Category Archives: Fashion

Why New York is head and shoulders above the rest

Sometimes, New York is a beacon of normality. Perfectly sensible people, dressed in perfectly normal clothes, going about their business in a way that can only be described as, well, normal. It comes as a welcome reminder that the ways of life are the same in cities across the globe, and that New York truly is the ‘melting pot’ that acts as a metropolitan United Nations for the world.
But then sometimes you see people that make you realise that New York is completely unique, and that if New York didn’t exist and some writer or filmmaker invented a city that had all of its attributes, he or she would be dismissed as an irrelevant fantasist.
After a long weekend spent in “upstate New York” (a tag that is essentially as useful as saying “north of Bournemouth”) where normality is identified by the smell of newly cut grass and chirruping birds, the return to the city came as a small culture shock. New York had laid out the red carpet though, in the shape of four separate and unassociated people walking past me in the space of a few yards with haircuts that could only be seen in New York and its immediate environs:
1. The Reverse Flock of Seagulls
Nobody knows the name of the lead singer of the Flock of Seagulls (it was Mike Score, before the pedants get tapping on their keyboard) but everybody knows his haircut. Frankly, it would be hard to forget that four inch flop of hair over one eye. Nonetheless, it appears Mike inspires people to this day. A victim (I’d call her a fashion victim, but there was nothing fashionable about this) had clearly taken a look at some 80s videos on VH1, and decided that while she couldn’t pull off the Full Seagull she still had to find a way to pay homage. Duly, she invented the Reverse Seagull – the same flop of hair, attached to otherwise relatively short hair, but only down one side of her neck. To say it looked like she had a ferret on her head that was making a spirited attempt to flee down her back would be to give the style too much credit. The irony, of course, is that an actual flock of seagulls perched on her head would have been much more impressive and fashion-conscious than this abomination.
2. The Nuclear Fall Out Shelter
To be fair, this one can be spotted in plenty of American cities, but its presence in New York is oddly reassuring. Only women can sport this haircut, and you generally have to be 45 or above to pull it off. Essentially, imagine the kind of style that uses at least a can of hairspray for every square inch of hair, and you’re well on your way to understanding the look. With a width of at least twice the size of the bearer’s head, and a shape that’s vaguely reminiscent of an upside down wok, the hair do is impervious to anything that is thrown at it. Riot police should start having their hair done like this when they’re going into a siege situation. When somebody pushes the red button and plunges the world into a nuclear winter, it’ll be these women who survive to populate the world again with the help of that strange guy from IT who we all laughed at when he said he was stockpiling cans of beans in the hideout he’d built 200 yards beneath the surface of the backyard of the house he lives in with his mummom.
3. The 50s Throwback
Look, everybody likes dressing up now and then. I mean, we’ve all got our secret ‘Heidi the orphaned granddaughter of a goat herder’ outfit lurking at the back of our wardrobecloset, let’s face it. Oh, just me then? But there’s a marked difference between going to a fancy dress party, and walking to work with a heavily sculpted quiff. I’ve seen less grease on political spokespeople as they try to explain why education cuts are a good thing for the nation’s children. That leather jacket does not make you look like a T-Bird, and you’re impressing no one.

4. Words Cannot Begin to Explain
Sometimes you see a haircut that just makes you happy to be alive, or proud to be an American. Even if you’re not one. When I first looked up, I saw a guy ahead of me wearing a (frankly regrettable) snow washed denim jacket, and sporting a rather bushy afro. Having momentarily averted my gaze, I turned back to see another man in an equally regrettable snow washed denim jacket, but sporting a natty skinhead. Huh, what were the chances of seeing two such jackets on one day, I thought casually to myself? Zero, as it turned out, when the second man turned directly towards me in order to show the true glory of his half afro/half skinhead look. If he doesn’t have conversations with himself in the mirror, turning through 180 degrees for each bit of the dialogue, I will be severely disappointed.

