Millican Dalton: A Sublime Midlife Crisis
The relevance of a 20th century cave-dweller to environmental aesthetics.
Wednesday, 23 December 2020
At the mouth of the cave at Borrowdale, May 2020. Photograph: Lewis Eaton.
On a swelteringly hot day in the North Western Fells of The Lake District, the gaping mouth of a cave offered itself as a refuge and swallowed us mercifully into its cool damp interior. Caves are otherworldly places. This particular cave, set into the hillside of Castle Crag, allows you to peer out at the gently swaying trees and glimmering daylight of the outside world from a viewing point void of light and sound. The daytrip itself had been to seek refuge in The Lakes; an attempt at replacing the stagnancy of a locked-down city summer with a more welcome, less claustrophobic, kind of tranquillity. We spent a few minutes scrambling around on the siltstone, marvelling at the height of the cave walls and exchanging the obligatory comments about feeling small in big spaces. On leaving, I noticed a large, flat stone covered in scrawlings. At the centre in neat, deeply-etched letters read ‘Don’t Waste Words, Jump to Conclusions’ with dozens of smaller sections of writing surrounding this. Each gave names and dates, with many faded with age and dissolving back into the stone’s surface. It was from a frantic Googling during the car ride home that I came to find out we had happened across a sort-of pilgrimage place for hikers: the cave in which a man had lived out his summers for over forty consecutive years.
In 1904, at the age of thirty-six, Millican Dalton gave up his life as an insurance clerk in London in order to dedicate himself to The Great Outdoors. Having spent part of his childhood in Nenthead, the North Pennines, he found life and work in the capital stifling in comparison. From then on Dalton split his year, spending the summer months in the cave under Castle Crag and winters in a canvas hut in Buckinghamshire. Far from your conventional hermit, Dalton was an active and sociable member of the community. He organised camping excursions for the outdoors novice which included teaching hiking, rock climbing, rafting and how to forage for food. What I found extraordinary for the time was that these excursions didn’t exclude women, with one of Dalton’s advertisements for a mountaineering course stating his views bluntly: “Ladies are welcome to the camp. There is nothing new in ladies camping, the custom being at least 10,000 years old.” This rare indiscriminate approach led to Dalton forging a long-lasting friendship with geologist Mabel Barker, who over the years consistently recommended Dalton’s courses to women students and friends.
Dalton and Barker atop a needle, 1913. The Mable Barker Collection.
Like it or not, appearances matter. As indifferent current-day interviewers may wish to seem, or first date candidates, judgments are inevitably made about the clothes we wear, and how we wear them. Threat not, however, as dressing well need not be a stressful endeavour. On the contrary, in fact. The world of tailored menswear, as old hat as it may seem, is perhaps traditional in its ideology, but undeniably complex (to the participant’s benefit). My column endeavours to present, dissect, and endorse the phenomenon of dressing well, whilst concurrently, I hope, providing entertaining literature for all to enjoy.
Grasping ‘Vintage’: Bespoke, Reworked, and Second-Hand Parisian Style
by Henry Kauntze | 5 Dececmber 2022
It’s the world’s capital for fashion, the home of Coco Chanel, Louis Vuitton, and Christian Dior, and the host of a biannual fashion week on par with, or arguably superior to, those of London, New York, and Milan. Away from the catwalk, however, Paris houses two brands of a slightly smaller scale, but of particular interest to me, Husbands and Brut, both located in the city’s central arrondissments, and both founded in 2012.
Left: Nicolas Gabard of Husbands. Photograph from https://heinfienbrot.tumblr.com/post/178985587670/nicolas-gabard-of-husbands
Right: Paul Ben Chemhoun of Brut Archives (on left). Photograph from https://www.instagram.com/p/Cik8aVnLKi4/
At face value, the brands couldn’t be more different. Nicolas Gabard of Husbands, a former lawyer-turned-tailor, took inspiration from the ‘70s flare so vibrantly exhibited by Mick Jagger and Bryan Ferry to create a tailoring house that has revitalised the suit, making it an option not only for Wall Street bankers, but for a new generation of consumers for whom dressing conventionally is not a necessity. Paul Ben Chemhoun, a long-time flea market enthusiast, initially formed Brut as a vintage shop, but began collecting and curating military garments and workwear, repairing them, and eventually making original pieces under the shop’s name.
