General Articles

Sheep in Men’s Clothing

The horse, Lord Byron and James Watt’s teakettle still have a strangle hold on fashion-numbed males

JAMES BANNERMAN April 15 1948
General Articles

Sheep in Men’s Clothing

The horse, Lord Byron and James Watt’s teakettle still have a strangle hold on fashion-numbed males

JAMES BANNERMAN April 15 1948

Sheep in Men’s Clothing

JAMES BANNERMAN

The horse, Lord Byron and James Watt’s teakettle still have a strangle hold on fashion-numbed males

MY DISCHARGE ROUTINE was over at last. The medical officer, using a large blunt hypodermic (I think, although it may have been a small sharp bicycle pump), had taken away the regulation sample of blood. The antigas people had taken away my respirator, together with two pairs of clean socks and a cribbage board I’d carelessly left in it. Back home, city slickers were already planning to take away my gratuity. I was a civilian again.

“Boy!” I said, “am I going to be glad to get out of uniform!”

But I spoke too quickly: About a week after this forecast, I went to lunch with five other men—an industrial designer, a portrait painter, a lawyer, a dentist and a mining engineer. They were wearing respectively a double-breasted brown suit, a double-breasted grey, a single-breasted brown, another single-breasted brown and a doublebreasted blue. I had on a single-breasted blue, my double-breasted grey being at the cleaner’s.

Out of uniform? I take it all back. Here were six fellows, each doing a different job and each having a personality of his own, dressed with about as much imagination as if we’d been a flock of outstandingly timid and hidebound sheep.

Nothing about men’s clothes makes a great deal of sense—not, at any rate, the customary daily wear of characters who belong to what is known as the white-collar class. The dress of farmers and fishermen and lumberjacks, while actually engaged in farming, fishing or Continued on page 55

Continued on page 55

Sheep in Men's Clothing

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jacking lumber, is reasonable enough; and so are the outfits worn by mechanics, railroad men, truck drivers, miners, trappers, carpenters and custard skimmers (there really are custard skimmers: watch the Help Wanted ads). But even these lucky citizens can’t escape the uniform for long. They climb obediently into it when the five o’clock whistle blows. So there aren’t many men in Canada, apart maybe from Eskimos and nudists, who don’t at some time or other behave like me and the rest of the sheep.

That being the case, let us now look into the tangled mess of history, geography, necessity and nonsense which is the inside story of men’s fashions. It’s going to take a bit of doing, becau.se in order to see the preposterous thing clearly we’ll have to shed a lot of preconceived ideas, such as that no normal man would walk down the main drag wearing scarlet pyjamas, bright green top boots and a brass helmet. As a matter of biological fact, that is exactly the sort of getup a normal man would choose if he hadn’t had his gaudy instincts trained out of him from childhood onward; and it is a sad commentary on our civilization that anyone who habitually took the air in so spirited a costume would soon find himself on a psychiatrist’s waiting list. What about cock pheasants or for that matter ordinary barnyard roosters? They’re the ones with the New Look, not the drab little hens. It isn’t the female lion who wears the mane. Practically straight across the board, male birds and animals are the spectacular type and their mates the inconspicuous; and it isn’t much more than a century and a half since men were spectacular, too.

Horses and Tea Kettles

The reason we don’t realize what a bunch of sticks - in - the - mud we’ve turned into is simply that we’ve got used to it. The only time we really take notice of another man’s clothes, unless he happens to be wearing such a sharp set of threads that we ourselves start to feel scruffy by comparison, is

if he shows a flash of originality and steps out of line.

Call me Ripley, but the reason why six Canadians can sit down to lunch in 1948 wearing what amounts to the same suit of clothes is all due to a horsy (circa 1790), cheap coal, a naughty nobleman and a teakettle. These four factors, put together, spell “men’s fashions.”

Let’s start with the teakettle. About 150 years ago, when James Watt the Teakettle Kid thought up the idea of making steam turn wheels and drive machinery, the modern factory became possible. It became especially possible in England because the island was fairly bursting with coal for firing the newfangled boilers. So more Englishmen had more money than ever before; and as soon as one of them got in the heavy sugar, he wanted to be taken for a country gentleman, which was the type Englishmen admired most. So did foreigners across the Channel and so did we sturdy colonials on this side of the Atlantic. To admire is to imitate. Consequently, everybody who could afford it, and a good many who couldn’t, took to dressing like a red-faced squire with his own park; and that began the whole thing.

