Clothes Horse

This is the first text responding to an invitation from Ronnie Hughes to make a set of personal lists. See ‘Action (C1-07)‘. The format of this list has been expanded to the length of an essay.

When I was a boy short trousers were a perennial problem. I remember one Sunday morning, still pious in my youth, being terribly distracted from swallowing the host by noticing my hideously exposed, sissy white thighs, ‘Dear God, how soon can childhood be over so I can cover up these girly legs?’

I’ve always liked clothes but have rarely enjoyed a happy relationship with them. Some days clothes don’t seem important at all, while on another acquiring that designer t-shirt from the BT summer sale seems like a panacea for all ills. It’s not only my own clothes that cause me upset – “What good am I, if I’m like all the rest, if I just turn away, when I see how you’re dressed”, pleads Bob on the soul searching ‘Oh Mercy’, knowing perfectly the anxiety caused when loved ones prove fallible in the fashion stakes too. For men of course, how we dress, like how we feel, is something we’d rather not talk about. What follows may prove contrary to at least one of those assumptions.

I remember other people’s clothes. The heavy wool of my my father’s black donkey jacket was often wet after his cycle home from Guinness’s Brewery, the PVC shoulder panels glistening under the ceiling light. Grandad Boyle was dapper, sporting a beige Mac and jaunty trilby on his regular visits to our house, even when arriving on his Honda 50 (seems unlikely but a memory is a memory). A primary school teacher, Mrs. Mulryan, sat provocatively at her desk, her black fishnet stockings drawing my eyes like magnets towards the mysteries of the flesh – amazingly she offered kisses on your birthday too! The higher authority of the De La Salle Christian Brothers seemed to reside in their ankle length frocks. Gliding silently along empty corridors, their black robes would swish around them like malevolent bats.

The more clothes you have the less they seem to matter. Most of my remembered outfits date from the relatively threadbare years of childhood and adolescence. My mother was knitting and sewing constantly to clothe four rapidly growing kids. Red was on special offer in Alcocks and my siblings and I became synonymous with red jumpers for several years. We had a substitute teacher who smoked in the classroom and sat with his feet on Brother Mark’s desk. He didn’t know our names yet so I became ‘Redser’ – my bright woolly jumper singling me out, and I rejoiced in my first nick-name.

Actors are always banging on about how dressing for the character begins with the feet. My character remains underdeveloped but my first pair of football boots kick started my sporting career. The gaelic team was mostly press-ganged together on Saturday mornings by a manager determined to rescue the local youth from a determined indolence. I swapped spitting on the street corner for a regular spot on the Erin’s Isle under 11’s (B Team) and found a whole new way of being useless.

Things got pretty hip with my first pair of platform shoes, bought in ‘Heathers’ on the Quays who sold (and still do) factory ‘seconds’. The shoes were made from variously coloured leather strips, mauve, moss green, and dark red, a gaudy patchwork on black high-rise bases. The thick soles and elevated heels were built from hollowed out rubber, and these voids, exposed after a week or two of hard wearing, became a handy hiding place for all kinds of illicit materials.

Shoes seem more objective than other types of apparel and more easily enjoyed as things in themselves. I had a beautiful pair of brown loafers when I was 13 or 14. Hours were spent polishing and shining them and I brought them for a regular service to the Cobblers on Ballymun Avenue. New soles and heels included steel studs, supposedly to stop the leather from wearing down but really just for the sound they made as you sauntered through the housing estate throwing shapes, (Hey, you dropped a triangle!) with metal sparks flying. Sadly my shoes are more practical now; a recent Birkenstock period is probably best left unexplored.

My mother made all our clothes when we were growing up, cutting out patterns on the living room floor, and running endless yards of material (material, not fabric) through the Singer sewing machine. She went pro eventually and neighbours and relatives lined up for the home-made, cut-price fashions. Though beautifully crafted the stuff she made for us always seemed too clunky next to the chicly flimsy garb sported by our contemporaries. Our outfits were based on materials and construction techniques that guaranteed our clothes, unlike fashions, would never wear out. A moment of redemption arrived when I was eleven or twelve and my mother produced a beautiful rust coloured chordoury ‘safari suit’. I thought I was gorgeous and went parading up and down our street pitying the other poor serfs in their Penny’s best.

Dressing up had its attractions, not least because you could flout conventions with impunity. Hollywood musicals provided a model of vigorous glamour and marooned indoors on wet Sunday afternoons I became fascinated by the outfits of Micky Rooney and Judy Garland. I was impressed by how these ordinary kids became extraordinary in Busby Berkeley’s spectacular settings and lavish costumes. We had our own slightly less spectacular ‘musicals’ in the school hall. My most demanding role was as a hardy Russian folk dancer. Long afternoons of strenuous practice were rewarded on opening night when the hall marveled at my ability to squat and kick in unison, and stared in amazement at my neatly folded arms, crossed in a ludicrous facsimile of nonchalance.

As a skinny kid I was a good match for some of my mother’s young female clients. After chalking, cutting, and loosely pinning an outfit, she would call me in from the street to act as a tailor’s dummy for a young girl’s party dress or a female cousin’s hot pants. This early exposure to the pleasures of prancing around in women’s clothes allowed me work through any latent transvestite fantasies. I still appreciate women’s clothes, and love to see women with an individual dress sense. I admire men who dress individually too, all the more so because society seems so suspicious of this – vain, superficial, effeminate? – why are we so mistrustful of dressing distinctively? Many of us are more thoughtful about our dress than we like to pretend, but it seems a pity so much of our effort is based on conformity.