In a sense, one needn’t visit anywhere else besides these two shops, especially if a vintage look is to be achieved. Husbands can supply an arsenal of suits with strong shoulders, shirts in pastels and stripes, and neckties ranging from knitted to regimental variants, all of which would be appropriate for the modern-day office. For the weekends and holidays, Brut provides its customers with a surplus of chore coats, fisherman sweaters, and denim. In fact, a wardrobe comprised of garments made by each brand would bring a great deal of continuity, both in terms of sartorial philosophy and style.
“We seek passion, integrity and honesty in every single garment.”
– Husbands Paris
Left: Husbands Double-Breasted Linen Suit (Blue/Green). Photograph from https://husbands-paris.com/en/shop/double-breasted-linen-suit-blue-green/
Right: Husbands Single-Breasted Three Button Cashmere Jacket (Gun Club Check). Photograph from https://husbands-paris.com/en/shop/single-breasted-cashmere-jacket-brown-gun-club/
Husbands does have an undeniably ‘70s feel to it, what with its bellbottom trousers, high waists, and massive lapels. But the tailoring house is transparent in the fluidity of its historical inspiration. Some of their ‘pants’, for instance, have a very ‘60s, slightly slimmer look, and in an interview with Sharp Magazine, it was revealed that the brand is working on lower-waisted denim rooted more so in the 2000s. The brand’s name is derived from John Cassavetes’ 1970 film by the same title, as the film’s characters were the type of men whom Gabard wanted to dress. They weren’t the embodiments of misconceptions about masculinity (muscular, tall, objectively handsome etc.). These characters were instead ‘real’ men, men with bodily imperfections, of which few are exempt. Husband’s clothes, then, do something that a lot of brands fail to do today. They accentuate the male form’s assets by creating a padded shoulder and longer leg with a high waist and by hiding a larger stomach or seat (for instance, with proportionally well-cut fabric). Their bespoke service, no doubt, provides the best way for finding the ideal fit. Crucially, these are clothes that you wear, not clothes that wear you. They are inspired by a time when men didn’t feel the need to squeeze themselves into spray-on skinny jeans, as has happened within the past decade. They are honest, too, in their pricing. Husbands is certainly not cheap, but with a hefty price tag, good quality and timeless style go without saying.
Left: Brut ‘60s Canadian Lightweight Pants. Photograph from https://brut-clothing.com/collections/surplus-pants/products/canadian-lightweight-pants?variant=41616912875701
Right: Brut Calypso Shirt. Photograph from https://brut-clothing.com/collections/brut-shirts/products/calypso-shirt-brut-vintage-store-paris?variant=41602144960693
Similarly, Brut’s clothes allow the modern man to dress in a way that references the past. For the most part, the cut of their garments is such that most people will look good in them, and this notion of providing attire for the masses has undeniable military heritage. A lot of Brut’s clothes are either inspired by or are genuine ‘deadstock’ military surplus. Take these Canadian Lightweight Pants from the ‘60s as an example. When dressing an army of men, little concern was dedicated to the way items fit. They were either the right size, or they weren’t. I imagine that few would frankly care about whether you liked the cut of your assigned uniform. Yet, in a time like now, when greater emphasis is placed on personal satisfaction in terms of criteria like cut and measurement, these trousers are a breath of fresh air. The very nature of the trousers means that you would not necessarily worry about whether they’re going to be too tight. In an industry now guided by fast fashion and modern styles, garments like these take their wearer back to a time when fatigue pants were utterly utilitarian and were worn by people who had more important matters at hand than style. But once they are reframed within a discourse of sartorialism, they draw parallels to the clothes made at Husbands, in the sense that contemporary garments can be made or resold with a nod to historic styles and trends but nonetheless can still be suited for the twenty-first century consumer too.
Considering the past, this reminds me of another snippet from the Husbands ‘manifesto’:
“We are inspired by the minds we love.” – Husbands Paris
What I especially like about both of these brands is that they demonstrate the idea that clothes are important, and very interesting (and fun) to involve oneself in, but also that there is more behind them than simply their physical qualities. When I get dressed in the morning, I often find myself thinking of other people. How a certain person, whether he be an actor, musician, or someone I know personally, wore their clothes. I strive to dress in a way that is more complex than simply making myself a billboard for high street brands via boasting large logos, since individuality is achieved through personal touch, rather than ‘advertising’. And in relation to personality (and the personality of clothes), Brut’s upcycling program comes to mind. They take old garments, each with their own histories, and repurpose them, giving them a second lease on life. When they’re worn, then, their possessor (consciously or unconsciously) considers why the clothes look, feel, or even smell the way they do. I have an old French chore coat, not dissimilar to ones sold by Brut, and which I’ve written about before, that always makes me think about its original wearer(s). And I imagine it would be difficult to put on a Husbands three-piece flannel suit, say, without feeling a bit like Jagger himself.