Ah, the wonders of normality, New York-style.

Style pot calls fashion kettle black

When it comes to fashion, I can hardly say that I am a thought leader. I try to keep it classic, but my look is very much ‘vaguely preppy 34 year old who wishes that he was still 25’ rather than ‘edgy style icon’. Recently, I’ve even found myself enjoying wearing suits for the first time in my life, even though – much to She Who Was Born To Worry’s dismay – I’ve never been employed in a job that has required me to wear one. Put simply, the chances of me appearing on a list of the world’s leading fashion figures is marginally more negligible than the likelihood of Mariah Carey receiving the Nobel Prize in Literature.

That said, I still think I have every right to rail against what seems to be a distinctly American male habit of wearing plaid shorts in public. Every day I get on the subway and see people who seem to be perfectly normal but for the fact that they are wearing shorts that resemble pyjamas. I know that this is the country that invented the fried peanut butter and banana sandwich and that ‘taste’ is therefore in limited supply, but surely everybody has to draw the line somewhere?

Next thing you know, it’ll be the mullet making a comeback.

The war on New York’s streets

Back in the days when The Special One and I were dating, and I was still a Brit Very Much In Water, the two of us made a pilgrimage up to my home city Chester so that she could meet my mum for the first time. The day beforehand, The Special One had experienced one of the UK’s finest summer traditions at a lunch at The Best Man’s house, although it has to be said that ‘eating a barbecued sausage that is incinerated on the outside and practically raw inside’ won’t generally feature in Vanity Fair’s catch-all feature on the Things That You Simply Must Do In London. Still, it does mean that The Special One will always be able to say that the first gift her future mother-in-law gave her upon meeting was a package of pharmaceutical cures to address the, erm, ‘issues’ associated with food poisoning.

Thankfully, the symptoms quickly subsided, and the three of us were able to take a walk around the city to see some of the sights. For those of you who are not acquainted with Chester, it’s an entirely walled Roman city that was founded in the first century AD. Originally known as Deva, the city has been intensely developed over the years, but there are still Roman remains throughout the centre including an amphitheatre, ornamental gardens, and a shrine to Minerva. Hell, there’s even a shopping centre called The Forum, although that admittedly owes more to the great god of Greggs The Bakers than to the Romans.

Strolling around, The Special One was struck by just how much Roman ‘stuff’ (I think that’s the collective noun for a lot of Roman artifacts, but please do correct me if I’m wrong) there is scattered around. There are bits of pipe outside the library, an old strongroom near the Dublin Packet pub, and various columns all over the place. It’s pretty much impossible to walk for more than ten minutes without seeing a remain or two.

Of course, Americans are fascinated by old stuff. Not to say that the British aren’t, but I guess it’s always a bit more impressive to see Roman remains when in your own country a McDonalds wrapper from 1973 counts as ancient history. Sure, there are native Indian remains in various places, and the current Republican presidential candidate must surely have been around when the Liberty Bell was cast, but American cities aren’t exactly blessed with a wealth of history. That doesn’t make them bad places, I hasten to add – it just means that there’s a profound contrast for Americans when they see Roman remains in Europe.

None of this fascination, however, explains New York women’s current obsession with wearing sandals that make them look like gladiators going into war. The first time I saw somebody wearing a pair of these, I had to look around to see if I had missed a battle reconstruction that was going on down the block. Sadly the lack of 800 centurions in full costume led me to the reluctant conclusion that the woman was doing it of her own free will. Clearly however, I assumed that she was a one-off – a Russell Crowe fetishist with a talent for leatherwork and a high tolerance of people pointing and staring, maybe? But now I seem them every time I leave the office, in all manner of shapes and sizes. New York has quite literally gone gladiator sandal mad.

I reckon somebody in a shop somewhere in Manhattan is convincing gullible consumers that these things are genuine centurion’s footwear, excavated from just outside Salisbury, and polished up for the modern-day consumer market.

