In which the men of Britain learn the power of a naked ankle.

To be printed 15/10/09

Men of Britain! Have you been experiencing strange urges? Have you noticed changes in your usual behaviour? Have you, completely without warning, suddenly found yourself with particularly strong feelings towards a brand new object of desire? Like, for example, fabric?

    Don’t worry, you’re not alone. I’ve been you observing you all closely over the last few weeks, and it’s come to my attention that a new epidemic is sweeping our male population. Where previously most of you were immune, with the exception of musicians, art students and the occasional graphic designer, it seems that the virus has begun infecting even the most unassuming of chaps.

Perhaps you were carriers all along, and just needed an environmental trigger to set loose the symptoms. Either way, you’ve all come down with a bad case of fashion. And just like man-flu, man-fashion is prone to hyperbole, and likely to get you laughed at by women.

    Until these last few months, men’s style was pretty much a picnic. Because crucially men’s fashion, unlike women’s, always stopped short of the ridiculous. In fact, the aim was to get as far away from ridiculous as possible – the rule was: shellsuits, short shorts, shiny cerise suits = bad, while sludgy colours, unassuming shapes and a notable lack of accessories = good.

Not since the days of the New Romantics have men really been expected to do anything interesting with their wardrobes. While we ladyfolk have been wrestling with gargantuan shoulder pads, rollercoaster hemlines and trying to work out whether leggings are just a cruel antifeminist joke, you’ve had time to sample new ales, build a string of endless Ikea products and make sure you still ruddy get paid more than we do (stilettos not as effective a weapon for smashing through glass ceilings as everyone seemed to think).

    But now we have entered a new era of sartorial silliness, and men are the new victims. Even the most timid of male dressers is somewhere, right now, gingerly rolling up his trouser cuffs to flash the world a bit of naked ankle. You go for it, Gavin! Let those ankles see daylight! They’ve been holding you upright for 25 years, don’t they deserve to come out and play? Likewise the male cleavage – in hiding since Tom Jones put the medallions away, he-vage is now being rediscovered, uncovered, and showcased in a range of increasingly skimpy t-shirts. And the deck shoe, once just the preserve of men on yachts in Country Casuals catalogues, have suddenly reclaimed its place in the hipster’s wardrobe. It’s an exciting time to be male.

    Whether the rolled-up trouser thing has quite reached the Sussex coast yet, I’m not sure. But if it has, or when it does, I ask you ladies not to mock. Instead, encourage them. Suggest bow ties, silk scarves, maybe a daring epaulette. Because 1) it’s all really rather sweet, to see them having a go, and 2) while they’re busy musing over heritage prints, it might give us a chance to finally equal out the payroll.

* * * * * * * * * *

And so, the inevitable backlash has begun. “Stephen Fry: the most annoying man in Britain?” asked Christopher Hart in The Times last week. Ye Gads! Oh horrors! Not Fry! Get at Brucie all you want, even have a snipe at Wogan if you have to, but in the name of tea and crumpets, leave Stephen alone.

    Hart’s observation seems largely to be based on that always-accurate barometer of public feeling, Facebook, where there exists a group called ‘Stephen Fry is not a f****** genius’. Harsh, guys, harsh. But when we remember this is a medium that also boasts 233 groups called ‘I’m addicted to cheese!’, the sentiment seems a tad less valid.

Now, my love for the cuddly toff has always been stronger than most. I’ve sung his praises in this column often enough, and owe all of my pub quiz victories (and possibly half of my degree) to everything QI has taught me. However, I am far from blind to his potential faults – being posh, for one, is always to set oneself up for public persecution. Being openly clever is another. And being all over the telly, all of the time, is a crime that not even the most adored of stars can get away with for long (did you hear that, Cotton?).

    But my advice to Fry, in case he’s sobbing delicately into a monogrammed hanky somewhere, is to relish the backlash. It will give him edge. He’s now “controversial”, like a punk PG Wodehouse. God save the Queen.