The English Gentleman and his Wardrobe

Hugo JACOMET

The English Gentleman and his Wardrobe

This text is an extract from “The English Gentleman”, a satire written by Douglas Sutherland and published in 1978.

As the Toronto Star wrote in the book’s review back in the years, “This witty rumination on the noble breed reaffirms our faith in the Englishman’s ability to laugh at himself”. To which The New York Times added : “Douglas Sutherland is a most witty exemplar of this vanishing species, and he has written a perfect self-parody of his type, a mock guide to gentlemanly behavior”.

Very refreshing read.

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The Gentleman and his wardrobe

Nothing gives away a man’s standing as a gentleman so much as his clothes.

His suits

Those people who have a suit for every day of the week and even, one is reluctantly led to believe, more expansive wardrobes, are parvenus of the worst sort. A gentleman generally has two suits. There is one for formal occasions like funerals and another for less formal occasions like going up to London. They are made by one of a select band of exclusive tailors and last him many years until his wife judges they are too threadbare. Then they are either handed down to the gardener or given to a good cause like the Distressed Gentlefolk’s Aid Association. By this time, with any luck, his tailor has been paid and he buys two more. The criterion of a gentleman’s suit is that it should fit well round the shoulders and that the cuff buttons should undo so that he can turn them back when he is washing his hands.

Other wardrobe

Although the number of suits he owns is on the meagre side, he has an assortment of other garments which are essential to him and which seldom find a place in the wardrobes of others. He has, for example, a jacket for every occasion. If he is a hunting gentleman he will have a hunting jacket. He will also have a hacking jacket, a shooting jacket and a gardening jacket which no self-respecting gardener would ever be seen in and they invariably have horn or leather buttons, several of which will be missing. He has a dinner jacket with trousers to match which must under no circumstances be called a “dinner suit”.

If he has evening tails he apologizes for them, saying that they belonged to his grandfather, which is almost certainly true. A gentleman will sometimes wear a white waistcoat with his dinner jacket, particularly if he cannot find a black one and not mind being whispered about by non-gents, for it is perfectly permissible. He will not, however, were a black waistcoat with tails, which is the prerogative of hotel waiters. A gentleman will also have a morning coat which he wears with rather dashing light-colored trousers totally unlike those dark striped ones which are rented out by dress-hire firms.

Good tailors

Gentlemen may wear their suits until they are threadbare but they do so with considerable panache and it is evident to the most uncritical eye that they have been built by a good tailor. As one gentleman remarked about the members of a club which he considered socially inferior to his own, “They are quite a decent lot of chaps. It is only a pity that they all seem to make their own trousers…”

There are, too, certain little touches to the way a gentleman dresses which sets him apart from the less socially elevated. For example, the flaps on his jacket pockets are always tucked into the pocket itself and he always wears the bottom button of his waistcoat undone. This latter idiosyncrasy has its origins in the days when Edward VII was the leader of Society. Nicknamed “Tum-Tum” because of his great bulk he always had difficulty in doing up the bottom button and when eventually he gave up trying, other gentlemen politely followed suit.

The Sports Jacket

No gentleman ever has a garment which is popularly called a sports jacket. Nor does he ever wear a blazer with a badge on the pocket. The only exception to gentlemen not wearing blazers is at Henley when they turn out in creations they have had since their rowing days and which would make a stage comedian look ridiculous.

His shoes

A gentleman always has well-polished shoes which are generally hand-made and last a lifetime. They are polished with ox-blood which is a similar eccentricity to washing his riding breeches in urine. On less formal occasions he wears gum boots which are usually green and have a little strap to tighten them below the knee.

Shirts and underwear

Shirts are always bought in Jermyn Street, an extravagance which is made to pay off by dint of having the cuffs and collars turned when they get worn, which gives them many years of life. This is not to say that a gentleman is necessarily mean but he dislikes waste where the efforts of his wife or servants can avoid it. By contrast with the exclusivity of Jermyn Street he always buys his underwear at Marks & Spencer and always tells his friends about it as an indication that he is democratic about his clothes. In fact, a lot of time is taken up at cocktail parties by gentlemen telling each other where they buy their underwear.

