Friday, February 24, 2012

Downton, Things'll Be Great When You're Downton

Chapter 55
This week marks the end of the second season of Downton Abbey here in America, and it's safe to say that the nation is in the throes of Downton Fever. Well, a small cadre of the nation, anyway, has fallen in love with this little ITV/PBS costume melodrama; and there are no shortages of online commentators and bloggists dissecting its popularity for our edification. 

Some say it speaks to a longing for a simpler time when all people knew what to do, what was expected of them, and where they stood in relation to others, for good or for ill. Some say it is an Anglophilic longing for all things British, and a national American regret that we have fallen away from a strong monarchy. Some say it is a political reaction to the buffoonery of the upper classes, who rely upon those whom they consider their inferiors, and without whom they would be powerless. Some say it is a reaction against today's hectic, twenty-four-slash-seven, overly technocratized life of twitters and emails and, yes, blogs. And some say it's all about the simple human stories of love, treachery, mistakes, and redemption.

They're all wrong, of course. It's all about LA5678,
that blue 1911 Renault Type CB 12/16hp Laundaulet,
the sexy lady that's the real star of the show.
No, I'm just joking. Sort of.
It's all about the clothes. The dresses and frocks of the Ladies of the House have been the subject of much scrutinization on the Interwebs. But because the name of this blog is Dress Like A Grownup!, we're focusing today on the menswear -- but not in the way you might first suspect.

One thing Downton has going for it is a fair amount of visual historical accuracy. From the footmens' livery and chauffeurs' uniforms, to the butlers' and valets' suits, to the casual wear and dress suits of Them Upstairs, Downton is a veritable encyclop√¶dia of historical clothing styles across all classes, times of day, and social settings. 

What can we, as twenty-first century males, take away from this little period piece, set (so far!) in 1911-1921? Can we use anything we've seen in this series to apply to our lives today? Is there any knowledge to be gleaned from this far-off world of stiff-bosomed shirts, detachable collars, and pheasant hunting parties?

Of course there is. Otherwise I wouldn't be blogging about it, would I? Here are some lessons that come to mind, germinated by the series:
What Downton Can Teach Us

Even the poorest manual laborer can dress well. The upper classes, of course, are always dressed in the finest cut and materials, and the working-classes have their business suits. But the lower classes, the servants and laborers, are also dressed well, even when not waiting upon their masters. The workers in town, the servants on their off-time, or working after-hours, or even relaxing at the fair -- are all dressed as well as they can afford. It may be threadbare and secondhand, perhaps a bit tatty, but they know the importance of looking the best one can.

Fashions are not stagnant. It is fallacy to look to broadcasts like Downton as the criterion of what would pass for proper dress today. Even within the limited scope of the program, the styles of the clothes men wear progress noticeably with the passing years. In short, to dress in proper 1915 attire would not be proper today: it would be costume. However, to dress in the same spirit as they did, but with the substitution of modern habiliment and sensibility, is an undertaking that begins to achieve timeless style.

A tweed for every purpose, and a purpose for every tweed.
Dress for the occasion. Today, the average man wears the same thing, day in and day out, regardless of what he is doing. In the Edwardian era, there was a socially acceptable, proper outfit for absolutely everything. Changing clothes four times a day is excessive now -- but that's no reason to go to the opposite extreme, and wear the same thing to work/at home/out to eat/shopping/playing/on vacation! Change up your wardrobe daily, depending on what you will be doing. 

Dress appropriately. Downton teaches us there are linen outfits for summer picnics, tweed outfits for walks in the fall, and sturdy wools for shooting. There are outfits for the fields, outfits for the towns, and outfits for the cities. There are outfits for mornings, evenings, and late nights. The right clothes not only look right, they feel right. The wrong clothes at the wrong time feel uncomfortable -- for a reason. The same holds true today: overdress, underdress, or misdress, the result is distress. Properly attired and "in tune" to the setting,  you will feel at ease and at one with your surroundings, as will the people who accompany you.

Pop quiz: find the servant in this gathering.
Know the rules. Wearing the right thing in the wrong way, or at the wrong time, is how the servers are separated from the guests. The footmen at Downton Abbey wear tailed evening dress suits, thirty years out of style, with too-long horizontally striped sleeved waistcoats, in the middle of the day. That may look acceptable to modern eyes, but their attire was completely incorrect -- as it was supposed to be. Carson the butler favored a black cutaway morning jacket and striped trousers in the daytime; and Bates the valet, a black stroller: both are business suits, befitting their executive status. The lesson here: if you're not actively doing business, don't wear a business suit. If you don't want to be mistaken for the help, be sure you know how to dress. If you are treading new and uncertain sartorial ground, do your homework first, and make sure you don't make a grievous error in execution. (A contemporary example: far too many people today show up for a wedding dressed for a funeral.)

Dress for women. Men haven't changed since 1915. They didn't want to dress up any more than men today do. Left to ourselves, we'd surely eat dinner in our underwear. But women were the arbiters of good taste, and men dressed to please them -- don't suffer any delusions otherwise. Today, thanks to women's rights and equality and such, men don't care as much about impressing the fair and delicate sex. The inevitable result is the tailspin in which men's clothing has found itself. Start dressing to impress, like the good old bad old days, and the women that notice such things will notice you. And that's a good thing.

Dinner in a tuxedo?
One may just as well eat
in one's pyjamas...
Change for dinner. The days of changing into dress suits every night are long gone...but that is no reason to abandon the practice of changing into something nice for dinner altogether. It's a sign of respect for the time and effort that goes into preparing a meal, first of all. It also gives a bit of a physical break from the day, and affords you a few minutes to wind down, refresh, and change gears from the workaday world. There used to be a definite break between the type of clothes worn during the day, and those worn after dark. It wouldn't be a bad thing if people started remembering those times, and made a break themselves. 

There are many other lessons to be learned from Downton, but I will leave you to find them for yourself. The above tips are more than enough to point you along the right path. The sartorial guidelines in the series are universal. They transcend the ages, and are applicable to all men, regardless of whether your social position tends towards Upstairs or Downstairs.

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