confident sales “dudes”, evasive tactics (“No, I’m fine, thanks, just looking...”) and prayers (“Please, God, don’t let any of my 19-year-old son’s friends be working today”). Could the great British high street re-up my fashion engine?
First stop, Marks & Spencer. Despite their misfire over white jeans – the brainchild no doubt of some young buck on the design board with a warped sense of humour who’s been tasked with making middle-aged men look groovy – these guys will know how to kit out a 54-year-old en vacances, won’t they?
After a quick riffle through the racks, I opted for a look I like to call “English tourist asking for it on the streets of Baghdad”. Despite my 36in waistline, I felt duty bound to try the white jeans – horrors! – leaving me to figure out what would offset them best. By which I mean draw the eye away.
The jeans seemed to be asking for something along the lines of a pale lime-green flowery short-sleeve shirt. I duly obliged and topped it all off with a pair of stripy blue-and-white espadrilles, and what was advertised in-store as a “stylish” man bag. I’ve never owned one before, and am deeply suspicious about their purpose, but I suppose you’ve got put your beach sandwiches somewhere.
When you’ve got skinny legs, you’re never going to particularly trouble the stretch denim dynamic, but nonetheless I detected a bit of movement there, which prompted pleasant memories of my Andrew Ridgely wannabe days. Emerging from the fitting room, I actually felt pretty good about myself. Maybe there’s something in this trying to look young business after all.
Things deteriorated in Gap. In fact, the wheels pretty much came off as I opted for a pair of camp shorts and a Rolling Stones 1972 Tour T-shirt. Hell, if the youngsters can wear T-shirts of bands they’ve never heard of – and the Ramones black tee remains an Urban Outfitters best-seller two decades after the proto-punks did their farewell tour – I can surely wear one of a band I don’t particularly care for?
Wrong. I look like a complete berk. The white Gap sandals – or rather “pool slides”, as I’m informed they’re now called – helpfully came with the word ‘GAP’ emblazoned on each shoe, at least saving anyone the trouble of having to ask where you got them from.
However, things didn’t improve in Burton. Despite picking out what I imagined were trendy, tight short-shorts – a key trend of summer 2019, I’m told, but surely not for midlife dads? – a paisley shirt and wicker hat, and emerging from the fitting room with a bit of a spring in my step, the reality was I resembled something between a middle-aged children’s entertainer and a sex tourist.
Next stop, erm, Next. Time to grab your bucket and spade, we’re going to the beach – in day-glo lime zebra shorts and a shirt that’s bound to turn heads. Or make innocent bystanders retch.
“Actually,” I declare to the sales assistant chap who is wearing a Motorhead T-shirt, “I quite like this.” He nods sagely.
“Nice T-shirt, by the way,” I add, “great band.”
Nonplussed, Motorhead T-shirt lad says: “What band?”
In spite of the high street’s anaethema to dressing the dadbod this summer, I have managed to find some acceptable beachwear basics, a few going-out short-sleeves shirts that won’t get me arrested, and those white M&S jeans that I can squeeze into for a promenade along a Mediterranean marina at sundown. Or just wear to embarrass the kids.
Either way, it’s going to be a summer we’re all going to remember.