Lastly, a few words on sustainability. There is an argument to be made about the environmental benefits of having clothes made for you. Although questions may be asked about the initial process and how environmentally friendly that is, there is certainly truth in the fact that a jacket and pair of trousers made specifically for you will last a long time. If done by the right tailor, they ought not to go out of style either. In that sense, a custom suit from Husbands would stand you in much better stead, I think, than buying a cheaper suit only for it to wear out and be discarded. This is an expensive course to take, though, which is why Brut provides another brilliant example of how dressing well doesn’t have to damage the planet or break the bank. Wearing old clothes instead of throwing them away is a very basic method of living more sustainably. And as mentioned above, the way their garments are curated and manufactured means they’ll probably be with you for a long time.
Brut Reworked Barbour 022. Photograph from https://brut-clothing.com/collections/rework/products/rework%C2%AE-barbour-022?variant=41592862572725
The year 2012 saw these two stylistically different, but philosophically similar brands become established shops not to be missed when in Paris. Brut and Husbands both connect contemporary clothing with histories of fashion and utility, and they offer a more sustainable way of filling your wardrobe than buying cheap from fast fashion labels. I hope, someday, to have the privilege of owning pieces from these houses.
“I'll Take a Harvard Clip, Please”
“Clothes: dress as you do in a country house. Never wear a tweed jacket and flannel trousers. Always wear a suit. And go to a London tailor; you’ll get a better cut and longer credit.”
by Henry Kauntze | 22 November 2022
If you were around in the ‘50s, and if you happened to find yourself waiting in a Boston barber shop, perhaps flicking through the day’s paper, surrounded by gentlemen in white coats offering a close shave, the smell of pomade in the air, and Perry Como’s dulcet tones emanating from the radio, you may very well have overheard a young preppie asking for a Harvard Clip.
Figure 1. Yale Swimming Team, c.1941 (note the button-down shirt with a double-breasted suit, and odd jacket and trouser combinations). Photo: http://www.ivy-style.com/double-breasted-the-reader-verdict.html
It was a haircut that became incredibly popular amongst young men at Ivy League schools in north-eastern America during the mid-twentieth century, and it took a number of different names depending on which university campus its exponent could be found. Essentially a crew cut, the hairstyle allowed enough length on top for a carefully gelled parting but exhibited a closer taper around the back and sides. It was a fashion that became part of a larger trend during the decades in which the young and privileged took to clothing, initially to express their interest in 1920s sportswear, but later to demonstrate inclusion in an exclusive American subculture. Times change, however, and since Ivy style’s heyday, gentlemen of all ages have worn clothes typically associated with that era.
Before I delve into specifically why men would have wanted to have boasted an Ivy style, and discuss examples of men who did so zealously, I’d like to consider first what truly defines the aesthetic in question. In the twenty-first century, once commonly used terms like ‘trad’, ‘ivy’, and ‘prep’ have amalgamated into an all-encompassing genre of menswear. But this was not always the case. ‘Trad’, short for ‘traditional’ was the original look and had its day several decades before Ivy. It was comparatively formal, although nevertheless was worn in rebellion against the dark business suits and black oxfords preferred by older generations. It was worn by those who felt uncomfortable (and rightly so!) with sporting boat shoes in combination with a tailored jacket. Ivy came next, and its advocates skipped the waistcoats and double-breasted closings in favour of unstructured sack suits, loafers, and button-down shirts. This would have been casual for the time, although not as casual as ‘prep’. My views on preppy clothing are fairly pessimistic, but this is by no fault of its early manifestations. Whereas originally people like Mad Men’s Harold “Harry” Crane might have gotten away with a preppy style in their short-sleeve shirts and bow ties, current day Ralph Lauren lookbooks have sadly succeeded in convincing men that skinny chinos and rugby shirts covered in nauseously vibrant colours are a good look. Proper prep came after Ivy, and it was ever more casual, often with a nautical twist.
Figures 2 & 3, Mad Men’s Harry Crane. Photos: https://www.pinterest.co.uk/pin/209347082670715110/ & https://www.pinterest.co.uk/pin/159174168071997284/
Frequently, when defining a style like Ivy, a list of garments like rep ties and argyle socks are merely provided with no elaboration. While in part I’m guilty of this in the above paragraph, I intend to clarify that there is something greater at hand here, a broader and non-visual schema (a Platonic ideal, even!) behind what makes a look truly Ivy.
