British men on holiday

ARE BRITISH MEN USELESS AT DRESSING FOR HOLIDAYS ? (The Observer debate: Alex Bilmes, editor of Esquire vs. Jim Shelley, fashion victim of nowhere)

Alex Bilmes:

Before we get really catty – and I very much hope we will; we’re talking fashion after all – I think it might be helpful to make a distinction.

This is not an argument about dressing for the British summer. That is close to impossible, such are the vagaries of the Gulf stream: it’s string vest and knotted hanky-hat one day, Pac-a-Mac and wellies the next, and woe betide the staycationer who doesn’t come prepared for all eventualities.

What this is about is dressing stylishly for one’s summer holidays overseas, which shouldn’t be quite so difficult, but for whatever reason seems to utterly defeat most British men, and not just the prime minister.

Summer holidays, as we know, are terribly exposing, and not just in the knobbly-knees, flabby-midriff sense. Men who look perfectly presentable in their daily lives suddenly have an attack of the sartorial collywobbles and come over all inappropriate and off-message.

It doesn’t happen to the Italians of course, or the French. They know exactly what’s required of a fortnight on the Riviera: soft brown loafers with no socks; a decent pair of chinos or tailored shorts; a small selection of polo shirts; a crisp white shirt or three; and, in the evening, a lightweight blue blazer and perhaps a thin wool V-neck sweater for when the wind picks up.

Simple, comfortable, classic, and so terrifically easy. Why do we Brits get it so consistently wrong ?!

Jim Shelley:

Alex, if you really want to dispatch me to The South of France to spend a fortnight on the Riviera dressed in ‘tailored shorts, loafers with no socks and a blazer’ all I can say is: that’s very decent of you. I’ll do it.

“The Esquire Experiment” we could call it. It would be like Hunter S.Thompson in Vegas with a touch of Tony Curtis in ‘Some Like It Hot’ thrown in.

Bitching aside, to me, one of the worst things British men can do is even try at all, especially to try to be like the French or the Italians. No man I know has ever gone shopping for his “summer wardrobe.” For most men, shopping for clothes at all is traumatic enough.

The key is to be yourself. Faced with a trip overseas, men panic and start buying clothes that either don’t suit them or they have no experience of, such as bright colours, boat wear, or (as you suggest) shorts.

As Tom Ford said, shorts in the city are verboten and “should only be worn on the tennis court or on the beach.”

He should have added: “And never at all if you’re British.”


I couldn’t agree more about shorts in town. We could add flip-flops, clam diggers, vests, and baseball hats to that list. But Brits could absolutely pull off foreign holiday style if only they would leave their weekend-at-home outfit where it belongs (at home) and invest in some location appropriate duds.

The trouble with the traditional Brit on his hols – see Cameron/Blair – is that he looks like he’s about to pop down to Homebase to pick up some light bulbs and a pot plant, not head out for a sunset saunter through a balmy Mediterranean resort. Top Gear-dad jeans, a daggy fleece over an ancient business shirt and scuffed loafers look fine (well, sort of) for the weekly shop, but they won’t pass muster on holiday.

Really, what’s so tricky about a pair of espadrilles (no socks !), lightweight chinos and a polo shirt ? I’m hardly suggesting anything outré or avant-garde. Or expensive. We call it an abroad-robe in the trade – we’re fiercely clever like that.


Without wishing to turn myself into the Captain Mainwaring of fashion (although I could grow the moustache), I just don’t agree with the concept of being “location appropriate” – unless we’re talking mosquito nets or sunhats for watching cricket in the Caribbean.

Lots of British people are perfectly stylish as they are – as long as they don’t equate being abroad with shorts and sandals. Either way, there’s simply no point in taking on the French or the Italians at their own game.
When in Rome, don’t do as the Romans do, basically.

My solution to summer is: “As you were, Pike.”
Wear the same suits as for the office – only lighter and in blue or pale (“dove”) grey instead of black. Take exactly the same wardrobe abroad every year: battered Vans or Prada flip-flops, tatty vintage Helmut Lang hoodies for tennis, old Stussy skater T-shirts that smell like the sea all year.

New clothes don’t look right in the sun, and dressing up to go on holiday is just perverse.


I’d love to see that moustache. I think it would be very becoming on you. And, just like wearing stylish clothes on holiday, not at all perverse.

I’m not for a moment suggesting we try to take on the Euros at their own game. The idea of Brits going overboard on the St Tropez lothario look is not, I’ll grant you, an appealing one. We should leave the unbuttoned-to-the-navel approach to Flavio Briatore and his lizardly brethren.

But the idea that we must be slovenly and lumpen in our shapeless leisurewear does us something of a disservice. Why should we, too, not cut a dash overseas?

You’re spot on about the lightweight suits for the office. So why not smart, lightweight casual clothes for our summer breaks ? Call me old-fashioned (go on, I wish you would), but I even take an unlined blazer on my travels, for the evenings. Since we’re being all label-whorey, it’s from Hackett: good home-grown clobber. I wear it in the evenings with a white shirt from Richard James, cotton trousers from Burberry and a pair of Church’s suede loafers.

I feel smart, comfortable and… very, very British. You should try it. Happy holidays.


I’m sorry I haven’t been converted to the merits of a blazer – either while enjoying a stroll on an expenses-paid trip to the Cannes Croisette or in the evening, indoors watching TV.

Equally, I have failed to persuade you to embrace scruffy chic, even though I’m sure you would look terrific in a hoodie or a jumper that, frankly, you wouldn’t wear to walk the dog in. They look great once you’re by the pool or on an Italian beach.

It would be nice if – like you – British men could master it, but they just don’t know how to buy clothes for hot weather. They have no experience. No training. (Maybe you should set up a school.)

Equally, I worry we haven’t got the bodies for the clothes that you suggest. Either we look so white we’re shiny (like junkies) or, if we’ve been in the sun pre-holiday, we are so orange we resemble George Hamilton if he’d been Ronsealed.

Ultimately, the truth is all you really need to look good on holiday is a great pair of sunglasses.