The English Gentleman Is Dead: Long Live The English Gentleman

Dressing The Part
From “The English Gentleman Is Dead: Long Live The English Gentleman!”
By Douglas Sutherland, 1992

In the second half of the 20th century it is true that the English Gentleman has had to shed something of his country image and assume the trappings of an urban life. This does not, however, mean that the way he dresses has become any less distinctive than it has always been; a style which is envied and imitated throughout the world.

Certainly a gentleman would never dress for effect but this does not mean that it is not something which he feels to be beneath his notice to devote any thought. He would no more think of disregarding the advice of his tailor when having a suit made (“built” is the correct expression) than he would instruct his surgeon on how to remove his right leg should such an operation become necessary. He is essentially a conventionalist.

What gentlemen seek to avoid at all costs in their dress is any suggestion of the sort of flamboyance which might be calculated to frighten the horses. In short, gentlemen in their appearance never seek to glitter. Such wardrobe items as designer shirts and underwear or other ostentatious adornments have no place in his life.

It might be helpful to observe that the way a gentleman dresses has  nothing to do with his financial circumstances. The tweed jacket with leather patches on the elbows, which is so often thought of as his hallmark, is not an affectation. It is usually simply a case of his not being able to afford a new one. To have leather patches sewn on or cuffs relined without there being any necessity is one of the worst forms of affectation.

By the same token it is unlikely that he would have in his wardrobe anything which he would call a sports jacket. This is simply an in-built mental attitude more than anything else. A gentleman will often have a great number of jackets but each will have a specific purpose. Thus he will have a jacket in which he goes shooting which is called a shooting jacket and when this becomes too old and disreputable looking, it will be demoted to the role of a gardening jacket. He will probably have a blazer or two inherited from his cricketing or rowing days or simply to lounge around in when he is not required to wear a suit, just as he will have a hunting jacket to go hunting in or a dinner jacket for when he goes out to dinner.

… It is also advisable when hiring morning clothes not to rely on the inevitable “morning” tie the dress hire firm will thrust upon you. It is becoming more and more the practice to wear an old school tie with these clothes. In fact, to wear an old school tie on other than formal occasions is increasingly considered to be bad taste. This is something I shall refer to again when it comes to looking at the whole public school business.

This attention to detail is also reflected in the number of cuff buttons on a gentleman’s suit It is the sort of triviality on which it is wise to be careful. Traditionally only bespoke suits sport four buttons on each cuff. The others have only three. As part of the very high cost of a handmade suit, a customer can expect that all the button holes are handsewn and all the buttons sewn on to last a lifetime. A button which comes off in the first ten years of a suit’s life would, in the view of the more old-fashioned customer, justify its being sent back for free servicing. Most important is that cuff buttons should unbutton so that, among other things, a gentleman can turn them back when he is going through the ceremonial washing of hands. For cuff buttons to be sewn on to a suit purely for show is regarded by many to be as bad as the wearing of a made-up bow tie or keeping their trousers up with a belt instead of braces.

Of all the details which go to make up the way a gentleman dresses, perhaps the most important of all concerns the head and the feet. Generally speaking, a gentleman always wears well polishes leather shoes. The traditional high polish of a gentleman’s footwear derives from the days when every gentleman had his own personal servant either as a batman when in the army or a valet in his private life and for whom the most exacting chore was the task of keeping his master’s riding boots and other footwear up to snuff. In these servantless days it is still considered to be rather infra dig for a chap to be seen to be cleaning his own shoes. However, in households where chivalry has not yet died, there are quite a few gentlemen who draw the line at deputing the task to their wives and anyway it is something that many wives are not awfully good at. This is an example of one area in this modern world where some gentlemen are having to bite the bullet for the sake of keeping up appearances and do the job for themselves.

What a gentleman wear on his head is another matter for debate in a world where everything is changing. It is basically true that , eve since the wearing of morning clothes with the then obligatory top hat whenever he came up to London went out of fashion, the gentleman has dispensed with a town hat. There was a brief period when gentlemen coming up to London to see their men of business like lawyers or bankers favored the bowler or, as it is more correctly described, the Coke (pronounced Cook) hat as a compromise the with more formal topper. The Coke hat had originally been designed as a hard hat which could be worn when out hunting on less formal days. When it became adopted by businessmen for City wear, however, it dropped out of fashion with their country cousins. in these days when so many gentlemen have become urbanized most of them now go bareheaded about their daily business. By contrast, to wear a hat for any open air activity in the country is almost universal. However, whatever the occasion, it is not the hat the gentleman chooses to wear but the way that he wears it that makes him distinctive.

Perhaps there is no hat in the whole repertoire which demonstrates this better than the common or garden flat at which the late Norman Wisdom made so much the hallmark of the working man. Where the pigeon fancier from Birmingham and all points north wears his cloth cap with the brim pointing defiantly outwards and upwards, the gent somehow manages to wear it tipped down over his forehead so that the brim runs more or less parallel with his nose. This in turn means that if the wearer is to see where he is going he has to tilt his head back and gaze on his fellow men with a look of disdain akin to a guardsman on parade. It is something which takes quite a lot of practice. I believe this is the origin of the expression “to look down your nose” at people. The gentleman does not really mean it. It is just one of this many curiosities.

The overall look common to all gentlemen, which has its origins in his nursery days, is of being well brushed and well scrubbed. the only difference in his more mature years is that, as the day goes on, he stays that way longer.

Fashions change in these matters but, in the present day, most gentlemen are clean shaven. In fact beards, apart from a few naval officers and arctic explorers, have been out since the days of Edward VII The day of the well clipped mustache in the military style once so much the fashion is also now very much out since its universal adoption by the more rampant homosexuals. Only in the way the hair is cut is there now a certain amount of lassitude. Where the short-back-and-sides-look was once more or less de rigueur many gentlemen now wear their hair much longer, even to the extent of the pony-tail look not always being confined to young gentlemen’s sisters. The more conventional, however, are usually content to display their individuality by allowing the hair of a certain amount of length at the sides and brushed up into the sort of quiffs which used to be known as “bugger’s grips.” The origin of this expression is now lost in antiquity which is perhaps just as well.

4 Comments on "The English Gentleman Is Dead: Long Live The English Gentleman"

  1. An interesting history, from the British perspective, of how a gentleman should dress and wear his clothes.

  2. There is something to be had in the ease and austerity of the imperial cousins.

  3. Some of the observations have dated a bit, in the intervening 28 years but generally accurate (and humorous).
    It has to be said that gentlemen are not, typically, *very* well dressed. More like: presentable.

  4. A lovely article but one small point. Tailors can be coat makers, trousers makers, waistcoats makers or pressers. However they are never ‘jacket makers’, I was told many years ago by my tailor that a only a potato has a jacket, gentlemen wear coats.:-)

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