Friday, May 20, 2011

Former Casual, Formal Causual.

Chapter 15
The more interested you become in wearing clothes befitting one who has passed puberty and has become a productive member of society in some form or another, the more questions are raised about just why some things are considered proper, and other things aren't.

The march of technology has changed the face of the planet in every way. A television of today looks and works nothing like a television of twenty years ago, although it performs the same function. The telephone has evolved from an ungainly box on the wall, powered by a cranked dynamo, and patched by a switchboard operator, to a tiny sliver of plastic in your pocket that can go anywhere, connect with anyone, and play music and movies to boot.

Why not, then, write off the leather balmoral, with its ancient brogueing and laces and welts and stitching, in favor of the Croc shoe? Crocs are easy to produce, made of modern materials, are comfortable, sturdy, waterproof, and drain well. The purposes of a tie and coat are lost in the mists of antiquity; why is it required to wear things that serve no purpose? Why not march into the new millennium with new clothes, made to serve us as we are now, not a reflection of a dead and forgotten paradigm?

On the surface, it's a compelling argument, and to answer it properly, we'll need to learn a bit of history. I've alluded to this history in previous weeks: now's as good a time as any to go a little deeper into the subject. As with any history, it's not an exact science, and the history of fashion even less so. Innumerable unrelated factors contribute to the Butterfly Effect...but this will do adequately for an overly-simplistic summary.

Young George W.
Let's begin looking at the middle of the eighteenth century. Everyone that has a passing knowledge of history, (or barring that, owns at least one American dollar,) knows how the Founding Fathers dressed. Young George Washington wore typical fashionable dress for the era; not formalwear, mind you, but everyday business attire. Powdered wigs, worn long, tied with a bow, and topped with a tricorn hat. Long, wide coats and waistcoats, trimmed with lace and decorative embroidery. Knickers of satin, white silk hose, shoes with silver buckles. Its origin was thoroughly French, and its style was the lingua Franca, (not surprisingly,) throughout Europe.

Wm. Bowdoin, 1748.
We might be wearing some variation of this today, if it wasn't for a cold, damp, island called England. In fact, we owe modern clothing to three factors:
(1) the British are an outdoor people, who like their sport more than poncing about indoors,
(2) the British Empire controlled most of the planet, and
(3) British colonials took as much of England with them as they could, rather than assimilate with the locals.

If the world had been conquered and colonized by, say, the Moroccans, or the Chinese, the face of clothing worldwide today would undoubtedly look vastly different. The West might have had centuries of loose-flowing cloaks and robes of brightly patterned cotton and silk. But Britain is not in a temperate climate, and had been undergoing a Little Ice Age for centuries. England's location was optimal for raising sheep for their wool, and keeping warm in the cold and wet dictated wearing multiple layers of clothing. So that is exactly what the British brought with them when they took over somewhere; the trappings of Civilisation, Order and Tea.

Nicolas Tiolier, 1817.
The English country gentleman found the French fashions were terrible for spending time outdoors. The brocades and velvets were delicate and tore easily, and they were hard to keep clean of the English rain and mud. It was also a pain to ride in. So they had their clothes made of plain and sturdy cloth, made their waistcoats shorter, and cut off the front of their coat skirts, to get rid of the bulk over their knees when on horseback. These country clothes gained favor with the English gentry, who, appreciating their comfort and stoutness, started wearing them in the city. Conservatives were aghast, at first. By the Regency era, the old everyday French fashion was used only for formal Court occasions, and the country riding-coat had become everyday wear.

And that trend, the country-city-formal progression, is why you wear what you wear today. Yesterday's casual clothes, become today's business clothes, and tomorrow's formalwear. (And interestingly, in an odd reversal, the day after tomorrow it becomes servants' livery!)  Let's spend a few minutes and track this trend, right up to the present-day.

But in the same way that the old Court Dress became fixed as formalwear as it was pushed aside by the tailcoat, by the end of the Regency era, the tailcoat started to be reserved for more elegant purposes, and began to fall out of favor for everyday wear.

Chas. Trevelyan, 1840
Taking its place was the frock coat. Cut with full skirts all the way around, it was originally worn over the riding coat for warmth, but now was cut tighter, and worn as a dashing and shapely full-length jacket. As the frock became established as everyday wear, the tailcoat became fossilized as full-formal wear...and lost the variety of color and materials it employed in the Regency era. (The old French fashion was now employed for servant's livery. It was not unusual for a gentleman in a tailcoat to be waited on by a man in a powdered wig.)

