Wrong Trowsers

E.S. Turner

  • A History of Men’s Fashion by Farid Chenoune, translated by Deke Dusinberre
    Flammarion/Thames & Hudson, 336 pp, £50.00, October 1993, ISBN 2 08 013536 8
  • The Englishman’s Suit by Hardy Amies
    Quartet, 116 pp, £12.00, June 1994, ISBN 0 7043 7076 X

The patron saints of tailoring, it seems, include Homobonus, who ‘all week long cut garments that were miraculously assembled’ every Sunday while he was at Mass, and Bartholomew, a victim of flaying, who ‘carried his skin draped over his arm’ rather as if returning with a suit from the cleaners. Whether either of them would be happy to retain his patronage of the scissor-men after leafing through Farid Chenoune’s heavyweight dossier – in which the dandy and the incroyable give way to the quiet gentleman and the dégagé sportsman, only to be followed by a collapse into androgyny, street-wise dumb insolence and ‘a syncopated disestablishmen-tarianism’ – is problematical. This book packs some of the nastiest shocks since Richard Walker in The Savile Row Story (1988) disinterred a Lloyd’s Weekly News headline on a sweatshop exposure of 1892: ‘The Duke of York’s Trowsers Made in a Fever Room.’

Chenoune is a French fashion journalist whose book was supported by the Fédération des Industries du Vêtement Masculin. His ‘accessible’ (i.e. readable) text is said by the publishers to lay before us ‘the entire fabric of the intellectual, spiritual and material forces of the modern age’, which is pitching it a bit strong. Certainly Chenoune has read his Chateaubriand and his Proust, his Scott Fitzgerald and his Ernest Hemingway, as well as the Tailor and Cutter and Journal des Tailleurs; he has studied a history of the Hawaiian shirt and he knows where to put his hand on the fanzine called Sniffin’ Glue. His objective approach is praised in a preface by Richard Martin, Curator of the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, himself the co-author of a history of 20th-century men’s fashion called, with a touch of subjectivity, Jocks and Nerds. It is from Martin’s preface that the phrase ‘a syncopated disestablishmentarianism’, used in relation to zoot suits, is lifted; his less accessible prose also contains a throwaway reference to ‘berdache ambiguity and unisex utopianism’. (Berdache: an American Indian male transvestite. Forget it.).

A History of Men’s Fashion is misleadingly titled. It skips the centuries of kirtles and doublets and does not begin until the late 18th century, in that tight-loined, pre-trousers age when a gentleman might need a relay of lackeys to fit him into his breeches. As one had often suspected, there were other difficulties for the full-blooded wearer, and one of them was that ‘tight breeches immediately let everyone know just what a man was thinking’; to the delight, it is here claimed, of aristocratic ladies. What a picture the disorderly imagination conjures up: a grand ball in the assembly rooms, reeking of scent, sweat and bad teeth, with hot candle fat plopping down into the ladies’ bare chests, and gentlefolk exchanging non-stop courtesies on the lines of

‘Pleased to meet you.’

‘So I see.’

In essence, Chenoune’s book, like that of Hardy Amies, tells of the rise and near-eclipse of the suit, as evolved from the gentleman’s riding coat, and of the attempts by successive counter-cultures, delinquent and otherwise, to discredit it. In recent times ‘suit’ has been one of the dirtiest of four-letter words, especially if grey, or if worn by a BBC boss and cut by Armani. But we have now reached a point where any sensible ram-raider or child-strangler is careful to wear a suit in the dock; and a suit is not unknown at a terrorist’s funeral. It has been an instructive story. For general urban wear, the lounge or business suit dates from about 1900, after which tail coats were reserved for more formal occasions. The suit survived the clerkly associations of paper cuffs and high celluloid collars; it survived the strictures of Dr Hans Jaeger, who thought that the open tubes of trouser legs posed ‘pathological problems’, encouraging cold air to ascend the leg while the stomach overheated (Shaw, of course, wore Jaeger knickerbockers); it survived all the efforts of the Men’s Dress Reform Party, four of whose fearless avatars are seen in a celebrated photograph on the cover of this book; it survived the hazards and vulgarities of mass-production and the jeers of ‘off the peg’; it survived the ‘chic fatigué’ of the future Duke of Windsor, who sought out special tailors to make his trousers (though not in a fever den); it survived the loss of the waistcoat, killed off by the double-breasted suit and central heating; it survived all that the Beatles could do to it in the ‘Peacock Revolution’; and it may yet survive the attempts of the master tailors to price themselves out of existence.