Figure 4, Tim Thompson and others, 1964 LIFE magazine. Photo: http://www.ivy-style.com/still-fresh-yale-freshmen-from-the-life-archives.html
Take this image as an example. Shot in 1964 for a LIFE magazine story on Yale freshman Tim Thompson, we see him pictured amongst his contemporaries who are possibly waiting to collect their allowances from the registry. Thompson, the third figure from the right, wears clothing that isn’t particularly special. This photograph, however, is greater than the sum of its parts since it reveals the true variety of Ivy League style. We see young men, all wearing shirts and ties, but one dons a plaid sportscoat, another a blazer, Thompson wears what looks to be a sweatshirt, and the rest wear darker suits and raincoats. And that’s the first thing about Ivy style — its versatility, or rather, its ability to transcend certain dress codes. Polo shirts and slacks are easily as Ivy as a sack suit and loafers, since the style is about attitude and how clothes are worn rather than anything else. It’s about taking the status quo and undermining it, but not to the extent that you’ll ‘get written up’ by a disapproving professor. It’s about wearing a checked blazer when everyone else went for pinstripes, about wearing a varsity jacket without removing your tie, about rolling up your sleeves, or about not wearing any socks. (The student on Thompson’s left does this. It’s not a style I’d go for, but it speaks to the way Ivy Leaguers broke the rules). And I believe such an approach to menswear is very visible in this ’64 photograph, an image that illustrates the attitude that these young men had. Bright and wealthy, they probably strolled around campus like they owned the place. Look at the two leaning on the bureau’s counter. They look older than the rest of the queue, both due to their attire and their attitude. Despite merely being adults, they have the swagger of someone much older.
Ivy League style proves to the hoi polloi that you probably have more money than sense, but that you’re still clever enough to get into a good school and that you know how to dress the part. I wonder, though, if this connection between clothing and nonconformist behaviour was a decision consciously made by the students at these elite universities. J. Press and Brooks Brothers were the main manufacturers of clothes that became associated with Ivy. The former had stores at Harvard and Yale campuses, no doubt offering a student discount. These clothes, then, might have been more like a uniform than a look deliberately chosen as it might be today.
Figure 5, Old G. H. Bass advertisement. Photo: https://www.pinterest.co.uk/pin/AXLn6AYM2eI8uU0yEN_jWIMwiiTXesMJeaJUkLDS1bm7lojCKWjh01Q/
Figure 6, Bass Weejuns illustration, potentially by Roy Lichtenstein. Photo: https://www.bonnegueule.fr/etats-unis-ivy-league-look-etudiants/
Certain items did become subject to cult following, and brand names like G. H. Bass often replaced the word for certain garments such as shoes, their loafers being colloquially referred to as ‘bass weejuns’. In fact, Bass slip-ons started the phenomenon of penny loafers, since students would slip a ten-cent coin into the eyelet on the shoe’s bridge as they walked to the payphone.
Figure 7, Dartmouth College student (note the loafers). Photo: https://www.pinterest.co.uk/pin/365706432214233565/
Ultimately, Ivy League style was about conformity at college, about dressing the same but still dressing differently from the mainstream. But outside of the campus boundaries, others started wearing the same sort of clothes. Jason Jules and Graham Marsh collaborated last year to produce Black Ivy: A Revolt in Style, a book that excellently illustrates the adoption of Ivy by African American musicians, sportsmen, and politicians during the late ‘50s. Miles Davis’s portrait is used on the cover. He wears a mint green OCBD that wouldn’t look out of place in a Princeton lecture theatre. Marsh also published Hollywood and the Ivy Look in collaboration with Tony Nourmand, another publication that records how Paul Newman, Anthony Perkins, and Steve McQueen (amongst many others) wore their clothes with a collegiate attitude in mind, both on and off camera. President Kennedy was also a fan of the style. When he wasn’t in the White House, he took to rolled up trouser legs and canvas shoes in place of sober suits and leather soles.
Figure 8, Miles Davis’s Milestones album cover, 1958. Photo: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Milestonescover.jpg
Figure 9, JFK out of office. Photo: https://www.pinterest.co.uk/pin/517280707211943890/
I’d have loved to experience America in the 1950s, or at least have encountered its style. The decade certainly had its problems, as we still do to this day, but in terms of the way men wore clothes, whether it be at university, at a bar, or on the beach, there was something significant happening. There was inclusion and exclusion, conformity and nonconformity, social cohesion and sartorial hierarchy on campus that just isn’t seen today. The ethos of Ivy, though, is to be remembered. The whole idea of dressing not in stuffy suits but in comfy, soft tailoring, slapping on a crewneck sweater over a shirt and tie, and sliding into some bass weejuns before class has a certain charm to it. These were people who took interest in their appearance but didn’t really care if their shoes could do with a polish. The next time I visit my barber, I shan’t be asking for a Harvard Clip, but more generally I will be thinking about how I can incorporate an element of ‘50s Americana into an otherwise quite British wardrobe.
