Remembrance Day, or ‘Veterans’ Day’ as the Americans call it, is the day we acknowledge members of the Armed Forces and remember those who have fallen in combat, so it’s a fitting day for me to post about my first style icon – my Dad.
I’ve read in many places that a significant factor in the declining standards of men’s dress is that so many young men of today either grew up without a father in the house, or without a father who had any sense of style. I’m happy to say that neither of these was true for me.
My Dad was born in 1921. He always kept his past life something of a mystery, but we are fairly sure he joined the RAF as a troubled youth in 1936 going in to Cranwell as a cadet, probably in the same way as many youths do who are looking for adventure and gainful employment, along with some sense of direction. After training as a rear gunner and wireless operator, when war broke out he was shipped off to Canada out of harm’s way for flight training on Tiger Moths. He returned as an officer in Coastal Command with eventual promotion to Flight Lieutenant and assignment to Avro Lancasters, his favourite plane.
He was a 22 year veteran of the RAF. Like many combat veterans he was reticent about his past and any stories he did tell were memories of him and the other boys larking about, not the horrors of war. Like many of his generation, once it was all over I think he was happy to turn the page and look to the future, not the past.
He returned to civilian life in 1958 after marrying my Mam and my sister’s arrival, and eventually landed a white collar job in marketing for Coles Cranes. He was meticulous about his clothes and would rarely be seen out of the house without a collar and tie. He suited up for work with either a trench coat or overcoat for the miserable weather of north east England. On more formal nights out he had a beautiful silver gray sharkskin suit which he would wear with white shirt, navy tie and mahogany coloured shoes that were polished to a glossy patina. After he died I tried to get the suit altered to fit me but it was going to need too much work.
He occasionally wore a dinner suit for special nights out with my Mam, for which he would wear arm garters over his shirt sleeves (I still have them, but never use them!) and a pair of oval gold double sided chain linked monogram cufflinks. I still have these and on closer inspection found that the monogram is not his initials, so I’m left to wonder if they once belonged to one of his mess-mates who didn’t make it back from a sortie, whose kit was duly shared out among the survivors as was the custom. He never wore jeans. He shaved every day without fail using a brush for lather and a Schick injector razor. He never grew facial hair. He always kept his hair short and tamed it with some translucent green ‘hair oil’ that came out of a tube like toothpaste. His casual clothes were usually khakis or grey flannels, woollen sweater and a windbreaker. In the winter he preferred crew-necked Shetland wool jumpers as he did not like open necked shirts (a trait I have inherited). His shoes (almost exclusively lace-ups) were always shined (often by me to earn pocket money). He always carried a white cotton pocket handkerchief. He never wore a hat during my lifetime. He smoked Embassy cigarettes and used a Zippo lighter.
The first thing he did when he came home from work was change into casual clothes and hang up his suit. I can still see the way he would lay his trousers flat on the bed, slide the hanger underneath at the hems and move it halfway up the legs then put the hanger in the wardrobe one-handed. My Mam said he was hopeless at the taxi-driving aspect of being a parent – dropping us off at cub scouts, football practice etc. as he wouldn’t leave the house in his old clothes – by the time he had gone upstairs to change out of his old trousers it was too late, my Mam was already in the car and we were on our way! She once said ‘when we were first going out he wouldn’t dream of coming to pick me up for a road trip if he didn’t have his blazer on and his tie fastened’ – it may seem archaic to today’s youth, but to me there’s something admirable and wonderfully quaint about that.
Dad died from lung cancer in December, 1982. He maintained his sense of style till the end!
Things I have inherited from him:
RAF greatcoat in heavy smooth wool made by Burberry
Midnight blue single breasted overcoat made by Crombie
RAF issue aviator sunglasses
Silver flat cigarette case
Silver cigarette box
Silver hair brush
Engraved copper plate, the reverse of his officer’s calling card
A sense of propriety when it comes to getting dressed