Once more unto the breeches

The other day I was walking with a brace of my children up the steep road that approaches Brighton Station from North Laine when I observed a long, dark, liquid rivulet flowing down the pavement, and then a young man, blind drunk, and hobbled by his jeans, which were at half-mast. I pointed out to the boys the paradoxical purity of the line of pee - it's unusual to see an entire urination so graphically demarked - and then the
high-fashionableness of the dosser, whose boxer shorts were fully exposed.

Whence comes this rage among young men to hoist their underwear up above their outerwear? A rhetorical question: we know it comes from da ghetto, and we know also - or can easily deduce - why it comes from there: young, poor African-American men were in no position to afford the full designer fig mandated from the 1980s on, so they opted for the pants alone and then made a fashion statement out of pulling rabbit's ears of Klein or Hilfiger from behind their waistbands.

There's also, I think, the curious constraint on the legs the fashion demands - is this not a subconscious allusion to a post-industrial and trans-generationally idle workforce? Especially when combined with carpenter jeans that have never been near joinery, the punchy boxer shorts seem an ironic statement of the form: "There is no striding work available for the likes of me, so I will stumble about the place, fettered in a denim-and-cotton chain gang."

Fine and dandy

To suggest that any given style of dress is folly is surely the height of tendentiousness - after all, is it not the case that the fripperies of every generation appear surpassingly absurd to the dandies of the last?

When I summon up memories of beseeching my mother to sew flowery inserts into my jeans to create exaggerated flares and, a mere three years later, trying to force my feet through the eight-inch cuffs of drainpipes, well, it makes even the most priapic of codpieces, the most erect of coxcombs, the tightest of corsets and the most steatopygic of bustles seem tame.

And yet . . . and yet. I still can't get over the outer-underwear; every time I see a young chap hoick up his jeans so that a little cloudy puff of underpants issues from the waist it occurs to me that many thousands of other young men must be doing exactly the same thing at precisely the same moment.

Seams of my father

It's like that, style, isn't it? No matter how many newspaper supplements there are, how many magazines, and how many TV shows telling you what thong you should part your arse cheeks for, there still seems an instinctive and herd-like impetus to changes in habiliment: one day you see someone looping their scarf in a certain way, the next you notice that everyone is looping their scarf like that. Fashionistas prate on endlessly about clothing as a means of expressing individuality, but it takes only a decade to elapse for us to look back and see that we were as undifferentiated as buffalos in our recherché hides.

However, it wasn't until I sat down to write this piece that my own underlying neurosis concerning exposed male nether garments became clear to me: like Freud en train to the completion of The Psychopathology of Everyday Life, I realise that it is within the tucking-in of my own psyche that the underlying dirt is to be found. My father had a singular lack of personal modesty: he would wander around the house stark naked, a sock in one hand, while querying in fluting tones: "Has anyone seen my other sock?"

Even in public he found it hard not to breach the taboo of common decency. His own nether world, for as long as I knew him, consisted of elephantine grey flannel Oxford bags, and even more elephantine flannel underpants, usually of a distempered hue. As this ensemble was lashed in place by a thin leather belt, Dad often got discombobulated, and on these occasions he would, quite unselfconsciously, un-belt, unfasten and unzip his trousers, then rearrange these wads of cloth.

So it is this, the memory of the primordial outer-underwearer from da ghetto of the London School of Economics, that I am trying to repress when I see all these fellows flaunting their pants. It is not the madness of the crowd that this illustrates - but one of my own.


Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.