Red-faced squires were forever falling off horses and landing right smack on their heads, which meant that it was a wise precaution to wear a hard hat with a high crown; a sort of crash helmet. From that came the silk

topper, or stovepipe, which was so nearly universal a century ago that laborers wore them while digging ditches and cricketers didn’t even take them off when they went to bowl. After a generation or two the silk tile had got to be optional, except for bankers and tradesmen and men with what used to be called “a position to keep up”; and in the 80’s felt hats were permissible, although pretty informal. By the end of World War I they had become standard and the stovepipe had virtually disappeared; lingering chiefly because it was both silly and uncomfortable and therefore dignified enough for funerals, weddings, garden parties and similar state occasions.

It disappeared, but it didn’t sink without trace. If you will look inside your snap brim felt, your Homburg or your racy pork pie, you’ll find a small

bow which serves no useful purpose whatever. That is the trace. The squire’s crash helmet was made by hatters who couldn’t get the sizes to come out a regular 6 7/8 and had a tough time making any two hats with a given measurement. So the inside hands were threaded through with a drawstring, like those used to keep pyjama pants from dropping off; and customers whose heads didn’t fit their new hats tightened or loosened the string accordingly and tied a how when they got it right. The silk hat had a drawstring too; and after the makers had learned how to call the shot and produce definite sizes they couldn’t bring themselves to break with tradition. They still can’t, apparently; and the goofy little bow is solemnly stitched on the band to this day.

Why Those Useless Buttons

The noble horse shows up in pretty nearly everything we wear, hut most plainly in our evening dress. It will help to grasp just how, if we fellow George Harrap, a freshman at dear old Provincial U, through the business of unpacking the dress suit he has rented for one night only—the first such outfit he’s ever laid hands on and hired because he is taking his girl to a formal dance downtown.

Impressed and revolted, he takes the coat from its box and shakes out the folds. It has tails like a claw hammer and where they come together at the waistline there are two buttons. This, he figures, must be meant as decoration, since there aren’t any buttonholes for them; and in a way he’s right. But what really put them there is the horse again. When the squire went riding, he wore a coat (it was generally red, blue or green and looked a whole lot nicer on him than the tails will look on George); and this coat had longish, broadish skirts. There was good reason for them, because they kept his legs snug where the tops of his hoots left off; hut they were inclined to flop awkwardly around on the horse’s back. So after mulling this nuisance over for a few decades, the squirearchy of England came up with a smart notion. Why not button the inside corners of the coat skirts at a point near the rider’s kidneys, thus stopping the flopping? It was tried. It worked fine. So there are going to be two buttons opposite George’s kidneys, too, when he glides through the gay throng at the Royal Edward.

The braid down the side of his dress pants also puzzles him and once more he assumes it’s decoration. Once more he is partly right and partly wrong. It is a further remnant of the horse. At one stage of the squire’s history, he rode in long tight pants which fitted so closely they couldn’t be pulled on over the foot, let alone a boot. In order to get into the things, he luid to button them like gaiters and the buttons were constantly being torn or rubbed off. It wasn’t a quarter of a century before a quick-witted gentleman conceived the idea of covering them with an overlapping strip of cloth, as zippers on a trouser fly are covered now. And there you are—braid, representing the strip that hasn’t been needed since King William’s time.

It hasn’t occurred to George to wonder why formal evening dress is black. He wouldn’t wear black sport clothes (as a matter of facQ he has a couple of sweaters that make the average neon sign look like a page of Braille; and he is saving up for a new summer shirt with a design of pink pulm trees and purple sunsets). He has one suit for beat, two tweed jackets and two pairs of flannel pants; and none of them are black either. Dank gloom

is reserved for strictly formal affairs, like the one he’s looking forward to now with every expectation of having himself a barrel of fun. Why, therefore, the raven vestments?

It isn’t the horse’s fault, for a change. This is where the naughty nobleman takes over; Lord Byron, who parlayed a clubfoot into a reputation that fascinated the whole of Europe. He had plenty of money, a razor-edged sense of humor and a gift for writing poetry. He also had a gift for making love which would have kept a platoon of Broadway columnists busy night and day, if there had been any around in the early 1800’s. Because he was sensitive about his clubfoot, and wanted to prove himself as big a wolf as the next in spite of it, love was what he made practically nothing else but; and after a few years respectable elderly people wouldn’t even mention his name.

