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The Wide-Boy look - a thread for all the spivs and chancers out there!

post #1 of 85
Thread Starter 

So, Rudals asked me about the thought-process behind the outfit I wore together today and my answer touched upon the fact that it was influenced by a somewhat humorous interpretation of the wide-boy look.

 

I've always had a fondness for the stereotypical clothes associated with this somewhat degenerate & shady yet likeable & amusing stock character. I doubt the term translates beyond British shores; Wikipedia gives the following reasonable definition: "a British term for a man who lives by his wits, wheeling and dealing."

 

I'm not quite sure why the character appeals, as my respectable background is pretty much the opposite to that of the wide-boy. But I've always been fond of those who aim high, and have nothing but chutzpah and native wit to get there. You might also know the wide-boy as a spiv, a barrow-boy, or a chancer. They're not con-men, gangsters or pimps, those are different. No, the wide-boy is much more on the borderline between petty criminal and legitimate entrepreneur, wanting to be the latter but sometimes having to shade into the former to make ends meet. At the more legitimate end, you have traders (financial and otherwise), estate agents, small business owners, etc, etc.

 

Leaving aside the sometimes dangerous and unglamorous reality of the life, in fiction, the character is frequently something of a likeable cheeky rogue, who enjoys clothes and has no shame about breaking with the social sartorial norms of the elite in favour of subversive flashes of colour & pattern. You can definitely see something of this in the outfit I wore today, for example. I don't wear that kind of thing as often as I'd like, but I do try to slip in a little of it. Those who know what I wear will see its influence in my tie collection, for example.

 

This look is pretty much the polar opposite of what SF tends to favour, which is much more of stealth wealth, pseudo-aristocrat/plutocrat look as exemplified by the ongoing Italian CBD thread & Friday Challenge this week. But I wonder if there are any other fans here of this - by alternating turns slick and earthy - kind of vibe?

 

(the fact that this thread coincides with the Cheltenham festival this week is a happy concidence; the races can be an epicentre of real-life spivtastic characters. I grew up in a town where we got the afternoon off school on the day of the biggest race of the year, and we were just round the corner from the track. That must have influenced me on some level too.)

 

Famous wide-boys in fiction below; feel free to post more examples!

 

 

 

post #2 of 85

Very insightful HF. One reason why I am such a fanboy is because (I said all this before) you have your own look that you confidently carry and look good. Your look is so different from that of mine that I just get intrigued every time I see your pix. WAYWRN is interesting in that there are uniqueness in people's look but most of them are somewhat in line with "SF norm" if such a thing exists. You're are somewhat of a rebel in that you don't care about the SF norm and just do your own thing but still look respectably good.

 

The first time I saw your fit post, I disliked it very much because it was so different and the floral ties really threw me off. But as time went by, you kept on with your look and I saw that you were doing it very well. We all have different tastes, and even though I can never pull off your look, I started appreciating your look and wanted some insight into how you put together your combos.

 

-This has been the biggest kissarse post in SF that I've seen:inlove: 

post #3 of 85

It’s very interesting, and very useful, to get this detailed description of what this issue looks like from the point of view of an educated Englishman.  Thanks for taking the time to post it.

 

From a non-Englishman’s point of view, there has always been more room in English style for ties (and other accessories) which might seem 'loud', and we wouldn’t necessarily think of it as an exclusively ‘Wide-Boy’ phenomenon (which is one reason why it’s so helpful to learn what it looks like to you).  Even among ‘conservative’ British tailors such as those of Saville Row and Jermyn Street one will find an occasional tie  which will strike the ‘outsider’ as incongruously flamboyant when compared with the conservative suits which are considered the defining symbols of the classic British style; here’s one from T & A, for example:

 

http://www.turnbullandasser.com/black-tie-with-grey-tan-and-burnt-orange-square-motifs-400

 

There’s a history behind this, and it includes England’s military traditions.  Up until WW I military  uniforms often included quite flamboyant elements which had the practical effect of making it easier to distinguish quickly friend from foe on a battlefield where much of the fighting was still hand-to-hand,  a tradition which goes back to medieval times in England and the continent, but of course had no equivalent in the US.   By the 19th century that flamboyance had taken on a life of its own in England’s aristocratic office corps as an expression of their class superiority.  E.g.:

 

“In February, 1840, the 11th was the regiment chosen to meet Prince Albert at Dover and escort him to London for his marriage to Queen Victoria.  The Prince had become Colonel-in-Chief, the name of the regiment was changed from the 11th light Dragoons to the 11th, Prince Albert’s own, Hussars, and new uniforms were designed.  Hussars are the most brilliant of cavalry, and the 11th Hussars were superb.  They wore overalls (trousers) of cherry colour, jackets of royal blue edged with gold, furred pelisses, short coats, worn as capes, glittering with bullion braid and gold lace, high fur hats adorned with brilliant plumes.  ‘The brevity of their jackets, the irrationality of their headgear, the incredible tightness of their cherry coloured pants, altogether defy description; they must be seen to be appreciated’, wrote _The Times_.”   

