When I think of 'punk' I think of Johnny Rotten sneering through 'Pretty Vacant', Elms probably thinks of the brand of shoe and make of jeans that 'real' punks wore. Hmmm... he is not winning me over is he?
Robert Elms: The Way We Wore.
Everyone I ever hated wore a suit. That teacher that twice a week made an hour of my life a living hell. The politicians who ripped the heart out every town and village I grew up in, and the ones that have made me a target to terrorists thanks to their war-mongering ways. The businessmen and bankers that only care about the next buck, and not whether it's made on the back of child labour or by destroying the planet. They all wear suits.
That's not to say, all suit wearers are evil. Some rock stars go for suits and have me, reluctantly, thinking they look damn good. Just take a look at Jon Spencer or Nick Cave. Robert Elms wears a suit. He begins this book, a journey through his early years, concentrating on the clothes he wore, talking about his new suit. He'll have to do a lot to get through my prejudice. His childhood and teenage years saw him pass through mod, skin head, soul boy, punk - basically every youth cult that blew through his grubby North London suburb. There's detailed, loving descriptions of each look. Telling us what was considered OK to wear, what was not. It's an interesting read, and I got through it in a couple of days without really trying. Elms attempts to tie in various social factors into the different youth tribes, the strikes of the 70's, racial tension andindustrial decline. Even music.
This is where I have my biggest disagreement with him. He says he went to Notting Hill to track down a shop that sold 7 inch ska singles, imported straight from the West Indies. Elms saw this as the ultimate, elite accessory to go with his outfit. I can't understand that. My interest in music is the thing that I use to define myself as a person and my clothes are usually something to keep me warm. Elms obviously is the complete opposite: his clothes define him for who he is and the music goes with the outfit. When I think of 'punk' I think of Johnny Rotten sneering through Pretty Vacant, Elms probably thinks of the brand of shoe and make of jeans that 'real' punks wore. Hmmm... he is not winning me over is he?
Music does rear its head throughout the book as it's so closely tied to youth fashion in a number of ways. There's that ska story, various trips to see the New Faces, the 'soul boy' clubs. It's actually during punk when the book becomes most interesting, I guess because Elms is a bit older, and he starts going to gigs more often. He has stories of being on first name terms with the Clash and following them to see them play in small, seaside towns. However, it's here that his ugly elitism starts to appear, looking down on the small town punks as they aren't sporting the latest variant on the punk look.
It's the same when he's a mover in the infant New Romantic scene, somehow the scene in Birmingham isn't as important as the one based around a club in London, simply because it's got nothing to do with him. He rides the New Romantic wave, initially clinging to the coat tails of Spandau Ballet, writing for The Face (an influential magazine at the time), getting interviewed on the radio, fast becoming the media person he is today. It's during these excesses of the 80's that he seems to lose touch with the street. Sure, he was growing older, and all his peers were probably obsessed with clothes too, but the curve from second hand, self made student chic to designer labels is a little too steep for me.
He finishes the book with stories of increasingly elite clothes: handmade shoes, bespoke suits. He's still keen to emphasis his humble origins, dropping in cockney rhyming slang whenever he can and mentioning his left wing politics. However, I'm almost drowning in his smugness now. The final anecdote sees Elms turned back from a club, as the door staff "don't let suits" into that club. Elms pities the poor chap; his suit is custom made and not a off the peg, banker's number and the doorman can't see that Elms is special. Elms pities Britain's youth too, now they live in a country that's more sophisticated that it was in the 70's, a country with coffee bars, an affluent country with things to do. He thinks that the young people have lost all there creativity. No Elms, the bouncer was correct. A suit isn't what you wear: it's a state of mind. When the doorman said 'no suits in here' he wasn't looking at your clothes, he was looking into your soul.
Words: Chris Gibson.