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Monday, June 27, 2022

Life Divided: Summer Clothing

Aidan Balfe and Rachel Craig-McFeely get heated as they debate the merits of summer clothing

For: Aidan Balfe

The introduction of summer in 1873 paved the way for a number of innovations in Victorian Britain. Like all things that make Britain great (or just okay, depending on your standpoint) summer was stolen from the colonies. Beforehand, life on this tiny island was simple and predictable, but chaos and panic kicked in during the first ‘British summer’, with temperatures in some parts of England reaching the soaring heights of 26 or even 27 degrees.

It was a battle between those of a traditional conservative sensibility, and new revolutionary thinkers who believed that women should have the right to expose their ankles in public. The randy bastards. A parliamentary debate on mandatory seaside regulations that required bathers to don no fewer than seven layers of clothing ended with the Liberal MP for Dewsbury pleading to his Conservative rivals: “Come on chaps, it’s fucking boiling. I’m sweating my bollocks off in here, let alone on the beach.”

As public morality began to give way to considerations of comfort, summer clothing began to emerge as one of the most important developments in British society since the invention of the letter ‘p’. Originally designed as trousers for very short people – hence the name – shorts were a truly revolutionary breakthrough.

It’s easy to sit here today, in your one-piece swimsuit, or Adidas sliders, and forget the brave men and women who went before us – the pioneers of summer clothing – and the sacrifices they made. It’s because of them that a man like me can wear white linen trousers. Or why any one of us can saunter into Tesco wearing shorts, flip-flops, and a leopard print tank top, pick up a 16-pack of Bière d’Or, and sit around in a park eating watermelon and turning pink.

Some may see this as a poor reflection on British society – as somehow not in fact the greatest achievement of all of modernity and civilisation itself. Maybe they think that people flash too much skin these days, or that we have no public modesty or respect for one another. But what I would say to those people is this: how long has it been since they last went to the beach, took off their shoes, took off their shirt, took off their shorts, and took off their underwear. Probably never, right? No-one’s about to start walking around stark naked anytime soon. It’s a separate question of whether that would be a bad thing, but I suppose I’ll save that for another Life Divided. The point here is that summer clothes are to be enjoyed and appreciated.

Against: Rachel Craig-McFeely

Scrolling through #summerclothing on Instagram, it is easy to be lulled into a fantasy of a summer spent strolling, perfectly tanned, through sun-drenched streets in shorts, sandals, and sunglasses. Yet these dreams are quickly shattered by a glance out of my rain-spattered window. Summer clothes may be the perfect attire for those who happen to live in Greece, yet sadly splitting my time between Oxford and rural Wiltshire doesn’t exactly provide many sunbathing opportunities. No matter how glorious the sunshine seems in the morning, grey clouds and rain invariably reappear, and too soon any hopes of a tan are crushed as, goose-pimpled and shivering, I search desperately for a warm jumper. Call me melodramatic, but summer clothes in England are about as useful as my English degree is for a future career.

Of course, there are those rare days when the sun does deign to shine – or, far more likely, you go on holiday. However, the scarcity of such occasions hardly justifies splashing out on a whole new summer wardrobe, particularly as shops appear to operate on the rule that the smaller the piece of fabric, the higher the price. It may be just me, but paying £20 for a top scarcely larger than a flannel is almost as painful an experience as the sunburn its lack of coverage will result in.

In fact, the main component in my summer wardrobe is sun cream, which I wear liberally as a greasy, wasp-attracting second skin over the areas that my summer clothes fail to cover – that is, 90% of my body. The ease apparently offered by summer clothing is somewhat undermined by the hours needed to apply and reapply sun cream throughout the day – an arduous two-man job which skincancer.org recommends undertaking every couple of hours. Caught in the paradox between wanting a tan and the fear of skin cancer, a day on the beach descends from carefree relaxation into anxiety, in which the words “you look a bit red” are enough to strike mortal panic into any heart.

And don’t get me started on sweat. Heat combined with thin, light-coloured clothing leads to less than glamorous sweat patches, which only severe editing can hide from holiday snaps. Even the solution of wearing a light, loose dress quickly becomes a problem in itself as any breeze is a constant threat of indecent exposure – think less sexy Marilyn Monroe and more desperate clutching at handfuls of fabric.

Yet although the abandonment of summer clothing is highly tempting, any form of clothing is more appealing than walking to Summertown in sub:fusc during a heatwave (one of my personal highlights of Prelims). With this in mind, I will grin and bear the sun cream and sweat for the sake of my social life – but roll on autumn, when it is once more socially acceptable to live in jeans and a jumper. I can’t wait.

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