The sportswear of the time was the morning coat, which was a cutaway frock coat used for riding as morning exercise. Can you guess what happened? Yes, that's right: it was worn in town, conservatives were horrified, but in a few years, the swallowtail morning coat was standard business wear, and the frock coat was beginning to be considered stodgy and formal. Fashionable servants' liveries now favored the riding-coat over the French coats.

The talma.
Enter the sportswear of the mid-century, the paletot. Originally a modified Spanish cape called a talma, it was a wide coat with wide sleeves, shorter in length and much less restrictive than a frock coat. Made less billowy and a bit closer fitting, it became known as the sack coat or the lounge coat. They were a form of leisurewear; for casual lounging, hence the name. You know the routine: began to be worn in town, conservatives shocked, et cetera. Now we've bumped the morning coat up to formal wear, codifying its standards, and the sack coat becomes de rigeur for work. The servants, meanwhile, are wearing tailcoats.

The sack suit, in ditto form. Sears' designs from 1906.
The next wave of sportswear in the late nineteenth century is the ditto suit. Worn at the beach or on vacation, it was the ultimate expression of casual idleness:  a three-piece easy-fitting sack suit with all three pieces made of the same fabric! The outcome should be obvious by now...Ditto suits become seen in town, the lounge coat gets a boost of formality, (and you've already been introduced to its cousin, the Tuxedo,) and the household staff was now wearing the morning suits.

Ditto suit as business wear, 1897.
For a long time, the three-piece business suit reigned supreme. It wasn't immediately replaced with sportswear, because sportswear no longer consisted of a variation of the "jacket formula." It did go through many variations of cut, drape, and fullness. Even though it's sort of cheating to equate a trim sack suit of 1910 with a broad-shouldered, draped swingback suit of 1940, the differences are really just in details of cut and fit. The essence of the suit remains the same. 

Casual ditto suit,
meet the casual lounge jacket.
But a casual replacement did eventually come: the sports coat -- an odd lounge jacket of loud pattern and flamboyant detail, designed to be worn with slacks. They were worn in town, and predictably, conservatives were befuddled. And then, they became everyday wear, the three-piece suit became formalized, and staff was seen in tuxes.

This isn't a hard-and-fast timeline, of course; there are decades of overlap in the styles, because not everyone throws out their old clothes the moment a new style comes out. All of the old forms are preserved in some immovable, musty way. British Court dress is essentially the French mode. Hunting Scarlet is the old riding-coat. White Tie retains the form of the tailcoat. People still go to Ascot in morning coats, and the Tuxedo (and its daytime lounge coat counterpart, the stroller,) are still worn. And the king of Tongo, as you saw at the Prince's wedding, favored the old-style frock suits.

And that brings us to today.  Today's sportswear, as we all know, is a baseball cap, sneakers, jeans, and a tee-shirt. It's worn ubiquitously -- and now you can see the pattern observed through hundreds of years of history! Conservatives were predictably aghast when men were first seen schlepping through town with no shirt and flipflops. Some men (notably IT techs) dress for work today just like this. The sports coat is now considered the extent of most necessary levels of formality. And butlers dress in three-piece suits.

So you see, nothing exists in a vacuum. Even the most recent sportswear, vying for everyday attire, is just the latest mode in a long continuum of sportier garments replacing the previous fashion along the way. But what will replace the tee-shirt? We have the sports coat-style lounge jacket remaining as the last holdout -- but what after that? Once it becomes formal wear -- the twenty-first century "tuxedo" -- what will be our new sportswear?

Dressing like a grownup isn't a reactionary counteraction back to an antiquated mode of Victorian dress: it's merely forestalling the inevitable, by holding the sartorial battle line where it is -- Lounge jackets for everyday use, suits for business, Tuxedos for semi-formal affairs. Change will come, as it always does -- but it won't be into a tee-shirt. Someday, our advanced New Millennium technology will develop a form of sportswear that will be a suitable replacement for the lounge jacket.

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  1. Amazing blog. Stumbled across it looking for clarification between Spectators and Wingtips (which you helped me realize were not mutually exclusive).

  2. I'm glad I could be of assistance, and equally glad that you've discovered my little corner of the web!

  3. Polos with chinos and zippered jackets as business attire of the future. Judges in tuxedos. Neck ties at weddings.

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  6. In 70s and 80s British officer were the three piece suit for their daily routines, also for sportswear which is quite different now a days.

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