Christopher Sharrock, not a Hogtown dandy

Fashionistas once told Christopher Sharrock that he is not a dandy. “Dandies break fashion rules,” they said, “they invent new ways of wearing clothes.” Beau Brummell was a dandy because he changed the way men dressed, forever.  “All I’m doing is dressing up like someone from earlier times,” says Christopher. “And that’s ok because for me, it’s not about being a dandy, I just like to wear nice things.”

Christopher Sharrock in the early 1980s when he ran an illustration agency.

Christopher Sharrock in the early 1980s when he ran an illustration agency.

And Christopher has been wearing nice things, specifically vintage menswear from the 1930s and 40s, for over four decades. He started wearing vintage as an art student in his native Liverpool because he had little money but a desire to dress well. He found that clothes from that era made his smaller figure look good: broader shoulders, narrower waist and longer legs.

But Christopher’s vision wasn’t purely sartorial. He was inspired by French composer Erik Satie, who’s artistic goal was to shock the bourgeoisie. In his later years Satie dressed like the bankers and lawyers of the time who would look at him and think “oh, he’s one of us”, not suspecting they had an avant-guarde maverick in their midst.

Christopher likes that he can hide his true identity behind his clothes. In truth, he is an illustrator and art educator, but some assume he’s a barrister or banker, or even a minor aristocrat. His clothes do reveal something about him, though: an intense fastidiousness and concern for doing things right. He doesn’t just wear suits from the 30s and 40s, all of his accessories are perfectly matched to the era.

Since he’s been very intentional about his dress for over 40 years, Christopher has put a lot of thought into what we wear and why we wear it. This really came into focus travelling around Europe. “What struck me when I went to Italy in the early 80s was that people wore their houses on their bodies.” Christopher observed that since many Italians lived with their parents or grandparents because of the cost of housing, their homes were not their own. Their wardrobes were their sole opportunity to express themselves and their personalities.

This, he thinks, could also explain the recent revival in men’s style. “People want their identity on their body, and that’s what clothing does.” The last half century has been all about mass production. “But if you use the objects that you own and the clothes that you wear to express who you are, then a lot of us are saying the same thing.” That got me thinking: the first thing many people do when they get a new cell phone is to change the wallpaper and ringtone and try to find a unique and personal cover. We are searching for individuality and expression in an era of mass-sameness.

While Dean at Camberwell College of Arts.

While Dean at Camberwell College of Arts.

During art school, Christopher would show up at his dad’s house for Sunday dinner in vintage clothes and his father would yell at him for wearing “rubbish.” His dad claimed that what he’d worn back in the 30s was much better quality than the post-war suits his son was showing up in. “I remember as a child taking his collars to the Chinese laundry to get starched,” Christopher says, so he went through his dad’s closet and some of those old clothes were still there. Despite his father’s raised eyebrow, Christopher started wearing his father’s shirts and a couple of his suits.

But dressing “full vintage” hasn’t been easy. At times, it’s been downright dangerous.

As the 70s wore on, the ridicule Christopher faced for wearing vintage clothes turned violent. He was physically attacked numerous times, including once at a Sex Pistols show. He remembers pleading with a group of punks that he too was an iconoclast, but they didn’t buy it. “The whole point of punk was that we were supposed to be expressing ourselves,” Christopher says, “but I wasn’t allowed to because I wasn’t expressing myself in the same way as them.”

When he moved to Brighton in the 80s to work on the satirical puppet show Spitting Image, people would throw things at him on the street. “There was, and is, still a lot of class hostility in Britain,” and people would associate his look with the upper classes and lower aristocrats.

All that changed when Christopher moved to America. “When I arrived in Philadelphia, I got off the subway from the airport and as soon as I hit the street, people stopped me and said ‘Wow, you look amazing!'” Even though he can fool some Americans into thinking he actually lives at Downton Abbey, we have a much more relaxed attitude towards the British upper class on this side of the pond. Some might think his outfits are silly or over the top, but he doesn’t get the same kind of hostility he got back home.

Outside his favourite Philadelphia bar "Parc."

Outside his favourite Philadelphia bar “Parc.”

With all this talk of Downton Abbey and vintage clothes, I wanted to tackle the issues of wardrobe as costume. When you make an effort to dress well, when most people make no effort at all, you may be accused of being in costume. With Christopher, it is doubly so, because most of what he wears is simply not worn any more, by anyone. In some people’s minds, that would make them a costume, an outfit created specifically to evoke another time or place, not worn for function. “My clothes don’t feel like a costume because I have been wearing them for so long,” says Christopher, “it’s just what I wear.” And after all, he continued, “everything is a costume, even people in jeans and tshirts and trainers. Just because it’s more ubiquitous people forget to see it as a costume.”

And what about the return of dandyism, all these men not just dressing well, but bringing back classic men’s style items like waistcoats and bow ties? Christopher’s daughter believes he would be ticked off if everyone started dressing like him, because he wouldn’t stand out any more. But Christopher is delighted by modern dandyism – even though he doesn’t use the term himself – because it means there might be more clothes for him to wear. Vintage clothes are disappearing, as the decades go on, but if people start making new clothes based on old patterns for these dandy men, Christopher might be able to replenish his wardrobe.

May 2011 shortly after being appointed Dean of the University of the Arts in Philadelphia.

May 2011 shortly after being appointed Dean of the University of the Arts in Philadelphia.

And since vintage clothes can be so hard to find, the first thing Christopher does when he visits a new town is go clothes hunting. Toronto has a relatively small vintage scene when it comes to menswear, but Christopher has already found a few jewels, including Gadabout. “I could spend the rest of my life there,” he tells me with the most excitement I’ve seen in the whole interview. Christopher’s advice for people wanting to wear vintage is that you have to visit shops constantly. Most of the time you won’t find anything your size but eventually, if you’re patient enough, you might strike gold.

Vintage spectator shoes at Gadabout.

Vintage spectator shoes at Gadabout.

The one piece of vintage that Christopher is always on the lookout for are spectator shoes, or as they are called in England “co-respondent shoes” – which come with a great story. “The name arose from the very strange and antiquated divorce laws England had until they were reformed in the 50s. If you wanted to get divorced the only way you could do it was to prove that you’d been unfaithful. So you could hire someone to go to a hotel with you, you’d both check in but they wouldn’t spend the night with you. [The hired lover] would wear particularly distinctive shoes, and they would leave them outside your hotel room door to get them polished. Then somebody would be called to court and would say ‘Yes, there were a pair of gentleman’s shoes outside her room’ ‘How can you be sure?’ ‘Well, they were black and white (or brown and cream)’ And they, these people, were the ‘co-respondent’ in a divorce case.”

Asleep in his Philadelphia apartment "I was reading the text that the latest Quay Brothers film was based on just before I was due to attend its premiere."

Asleep in his Philadelphia apartment “I was reading the text that the latest Quay Brothers film was based on just before I was due to attend its premiere.”

Christopher is currently living in Toronto while he searches for a new job in arts and education. I sincerely hope he finds a position right here in Hogtown because our streets are much improved by his flair, taste and style.