Young people, on the contrary, and particularly young men who had plenty of money themselves, were much impressed. What was good enough for Lord Byron, they felt, was good enough for them. He wrote verses about ruined castles in the moonlight, broken hearts, death and despair, and they copied him. He drank like a fish, preferably in a dark room and out of a skull and they did the same. He wore sombre clothes; they wore sombre clothes. Pretty soon no young man was considered really fashionable unless he looked like an undertaker with a terrific hang-over.

By the time Byron’s influence had lost its grip, Queen Victoria had married Prince Albert; and Albert, who didn’t resemble the poet in any other way, favored a depressing color scheme, too. That made the black coat official. Instead of being a badge of sin, it became a symbol of civic virtue; and besides, the showers of soot raining down from the chimney pots of coalburning Victorian houses and factories, which would have soiled a colored coat, didn’t show on a black one. The combination of snobbery and economy was irresistible and gloom was high style.

It still is; and although actual black is now largely confined to the ceremonial clambake and the solemn occasion, our current greys and browns and blues aren’t much gayer. We probably wouldn’t have got even this far away from the frock coat if it hadn’t been that a passion for open-air sports suddenly set in, little more than half a century ago, and spread like wildfire. Men who had spent the day on the golf links, dressed in loose-fitting tweeds, began to wonder whether discomfort was really necessary. Greatly daring, they tried going to the office in suits which were a compromise between working stuffiness and sparetime freedom. The idea caught on, after a slow start, and the frock coat was doomed—but not the grand underlying principle that no clothes which were thoroughly and completely sensible could also be dignified enough to do business in.

Churchill’s Dressing Gown

This principle has come through two world wars virtually unscathed; and unless a third one wipes out the human race, it will most likely survive that in turn. We men have learned how to split atoms, fly faster than sound, and do all sorts of marvelous things; but we’re so timid about clothes that when Winston Churchill went into a hotel dining room at Marrakech a few months ago, wearing a red dressing gown, it was big news. And last summer, when certain members of our own Parliament at Ottawa appeared in the

House without their ties, press wires began humming before the overheated legislators had fairly sat down. It was cataclysmic, an affront to the dignity of the Commons; and the strong probability that it was what every member wanted to do only made their lapse more appalling. Yet the truly horrible aspect of the affair wasn’t the absence of their ties. It was the presence of the rest of their clothes; the coats, the trousers, worn when the obviously rational getup would have been shorts and an open-necked sleeveless shirt, or even a singlet.

That, or something like it, would be just about right for an Ottawa summer, which can be hotter than a new oil furnace and muggier than the back room of a South Sea Island saloon. So can a Toronto summer, or a Halifax or Montreal or Winnipeg one; but you wouldn’t think so from the way a large percentage of the male inhabitants dress. And by a curious paradox the i big shots, rich and influential enough to get away with almost anything, are stuck deepest in the rut. It isn’t the millionaire who works in shirt sleeves; it’s Joe, nine floors below him on the shipping platform and even he lets himself be martyred every time he gets up of a scorching morning and climbs dutifully into a pair of long pants.

In Winter We Freeze

The same goes, only in reverse, for the winter. Do we wear outer clothes that are snowproof, windproof and easily taken off when we reach the genial warmth of flic Accounts Re! ceivahle Department and settle down at the adding machine? We do not. We plow through blizzards that would get full marks from Admiral Byrd; hut except for galoshes and a slightly thicker overcoat, we dress as we did in the fall and will do again come spring.

The absurdity of this is especially striking in contrast to our sports clothes. To swim, we put on bathing ! trunks, leaving the rest of our body intelligently bare. To play tennis, we wear an out fit which enables us to leap around like antelopes without dying of heat prostration. To ski, we have a costume that not only keeps us from freezing but makes it possible to dive headlong into snow and not get the stuff up our trouser legs, under the belt, or down the back of our neck. For baseball there is a species of baggy flannel underwear, perfectly adapted to stealing bases and slamming that old apple clear out of the park. And when slamming or diving or leaping, we aren’t afraid of color. Our sweaters can be as brilliant as a Mexican flower market and nobody raises an eyebrow. We can turn up at the country club looking like race-track touts and all is well. Just so it’s sport, we’re free, happy and wise.

A hundred years from now, we may dress that way the whole time, but I wouldn’t want to bet on it. The horse in the clothes closet has stayed there longer than that already; and to an animal with that much patience another couple of centuries won’t mean a thing. ★

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