Accessories

A gentleman carries the minimum of accessories. Those who go around with what is known as the “Cartier Set” – gold lighters, gold cigarette cases, watches with crocodile straps and so on are put down as bookmakers or confidence tricksters. A gentleman carries Swan Vestas matches instead of a lighter, except possibly a rather roughly-made lighter fitted with a special windshield which enables him to light it in a howling gale on a grouse moor or in the middle of a salmon river. If he has a cigarette case it is usually a heavy silver affair which he has inherited but does not often carry as it spoils the cut of his suit.

His only adornment is a pair of modest crested cuff-links, although in full plumage for the races at Ascot he may sport a tie-pin. There are also still gentlemen who appear on certain occasions wearing a watch chain. The practice has grown less frequent since the death of Sir Winston Churchill who always wore a watch chain of a design which most gentlemen would have considered more appropriate to a civic dignitary who had made his money out of hosiery. But then there were many gentlemen who did not consider Churchill to be quite a gentleman.

A gentleman always wears his handkerchief tucked in his sleeve – never carefully arranged in his top pocket – an art which is as difficult to acquire as tying a bow tie. It has been brought to my notice that no less an authority on the upper classes than Nancy Mitford, who should know better, declares that gentlemen should wear their handkerchiefs in their top pockets. This is to subscribe to the middle-class practice of having one carefully arranged handkerchief in the top pocket and another somewhere else on the person. This principle of “one for show, one for blow” is as non-U as a lady who carries her handkerchief tucked in the elastic of her knickers.

A gentleman is particular about having a good watch and takes great pride in its time-keeping qualities. One gentleman to whom it was pointed out that his watch had stopped, exploded : “That is impossible! My man always winds it before he puts it on me in the morning.”

In the country he wears a flat hat in a manner which is quite different from the flat hats worn by the working classes and, whatever the weather, he carries a walking stick. In the town he may carry a carefully rolled umbrella but he never thinks of opening it. Many gentlemen have never unrolled their umbrellas since they bought them.

He only wears a bowler hat at funerals and point-to-points.

The Old School Tie

One of the most distinctive items of a gentleman’s wardrobe is his collection of ties. They are always of a quiet design with the exception of the MCC tie if he happens to have been a cricketer. This is the most vulgar of all club ties and he wears it with a certain amount of embarrassment when the Test Matches are on. He always has a black tie to wear on Armistice Day and there is, of course, his regimental tie and his old school tie. Etonians wear their school tie much more frequently and ostentatiously than gentlemen who went to other schools. There is the story of the socially ambitious young man who had not been to Eton, but wished he had, who spotted a man selling matches in the street wearing the coveted tie. To show off his knowledge to his girl friend he stopped and demanded : “What the devil do you mean by wearing an Old Etonian tie?”. “Because, replied the other equably, I cannot afford to buy a new one”.

Although in the course of his life a gentleman is apt to collect a large number of club and other institutional ties, it is not really done to wear them except when attending the function to which they are appropriate. Bow ties largely went out of fashion with the death of Sir Winston Churchill, just as buttonholes declined in popularity after the Great Greenfly plague.

The Casual Look

In short, a gentleman looks well-dressed and has an indefinable distinction even in his oldest clothes. At home he is quite likely to wear a pullover which has a hole in the front and he patches his jackets with leather when they become frayed at the cuffs or out at the elbow – a characteristic which is emulated by many non-gents who sew leather patches onto new jackets in the vain hope that they will be mistaken for what they are not.

The knack gentlemen have of dressing badly and getting away with it is best illustrated by the story of the gentleman who was accosted by a friend walking along Piccadilly in clothes which were well below the best sartorial standards.

“It does not matter how I dress in London”, he claimed, “Nobody here knows me”.

Later the same friend visited him in the country where his clothes were no better.

“It does not matter how I dress here”, he said, “Everybody knows me”.

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© The English Gentleman, Douglas Sutherland, Prion.

To order the book, see this link : The English Gentleman