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How the shape of my father’s trousers prepared me for the life we live now

“So many,” as Eliot might well have said, “who would’ve thought life would’ve untucked so many?” 

By Will Self

In his history Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds (the work that lends its title to this column), Charles Mackay disdains the matter of fashion, regarding it as such a transparently crazy and bewilderingly evanescent phenomenon, that to discuss this or that rage for apparel would be quite de trop.

I’ve broadly followed my master on this, though in the past I have discussed such oddities as the mass delusion among young men that the world really wants to see the waistband (and quite a lot of the material) of their underpants. I had some incorrect hypotheses about the origins of this lunacy, and was put right by a savvy reader who informed me that the fashion – if it can be so called – originated in the penitential gulag of the United States, where young African-American men are deprived of their belts and shoelaces, and so hobbled by denim.

I could, of course, go to town on the madness of the great crowd of legislators, law-enforcement agencies and bigots of all stripes who conspire to keep a million black men in jail (so indirectly forcing us to look at all those underpants), but I have something far more important I wish to discuss: shirt tails. Yes, you heard me right: taking my role as the Prince of the Picayune seriously, I wish to dedicate the next 600-odd words to these lappets of cloth, and specifically to their tucking-in (or not).

Time was when no shirt tail went untucked, just as no good deed was undone. I grew up in an innocent era, long before Jimmy Savile invented paedophilia, when we all listened to the Home Service for entertainment, while for a treat we smeared Marmite on our ration cards and licked it off.

Before we scampered shivering on to the rugby pitch, Mr Murgatroyd would check that we hadn’t “cheated” and worn our underpants, by sliding his hand under the waistband of our shorts and having a bit of a rummage around.

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As I say, it was an innocent era, and none of us begrudged him copping a feel, but what bothered me then – and bothers me to this day – is that I can’t remember whether I tucked my shirt into my shorts in those days or not.

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True, the untucking of rugby shirts was an informality that probably got under way in the Swinging Sixties, along with similar dishabille on Hawaiian beaches, but at some point in the past ten (or possibly even twenty) years, people stopped tucking in their workaday shirts and blouses as well. Now the fashion – if we can dignify it with such a name – appears ubiquitous, such that as one walks the clone high streets and shopping esplanades of Britain, one sees legions of these sloppy dressers shambling towards you.

“So many,” as Eliot might well have said, “who would’ve thought life would’ve untucked so many?” And included among them is me, because although I, too, cannot remember when it started, I haven’t done any serious tucking in for what seems like a long cotton time.

But why has this come about? An obvious explanation is that it’s due to the hellishness of the contemporary trouser, with its tight and flat waist. Back in the pleated day, when my father wore grey flannel bags that could easily do joint service as temporary accommodation for a platoon of the Home Guard, there was plenty of room for shirt tails as big as elephants’ ears, but nowadays even modest flaps, when tucked, ruck up to form an uncomfortable bulge.

A complementary reason – for men at least – is that the widespread adoption of boxer shorts has also cut down on the crotch space available. A third factor may be an odd sort of sartorial-cultural transmission: with more people of Indian subcontinental extraction about, dressed in shalwar kameez, the rest of us may be unconsciously aping them. I concede that this seems a little far-fetched – but you’ll agree that it relates the practice to some sort of style.

Otherwise, we can only view the untucking as evidence of a mass infantilism – which is how I am inclined to feel when I see these kidults coming towards me with their shirt tails a-wavering. I can barely restrain myself from saying to each and every one of them: “Come here and I’ll tuck your shirt in for you.” It’s only the memory of giving evidence at Mr Murgatroyd’s trial that restrains me – this, and the flapping fact that I, too, am but a small linen wave in the great, heaving ocean of the untucked.

But at least in my case there’s an excuse: my father (he of the big bags) had both great difficulty in maintaining any semblance of being comme il faut and absolutely no modesty at all. Suffering as he did from the social necessity of tucking his shirt into his trousers; he would then tighten them with a belt lashed around the waistband. Unfortunately, so antiquated were his strides that they weren’t equipped with belt-loops, and so the whole assemblage would begin to unravel after a few . . . strides. Unperturbed, the Old Man would simply ungird himself in plain sight, exposing acres of bilious yellow flannel underwear, retuck, and gird up once more. It was a maddening spectacle, not just embarrassing – but then it did prepare me for the general shapelessness of things to come.

Next week: Real Meals

This article appears in the 11 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The anti-Trump