At a friend's house a few weeks ago and the conversation snowballed quickly.
"I like your shirt," said Harriet to the friend, even though it was a palpably awful shirt — white, yes, but with a stripe of pineapples down its buttons.
"Thanks," said the friend, pleased.
"You should wear shirts like that," said Harriet to me.
Other guests looked at me and my shirt, which did not have any pineapples on it.
"You do dress rather … conservatively," said the friend.
Murmurs of agreement.
"And look at those trousers," chipped in a younger but still fully grown man in jeans.
The trousers were, to my mind, just the right side of maroon. Not red. I know not to wear red trousers. I'm not an idiot. But what's wrong with maroon?
"They're a bit dull," said the youngest friend in the room in his head-to-toe leisurewear.
It was as if the whole thing had been planned — a fashion intervention from people who were worried about me. If it had been less of an onslaught I could have resisted it. I could have explained that middle-aged men trying to dress like they're not middle-aged never works. I could have told the grown man in jeans what my father told me on my 18th birthday — "You're an adult now, my boy …" (I don't think he said "my boy" but I would have laid it on thick for effect) "… My boy, it's up to you now, but three things I want you to remember: never ride a motorbike, never wear denim over the age of 40 and never end a sentence with a preposition." Advice by which I have lived.
But the co-ordinated sartorial ambush had its effect and the next day I found myself casting around the cooler corners of the internet. I noted that binman chic appeared to be the look of the moment, so I one-click-purchased a beanie, some "fun" shirts with things on them, skinny jeans and trainers. When they arrived I tried them on, convinced myself the makeover was a huge success and then quickly took them off again.
A few fewer weeks ago I took my new look to a lunch at a different friend's house. I almost didn't because I have two teenagers and one almost-teenager and the three of them amount to Stasi-level fashion police. If I have a slightly different haircut than usual, it's noted, interrogated and ridiculed. Unsurprisingly they did not take kindly to my blue shirt with birds on it. Not at all. And the trainers were the wrong make and colour. And the jeans were just soooo embarrassing, Daaaad. But that's just kids. You can't dress to impress kids.
Harriet, on the other hand, should have been pleased. She thought my old look was boring. So here I was, not boring. Her wish was my command. Except her response was … muted. Guarded even. Imagine if you mentioned your love of tattoos to your partner. And then that partner went and got a surprise tattoo. And then, when they showed it to you, you realised you'd made a terrible mistake. "I really like the tattoo," you'd say as convincingly as possible. "Is that definitely how you spell greatful?"
That was Harriet's response to my response to her critique of my clothing. "I really like it," she said as convincingly as possible. Walking into the friend's house, I immediately understood she'd been lying. The hosts looked me up and down and started laughing.
"Midlife crisis?" asked the husband.
"New look," I replied, styling it out.
"I really like it," said the wife as if I'd had greatful tattooed on my forehead. It was then that I started sweating. I don't normally sweat, not this profusely anyway. Embarrassment? No, it was the bird shirt. I hadn't noticed before but now I could feel the material — 70 per cent nylon, 20 per cent alpaca, 10 per cent seal blubber — suffocating me. I wanted to get out of it. I had to get out of it. Is this like women and high heels? Must I suffer for fashion? No. I sidled up to the host and asked to borrow a boring shirt. I changed between courses.
The moral of the story is don't be fooled, fellow ageing gentlemen. There's no wiggle room for us. None at all. You're as old as the clothes you wear. Shirt, chinos, loafers — that's the uniform. Bury the denim at 40. Say no to birds on shirts. Maybe I'll try a tattoo next.
Written by: Matt Rudd
© The Times of London