The focus of this week’s diary is my recent visit to a new exhibition at the V&A in London: Fashioning Masculinities – The Art of Menswear. After visiting the exhibition I also purchased the accompanying book by V&A Publishing. A weighty tomb of a publication! So, my review considers the exhibition and the book as a joint experience. The audio version of this blog is here:
This is the first major exhibition at the V&A to celebrate the power, artistry, and variety of male attire and appearance. Tristram Hunt (Director of the V&A) states the exhibition will also “deconstruct norms and forms of masculinity”. I must have missed that part – I thought the exhibition perfectly demonstrated the norms and forms!
In terms of structure the exhibition, and book, takes one through three stages: Undressed; Overdressed; Redressed.
Undressed begins with consideration of the male classical ideal, and the evolution of under garments. In Overdressed the focus shifts to the Tudor and Regency periods, with wonderfully extraordinary examples of linens and silks and vivid colours. Finally, with a tribute to the influence of Beau Brummel, Redressed considers the monochrome period, and the suit as we know it today.
The exhibits are fabulous, carefully arranged to enable, in many cases, a 360 degree view. There is also a welcome focus on accessories in support of the evolution of male grooming.
I particularly enjoyed the evolution of the humble suit. The suit has always been there, in varying forms, from armour through uniforms to the de-mob suit from Burtons, and remains the bedrock still of male style. I am left with the impression from seeing that evolution in the exhibition that the formal buttoned-up 19th century ideal (which emerged from Brummel) still presents to most males the rigid masculinity of which most men feel most comfortable with. We are less formal now (no tie with a suit for example is an increasing trend of the contemporary approach to the original ideal, but still men are wearing suits or jackets as the foundation) and the suit has evolved, yet it remains a cornerstone of the archeology of male style.
In the week before visiting the exhibition I had begun to experiment with not wearing a tie with my suit every day to work. I must confess to feeling strangely uncomfortable. Then, during the exhibition, I witnessed the many cravats, and how they had evolved as neck wear into ties – here was an example true male individualism, surely a part of what masculinity is about. The suit without a tie, it is so very bland (think of Sir Keir Starmer without a tie if you are looking for evidence).
Reflecting on the exhibition it was also interesting to see Athleisure and street wear in the same room as suits, jackets, tweeds, dinner jackets – it clearly has its place in the evolution, but one is drawn back to the image, and grooming, of Beau Brummel, the influence of the Grand Tour, and how that core style remains evident today. If anything, looking at this relaxed Athleisure wear against more formal ‘normal’ clothes in the same room shows how it remains a fringe style and would I suggest likely move many males back to comfortable conformity.
I left the exhibition feeling proud of my tailored suits, Jeremy’s Street shirts, handmade ties from Shaun Gordon and shoes from Northampton, as the bedrock of my style, and now having a deeper appreciation of their evolution. I also feel more accommodating to the less formal dress as a way of reinforcing that male ideal and masculinity. And, what of masculinity, obviously designed to be a key part of this exhibition. Masculinity is defined as qualities, roles or attributes characteristic of men. Is masculinity socially constructed? Is there evidence masculinity is influenced by cultural factors, and in dress? Yes, based on this exhibition, I would say so.
What impact did the exhibition make upon me? If the exhibition set to prove male fashion and style is dead and is now on an uninterruptible journey to gender fluidity I suggest it failed. What it has done is demonstrate that our history is dominated by a mix of power and individualism, that the male follows a careful path, occasionally with sparks of colour and flamboyance, but is much more comfortable with conformity.
I love museums and exhibitions. I like to be guided by two quotes from Sir Winston Churchill: ‘The farther backward you can look, the farther forward you are likely to see’; and ‘If we open a quarrel between the past and the present we shall find that we have lost the future.’ With mens’ style and defining masculinity this excellent exhibition allows us to look to the past to inspire us.
Episode 16 was written on June 15th, 2020. An incredible 95 weeks ago. I just re-read that diary entry, and noted how, after 90 days of covid restrictions, I had hoped it would all be over soon and common sense would prevail (allowing people to make their own judgments about risk). How wrong I was! But, we are now relatively normal, face coverings have gone, travel is open with no restrictions, social distancing is now just something my paranoid dog Molly practices, and for the vast majority of us covid is nothing worse than a common cold. Life must go on – or KBO as Churchill would have said!
In line that KBO spirit the Martini Diaries are back, and with a new audio version that you can listen to on a internet-enabled device – I have not been technologically idle in my absence. There are even plans afoot for a video version of the diaries as well!
In this episode I travel to Edinburgh Scotland for the first time in 5 years, dine at the Hawksmoor and the Ivy, move onto my first ever visit to Newcastle and dine and stay at Malmaison.
