This weekend, it was Satchmo Summerfest, a festival held in New Orleans every year in honour of its distinguished son Louis Armstrong. At this same festival a few years ago I gave a talk, about Satchmo, about dressing up in London and New Orleans, and in particular about Mardi Gras Indians and Pearly royalty: bead and plumage-suited carnival celebrants from New Orleans’ African-American communities and silvery button-bedecked Eastenders raising money for charity through entertainment – two great traditions that I would say are comparable in some ways.
But what I remember most clearly now about the occasion was what I wore – a silk shirt as black as a London taxi and a dress the colour of the sky and the water in New Orleans in high summer, a combination of colours that reminded me of the two cities. It seemed important to be wearing the right thing.
In New Orleans, clothes are significant. Take the seersucker suit, that particular marker of Southern gentlemanliness. This menswear classic arguably calls New Orleans home as gentlemen’s outfitter Haspel, one of its most famous purveyors, hails from the city. On a visit to the city during Mardi Gras, I saw this fact parodied in a float from the all-women Krewe of Muses. It depicted former Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal clothed in those classic blue and white lines and dubbed him an “In-Sin-Seer-Sucker” – get it?
Then there are hats. Along with a dog and tattoo, they are the one thing that everyone seems to have in New Orleans – and not just gentlemen. The city is full of hat shops: Goorin Bros, Key West Hat Company, La Red Rooster and, oldest and most famous, Meyers on the junction of Canal Street and St. Charles Avenue that claims to be the South’s largest hat store. “It’s because of the heat,” one Southern gentleman told me once, but I think it’s about more than that – perhaps a desire for self-elevation in a city with something of an (unjustified) inferiority complex and with a flair for the creation of a sense of occasion that headwear often brings.
In London, there is also a rich tradition of dressing up. In the many communities here where people have historically not had very much, looking your best can be an important sign of self-respect, respect for those around you, and belief in the possibility of transformation. This tradition has surely helped to create the engine of progression and prosperity that London has represented for many.
Take fashion designer Alexander McQueen. “London’s where I was brought up. It’s where my heart is and where I get my inspiration,” he said, a quote that was written on the wall near the start of a recent sell-out exhibition of his work at the city’s Victoria and Albert Museum. He came from a working-class family and was the son of a black cab driver but via London’s world-famous suit-making centre Savile Row became a legend in his field.
I certainly feel uncomfortable going out in London or New Orleans without dressing up a little. Bright black, sky-and-water blue, and often one of my two favourite pairs of earrings (see picture): pink pearls that I’d like to imagine are from some sweet swamp-born oyster; and small silver birds with delicate scratches that could be, if you look closely enough, tiny feathers.