Revisiting Brideshead Revisited
These are advisory words of Jasper, the austere cousin of Charles Ryder who takes an imperious approach as he oversees the other’s enrolment into Oxford University in Evelyn Waugh’s magnificent novel Brideshead Revisited.
Jeremy Irons (as Charles Ryder) and Anthony Andrews (as Sebastian Flyte) in Brideshead Revisited, 1981
Sartorial enthusiasts were, no doubt, appreciative when Jeremy Irons and Anthony Andrews featured in a 1981 televised version of Waugh’s book, directed by Charles Sturridge and Michael Lindsay-Hogg. The series, comprised of eleven episodes each corresponding to the novel’s elven chapters, was a big hit. For the graduate wistful of their own study in the city of dreaming spires, Brideshead Revisited revealed all of the idiosyncrasies, eccentricities, and peculiarities that would have uncovered themselves during the degree. Or for the inauspicious reject, those early episodes would have exhibited all that makes the archaic “city of aquatint” so painfully desirable, from its university’s ceremony to its enchanting architecture, from its academic rigor to its air of superiority. For the history buff, it offers the perspective of an artist-turned-officer in the dawn of the Second World War, and for the romantic, it offers, well, romance. But for readers who share the same passion for classical, tailored menswear as I do, Brideshead Revisited’s reincarnation on-screen was an unforetold treat. For over eleven hours, viewers are doused in manifold manifestations of different tweeds, flannels, linens, brogues, bountonnières, starched collars, and evening wear. Behind the elegance, though, lies a concern, somewhat of a bitter taste in regard to the prosperity and grandeur inadvertently accepted throughout the series. As a young and pretty cheap student without a pot of gold of my own, it is of personal importance to delineate the difference between dressing well and spending a lot on clothes. Brideshead Revisited thus becomes an inspiring yet problematic presentation on the relationship between affluence and attire.
Open top cars and open neck shirts
Let us consider this further, first by examining the respective wardrobes of Charles and Sebastian. Even in the most informal contexts, the pair are never costumed without a collared shirt. Of course, being set in the first half of the twentieth century, that comes as no surprise, but what sets them apart as garments worn by elite rather than the working class is their pristine condition, appropriate stye (i.e., proportionality and size in relation to both of the characters physiques), and presumable quality, although a close assessment is made tricky by the lower resolution picture symptomatic of the series’ age. In one of Sebastian’s earlier appearances, he wears an off-white, unstarched shirt, a loose-fitting pair of white slacks, two-tone spectator oxfords, and a knitted cream sweater draped over his shoulders (not forgetting, too, Aloysius the infamous teddy bear who accompanies Sebastian, clutched under one arm, in the earlier episodes).
Apart from Aloysius, all these things locate Sebastian’s wardrobe very firmly in the 1920s, a decade which leant away from the stiff conformity of the previous ten years, instead bearing witness to a rise in sportswear and clothing specifically made for leisure. Although sportswear is often worn today by those perhaps less interested in tailoring, in its debut it would have been worn exclusively by those with the time for recreation. Think about the colours, too. Only those who could afford to have their clothes professionally laundered would be daring enough to wear all white in those days.
Diana Quick (as Julia Flyte) in accompaniment with Sebastian and Charles
Charles, coming from a less affluent, but by no means unfortunate background, dresses more customarily. Tweeds and flannels in earth tones. Pastel coloured shirts. Striped rep ties. It would seem, as is applicable in many ways irrespective of clothing, that Charles meets Sebastian, profits from him, and retains a newly found upping in the aftermath of their companionship. What I mean by that is, not only does Sebastian lend Charles clothes, but he inadvertently influences his sartorial tendencies. Most stills from the series show the pair to be wearing nearly identical outfits, and after the disappearance of Sebastian, Charles becomes somehow more confident and convinced in his dress sense. Look at this overcoat, for instance.
Eveningwear. Charles Keating (as Rex Mottram), and Charles wearing a double-breasted fur overcoat
I’m not sure Irons’ character would ever have conceived of donning such an extravagant garment before his association with Sebastian.
