Call it employed dishevelment or artfully choreographed scruffiness, studied artifice is thriving in Britain. A staple of British style history, it was somewhat visible at the recent London menswear shows, where John Alexander Skelton showed wonderful crumpled linen tailoring on a Worzel Gummidge lookalike outside parliament. But the look is currently booming inside Westminster, where Boris Johnson seems to be succeeding in his quest to become Britain’s next prime minister.
The former foreign secretary is fastidious about looking a mess. He runs in Hawaiian shorts and a Steve Zissou red beanie. He asks for respect in an ill-fitting suit. He wraps a shambolic, flustered persona around a cool, shrewd, ruthless intellect. Much has been made of the supposed success of Carrie Symonds, his new girlfriend, in tidying him up, but this has been grossly exaggerated. He looks thinner, sure, but the strategic dishevelment remains — it is his Trojan horse. Without the comedic, freewheeling speeches, complemented by a pondering expression like a wobbling blancmange, he would be left exposed, open, vulnerable — like Michael Gove.
Just Boris: A Tale of Blond Ambition, a 2012 biography by Sonia Purnell, who worked under Johnson at the Daily Telegraph, refers to him as “the archetypal upper-class English eccentric”. She calls him “overweight and goosey-fleshed”. He is, she explains, “the antithesis of an airbrushed male pin-up”. She recounts Willy Mostyn-Owen, father of Johnson’s first wife Allegra, who described Johnson as “wilfully scruffy”.
Purnell witnessed this first-hand. “When presented with the Brylcreem Best Celebrity Hairstyle prize in 2008, he couldn’t help but boast: ‘It’s impossible to imitate, as it is a product of random and competing forces of nature!’ His famous disheveled look is actually, however, the product of a brisk, artful rearrangement with his fingers (just before the camera rolls) rather than any naturally occurring disorder.”
Throughout history, many Brits have employed a considered use of mess and mayhem. Boris uses a shambolic veneer to fit in, to appear relatable, funny, even. By contrast, subcultural groups use it to stand out, to eschew the norm. Though the French do a good job with insouciance — think bed heads, make-up free faces, casual denim — this particular dishevelment is something unique to us.
Choreographed British scruffiness, whether punkish, posh or both, always relies on the benefit of choice: if required, the disguise can be cast aside. “You have to view dishevelment in British terms, so, like everything else, through the prism of class,” explains Paul Gorman, who wrote The Look: Adventures In Rock & Pop Fashion. “There’s long been that aristocratic or upper-class look of the frayed cuffs on a great shirt, worn with a suit with soup stains. It’s the don’t-really-care way of dressing. Of course, it’s about privilege. It means you’re showing that you don’t really need to get a job. You don’t have to go and see a bank manager. You don’t have to appear in court.”
Fashion designers have long been enamoured with English eccentricity — talking fondly of aristocrats dining out in moth-eaten sweaters and art students taking to the dance floor in their grandmother’s furs. They reference British style icons such as the late Isabella Blow, a blue-blooded editor who stapled her Alexander McQueen dress back together when it fell apart. Like Johnson’s, Blow’s eccentricity was a mask.
Such tropes and icons have inspired numerous collections. Gucci’s Alessandro Michele held his 2017 Cruise show in London, sending models out in frilly Victorian dresses, bondage drainpipes and tweed.
Riccardo Tisci, the creative director of Burberry, is also a fan of English messy dress. “I see women in England in leopard-print shoes, an evening gown, thick socks and a big parka, a Hermès bag. If anyone else were to do that it just would not look right. But that way of putting it together is very British,” he told me recently.
In her biography, Purnell recalls a school report sent by letter to Johnson’s father by Martin Hammond, Master in College at Eton. He writes that Johnson junior “honestly believes that it is churlish of us not to regard him as an exception, one who should be free of the network of obligation which binds everyone else”.
The obligation to dress appropriately — neat shirt tails, clean clothes, ironed shirt — does not matter to Boris, because, put simply, the potential results of not doing so would never apply to a man like him. He will never be stopped and searched, never refused entry, never given a disapproving look up and down, and never wind up in an awkward situation that money and a swift call to a well-positioned friend can’t fix. When it comes to his dress, Johnson’s style is little more than a petty need to prove his exception from the general necessity to try.
The appeal of the artfully undone look is loaded — it provokes fondness, a cheerful eye-roll. But we must all stop ourselves from instantly giggling at the performing messy buffoon. Dishevelment is an apt disguise for Boris — one that allows passage through polite society, thanks to stagnant power balances and rigid traditions. It’s the tainted luxury of not caring.
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