 

                                                                     — Cecil Woodham-Smith, _The Reason Why_

 

 That aspect of military dress gradually disappeared with the advent of weapons able to kill at greater distances—being camouflaged now had become the goal.  But it was still very much an officer corps tradition in England in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, which is to say exactly at the time at which England’s contribution to ‘classic style’ was being defined.  Again, there was no similar American tradition of an aristocratic officer corps in the US, and hence there is much less military (and, relatedly, equestrian) influence in the evolution of American menswear over the same time period, and no real American equivalent to the British ‘regimental tie’.

 

America’s contribution to classic style comes rather from the distinctly non-military ethos of the northeastern university.

 

It’s important for those who are trying to understand the different national contributions to classic style not to underestimate the consequences of having had (or not having had) a powerful aristocracy to set standards of taste.  People who don’t know the history will be puzzled by what they see as an incongruous mixture of elements in English dress.  People who know the history won’t be.

 

Cheers,

 

Ac

post #4 of 85
I love Terry-Thomas, which probably comes as a surprise to no one.
post #5 of 85

Very insightful, this. Thanks HF & AC2!

post #6 of 85
Quote:
Originally Posted by Rudals View Post

[...]

The first time I saw your fit post, I disliked it very much because it was so different and the floral ties really threw me off. But as time went by, you kept on with your look and I saw that you were doing it very well. We all have different tastes, and even though I can never pull off your look, I started appreciating your look and wanted some insight into how you put together your combos.

[...]

 

One of the many advantages of bringing one’s intellect to bear on the question of dress is that one will come to appreciate things worn by others that one might not wear oneself.    It’s enriching.

 

Cheers,

 

Ac

post #7 of 85
Thread Starter 
Originally Posted by Rudals View Post
 

Very insightful HF. One reason why I am such a fanboy is because (I said all this before) you have your own look that you confidently carry and look good. Your look is so different from that of mine that I just get intrigued every time I see your pix. WAYWRN is interesting in that there are uniqueness in people's look but most of them are somewhat in line with "SF norm" if such a thing exists. You're are somewhat of a rebel in that you don't care about the SF norm and just do your own thing but still look respectably good.

 

The first time I saw your fit post, I disliked it very much because it was so different and the floral ties really threw me off. But as time went by, you kept on with your look and I saw that you were doing it very well. We all have different tastes, and even though I can never pull off your look, I started appreciating your look and wanted some insight into how you put together your combos.

Thanks dude. Various aspects of my clothes have changed significantly since I first posted on SF, so I make no claim of truly being immune to its influence. But my workplace/hours  also changed during that time, so my wardrobe had to adapt to that too. So, fewer sharp suits, and more casual outfits. During the revamp, I think I did tend to add a higher proportion of more subdued items. But I've kept enough of my old wardrobe to still incorporate its soul into the new.

 

Originally Posted by Academic2 View Post
 

It’s very interesting, and very useful, to get this detailed description of what this issue looks like from the point of view of an educated Englishman.  Thanks for taking the time to post it.

 

From a non-Englishman’s point of view, there has always been more room in English style for ties (and other accessories) which might seem 'loud', and we wouldn’t necessarily think of it as an exclusively ‘Wide-Boy’ phenomenon (which is one reason why it’s so helpful to learn what it looks like to you).  Even among ‘conservative’ British tailors such as those of Saville Row and Jermyn Street one will find an occasional tie  which will strike the ‘outsider’ as incongruously flamboyant when compared with the conservative suits which are considered the defining symbols of the classic British style...

 

Good post. Yes, the sartorial heritage from tailored military uniforms certainly lent colourful dashes to otherwise sober looks. You touch upon the colour from the military uniforms; there's also the colour from various associations (schools, clubs, regiments, etc) which lead to otherwise-garish ties being commonplace & acceptable.

 

Having an indulgent aristocracy also led to the acceptance of colour in daily wear in a manner that seems frivolous to those coming from a more work-ethic orientated culture, esp. one with puritan overtones. The archetype for that culture is the USA but given that through them, puritanical capitalism is the dominant world paradigm, it also applies to most of the world, including large swathes of modern British society. Incorporting frivolous colour into "serious" outfits therefore becomes distasteful because it overtly undermines the idea that hard work is a serious moral drive towards self-improvement and that conforming to that principle is the way to be successful and respected. Colour is a mark of privilege within this framework and modern society finds that unearned privilege distasteful, especially when worn within the uniform of hard work (suits, etc.).

 

I quite like that subversive tone.

