My one-man crusade against fancy dress

Euro 2012: It’s a crying shame that sartorial elegance on the terraces has been replaced by collective buffoonery.

Duleep Allirajah

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There’s a predictable formula to the TV coverage of Euro 2012. At key moments in every match, the director will cut to a close-up of an attractive woman in the crowd. The agony and ecstasy of the unfolding drama is expressed through a series of perv-cam vignettes of pretty girls celebrating, weeping or biting their nails.

However, when England scored against France in their first game, the camera focused not on a beautiful English rose but on a bloke in a crusader outfit celebrating. What does that tell you about the aesthetic virtues of English fans? Well, I’ll leave you to draw your own conclusions. While some blokes were thinking ‘Where’s the totty?’, at least one Asian fan took offence at the crusader outfit. ‘[A]s a British Muslim, I am unsettled by the sight of England supporters dressed as Christian knights and jovially waving crusader shields at the European championships in Poland and Ukraine’, complained Nooruddean Choudry in a Guardian blog. I kid you not. At first I thought it was a Chris Morris-style jihadist spoof, but the guy is serious. The crusades, Choudry tells us, are remembered by Muslims as ‘two centuries of brutal and unprovoked attacks on Arab lands’.

I guess it’s a sign of our thin-skinned times that a British Asian should take offence at a bloke in a fancy-dress costume. It’s also telling that even Choudry himself doesn’t think any insult was intended. ‘I don’t for a second believe that those dressed as Christian knights do so to offend Muslims’, he admits. In which case, why bother penning a humourless screed against fancy dress? What Choudry is really taking issue with here is England fans’ lack of cultural sensitivity. They are guilty, in other words, of ‘unwitting racism’. This concept was introduced by the 1999 Macpherson Report, the inquiry into the murder of black teenager Stephen Lawrence, and has underpinned official anti-racism ever since. Unwitting racism is essentially a new breed of thought crime, one that resides in the perpetrator’s subconscious. Racism here is recast as a psychological problem rather than a political and social issue.

Should we be concerned about England supporters in silly costumes inadvertently offending Muslims? Don’t be daft. It’s another example of what I’ve described in the past as fantasy football racism – the tendency to take offence at even the most trivial cultural faux pas. I see this tyranny of racial etiquette as problematic. Anti-racism in its state-approved incarnation has become a stick with which to beat white working-class people for their cultural insensitivity.

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Unlike Choudry, I don’t feel threatened by the England fans kitted out as medieval knights, but my sense of decorum is offended. You see I’m rather old school when it comes to fancy dress at football. To put it bluntly, it’s undignified, buffoonish and reeks of David Brent-style wackiness. Fancy dress is one of the more unwelcome developments of New Football, along with jester’s hats, face paint, novelty wigs and giant foam fingers. It’s symptomatic of the drive to sterilise the matchday experience and make it safe and ‘family friendly’.

I wouldn’t say that fancy dress is always unacceptable. Face paint and foam fingers are fine at a children’s party. In fact, these party accessories are positively helpful to those of us striving to indoctrinate our kids to support a perennially unsuccessful team. There’s also a longstanding English tradition of fans donning fancy dress on the last day of the season. But silly outfits here are the exception rather than the norm; a carnivalesque tradition wherein you can dress like a total pillock for a day. Carnival costumes should never, never become the norm.

The rise of fancy dress is, in my view, a sign of declining sartorial standards in society. There is an old working-class tradition of getting ‘suited and booted’ when you go out, of wearing your ‘Sunday best’. Although dress codes began to relax in the early Sixties, the idea of ‘dressing up’ and looking smart didn’t go away. Mods in Britain took their cue from the US preppy look and European casual wear. The dress code wasn’t formal but remained decidedly aspirational. There’s a direct lineage from Sixties mod style to the terrace-casual look of the 1980s. Rival groups of fans competed with each other to sport the latest European leisurewear brands.

But somewhere in the late Eighties and early Nineties, standards started to slip. Dressing up was replaced by the nasty middle-class habit of dressing down. Expensive shirts or trainers gave way to grungy t-shirts, hoodies or the ubiquitous replica shirts. You still see remnants of Eighties hooligan chic – blokes wearing Stone Island or Aquascutum – but, even here, the look is identikit and fossilised. Even the designer clad ‘top boys’ of Danny Dyer’s ‘Real Football Factories’ are stuck in a fashion timewarp.

I’m not saying that wearing a Boden catalogue fleece à la David Cameron in a country pub ought to be a criminal offence. Just that taking pride in your appearance when you’re out in public is a practice worth maintaining. Which brings me back to the question of fancy dress at football. This takes dressing down too far. I can accept that people don’t see a football match as an occasion for a smart suit or posh frock. But there really is no excuse for dressing like a total clown.

Duleep Allirajah is spiked’s sports columnist. Follow him on Twitter @DuleepOffside.

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