Chenoune finds himself repeatedly paying tribute to the English influence on men’s fashion. Successive waves of Anglomania swept France even during the Revolutionary wars, when the sans-culottes were declaring their own war on taste. Anglomania popularised the Beau Brummell image, the Savile Row cut, Oxford bags and even that princely ‘chic fatigué’, and foreigners could never have enough glen plaid and rugged tweed. If Paris led women’s fashions, London set the style for men. The French did not take it all lying down. About 1830, we learn, the Romantics forestalled the punk movement. The fashionable look was that of the decayed dandy, the mock-consumptive with a ‘greenish-cadaverous’ complexion worked up from dangerous chemicals or alternatively a ‘verdigris-bronze’ finish which wilted and ran under a hot sun. Romantic dress included Van Dyck doublets, short archer’s pants and Henry IV ruffles. Poor Walter Scott was blamed for much of this. At other times, disaffected elements on both sides of the Channel have delighted in dressing up in military relics. Young men who wore spectacles to avoid conscription by Napoleon were quick to adopt martial styles when the risk was over. Many of us remember how the dishonouring of uniforms was advanced to an art form in the King’s Road.

Tirelessly, Chenoune identifies the ‘microgenerations’ who experimented in ‘new ways of being and appearing’, meaning new ways of outraging their elders. As flagitious an offence as any was that of the Teddy Boys, who hi-jacked and parodied the styles of young Guards officers. The author judiciously analyses the homosexual appeal of Carnaby Street, where not everyone at first grasped what was going on. A lingering innocence still prevailed; the fashion-mad tribes were not yet prepared to steal the shoes from each other’s feet or the jackets from each other’s backs. Chenoune fairly gets into his stride when describing the Parisian excesses of the last decade. The attention-seekers had taken to dressing themselves with ‘irony, distanciation, kitsch, camp and high camp’. Or in other words: ‘They developed an appreciation of carefully-controlled negligence, of an impeccable state of wear-and-tear, of approximate precision, of the perfect defect, of exact imbalance’. The provocative Jean-Paul Gaultier, we are told, chose his models for their physical quirks or the beauty of their defects. Here is an extract from an account of one of his shows:

Inside, Gaultier’s witch-boys swivelled their hips as they paraded in shot-silk sarongs, his Gypsypirates looked wild in ruffled muslin blouses, and his madwoman-thugs towered in spike-heeled, thigh-high boots. Excited by such hardcore humour – described as back-room gay-club stuff, to the horror of American critics – the audience would whistle or burst into laughter, applauding this infantile yet wily way of being sexy by doctoring the sex of clothing.

A photograph of Gaultier shows him being turned away from the Cannes Film Festival for being improperly dressed, an offence one would have thought impossible to commit. He appears to be merely trouserless and for all one knows was practising distanciation, or displaying the beauty of his defects. For the garment trade all this nonsense was so much grist; their job was to ‘valorise’ the latest fad, to take their cue from the underworld or the madwoman-thugs when it suited them, and keep their workshops in production.

Even if he shows a certain nostalgia for dead follies, Chenoune has turned up some wonderful material. He tells us how, in the Second Empire, a dandy had to have a tic as well as a full range of speech impediments. A writer of the day explained: ‘The tic involved closing one eye with a certain movement of the mouth ... An elegant man should always have something ... convulsive and tense about him.’ The perfect aid to the orchestration of tics was already at hand in the form of the monocle. In the ‘Did you know ...?’ department comes the news that the bow-tie was originally a gesture to the age of aviation, in its resemblance to an aeroplane propeller; if this is so, the comedian’s bow-tie which revolves when wound up had historical sanction. And did you know that the United States Marines were called out in 1943 in Los Angeles to put down rioting zoot-suiters, whose offence was not so much that they were a blot on the landscape as that they were wasting cloth in defiance of war-time sumptuary laws? Or that the Vichy regime also lost patience with their zazous (the equivalent of zoot-suiters) and stood by while collaborationist youth groups beat them up and scalped them? The moral for today may be that when the chips are down the authorities will not hesitate to declare war on the young.