 

What is very interesting about the wide-boy look is that here are generally working class people deliberately dressing in the libertine spirit (though not the detail) of their aristocratic historical "betters", sometimes getting taste details "wrong" by but still living their style in a more personal, lively and earthy way than the uniform of (upper-)middle class plutocratic respectability.

 

There's a greater authenticity or honesty in it, despite its flashiness, at least to me.

 

Originally Posted by DocHolliday View Post

I love Terry-Thomas, which probably comes as a surprise to no one.

 

I hoped you'd see this thread! One more of him for you:

 

 

And someone else who (sort of) embodies the wide-boy look (albeit a bit more showbizzy): Len Goodman, one of the judges in Strictly Come Dancing.

 

 

 

 


Notice the penchant for bright flowery colours, and a willingness to be far more matchy than would be tasteful within a more sober framework. Even the blue blazer, grey trouser look has a contrast collar undone shirt and solid blue matchy square. Despite all that, you can tell the chap cares about his appearance and has a decent appreciation of tailored clothes.

post #8 of 85
Now, we are talking. Sorry not picked up earlier, especially as my hero and av mentioned!



Sensible post to follow...
post #9 of 85
Quote:
Originally Posted by Holdfast View Post
 

[...]

Having an indulgent aristocracy also led to the acceptance of colour in daily wear in a manner that seems frivolous to those coming from a more work-ethic orientated culture, esp. one with puritan overtones. The archetype for that culture is the USA but given that through them, puritanical capitalism is the dominant world paradigm, it also applies to most of the world, including large swathes of modern British society. Incorporting frivolous colour into "serious" outfits therefore becomes distasteful because it overtly undermines the idea that hard work is a serious moral drive towards self-improvement and that conforming to that principle is the way to be successful and respected. Colour is a mark of privilege within this framework and modern society finds that unearned privilege distasteful, especially when worn within the uniform of hard work (suits, etc.).

[...]

 

 

Yes, this is more of less my understanding of the relevant history as well.

 

Quote:
Originally Posted by Holdfast View Post
 

[...]

What is very interesting about the wide-boy look is that here are generally working class people deliberately dressing in the libertine spirit (though not the detail) of their aristocratic historical "betters", sometimes getting taste details "wrong" by but still living their style in a more personal, lively and earthy way than the uniform of (upper-)middle class plutocratic respectability.

[...]

 

 

Ah.  So it’s deliberate?  On your reading of the style they’re not trying to dress in a way that would be indistinguishable from their ‘historical betters’ and failing, but are purposely, at least in part, being ironic?  Or are you suggesting that the ‘subversive tone’ is unconscious?  Thanks.

 

Cheers,

 

Ac

post #10 of 85
Quote:
Originally Posted by Cleav View Post
[...]
Sensible post to follow...

 

Good prediction. 

 

I believe a sensible post did.  ;)

 

Cheers,

 

Ac

post #11 of 85
Thread Starter 
Originally Posted by Academic2 View Post
 
Originally Posted by Holdfast View Post
 

[...]

Having an indulgent aristocracy also led to the acceptance of colour in daily wear in a manner that seems frivolous to those coming from a more work-ethic orientated culture, esp. one with puritan overtones. The archetype for that culture is the USA but given that through them, puritanical capitalism is the dominant world paradigm, it also applies to most of the world, including large swathes of modern British society. Incorporting frivolous colour into "serious" outfits therefore becomes distasteful because it overtly undermines the idea that hard work is a serious moral drive towards self-improvement and that conforming to that principle is the way to be successful and respected. Colour is a mark of privilege within this framework and modern society finds that unearned privilege distasteful, especially when worn within the uniform of hard work (suits, etc.).

[...]

 

 

Yes, this is more of less my understanding of the relevant history as well.

 

Originally Posted by Holdfast View Post
 

[...]

What is very interesting about the wide-boy look is that here are generally working class people deliberately dressing in the libertine spirit (though not the detail) of their aristocratic historical "betters", sometimes getting taste details "wrong" by but still living their style in a more personal, lively and earthy way than the uniform of (upper-)middle class plutocratic respectability.

[...]

 

 

Ah.  So it’s deliberate?  On your reading of the style they’re not trying to dress in a way that would be indistinguishable from their ‘historical betters’ and failing, but are purposely, at least in part, being ironic?  Or are you suggesting that the ‘subversive tone’ is unconscious?  Thanks.

 

6 of one, half a dozen of the other, would be my opinion. It's probably true to say that as they were not brought up in the same tradition as those who are intimately familiar with "the rules", so in that sense they're simple mistakes. Negative class signifiers, even.

 

However, there was also a conscious desire to "suit up" for their aspiring station in life, and their competitive, grafting streak emerged as a willingness to peacock in order to stand out from their peers, bending the conventional rules to do so. And within that range, there was some genuine subversiveness at the margins, effectively saying "I'm here now; the old order can step aside".