I travelled to Edinburgh on Sunday the 3rd of April. Arriving early at Kings Cross I was able to visit the LNER First Class lounge for the first time, located above the Waitrose store and easy to find. Directly Operated Railways-owned LNER (London North Eastern Railway) is government controlled and has been since replacing the dreadfully inadequate Virgin Trains East Coast in June 2018. They also took over the Virgin First Class lounges. The lounge is adequate, clean and functional. Tea, coffee, soft drinks and biscuits are the standard fare – alcohol is available for purchase. It is a step up from the tired and dis functional Virgin lounge.
The train (I was on the 1430 hrs) was very pleasant. Comfortable seating, clean flooring and pleasantly climate controlled. Three observations from me from the First Class compartment. Firstly, I am not sure the train has to travel quite so fast. There were times when glasses and other items slide across the table as we entered turns – I suspect for those who suffer from motion sickness it might be too much. Secondly, only hot food is delivered on a plate, everything else, including my chicken sandwich, is left on one’s table (in its wrapper) on a paper napkin. Hardly the atmosphere of ‘First Class’. Finally, serving a pungent curry in a confined carriage on a train where the windows do not open should not be allowed – the smell dominated everything. LNER should try harder here. That said, the drinks flowed freely, and the staff seemed very happy and pleased with their tasks (again, a big improvement on the sullen and demoralised Virgin staff from a few years ago).
The time passed quickly (helped along by a half bottle of Moët I carried on with me!), plenty of work was completed, and we arrived in Edinburgh on time at 1910 hrs.
In passing I should note no one paid any attention to the announcement as we crossed the border into Scotland to put on our face coverings – there was just much laughter mainly from our Scottish passengers that covid somehow respected physical borders! There followed a bit of a long uphill walk to reach the taxi rank (I would imagine that might be challenging for those with significant luggage), somewhat detached from the Station. A short ride to our hotel – Le Monde, on George Street.
Le Monde describes itself as ‘a world of relaxed global glamour’, with ‘18 individually designed bedrooms inspired by the world’s most stylish cosmopolitan cities’. Unfortunately, the hotel is still emerging slowly from covid restrictions and was very limited in its dining options. It does though have a huge cocktail bar – in fact my taxi driver only knew of it as bar and night club, not a hotel!
My room, the ‘Los Angeles’ was impressive. A large very comfortable bed (that I didn’t want to leave in the morning!), huge bathroom and bath (big enough for three people!), a comfortable seating area, and walls festooned with black and white framed photographs of movie stars (over the course of the next two days the many visitors to my room collectively managed to identify all of them – after I had miserably failed to do so). In a first for me, on my many global travels, I could not fault the room. Well done Le Monde!
The same could not be said for breakfast – although delicious and very well cooked, service didn’t start until 8 am, and with everything cooked to order a 30 minute wait was the norm. Fine, if you are holiday, but very challenging if it is a working day.
Overall, a big tick from me. A fabulous location, great concept (so much nicer than the bland chain hotels), friendly staff, and great value for money.
Back to Sunday evening and, after a quick unpack, we headed the short 5 minute walk to Hawksmoor, on 23 W Register Street, located in the rear of the Cheval, The Edinburgh Grand. This impressive building, originally the National Bank of Scotland and designed by award winning architects Mewes and Davis in 1936, finally completed in 1942. It is a stunning example of neoclassical Art Deco architecture. The decorative wood panelling are from American elm, Mexican pine, Honduran mahogany and English oak. Cavernous does not do it justice.
The food, although famous for its steaks, is for everyone. As it was already 8.30 pm we opted to avoid an first course and ordered the smallest steak (a fillet, at 300g). It came in 25 minutes, and was cooked to perfection (medium rare), that wonderful melt in the mouth sensation only possible with the finest cuts of beef. Washed down with a carafe of excellent Stellenbosch, Hartenberg, Cabernet Sauvignon 2015, it was a near perfect experience.
Between meetings on Monday I managed a walk around the local area in Edinburgh. I was very impressed with the restoration work and creations in Multrees Walk (in the corner of St Andrew Square), but thoroughly depressed by Princes Street (which now looks as run down as every high street in the UK). The closure of Jenners, such an iconic building, has added to the gloom. I hope the renovation being talked about for the building may help restore some dignity and glory to the area. But, wow, so many fabulous buildings and monuments in Edinburgh. The ‘cold’ grey stone of the building is somehow at the same time both sinister and majestic.
Monday evening we dined at The Ivy. I have never been to an Ivy before, and was pleasantly surprised (I am always one to be sceptical of hype). The only disappointment was the use of a reduced menu for our table (as we were a large group), and some of the menu items we had hoped to enjoy were not for us! My peach negroni was interesting, but you should never play with a classic. Food wise, the double baked Cheese Soufflé was magnificent, and I had to order some bread to soak up the remaining melted cheese. My turbot was somewhat smaller than I usually see in Portugal (on holiday), but well cooked and satisfying – some roasted garlic would have added to it I suggest. And then the chocolate bomb was sensational. For wine, the Chateau Montrachet lived up to its reputation.