Venetian lounge suits
I suppose what I like most about the outfits presented by the two protagonists of Brideshead is their demonstration of individual expression, not only in good measure, but through a number of established conventions. Sure, you’d need to wear a tie to your tutorial, but this was during an age where a white shirt was just one of dozens of options. What was so incredible about the costume designer, Jane Robinson, was her ruthless attention to detail and appreciation of the contemporary style. There is something quite pleasing about everyone, from a distance, looking almost uniformly turned out, but upon closer inspection, realising that everyone had an idiosyncratic approach to dressing, an approach that was influenced by trends but also ‘influencers’ of their time, people like Sebastian.
But to influence was to be affluent, and thus herein lies the dilemma. These characters looked good because they had money, money not to be spent on bread, water, and repairs, but on caviar, Moët, and dinner jackets. Without the phenomenon of an early twentieth-century upper class, I’d be left without inspiration, but with them I’m consumed by envy. As a friend once told me, pursuing classical menswear for the financially restricted is like living a champagne lifestyle on a lemonade budget. On the surface, there’s elegance, but below it there’s bitterness. The solution? As always, buy vintage. The good thing about these sorts of clothes is that no one apart from a select group of enthusiasts find them to be valuable. Old second-hand shops are filled with bespoke suits that have gone unwanted. So, with a bit of digging, it’ll certainly be possible to look just like Sebastian, although I’d advise to leave an Aloysius replica at home if you’ve any intention to be taken seriously!
by Henry Kauntze | 9 November 2022
“Clothes: dress as you do in a country house. Never wear a tweed jacket and flannel trousers. Always wear a suit. And go to a London tailor; you’ll get a better cut and longer credit.”
What Does It Mean to Wear a Trench Coat?
From its use in the trenches of the Western Front to the runways of high fashion, few garments have been more subject to change,
both in terms of anatomy and purpose, than the gaberdine windbreaker.
by Henry Kauntze | 24 October 2022
Last winter, I wanted to find a decent overcoat. I wanted one that was of proper length, that would drape past the knee and reveal only a slither of trouser leg. It had to be warm, but also waterproof. A previous camelhair coat of mine used to insulate perfectly on a bitter December’s morning, but once the heavens opened in the afternoon, I’d be left drenched if caught without an umbrella. It also had to fulfil a criterion I’ve tried to apply to efforts in expanding my wardrobe as of late, namely, that any new garment must have a connection with the past, with the history of a particular subgenre in menswear (Ivy or Prep, for example), or at the very least, draw upon the styles of classical structures of sartorialism. Increasingly so, I’ve become convinced that to truly dress well, to abide by archetypal stylistic guidelines, respect the philosophy of traditional menswear, or to be sure you’ll never go out of style, it is paramount to bear in mind how men used to dress.* That’s why, when I left Hornets of Kensington with a vintage Yves Saint Laurent trench coat almost a year ago, I was nothing less than pleased.
In less than a month’s time, the clocks change and the colder seasons will be upon us. Not only is an extra hour in bed something to look forward to, but for those with an interest in clothing, the fact that temperatures drop means garments like that vintage coat I bought can be rediscovered from the depths of the closet.
What I like most about the piece is that no detail is forgotten. Every characteristic of a traditional trench coat is there. Its ‘anatomy’ is intact, which is less common for newer versions made by fast fashion brands. Constructed with cotton gabardine, it is of course waterproof, but for additional warmth, it’s got a detachable wool lining. The exterior is a light khaki colour. It features raglan sleeves, epaulettes, a gun patch, a deep yoke, a belt, storm pockets, and leather buckles. Although YSL remains a big name in the world of high fashion, it’s refreshing to see that in the past (and even occasionally today, too) it has produced garments that respect the conventions originally offered by Macintosh and Hancock, and then Emary and Burberry during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries when the trench coat was originally conceived. These characteristics reconnect a freshly manufactured coat with those worn by officers in the First World War. In other words, there is a translation of power from past to present. What I believe to be the greatest vice of that sense of authority that trench coats often emit is the fact that they are double-breasted.