There are one or two topics which even this wide-ranging author neglects and one of them is the zip. The American admen promoted it in the Thirties by running large photographs of bulging, buttoned flies with an arrow pointing to the gaps and the exclamation: ‘Inexcusable!’ They did not explain that when the zip broke, as it often did, it could cost several hundred times the price of a button to replace, or that taxis might have to be hired to hide the victim’s discomfiture, or even that this supposedly user-friendly device had the capacity to inflict hideous wounds. It may be that buttoned flies, and before them flaps, falls and codpieces, lacked a certain elegance, but it is impossible to picture Beau Brummell fiddling with a zip, still less trying to engage the elusive component parts on one of those bum-freezing outdoor coats, an operation which wastes thousands of man-hours every winter. Who loves zips, other than the television producers who show us gentlemen audibly operating them as they exchange information in those obligatory urinal scenes? Chenoune does not wholly ignore the zip. He quotes an authority as saying, in the context of jeans, that the zip ‘tended to underscore the anatomy rather than hide it’. Well, yes, one did not have to be an aristocratic lady to notice that. Another omission from these pages is any discourse on the subject of T-shirts boasting slogans, advertisements, names of bogus universities, jokes and obscenities. The author mentions the way in which designers took to applying their labels all over their garments, like graffiti gangs registering their ‘tags’, but does not speculate on why the human race has felt irresistibly drawn to providing such a miscellany of reading-matter on chest and back. Is it part of the strange compulsion felt by every other motorist to let his car dealer advertise on the rear window for years on end and to fill the rest of the available space with hortatory stickers? Discuss, but not too much.

The translator of Chenoune’s book, Deke Dusinberre, has faced quite a challenge. Sound, fluent English prevails for most of the way, but in the later pages the nature of the material begins to shape the vocabulary and we read of hoods and gals taking part in rumbles, and sandalled cats padding up the rue Saint-Denis to startle the ‘dopey’ tourists. (Can we be sure it is only the tourists who are dopey?) An old-fashioned English proofreader, hired for a couple of days, could have picked up the mis-spellings and pointed out that ‘Doctor Livingstone, I presume?’ was not uttered by one John Rowlands Stanley. A full-page picture shows Edward, Prince of Wales, at a sporting event with his jacket buttoned the wrong way, the photograph having been reversed; another full-page picture of a French singer has suffered the same treatment. Thus do the lay-out people make Charlies out of us. A fine but tenebrous picture of Liszt shows him wearing something black up to his neck, but what it is cannot be discerned. However, the illustrations in the main are apt and delightful, and lavish to a degree. One keeps returning to Frith’s Derby Day crowd, heavily overdressed by modern standards, and wondering how the painter would have coped with a hotweather English crowd of today – half the men shirtless, half the women skirtless, with frayed and designer-torn fabrics failing to conceal scars, tattoos, body hair, blotches, stretchmarks, love-bites, cellulite thighs and so on.

Hardy Amies, who is mentioned only in passing by Chenoune, is one who deplores the failure of his contemporaries to dress for the occasion. Was it Robert Morley who complained that the modern theatre audience had come to resemble a mob which, threatened by some imminent natural disaster, had hastily flung on the nearest garments to hand? It is plain rude to be ill-dressed in cities, says Sir Hardy. He mentions many usages he holds to be naff, including the wearing of a breastpocket handkerchief purely for show, a white shirt (because it does not look bespoke) and – ‘effortlessly naff’ – a white dinner jacket, which is wrong anywhere in Europe (‘I don’t suppose it matters what you wear in the Caribbean’). It is also ill-advised to wear a shirt collar draped, Byron-fashion, over the collar of a jacket, as Somerset Maugham is seen doing in Chenoune’s book.

It was Sir Hardy who, in 1959, rattled Savile Row by undertaking to design suits for the multiple-tailoring firm of Hepworth. ‘We knew that we were going to use my name on cheap clothes. Our courage paid off. It was the serious beginning of the licence business which sustains “couture” all over the world.’ Now if Moses and Son could have done that back in Dickens’s day. (‘That’s a Moses coat!’ the discerning were said to exclaim.) Sir Hardy is proud of the part he has played in popularising the decent English suit in Japan, Korea and Taiwan, and it may well be that his label is cherished in the Caribbean. The Americans began by opposing his jacket vents, but now the verdict is ‘You’ll never get Americans to give up vents. They cover up their big asses.’ Amies praises the Italian skill in showing off a neat bum (St Homobonus, an Italian, would appreciate that) and is strongly appreciative of Giorgio Armani’s ability to give his lightweight clothes that bespoke look. Sir Hardy wants us to know that he was not born a gentleman and that he became a lieutenant-colonel in the last war. He writes in a chatty ‘I hope I haven’t bored you’ style and repeats himself a good deal, especially on the art of button-placing; mercifully, not one of his illustrations has been reversed. His thinnish book has the air of having been dashed off in a hurry, but then we Edwardians have not all the time in the world. The chapter on shirts has an epigraph from one of the suppressed poems of Tennyson:

What profits now to understand
  The merits of a spotless shirt,
A dapper boot – a little hand –
  If half the little soul is dirt?

These lines appeared in Punch in 1846 as part of an exchange of incivilities with the dandyish Edward Bulwer-Lytton. A shade naff, some may feel, but what a splendid motto for Jermyn Street.