I left Edinburgh on Tuesday afternoon very pleased with the work goals and objectives achieved, and very much in love with Edinburgh – a pleasant surprise to find it recovering very well from covid (there was little local enthusiasm to follow the current Scottish government compulsory, and often contradictory, face covering regulations). I look forward to returning.
Back onto LNER to Newcastle, and into the Malmaison Hotel, on 104 Quayside. My first stay in this chain. A very friendly and efficient welcome at Reception. My room, again, was spacious, clean, with all the facilities I would need (although the red and black striped carpet was not very soothing!). Now an hour ahead of schedule, and spotting a large bath in my bathroom I indulged in a relaxing bath. However, after the bath I attempted a cooling shower and found the shower (in the bath) stuck on scolding hot. My attempts to move the dial resulted in the tap head falling off! Reception advised me that maintenance do not work after 5 pm (!!) so I would need to move room – having unpacked I said no. They kindly arranged for me to have a room key to another room to use that shower in the morning. Well done! (An observation: Both Le Monde and the Malmaison rooms, when I arrived, were pre-set at 23c on the room thermostats. Why 23c? Who on earth heats their house to 23c? No wonder there is an energy crisis if every hotel room in this country is so hot!!)
I enjoyed two excellent negronis in the bar, and then dined in the Chez Mal restaurant. After some excellent calamari I enjoyed another fillet steak (not quite as good as Hawksmoor), and then fell in love with the truffle oil and Parmesan fries – where have they been all my life? All washed down with a very good Saint Emilion, Chateau Saint-Ange. This was an impressive restaurant – the staff were superb, service came at a steady unhurried pace, and the overall ambiance of the room suited the location. I would go again.
After a working visit the next morning to the superb facilities at Newcastle University I caught the 1410 hrs train back to London, eventually arriving home in Ipswich at 1900 hrs. I managed to clear all outstanding emails and catch up with projects, and also enjoy a very good toasted tea cake on LNER in the afternoon (on a real plate!).
So, travel is back, work is productive, meeting people face-to-face is back, the trains are running on time, restaurants are providing great food and service. It seems the country is on the road to recovery – I am delighted to be playing a small part of it! See you next week……
In which I travel on public transport for the first time in 90 days to spend a day in London, unfortunately find it a depressing and dreary experience dominated by excessive signs, posters, stickers, one way systems and high visibility clothing, and reflect on how our ancestors would view our inability to tolerate or manage personal risk.
Welcome back to the Martini Diaries – as we enter the 12th week of lock-down in the UK I am beginning my plans to return to my office in London later this month. I felt it was time for a short period of reflection before we begin to share together the continuation of my life and travels as a CEO of a global non-profit organisation.
What have I learnt about leadership over these 11 weeks of being confined to barracks away from my team?
The Martini Diaries returns in 2020, with my return to skiing after a 13 year absence, and a visit to Georgia. I am bewildered by the sheer volume of luggage people try and take as ‘carry-on’, experience the new Istanbul airport, enjoy red wine for breakfast (a first), ski in Georgia, plan a conference, and now cannot wait until next February to ski again!
The Right Honourable David Curry, Chief Editor of The Parliamentary Review, recently approached me and asked if I would be willing to take part in a Podcast. I have never been on a Podcast, so I readily accepted this new and exciting challenge.
In which I reflect on the outcome of the General Election, note the importance of networking to help find employment and employees, explain leadership-in-action, attend the Annual Parliamentary Scientific Christmas Reception, fail to be inspired by the food of Ottolenghi, travel to Canada for Christmas, and offer my thoughts for 2020.
In which I reflect on my environmental footprint, lament the lack of scientific disciplined debate in environmental issues, fly to Belfast for three days, wonder why Belfast goes to bed at 10 pm, experience BA flight cancellations, live out of a small valise longer than intended, inter my Father’s ashes, celebrate my Birthday with a shave at Trumpers and meet the Chelsea Pensioners for the annual Christmas Cheese Ceremony.
In which I return to UK from Pakistan (with a head cold and stomach problems), attend a two day Board meeting, take multiple medications to keep going, try out my new velvet dinner jacket at the Inspire Suffolk charity ball, miss my first Remembrance Day parade in 36 years, seem to endlessly cris-cross London to attend meetings and events, enjoy breakfast at the Wolseley and lunch at my Club on the same day!
31 October – 4 November 2019. First visit to Pakistan
Thursday 31 October 2019
A very painful night’s sleep. My fingers are badly swollen, and forming a grip is a painful and slow process. I kept waking up due to the pain of moving my hand. Molly the dog didn’t help by wanting to go outside for a pee at 6 am! I finished packing and my driver collected me at 11 am for the trip to Heathrow. I couldn’t lift any suitcase or bag with my right hand, so this could be problematic on a trip where I have three bags/suitcases!