J. C. Leyendecker, American Soldier giving directions to a Man in a Suit, 1918
Photograph of Albert Camus (author unknown), c.1940s (https://twitter.com/adapkepinska/status/1325040262058549249)
It is my view that the peaked lapel, six-close-two double-breasted jacket is for men today what a suit of armour was for knights during the medieval period (purely in regard to aesthetics of power, of course). With a healthy shoulder pad, proper length, and snitched waist, the cut of the DB jacket accentuates a man’s upper body better than any other alternative. The stark diagonals of the lapels frame his face and form a juxtaposition with the additional lines created by his collar and necktie. It comes as no surprise then, that for the Yuppies of 1980s New York, London, or Paris, Giorgio Armani’s power suits served their purpose most effectively when they featured a double-breasted closing. And the same is true with trench coats, all the more so when considered in relation to their military history. In the British Army, ‘full dress’ or ‘service dress’ would involve a uniform with a single-breasted coat. In the Royal Navy, however, a double-breasted alternative would be preferable. In terms of practicality when at sea, too, an extra layer of fabric across the torso would have kept harsh winds at bay. This is why I suppose such a model was adopted by those in the trenches during the First World War. A decision governed by practicality and purpose over concerns of, say, visually framing one’s necktie!
But contrary to their name, the notion that these coats were worn by the masses on the Western Front and were used during battle is somewhat of a fallacy. It was the officer class who were able to purchase a trench coat on top of standard issue uniform, and it was not a luxury offered to the lower ranks. From their conception, then, the trench coat has been loaded with ideas of authority and command. When worn unbuttoned, the skirt of the coat will flutter behind the wearer when in motion, calling to mind images of superheroes in capes. A little farfetched, perhaps, but it was aspects like these that associated the coat with assertiveness.
Now, there are plenty of articles written by fashion historians far more capable than me on the history of the trench coat. It is not my intention to replicate one of these here. What is often missed, though, is how this idea of assertiveness has accompanied the trench coat throughout its established past.
The First World War saw the first boom in popularity of the garment. What happened after peacetime resumed, however, and on home ground, was rather curious. Many officers who were once accustomed to a position of power over their squadron returned to being simple working-class citizens. Their ‘gentleman status’ may very well have been revoked, but to combat a fear of social disqualification, they took to Regent’s Street and continued spending money on trench coats. They became not only a sign of patriotism but of experience too (even if it were forged).
* By this I mean, and without intending to overgeneralise, how men dressed throughout the twentieth century. To me it seems to be the only century that has witnessed such a fundamental change in habits of fashion, whilst concurrently producing a malleable and frequently disputed, but nonetheless existent, schema for a particular type of man whose aim is to dress well, and in such a manner as so that he is not to go out of style. Buying vintage works in accordance with this.
** A brief afterword: what will certainly not look good in times to come are new, less traditional fast fashion manifestations that draw upon the original concept of the trench coat. These might be too short, the wrong colour, or with the wrong lapels. For boring purists like me, these are definitely to be avoided. As ever, buy proper vintage, and you’ll never go wrong.
Soon after that, and across the pond, Hollywood stars donned their trench coats, transforming the outerwear’s utilitarian focus to one of glamour, style, and wealth. In the latter half of the twentieth century, the trench coat became synonymous with European progressive intellectualism, as the ‘philosopher’s uniform’ became comprised of a khaki trench coat, a dark roll-neck jumper, and a cigarette dangling from the mouth. An association is to be made here, then, with intellectual ability (thus, power) and processes of identification as fellow academics could recognise each other; a phenomenon any uniform will afford. What has changed though, is the accessibility of looks like these. However, anyone can throw on a turtleneck and carry an Albert Camus novel under their arm and pretend to be clever. Hell, I do it all the time! But this is a modern issue, as if you were a private in the British army, you were confined by class and income in your attempts to look like an officer.
Fundamentally, it would appear that wherever the trench coat goes, it is followed by upholders of style, but importantly, power through style. Whether it be by a military rank, celebrities from the silver screen, literary and philosophical logicians, or even fast-talking journalists of the ‘80s, the trench coat has become a garment utilised by groups of society to imply powerful meanings, perhaps even exclusivity. I don’t believe that to be as true today, as when I put on mine, I’m not possessed with a sudden sense of authority. What I do enjoy about it, though, is its ability to connect you with aspects of history that are unexpected. For a garment that has the word ‘trench’ in its name, it was hardly ever used there. Its provenance is diverse, and it will remain one of those pieces of clothing that will look good on pretty much anyone, anywhere, and at any point in the coming future.
The French Chore Coat: Appreciated or Appropriated?
by Henry Kauntze | 31 May 2022
When Keziah Daum uploaded photographs from her school’s commemoration ball to Twitter in 2018, she was met with thousands of comments criticising her choice to wear a Chinese cheongsam. The reply which resonated most came from Jeremy Lam, notoriously writing “my culture is NOT your goddam prom dress.” Since then, questions of cultural appropriation have become mainstream.
