“Eh gairl, where’s me shairt?”*
*Translation for non-Liverpudlians: “I say darling, have you seen my shirt?”
One of the funniest men in the world, Ken Dodd, built a regular radio sketch during the Sixties around a Liverpool bloke asking his wife where she’d put his shirt. You had to be there: but if you’re a chap with no bumps and just a dangly thing on the front, you can trace a major chunk of your life through the shirts in your wardrobe.
One of the continuous and continuing battles throughout the ages between men and their women has involved the throwing away of clothes. Men treat old clothes like security blankets, women treat them as a charity medium. Men rate clothes, after the age of roughly 25, on the Comfortgrade scale of measurement, but there are women aged 60 still using the Fashionheit system.
I went out for a rare slap-up lunch yesterday, and while it wasn’t a dress-to-impress job, I didn’t want to pitch up wearing stuff likely to start rumours using the words ‘gone to’ and ‘seed’. Now it just so happens that I own a Brooks Brothers shirt bought in Pennsylvania during the 1990s, and it is a thing of understated style and tailoring skill. It has a subtle slate and dark blue patina, and for the cognoscenti it sends out a quiet signal saying ‘Look, this bloke didn’t always buy his gear in hypermarkets’.
So fine, 30% of the reason for liking the shirt is that it’s a classic, and coming from a schmutah background I’ve always been fussy about that. But 70% of the of the shirt’s importance for me is the memory of ten very amusing days of discovery my second wife and I spent with Brits who had relocated to Philadelphia….from whence it was purchased.
During that brief holiday, we encountered a town called Intercourse, learned a lot about the Amish community, ate simply in wonderfully dated Main Street restaurants, and on one occasion spectacularly at The Black Bass Inn. We wandered about in Philadelphia itself (it wasn’t closed), took in two excellent movies, and dined at home with our friends who generously fed us with food, friends and truly engaging conversation.
It would require an encyclopaedia to take you through all the shirts in my wardrobe, so here are the highlights. I got married for the second time in one of them, gave my daughter away at her wedding in another, bought one in Modena shortly after meeting what I thought was the love of my life, picked up another from an Indian tailor in Cape Town during an historic wildlife trip, and another still while bumming around in the Mani of southern Greece.
One or two of the shirts have emotional value by proxy. French markets are excellent for real finds thrown away by Brit expats. In a bastide town ten years ago I found an original Ben Sherman for €2.50: it’s in great nick, but it takes me back to ancient club-crawls in Manchester during the first half of the Sixties. A second-hand ‘grandad shirt’ (no collar) was unearthed for a similar amount: I wear it when slobbing about the house. It reminds me of Shakespeare Road Brixton in the 1970s, when we were all waxing lyrical about the Edwardian and Victorian artefacts that you can’t give away today. I can remember starting to dabble in art purchases at the time: I really did not have a clue, but always felt that walking into a gallery with a grandad shirt outside studiously scruffy Levis above loafers gave me a certain air of uncaring wealth. Judging by the prices these robbers asked, it was pretty effective as a rig-out.
Anyway, there you are: I open the wardrobe each morning, and my life flashes before me. One rarely notices furniture, occasionally plays old tracks, and once in a blue moon re-examines a photo album. But you always knew where you were with a shirt.