Daydreaming my way through secondary school the career guidance teacher did his best to orientate me towards the future, but who needs a future when you have the weekend to look forward to – Tony Manero (John Travolta) summed it up when he declared, “Tonight is the future, and there’s a shirt I have to buy!” – watch out girls, it’s Saturday night and disco fever is breaking out all over Finglas (the posh end!). ‘Saturday Night Fever’ made white suits the apex of elegance, but even more than the movies it was the covers of records that provided real insights into the world of high fashion.

Alice Cooper’s, ‘Billion Dollar Babies’, was the first album I owned and the satin suits sported by Alice and his band on the inside cover were objects of almost indecent fascination. I had other sartorial heroes; Rod Stewart was cool. On the cover of ‘Atlantic Crossing’ he was an astral boot-boy striding imperiously above the Manhattan skyline. Stewart’s hair was a source of particular fascination. Jimmy Grogan, an older guy who lived at the top of the street, came closest to mimicking Rod’s spiky barnet and we respected him for that. Jimmy also turned us on to Slade. A preference for putting his four foot high speakers in his front garden meant that if you lived on our road you became a Slade fan by default.

They may have sounded great but Slade’s Noddy Holder and Dave Hill always looked like brick layers in Glam Rock disguise. It was David Bowie who provided the real glamour and mystique. I was staying over in my Gran’s tidy house in Rialto when my uncle Brendan showed me the cover of ‘Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars’. The guy in the catsuit looked a bit weird but I waited intrigued as my uncle opened the music centre (a veneered wooden cabinet with the musical mechanics hidden behind a panel of etched glass) and placed the needle onto the vinyl disc. The music centre, aglow with Mr.Sheen, stood vibrating in the centre of the ‘Good Room’, as we sat quietly and listened, “For one time only”, to Ziggy and the boys running amok among the china dogs.

Back in school Vincent Lawlor offered me a fetching brown polo neck he had acquired somewhat mysteriously. Made from pure acrylic it had the lightness and stretchy elegance of a cat burglar’s ensemble, missing only the balaclava to render the wearer a suave criminal. I handed over a couple of quid and discarded my tawdry sweatshirt in favour of the polo’s vaguely illicit charms. Its unusual odour was eventually identified as a neighbour’s brand of washing powder, making it easily traceable to the same neighbour’s washing line.

My friends and I were slightly too young and well behaved for punk but a version of punk-lite became the acceptable style. A perfectly arranged safety pin got the nod of approval, preferably worn with a T-shirt proclaiming ‘fuck this’, or ‘fuck that’. Long, loose knit jumpers also enjoyed a vogue, probably inspired by Johnny Rotten’s mesmerizing appearance on Top of the Pops, snarling, ‘We’re pretty vacant – and we don’t care!’ As Glam was replaced by punk even low-lifes like us could afford to be stylish and the dress sense of my teenage peers began to capture my attention. Joe Dunn wore his drainpipe jeans (straits) and black and white striped jumper with a casual elegance I secretly admired. Other items had a more esoteric quality, Donal Glynn had a pair of jeans with front pockets that fitted bottles of beer perfectly, he would stride along, sporting bottles left and right, looking permanently chuffed in his bounty.

We shared a chipper with a gang of older teenagers who would eventually become famous. Guggi’s gold painted brothel creepers and Gavin Friday’s Bullfighting outfit stand out in my memory, and they stood out in Macari’s to. I remember feeling only contempt – who did these guys think they were? Couldn’t they wear Doc Martins and Wrangler jackets like everyone else? Some of them were in a band but they were probably crap, certainly not a patch on ‘The Lookalikes’, or Stepaside’, bands we saw on Friday and Saturday nights at the Crofton Airport Hotel. Pissed after four pints and a vodka and orange we leaped around the dance floor as Stepaside’s frontman, Paul Ashford (couldn’t be a real punk because of his curly hair) sang, ’Get out of Dublin Baby, go!, go!’, seeming to urge his audience to leave him, and lured by the brighter lights of the Baggot Inn, we eventually did.

The years of sartorial darkness since are relieved by only brief moments of respite. A trip to New York yielded a $30 cashmere jumper from a Bloomingdales sale that spoiled me with a taste for the luxurious. ‘Canal Jeans’ on Broadway was another New York Mecca, a second-hand tweed coat with a grey fur collar cost a few dollars and I thought I was a total dude. ‘Century 21’ beside the Twin Towers yielded occasional designer bargains, though their lustre often faded in the cold light of Dublin airport. Now shopping for clothes is mostly embarrassing, and as I get older, increasingly hopeless. This expensive jacket looked great hanging on the rail so how come on me it looks like shite? – must be the dodgy lighting in these dressing rooms!

Though shopping has to be endured, having clothes made for you by a craftsman is another matter. The only contemporary items with a chance of inclusion on my list are the two pairs of wool trousers made for me by Dennis Darcy on Capel Street. Dennis was apprenticed to Louis Copeland Snr. in his youth and has been tailoring clothes himself for nearly forty years. The Abbey Theatre and the Gardai are among his illustrious customers so bumping into the odd superintendent or homespun thespian is all part of the bespoke experience. The trousers fit me, and are unique to me, and that’s a better feeling than any designer brand can offer.

Of course for a man there is always the final refuge of a good suit. My Dad gave me an old one of his a few years ago, a heavy navy wool job with a subtle cream pinstripe. A survivor of the 70’s, the label on the inside pocket reads, ‘Made in Italy, tailored expressly for Switzers of Dublin’. Wearing it made me feel sturdier, as if the suit’s weight and pedigree was being transferred onto me. At a time in my life when waterproof, hardwearing, and practical seem paramount, I take solace from the return of the old, re-branded as ‘vintage’, a development that brings new hope to everything worn.

John Graham – August 2009