Yet, the concept of appropriation is nothing new. In 1981, Brian Eno and David Byrne released their deviceful album My Life in the Bush of Ghosts. The record featured samples of devotional singing and preaching which were digitised, looped, and synthesised to the pair’s signature rock-ambient-electronic-experimental sound. Issued in the same year, the album’s second release saw the sixth track “Qur’an” omitted in accordance with a complaint by the Islamic Council of Great Britain. Representatives thought the song contained inappropriately manipulated samples of Muslim preachers. Similarly, Paul Simon’s 1986 solo album Graceland is a melting pot of western and non-western musical genres. The fifth track “Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes” exhibits a juxtaposition between Simon’s lyrics and the isicathamiya vocals of Ladysmith Black Mambazo, a collaboration which led some to see the record as riffing on African musical techniques which were subsequently catered to a white audience.
These examples have in common the repurposing of cultural products intended for societal groups at odds with the prospect of superiority. What I mean by that is, in terms of racial politics, Americans and Europeans have taken elements of often disadvantaged non-American or non-European cultures and adopted them, perhaps, in the interest of appearing ‘fashionable.' Arguably, a similar process of misappropriation, yet this time in relation to class, can be seen in a relatively recent trend in men’s clothing: workwear.
French Workmen (Image: Grailed)
For a genre of style so broad, an article of this length cannot fully articulate the characteristics (and potential problems with) workwear. Although, through the case study of one garment in particular, wider judgements, I hope, can be made. And that garment is the French chore coat, or ‘bleu de travail’ as they say across the channel. Towards the close of the nineteenth century, manual labourers began to wear a new type of utilitarian jacket, one which was more modern than the boilersuit, yet could still endure the intense physical work of its owner. Railway operatives wore them, as did farmers and factory workers. Even in prisons of that time, inmates might have been issued a similar type of overshirt.
Traditionally made from cotton woven in twill or moleskin, these coats were dyed a signature indigo blue and cut generously. The fabric was for durability, the colour for hiding dirt, and the fit for freedom of movement. Stylistically they sit somewhere between a sport coat and a dress shirt: they have collars, but no lapels, they have more buttons than you might find on a traditional jacket, but retain three patch pockets and a single vent on the seat, the sleeves have cuffs, but they are made without an interior lining. Utility was of primary concern to manufacturers and consumers alike.
After the turn of the century, these chore coats were being mass produced by companies like Le Mont Saint Michel and Le Laboureur. In fact, they still manufacture similar jackets today.
Original Chore Coat (Image: Le Mont Saint Michel)
In the U.S., Carhartt began making chore coats too, except with pile blanketing and a heavy-duty corduroy collar to accommodate for colder temperatures in Detroit. Fast-forward to 1967, Paul Newman wore a chore coat in Cool Hand Luke and he pushed the boundaries of the garment’s durability as he played the role of a defiant convict.
Nowadays they are nearly everywhere. I bought one in a second-hand shop in Soho for just over £50, but big brands offer similar garments for less tidy sums. Le Mont Saint Michel’s twenty-first-century version retails for around £200. Drake’s offer a variety of coats in different colours and fabrics, their standard style costing £475. Anderson & Shepard sell a ‘lightweight cotton travel jacket’ (essentially the same idea) for £1,850. Evidently, these chore coats have ventured far from their proletariat origins, which is not to criticise these brands, but simply to make an observation about the evolution of a once-workman’s overshirt.
Left: Paul Newman, 1967 (Image: IMDb)
Right: Drake's Chore Coat (Image: Drake's)
So, has the workwear enthusiast invertedly misappropriated the nineteenth-century French railway engineer when he wears a chore coat? No, I don’t think so. If he has, I believe it to be less of a sin that the previous examples of cultural appropriation mentioned above. What has happened, though, is that designers have used a garment with a particular history and transformed it into an expensive piece of clothing. Expensive, no doubt, because of the remarkable quality and workmanship that went into its production, but paradoxically at odds with its original purpose. The provenance of the French chore coat is significant and when we wear one today, it’s important to recognise what a lot of men a century prior would have done when they put on theirs.
But don’t let that serve as discouragement from the French chore coat. People wear it because it looks good. If it’s too cold for shirtsleeves but too warm for an overcoat, the ‘bleu de travail’ is a perfect choice to wear over a plain T-shirt or an OCBD. In short, this garment has a history not to be denied. It should be worn with its heritage in mind, and if done correctly, it’ll look smashing.