Thankfully, as with all fashions, it’s just another passing trend. Sadly, next week is probably due to witness the olde worlde doublets and breeches revival. There’s no accounting for taste.

The all blacks

I went through many phases in my youth. There was the time of my life when I had an inexplicable devotion to T’Pau, joining their fanclub and listening to Heart & Soul more times in a row than was ever strictly necessary. There were the three years of sporting the dodgy floppy fringebangs look, which saw me attain a less impressive record with the ladies than, say, Liberace. And, of course, there was – as The Best Man so kindly pointed out at my wedding – my little-known lesbian phase. The less said about that, the better.

One thing I never was, however, was a Goth.

The strange thing is – more than twenty five years on from the time when my friends were listening to The Cure or Sisters Of Mercy while I sat happily listening to Together In Electric Dreams on my tinny tape recorder – New York seems to be one city where Goths never truly vanished. At least, that’s the only explanation I can think of for why everybody in this city insists on wearing black absolutely everywhere they go.

Getting on to the subway every day is like entering a casting room for extras on a comeback video for The Mission. Of the hundred or so people who crowd into every carriage, I’d say about 95% will be wearing predominantly black. With thick black puffer jackets (or down jackets, as The Special One informs me I should call them) coat, to black trousers and black baseball caps, all-black is the standard-issue New York uniform. Anybody wearing anything as colourful as – for instance – beige, suffers endless pointing and staring, before being presented with a large (black) sign simply stating ‘TOURIST’.

I’d thought that maybe I was just out of the habit of paying attention to commuters elsewhere, and that actually everybody wears all-black regardless of which city they’re travelling in. But on a recent trip back to the UK, my tube carriage was packed with reds, pinks, blues and greens amongst the black. Somehow the brighter colours put commuters into a better mood for the day ahead or the trip back home. Maybe it’s just the relief at knowing that nobody’s going to break out with a Siouxie & The Banshees classic at any moment?

I’ve decided to see how far I can push the New York colour boundaries over the next few weeks. I’m still going to wear my dark coat every day – after all, I don’t want to be labelled a freak. But today I tried a brown scarf, and tomorrow I might even introduce a bit of green or red to the proceedings if I’m feeling brave. This time next month I’ll be sporting Joseph’s Technicolor Dreamcoat, you see if I don’t.

Big hair big hair big hair

As we all know, everything is big in America. Sandwiches are the size of kitchen sinks, office buildings rise miles into the sky, and dubious detention camps take up huge tracts of land on islands that don’t even belong to them.

But if there’s one thing that stands out in the United States for its all round size – something that really exemplifies everything that the word ‘big’ stands for – it’s got to be hair.

It’s amazing how different hair can be from one country to another. Admittedly New York is probably the one city in the world that can claim to be even more of a melting pot than London. A study in 2005 showed that 36% of the population of the city is foreign-born, with 170 languages spoken. That’s a pretty diverse place, given that I would struggle to name more than twenty languages (and yes, by “twenty languages”, I actually mean ten).

But even with such eclecticism, it’s hard to explain why hair achieves such, erm, heady heights as it does in this country. Never in the field of human coiffure has so much been permed by so many, as Churchill might have put it. Although to be honest, he couldn’t exactly be considered a hair expert, it has to be said.

It is actually illegal in this city to get onto a subway train that does not contain one woman who has spent thirty minutes backcombing her hair that morning. Similarly, an old wives tale claims that if the number of perms in any given square mile in the whole of Manhattan drops below 300, the city will be engulfed by water and sink back from whence it came.

On the subway home tonight, I sat opposite a woman who managed to pull off an incredible backcombing/perm combo. She could only have been 23, wore heavy make-up, and seemed more than happy with her look. I had to rub my eyes and look at the calendar on my iPhone just to check that it wasn’t actually 1987.

It’s difficult to imagine, but I can only assume that this city is the final place on Earth that still regards Cher as a fashion icon.