If John Bull Turns To Look At You, It May Have Been Unavoidable


If John Bull turns to look at you… you may be smoking his pipe tobacco (which, like John Bull himself, is unfortunately rather bland.)

Through clouds of a pipeful of John Bull, I recently found myself pondering one of Brummell’s most famous quips. Namely, that if the average man on the street turns to look at you, “you are not well dressed; but either too stiff, too tight, or too fashionable.”

And sure enough in yesterday’s “Who’s The Dandy?” showdown, a reader used the quote as rhetorical ammunition against one of the more flamboyantly dressed candidates.

So does Brummell’s quip, uttered two centuries ago, offer timeless insight into what it means to be well dressed? Or is it hopelessly dated and irrelevant, sprung from and time and place that has nothing to do with dressing well in the modern world?

Context is not only key to Brummell’s original utterance, but to its application, if any, for today. If you are dressed with distinction in mediocre surroundings, John Bull will surely notice you. Therefore of primary importance is determining exactly what boulevard you’re strolling down when John Bull does or does not turn to observe your attire. And since today bland and casual dress reigns in even the most distinguished quarters, one can find oneself conspicuously attired just about anywhere. The concept of being well dressed but somehow going unnoticed for it, therefore, is very difficult to qualify.

But perhaps another quote will help us to understand the nuances of how one can be simultaneously dressed well and yet dressed unremarkably. “Right Dress,” a 1955 book by syndicated menswear columnist Bert Bacharach, includes the following passage about master of sartorial understatement Cary Grant:

Someone once gave me a very fine description of Cary Grant’s attire at a time when the motion-picture star was considered the best dressed man in this country: “I’ve been with Cary Grant a dozen times lately, and when I leave him I have the recollection that he was beautifully dressed. But, for the life of me, I can never remember a single thing he was wearing — his hat, shirt, tie, suit, or anything else.” And that’s what all of us should try to achieve — the impression of being well dressed without wearing any one article that blatantly sticks in a person’s memory.

Being stared at on the boulevard for being “too stiff, too tight or too fashionable” is a sartorial sin for certain. But it’s possible John Bull noticed your quietly distinctive dress and made a subtle nod of approval.

And so it’s time, faithful myrmidons, to make your voice heard. What say ye of the Beau’s famous words? Are they timeless wisdom, totally irrelevant, or something in between?

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2 Responses to “If John Bull Turns To Look At You, It May Have Been Unavoidable”

  1. MF Says:

    I’m going to do a poor job of paraphrasing him, but the modernist architect Adolf Loos had something to say on this matter. In essence his point was that to be well dressed you have to look roughly like you fit in with the immediate milieu. It’s a slightly depressing, conformist approach, but unless a man wants to make an exhibition of himself it’s probably true – it would be hard not to feel self-conscious in a sports arena while dressed in a three-piece suit, or while in a business meeting while dressed in a frock coat, even though both outfits have much to recommend them.

    However, once we’ve dispensed with the retro-centrics that leaves the much thornier issue of taste, which isn’t an easy that it’s easy to build a consensus around.

  2. Ariete! Says:

    Absolutely, but don’t you think that, as the OP points out, that might have been more the case at a time, such as when Loos was writing, when men wore three-piece suits to spectate football games? I think even a huge fan of theatrical, demonstrative dress like myself would agree that someone at a business meeting in a frock coat is interestingly, perhaps admirably dressed but not “well dressed” and certainly does not fit in. Still, that implies that if you wear long trousers and tuck your shirt in outside of a business meeting for six months of the year, in most locales, you are too formally dressed to “fit in” and I think we would all disagree with that.
    One of the main problems with current discussions about ‘style’ and dandyism’ is that almost everyone commits errors of conflation whereby ‘dandy’ is more or less equivalent to ‘gentleman’ or ‘decent chap’ I think an even cursory knowledge of the personal lives of some of the iconic dandies would contradict that idea. A dandy OF COURSE really wishes to stand out sartorially, pace Beau; a proper gentleman: never. Nor is every well-dressed man a dandy let alone every dandyish outfit in great taste – if by great taste we mean something unobtrusive.

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