When I see Toni this morning I hardly recognise him.
This is strange because normally Toni is instantly recognisable. He’s maybe a decade and-a-half older than me but refuses to allow age to become a dictating factor in his fashion sense.
He’s our local man-about-town, always strutting up and down the main street with things to do and people to see. He’s single and of independent means and thus subject to nobody’s authority but his own.
He’s mild-mannered and softly spoken, the archetypal perfect gentleman; not that you would know that to look at him. On any given occasion he’ll be wearing one of his impressive collection of gig t-shirts, turned-up jeans, and a donkey jacket studded with ban-the-bomb style button badges.
Today however, something is different. You don’t have to look at him long to realise what it is. Toni has cut off his mullet.
“Time for an image change”, he tells me. A crying shame, I think to myself.
It was a thing of beauty: faux-blond, spiked on top and running down to well below his shoulders. It will never grow back; he will never ask for it at the hairdressers’ again. Another specimen has been lost in what has become the endangered species of the coiffeurial kingdom.
The Vokuhila — as it known in German — has survived longer in this country than just about anywhere else.
One senses that they are not worn without protests from partners. Rudi Völler, former coach of the national football team and Germany’s most famous mulletary commander, was forced to fight a campaign on two fronts during the 2002 world cup: one leading the team to the final where they lost 2-0 to Brazil, and one in a very public bust-up with his wife who became increasingly agitated seeing his collar-length locks every night on the television.
Persistence has made a worldwide phenomenon into a German cliché. When I was growing up, the back four of every English First Division football team resembled a Billy Ray Cyrus tribute band. Few fans knew what number Chris Waddle was wearing underneath his mane. Now you see them in Germany if you see them at all.
Traditionally this has been exploited by jealous rivals from other nations as evidence of Germany’s diabolical fashion sense but I see it more as a symbol of a nation whose dress code is very much “come as you are”.
This is not to suggest that Germans are always casually dressed. The country that gave the world Hugo Boss does the suit-and-tie look better than anyone. Dress codes are everywhere but are, if you’ll pardon the pun, more tailor-made to the occasion than they are in Britain.
Business dress is usually reserved for that purpose: business. Lawyers, executives and bank clerks will wear suits and ties, teachers and engineers will not. Companies have their individual dress codes but the rule of thumb is that if you can be seen by partners and customers then you should be suited and booted. If not, jeans and a sensible shirt are fine.
Where business dress is required, no compromises should be made. Jackets should not be removed in public: to do so might reflect an overly relaxed attitude. For the same reason, ties are never loosened and sleeves never rolled up.
Appearing in a meeting without a jacket might also attract unwelcome comments about where the jacket is. A favourite joke among office workers is that some colleagues like to come in, place their jacket over their desk chair then disappear and conduct their own private business — safe in the knowledge that if the boss sticks their head around the corner then he or she will assume that the employee is at work and has just nipped to the loo.
In other situations, denim replaces formal attire quite adequately. Many men will wear jeans and a blazer to weddings. Few, if any, discotheques operate a “no jeans” policy and younger women tend to prefer them to the British-style little black number.
British people love to poke fun at Germans about their affection for denim but Germans too love a bit of dress sense stereotyping. If you ask any German what they think of when they think of the UK then short skirts on freezing cold Saturday nights will be among the answers.
There is no smoke without fire. Denim is Germany’s national fabric. I don’t know if it’s worth mentioning that Levi Strauss, the all-time king of jeans, was a Bavarian. Jeans blend seamlessly into just about any outfit. My own personal favourite example of fusion dress is one preferred by many younger women with Turkish or Middle Eastern roots: jeans and a headscarf. Scarcely anyone else notices.
If the mullet is a relic from the past then it is not alone. The men of Cologne cling doggedly to their handlebar moustaches while I honestly can’t remember ever seeing a British man wearing a real one.
As in the UK, older people’s attire often provides a privileged glimpse into a nation’s past. Occasionally — and I do mean occasionally — you are lucky enough in Scotland to see an older gentleman in a kilt, not for a wedding or to impress the tourists but because that was the first thing out of the wardrobe that day. Your chances of seeing a real flat cap in Yorkshire are much better.
Occasionally when out hiking in Germany you will be lucky enough to find an equivalent. The alpine hat is still very popular with the generation which believes that a gentleman should not leave the house without one.
You may be lucky enough to see male walkers wearing either the Kniebundhose — knee-length plus-four style breeches which can be tied at the bottom — or the Janker, a densely woven, hip-length woollen jacket as thick as your finger with elaborate arrangements of buttons.
In such cases, the colours are usually sober: green, grey, beige, dark blue. I often find it a pity that older people in Germany like to dress in such a way that they melt into the background at the time of their lives when they are free to wear what they like. In this respect I still much admire the way that the British, in particular British women, like to celebrate colour.
As in Britain, to confine talk of traditional dress to older people would be to ignore its recent renaissance. The Lederhose and its female partner, the Dirndl, are very much back in fashion.
One must be careful not to label either of these as “German traditional dress”: They are native only to Bavaria and the mountain regions which border it. To call the Lederhose German is the equivalent of calling the kilt British. That said, they can be worn by non-Bavarians without offence being taken. As far as I know, no Bavarian has ever taken offence at mine.
The Bavarian look is back in and it is nationwide, especially at this time of the year. Munich may be the traditional home of the Oktoberfest but (often poor quality) imitations have sprung up across the country, prompting one satirist to joke that even the Bavarian capital has one.
Lederhosen and Dirndl are compulsory on such occasions and poor imitations may well irritate native Bavarians. Bavarian costume, known slightly incorrectly as Tracht, is similar to Scottish Highland dress in that it requires no price tag. Cheap copies will be spotted instantly. A good Lederhose should cost about the same as a good suit. A little more tolerance is applied to the Dirndl, presumably because of the effect it has on the opposite sex.
Perhaps the best microcosm of the whole German fashion scene can be found in the football stadium. “Come as you are” quite naturally applies. Unlike in Britain, fans do not feel pressurized into buying the team’s latest strip at the start of the season. Older shirts are often prefered as they demonstrate loyalty in years past, but all in all fans wear what they like — all that is important is that you wear the right colours.
Denim features heavily, and not only jeans but also the most precious relic of German football’s sartorial past: the Kutte.
In a long roundabout way, and via Italian, Kutte is related to the English word “cut”. It describes a denim jacket with the arms removed but also so much more. Badges are sewn onto the remainder of the garment and over the years it becomes a living monument. Past glories are commemorated, rivals ridiculed, friendships with other teams celebrated.
In monetary terms the Kutte is worth a fortune but it cannot be bought or sold. It is unique to its wearer and over time melds with his body. For this reason it is rarely washed. It can be extended when space runs out by sewing a flag in the club’s colours to the bottom. Many have badges right down to the ankles.
Only true fans have the patience to create them. Few have been around long enough to collect the number of badges required. So obscene are many of the badges that they are increasingly hard to come by.
Fans of long-standing clubs have legions of Kutte wearers, living monuments to glorious histories. Fans of young upstart clubs with rich backers have to make do with baseball caps and plastic flags.
For me, of all the garments I’ve described, the Kutte is Germany’s true national costume, if only because you don’t see it anywhere else. Bikers have them too but they are rarely so elaborate or so personal. No garment makes a statement quite like it and only a certain type of man can wear it.
They reflect glory and agony, a life story of devotion on the back of the wearer. I love to read them during boring games — if I can at least. It’s not always easy and you can probably guess why.
Because it probably won’t surprise you to learn that the ideal accessory to the Kutte is a mullet — and long may they reign.