Britain’s distressing summer dress code

If a reasonably well-informed alien were to visit the United Kingdom in May or June, he (she? It? Them?) would assume that this was a land of devotees of the great sun god, Ra. We live, it is true, in a relatively cold climate – I read somewhere that the UK is on the same latitude as Labrador – but once the sun peeps out from behind its cloak, we embrace it wholeheartedly. I say this as a Scot, whose natural skin tone is a kind of pale blue, and for whom bronzing is a distant dream.

Yet we British are a funny people. We like to complain, though I think we do so with scrupulous politeness. So it is that when the weather warms up, we will fan ourselves with copies of the nearest newspaper to hand and protest that it is too hot. Worse still is abroad, which is too hot and foreign. Still we seek it out in large numbers. There is nothing we like more than being a martyr.

In our own country, though, the early signs of summer bring on a strange set of behaviours. Once we get to this time of year, two things are assured. First, we must Sit Outside. It matters not if you are perched on a narrow strip of pavement in front of a dubious café, or crouched round a barrel outside a chain pub; you must be OUTSIDE. After all, the sun is shining and it must be taken advantage of (if youwill forgive the hanging preposition). It matters not that the temperature might be the natural law.

That is all well and good. Much more insidious, and more distressing, is the accompanying dress code. Oh dear God. The moment the warm rays of the sun make themselves felt, it is a bolt for the wardrobe. Men must divest themselves of everything except a singlet and shorts, and women follow suit (never the right women; isn’t it odd that those who shouldn’t flash the flesh, do?).

Goosepimples be damned. Once the sky is blue, the Briton will strut his or her stuff in front of the general public. Taste, decency, modesty, these all go out of the (inevitably open) window. Why should this be so? It need not be. Now, I am all for dressing for the conditions. I remember the joy, positive, actual joy, when I first bought a pair of linen trousers for the summer months, and the sheer cooling comfort when there was a breath of wind left me nearly speechless. I have sported shorts myself, though more often when in the US than back home, I confess. But have a care.

I suppose, if I’m honest, it’s a matter of decorum. One should try to look nice. This does not involve stripping practically to one’s underwear when the thermometer passes 20 degrees. For a climate like we have in the UK, there is no need. Wear lighter clothes, by all means. Cotton and linen are your friends. Bare a leg, if you must. But don’t pretend it’s the desert.

I have been to genuinely hot countries. I do get it. In a previous life, I visited Iraq twice, and wore a linen suit. Good God, I have never been so hot. As we piled into the helicopter to leave Basra, and the gases from the engines were whipped into the compartment, I reckon it was about 80 degrees. I thought I was going to die. I didn’t, but I did sweat profusely, and when I took my suit to the dry cleaners afterwards, it was a toss-up between trying to clean it or just burning the damned thing.

I shouldn’t be too harsh. The British are not unique in their grotesque adoration of the sunshine. I am given to understand that the Germans, at least, are similar, and you will see vests and lobster-burned skin at any Himmelfahrt event that you care to visit. So much I have learned from Len Deighton. But it is no less excusable. We need to calm down. Dress appropriately, without repelling.

What is the take-home message from this? Well, sunny weather is very agreeable, and I have been enjoying it this past week. But be realistic. Britain in May and June is not the Maghreb. It is wise and prudent, as well as in accordance with public decency to cover up a bit. Summers are, it seems, getting hotter, and that may be a boon, or it may not, depending on your view of climate change. But there is no need to display, as a friend of mine who lives in Glasgow said recently, more grey and red flesh than you would see in a fishmonger’s. Stay cool, by all means. Expose an ankle from time to time. I would even say it is permissible to wear shoes without socks. But not, please not, the full monty.

 

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