WHAT THE MAN WILL WEAR
by William Lyon Phelps
Men, women, and children are all interested in clothes; there have been many scholarly works, displaying vast erudition, on the history of costume; and two literary masterpieces, dealing with the philosophy of clothes, belong permanently to literature-A Tale of a Tub,by Jonathan Swift, and Sartor Resartus,by Thomas Carlyle.
So much attention has recently been paid in the newspapers and by the public to the clothes of women, that we are forgetting what revolutionary changes have taken place in the garments of men. Women's clothes have decreased in number, weight, and size. Men's clothes have gone through a process of softening. Hard hats, hard collars, hard shirts, hard shoes, hard suits, have given way to soft; and, for the first time in centuries, the carcasses of males are comfortably clad.
One hundred years ago the average gentleman, not satisfied with covering his body with an accumulation of intolerably thick clothes, wound an enormous stock around his neck. How stifling they look in those old family portraits! Robert Louis Stevenson applied an unexpected but accurate adjective to those collections of oil paintings of deceased ancestors, with which their descendants adorned walls of their dining rooms. Stevenson called them "these constipated portraits."
This is the way my father dressed on practically every morning of his life; that is, after he left the farm, and entered upon the practice of his profession. He wore long, heavy flannel underwear, reaching to his ankles and his wrists. He put on a "hard-boiled," white, full-bosomed shirt, stiff as sheet-iron. At the neck he fastened a stiff, upright, white linen choker collar; at the ends of the sleeves he buttoned on thick, three-ply linen cuffs. He imprisoned his feet, ankles, and shins in black, stiff, leather boots, reaching to the knees, but concealed above the ankles by his trousers. He wore a long-tailed coat, a waistcoat, and trousers made out of thick, dark-blue or black broadcloth. The trousers were strapped over his shoulders by suspenders. For the top of his head there was a tall, heavy, beaver hat.
Thus, clad in impenetrable armour from head to foot, he set out for the day's work.
Fifty years ago was the age of dressing-gown and slippers. Why is it we never hear slippers mentioned nowadays? I have not owned a pair of slippers (except bedroom slippers) for more than thirty years. Yet in Victorian novels we are always reading of how, when the breadwinner returns to his home in the evening, he finds his slippers ready for him, warmed on the hearth. My father always took off his great boots-worn in summer as well as in winterand put on his slippers when he came home, having called it a day.
Poets, novelists, and men whose occupation kept them at home, sat down to their desk in dressing-gown and slippers. The moment a man sat down in his own house to anything, with no immediate thought of going out, dressinggown and slippers were the regulation costume. They were like knights-at-arms, taking off their suits of mail when they entered the interior of the castle.
Eventually the knee-boots gave way to high shoes-called boots in England-which were laced up to the top. In time these were succeeded by low shoes, which are now worn by millions of Americans the year round.
The swaddling, stiffing, heavy underclothes were scrapped, and their place taken by sleeveless, shinless undergarments, light in weight, and more or less open in texture. Best of all, the intolerable stiff shirt, the bottom edge of which cut into the abdomen, and bellied out above like a sail in a fair wind, was reserved only for formal evening wear; shirts were made and worn that had no trace of starch in front, back, collar or cuff. I have not worn a stiff shirt (except for evening) in twenty years.
Suspenders (braces) became obsolete; and the pleasant belt came in, the belt that may be loosened or tightened at will, and which in any case leaves the shoulders free. In hot weather the waistcoat was discarded; and the man in his thin, loose clothes moved about almost as easily as Adam in Paradise.
Various are the names for the round stiff hat, derby, dicer, pot hat, bowler, billy-cock. Under any name it is just as bad. Some fifteen or twenty years ago the derby went temporarily out of fashion. Up to that time, if you looked into a cloak-room by a hotel dining-room, you saw about two hundred men's hats looking exactly alike.Now you see a vast assortment of soft headgear, grey, brown, green, all of pleasing shape.The thousands of men at a football game now show variety aloft, instead of the intolerable black monotony of former years. I have not owned a "derby" since the war. Apart from my own hatred of the object, I always crushed it getting in or out of an automobile. And one indentation ruins a derby forever: every wound is mortal.
I am quite aware that the derby is returning. Everyone knows the nation-wide fame acquired by a certain brown derby. But no stiff hat, black or brown, will ever adorn my brows again during the hours of daylight.
The English, owing to their horrible climate and also partly to an invincible conservatism, still wear heavy clothes, thicksoled high shoes, braces, waistcoats, etc., even in hot weather. The only reform they have made is discarding the frock coat for daily wear, which up to a very few years ago was universal. A common sight in London was to see clerks going to the "city" on bicycles, arrayed in "Prince Albert" coats.
The clothes of an American tourist still look funny to an Englishman; how funny I never realised until I attended a play in London where an American was the object of good-natured caricature. He came on the stage with low shoes and silk shoe-laces, bright, thin socks, trousers held by a belt, no waistcoat, and jacket unbuttoned. The audience burst into roars of laughter and I laughed too, because he did look queer by contrast with the other actors. Then I suddenly realised that I was dressed precisely like the man they were laughing at!
One more reform must be made in men's dress; and I believe it will come. In very hot weather, men must be allowed to discard the jacket. Even a thin jacket, with its collar and shouldercloth, is intolerable. A clean, attractive shirt, with soft collar and necktie, and belt around the trousers, looks so sensible in hot weather that it ought to become the rule rather than the exception.