 

I've used the past tense in the above because these days, there are fewer of this archetype than in the past. Despite the pre-war origins, the Indian Summer of the wide-boy was probably the mid to late 1980s, when a combination of aggressive tax-cutting and a breakdown of old institutional structures led to opportunities for those willing to sharp-elbow their way upwards. Despite being American, the essence of this archetype in that era can be found in Gordon Gekko's outfits. His look is very different to the historic/standard outfit of the old-money of that era. You still see a modern interpretation of look nowadays (David Beckham sometimes wears it, though much less frequently than a few years ago) but it's less common than it was. Partly because social mobility has ground to a sclerotic halt, partly because of inverse snobbery, partly because of a media glorification of the lowest common denominator instead of the successful, and partly because of a general contentment to wallow in state-subsidised mediocrity (I include all levels of society in that indictment, BTW, and in some respects the middle and upper-middle classes moreso than the poor). I do feel that there are some subtle harbingers of change in the wind, but here I'm straying away from clothes and into other realms, so will shut up!

post #12 of 85
Quote:
Originally Posted by Holdfast View Post
 

 

6 of one, half a dozen of the other, would be my opinion. [...]

 

Thanks for the detailed response.  It’s very helpful and I appreciate it.

 

Cheers,

 

Ac

post #13 of 85

While I understand that the ‘look’ that Holdfast is talking about isn’t limited to ties (even though this thread was prompted by reactions to his ties over on the WAYWRN thread), it does seem that the tie is the one article of clothing which most frequently signifies the departure from received notions of ‘correctness’ in the subculture he’s describing.  I mention this because there’s a sense in which this remains a part of the tradition from which it’s deviating:  a standard principle of classic style which has remained invariant across decades of fashion change is that dress should direct the viewer’s eye toward the wearer’s face.  So while one might hate the look, one can’t call it crazy.  It’s not as if loud shoes are nearly as common to this look as are loud ties, unless I’m very much mistaken.

 

Cheers,

 

Ac

post #14 of 85

You have to remember that in the period Academic_2 is talking about, being a military officer was not a matter of talent or hard-work but purely of money. Commissions were purchased, and as such the rationale for fine military uniforms amongst the officers class was as much that the artistocracy, particularly second and third sons who would not inherit their family lands and wealth, would carry their foppish habits of dress in to the army, not just that the military was influencing civilian dress. This lasted until 1871 when the purchase of commissions was finally abolished (although even afterwards class continued to dominate the composition of the military and is still very powerful today).

 

However, what HF is describing is the manner of dress not of the aristocracy or those who bought commissions in the military, it is the look of the 'bounder' (of which Terry-Thomas is the cinematic archetype), that is the working class or more commonly lower middle-class man of ambition and cunning, who would either weedle or brazen (or even actually work) his way into the upper middle class, or preferably aristocratic circles, 'bounding' over the walls that supposedly separated classes in a world where everyone was supposed to 'know their place'. Bounders live by what is best described in the Yiddish word, 'chutzpah' - sheer nerve and adacity. But HF's definition does not limit itself to the true class conmen, it also seems to include those who merely aspire to such or delude themselves that this is where they truly belong, i.e. acting, however imperfect their understanding of the role, 'above their station'. Bounders and aspirant bounders have that ambiguous quality of being both mocked by their peers and (secretly) admired and envied.

 

Of course, it seems clear too that HF understands the SF ethos as being very strongly connected to this latter kind of behaviour - for aren't we all aspiring to a certain kind of appearance that has very strong class connotations (even in US terms), whatever our 'true' class? I understand all this very well, because my father is very much a bounder, who if you met him, you would never be able guess his family origins from his military bearing, accent and classic English style..


Edited by FlyingMonkey - 3/16/14 at 8:16pm
post #15 of 85
Quote:
Originally Posted by FlyingMonkey View Post
 

 

Of course, it seems clear too that HF understands the SF ethos as being very strongly connected to this latter kind of behaviour - for aren't we all aspiring to a certain kind of appearance that has very strong class connotations (even in US terms), whatever our 'true' class?

 

 

I wonder if this leads to the inclination may people show towards only dressing in the strictest good taste. Not wanting to be "found out" by wearing something that sends the wrong cue (perhaps the opposite of the inclination HF sees behind loud, spiv-ish tie choices), they end up dressed quite a bit more conservatively than the average member of the to-the-manner-born set.

 

 

Holdfast, it interests me that the two time periods you associate with the look -- the late '30s into the early post-war years, and the "greed is good" '80s -- share quite a few styling menswear cues. Do you think that it's perhaps less a case of the times creating the people, who then create the look, and more an ethos which is an inevitable side-effect of widely available striped DB suits?

 

More to the point, do you think the stylistic similarities were conscious ones?

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