Blue shirts are out as Richard 'Vladimir' Bruton sets tone for men’s autumn fashion

Frank McNally on a fashion for sticks, fear of statues and the craze of politicians taking shirts off

I see that decades after the shillelagh was decommissioned on this island, it is making a big comeback in England, albeit not under the same name.

The Financial Times fashion correspondent has reported that renowned trendsetter David Beckham, while perambulating at his farm in the Cotswolds, has taken to accessorising himself with a "wooden staff". And to confirm the trend, back in London, Dominic Cummings has also been seen around Islington with a "giant wooden walking stick", as though "off to tend a flock of sheep".

The Downing Street adviser’s stick looks the more rustic of the two: not unlike the rough-hewn blackthorns that were once a requisite of Irish country life. On the other hand, the classic shillelagh always has a gnarly knob at one end, which as well as being a handle, made it a notorious fighting weapon. And in fairness, there is no obvious knob at the end of Cummings’s stick (although his critics may argue otherwise).

Also, apparently, far from threatening violence, the English fad for rough-hewn walking sticks is part of a wider trend towards “cottagecore”, a fashion favoured by a new softer, gentler kind of urban man.


Alas, this earned it mention in the latest Pseuds Corner column of Private Eye, which quoted the Guardian on the phenomenon: "'As we emerge from lockdown, men are embracing cottagecore as a means to convey a more romanticised ideal of masculinity,' says Andrew Groves, a professor of fashion design at the University of Westminster. [He adds that] Beckham has idealised the agricultural worker and reimagined himself as 'the gatekeeper from Lady Chatterley's Lover'."

With fighting shillelaghs, a mere knob at the end was not always sufficient.

Some hardcore combatants used to reinforce the core with molten lead. This may explain one of euphemisms for the sticks, as recorded by Brewer’s Dictionary: “Tipperary Rifles”.

Blue blouses

If Beckham and Cummings are enough to make a trend, then Wednesday's video of a bare-chested Richard "Vladimir" Bruton emerging from the waters off Dollymount confirms another. Exposing their ripped torsos in the same summer, first Leo Varadkar and now Bruton have set the tone for men's autumn fashion. Blue shirts are out, is the message: blue and shirtless is in. Even if you don't have the politics to match the torso, Irish weather will usually take care of the blue bit.

I'm not sure where Fine Gael women can fit in with this trend, but then they were overshadowed in the original craze too. I was surprised to read recently that, circa 1934, blue blouses were also a thing here, if less formally.

That's according to a report by this newspaper of a bitter Dáil debate which heard that Fine Gael's James Dillon was accused, during a speech in Mayo, of urging "blue-bloused girls" not to dance with Fianna Fáil supporters.

To assist their cause, he was said to have added, male Fine Gaelers should ensure that no female supporter was left sitting at a dance.

A Fianna Fáil TD sneered at this "statesmanship" from Deputy Dillion, which ensured that "anyone who has been a wallflower heretofore can obtain a blue blouse and all will be well".

Nubian figures

The pantomime over the Shelbourne Hotel statues sent me looking up my holiday photographs from two years ago when I spent Bastille Day in the French town of Remiremont: home to General Humbert, a man who also visited Mayo once, but not to dance.

I had a vague memory that the town hall there had similar Nubian figures holding up torches. And indeed it does, although I didn’t have any decent pictures of them, because as with the Shelbourne’s, I never really stopped to look.

Such sculptures must be all over France. They would be typical of the "Belle Époque" ("beautiful era") look that dominated architecture between 1870 and 1914. And I doubt Remiremont will be as quick to remove them as the Shelbourne, which seems to have overreacted to one of the moral panics of our current era: the Alarm-bell Époque.

By coincidence, I’ve spent the Covid-19 summer working my way through Alexander Dumas’s 1,200-page epic: The Count of Monte Cristo, which touches on similar issues. It being set in the early 19th century, the morality is as confused as the Shelbourne statue saga.

The supposed hero’s romantic interest, for example, is both princess and slave. On the downside, he bought her from a man in Constantinople, but on the up, that was only to set her free.

Now they’re in Paris, rich and apparently in love. More worryingly – I’m only on page 700, so I don’t know how it ends – there are worrying signs that he may be putting her on a pedestal.