If there is one great thing about being a middle-aged man, coming in to work every day, rain or shine, it is this: you don’t ever have to worry about how to dress. It’s a no-brainer. A well-cut suit, plain shirt, subtly patterned tie and formal, polished shoes. That’s it. There are small variations to consider, boldness of tie pattern, width of shirt collar, sobriety of sock. Hefty magazines are devoted to these infinitesimal themes, contradictory arguments shooting back and forth with the fervour of a medieval theological debate. But the commandments are pretty much set in stone. It’s hard to go wrong.
Come the weekend, however, and the headaches begin. The scariest phrase in the English language, if you are a middle-aged man, appears on well-intentioned invitations: SMART CASUAL. That’s just like life, waiting until you are sliding into downtime before it tosses an oxymoron into your sleepy brain.
By far the trickiest part of weekend dressing is footwear. Look: there is no smart casual in footwear. Smart is what you wear to work. Casual is trainers: comfortable, fashionable. A chairman of the Royal Opera House once declared that he never wanted to sit next to anyone wearing trainers. He was ridiculed. It was a seminal cultural-podiatric moment. We are the generation that invented trainers, and now we had earned the right to wear them, whenever, wherever.
Joe Ottaway, personal shopping consultant at Selfridges, grimaces. “I’m not a great trainer fan,” he says. He admits that weekend footwear can be a thorny problem. “What is important is to find something that is age-appropriate.” It seems, not for the first time, that I have missed a key trend in men’s fashion. “The age of the well-dressed, well-groomed man is coming back.” And it means, beyond a certain age, no trainers. What age might that be? “25,” says Ottaway. Chilling: I could have a son who is too old to wear trainers.
Ottaway, who supervises the store’s personal shopping service for men, is in a position to help. I’m here on the opening day of Selfridges’ new men’s shoe department: more than 15,000 sq ft featuring 250 brands and 72,000 pairs of shoes. We are in search of the perfect weekend shoe: something “sharp, smart, practical, hard-wearing, a soft brogue, a casual boot. Rather than a Nike Air Max.”
There is the sublime and the ridiculous in the lavishly scaled hall – but I am not sure which is which. It is an undeniably impressive, airy space, which sets me thinking: could men’s shoes become the new women’s shoes? Is there a male equivalent of the fetishistic high heel, the all-purpose ballet pump, the giveaway blood-red sole? I am sceptical. For the record, I have never, ever engaged in a shoe conversation with a male friend. But times change, and to be well-heeled these days requires one to be well-heeled. For the hell of it, Ottaway shows me a £8,195 pair of crocodile-skin loafers from Tom Ford. I flee, heading for an extravagant collection of trainers. “Off limits!” he says. Now here is the problem, I protest. The concept of the perfect weekend shoe depends on what constitutes the perfect weekend. Mine may include a football match, a church service, shopping for art in Hoxton, taking long walks in the Cotswolds.
He is unfazed. He shows me a tan pair of brogues by Grenson (£205). “They are versatile, refined. You can go out in the evening with these. I would always recommend a great tan brogue.” Not great for muddy fields, I say. Over to a strapping pair of fur-lined Boss boots in chocolate brown (£365). They are seriously comfortable, and rather dashing. Prada offers its customary mix of conceptual genius and ferocious impracticality. I finger a pair of sturdy-soled black shoes with stylised daisies all over them (£870). “Perfect if you are a fashionista,” says Ottaway. “You have to go with the whole look to do it justice.”
There is a corner devoted to Italian elegance: the pimply Tod’s driving shoes and their imitators. I spy a pair of leopard-skin loafers. “He has a house on the Côte d’Azur, and a yacht waiting for him,” says Ottaway. We linger over desert boots: “Indie music, Steve McQueen, cardigan, Triumph motorbike”. He is no longer using verbs. We are in dreamland. It is time to narrow down our choice. I plump for the brogues and the boots, which covers pretty much everything you could do over a weekend. The only time I will ever need trainers again is to go jogging. And that’s not the point of a weekend at all.