The symbolism of sweatpants

Image of Tyler Brûlé

How do you know when a country has failed? Is it a complex set of chronic symptoms (failing infrastructure, packed prisons, sputtering public health system, lack of leadership, underfunded defence forces and a stalled economy) that force a state to lose control of its most basic functions (security and self-respect) in a most undignified public display? Is it a simple arrangement of words (since when did a “custody suite” become an acceptable term for a holding cell?) that causes a nation’s peers to reckon it has truly lost the plot? If a diplomat from a European Union powerhouse tells you that his colleagues produced a report on a certain country off the west coast of the Continent and they concluded, “It’s failed,” does that count as an official diagnosis? Or is there a more subtle clue that suggests a country is in a potentially unrecoverable dive?

On Tuesday I awoke to a series of bitterly ironic e-mails from friends in São Paulo and Beirut asking if I’d like to take refuge in their cities and how I enjoyed living in a third world country. As I watched images of appalling civil disorder across England and e-mailed friends soliciting opinions on how the story was playing out overseas, the symbol of a failing society was in every frame of the footage of looting, assaults, arson and general lawlessness. As dreadful as the images of flaming buildings, spitting youths and looting mums might have been, the more disturbing picture was that of the uniform that’s been adopted by the disenfranchised and delinquent up and down the country. Never mind the hoodies, shades and bandanas worn to obscure faces and avoid easy identification on CCTV – the garment that most represents this struggle is a pair of droopy sweatpants worn halfway down the posterior. It might be a bit much to compare a pair of grey Nike sweatpants sagging around the knees of a rioting 16-year-old in Clapham to a keffiyeh worn by a young man hurling masonry in Ramallah, but sweatpants have become as much a symbol of social decay across the UK as the keffiyeh became a fabric of protest and identity for Palestinians – and, latterly, anyone else with an axe to grind.

There is a bit of vanity in possessing a couple of pairs of sweatpants with swooshes, stripes and leaping wildcats on them, but beyond that they’re inexpensive, easy to care for and practical. They can go from bed to street and back to bed again in an endless cycle that mirrors the downward cycle of the communities where these garments flap on clotheslines and hang on balcony railings. In short, sweatpants are a sign of surrender, of giving up, of hopelessness, of no longer needing to make an effort in society.

In all the sofa commentary on British TV over the past few days there’s been very little decoding of some of the basic symbolism that cuts to the core of the problem. Parents have come into the spotlight almost as much as the police but, if the parents are as bad (or worse) than their children, there’s not much point in blaming them as they’re never going to possess the skills to nurture and control their offspring – let alone act as effective role models. A radio host was berated on Sky News the other evening for commenting on the inappropriate appearance of parents taking their children to court. As the radio host saw it, the parents were showing as much disrespect for the law by showing up to a courthouse in attire fit only for the bedroom as their children did by hurling abuse and objects at the police. She was right.

Most will agree that much of what’s flared up has everything to do with a lack of respect for the rule of law and the evaporation of any sense of fear of potential consequences – which are few when you’re 15 and standing in a juvenile court. What’s had less airtime is the wholesale erosion of dignity in England’s most desolate communities and what’s to be done about it. Many politicians seem to be happy to stick to the party line of restoring order to the streets immediately and getting to the root causes at a later date. The translation that was flashing across the bottom of my screen read more like this: I can’t really be bothered coming up with a solution right now because I need to get back to my holiday and I’m going to be out of government soon anyway so it’s not really my problem.

But it’s everyone’s problem and it needs to be tackled today. With some of the highest youth unemployment rates in the developed world, the UK’s chief executives and politicians need to get off their loungers and pack their families off for a road trip to Germany, Austria and Switzerland to see how apprentice programmes work and why it’s still valuable to have an economy built on manufacturing. If England’s youth don’t have jobs, it’s because both the private and public sectors have put too much emphasis on higher education and not enough on teaching skills and creating an environment where people can perform those tasks with a sense of pride and dignity.

Tyler Brûlé is editor-in-chief of Monocle magazine

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved. You may share using our article tools. Please don't cut articles from and redistribute by email or post to the web.