On a recent evening, my wife and I settled in to watch Netflix’s You when I had an unpleasant realisation about myself. In the new fourth season, wannabe writer and murderer Joe Goldberg (played by Penn Badgley) has fled America and is hiding out in London, posing as a professor of literature. After a late night at Sundry House (a thinly veiled Soho House), he gets sucked into a real-life murder mystery with what Joe calls “a circle of privileged douchebags”.
Between episodes, I poked fun at Joe’s try-hard houndstooth tweeds and pleated, grey flannels. It was all a bit too English, and nobody really dresses like that any more, I said. Then my wife hit me with a hard truth.
“You wear the exact same thing.”
I hate to admit it, but she was right. Joe wears a corduroy sport coat — the precise one I bought from Drake’s, while his fuzzy Shetland jumpers and Oxford shirts could have been lifted straight from my dresser drawers. Plus, like Joe, I am a New Yorker living in England and teaching creative writing — though I promise I’m not a murderer, and I don’t own a waistcoat.
Still, perhaps I’ve been trying a bit too hard to blend in with the locals of Cambridge — or my idea of them. Like the fossils in the Museum of Zoology, some of the men’s fashion in the city seems to have been preserved in amber. Amid the usual Superdry windbreakers and Adidas trackies popular with British men, you can still find packs of students strutting down King’s Parade in their newly purchased striped rugbies, scarves or puffer jackets — with their college colours and crests proudly on display. Walking along the river, I sometimes spot a professor cycling to a black-tie dinner, trousers tucked into his socks, his robe flapping in the wind.
All of it is so proudly uncool, so the opposite of what you see on the runway of London Fashion Week or what I was used to in New York, that I’ve become convinced that it’s almost anti-fashion, and thus, kind of cool? Such is my twisted reasoning when I buy another pair of bright red socks or a paisley silk scarf on eBay.
I’m not the only American who’s been caught out copying English gents. As Avery Trufelman aptly notes in the newest season of her podcast Articles of Interest, so-called “Ivy” and prep icons, such as Ralph Lauren, have long chased that old-school British charm, no matter how problematically classist. The hitch for Yanks wishing to live out this reverie today is that, outside Oxbridge, most British men — even landed gentry — don’t bust out their boating blazers quite as often as they used to.
“The first stereotype of Brits is that we tend to be more proper,” says fashion commentator Odunayo Ojo, better known by his Instagram handle @fashionroadman. This image of propriety is compounded by the fact that most Americans view British fashion through the prism of period dramas, “things like Peaky Blinders”, Ojo argues.
What if I wanted to modernise my look but hang on to a quintessentially British element (an aesthetic that preoccupies British labels such as Burberry)? What’s a more contemporary look for someone thirtyish, moving in bookish circles, aspiring to be vaguely hip, but his best days are behind him? According to Ojo, a jumper and jeans are perfectly acceptable in most contexts, but of course they have to be the right ones. A knit from King and Tuckfield, such as its Mad Men meets Harry Styles merino wool cardigan (£259, kingandtuckfield.com) or Studio Nicholson’s Tarak jumper (£395, studionicholson.com) would cut more of a dash. Straight-cut jeans from Blackhorse Lane Ateliers in ecru (£225, blackhorselane.com) have a modern classic ease.
If I wanted to pass as a local in Joe’s posh new world of country homes, art openings and ketamine benders, Ojo suggests I pay special attention to shoes. For a really authentic, dressed-up look, you’ve got to have “footwear made in Britain, like Crockett and Jones or Church’s”, he thinks. Derbies such as Crockett and Jones’ suede Hardwick (£450, crockettandjones.com) and low-key Chelseas like Church’s chunky Cornwood (£980, church-footwear.com) walk the line between formal and relaxed. In a society reared on school uniforms, “the only differentiator in what you wear is on your feet”.
“The most enduring [image] in the American mind is this sophisticated Mr Peanut character,” says menswear writer Derek Guy, referring to the snazzy mascot on the Planters peanuts packaging wearing a top hat and monocle.
Guy thinks a more average, if less aspirational, image of British men’s fashion can be found in David Mitchell’s sad-sack character in Peep Show. “It’s not worlds apart from how Americans dress,” he says, but You and Hollywood confections like it aren’t about nailing the real way Brits dress, he adds. “If you’re pouring a tonne of money into a project, people want to engage in some fantasy.”
And the more I think about it, the more I wonder whether the old dons and young fogeys of Cambridge are engaged in a similar kind of fantasy, trying to conjure a culture and profession that barely exists any more, even within its own hallowed halls. When I met up with a Romanticist in the English faculty for a few pints last week, he mocked my vintage Barbour and Fair Isle jumper as “British cosplay”, but it seems to me that I’m not the only one playing dress-up in Cambridge.
There are many fantastical aspects of the new season of You — Joe stashes a corpse and doesn’t get caught on London’s CCTV, and he survives a tumble from the upper floor of a mansion — but the biggest credibility stretch for me is that he’s managed to bag such a plum post teaching American literature. Perhaps that’s why he and I have to lean into the British professor cliché all the more, despite its absurdity. It’s not about convincing others that we belong, but ourselves.
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