Mad Dogs and Englishmen: Pith Helmets – The Original Sun Hat!

One of the most popular postings I ever wrote for this blog was about hats. It continues to be searched, read, viewed and commented on, much to my disbelief and amazement.

Thanks to everyone who’s visited this blog and likes hats. I like hats too. Hats are neat.

I’m taking this opportunity to write about the fascinating and whimsical story behind one type of hat in particular. A hat which has generally fallen out of favour, ever since the late 20th century, and which has yet to undergo any sort of serious mainstream revival.

I am of course talking about the Pith Helmet.

Boaters, Panamas, Trilbies, Homburgs, Fedoras, flat-caps, panel-caps, Fez-caps, Greek fishing-caps, even the deerstalker hat made famous by Sherlock Holmes, and countless other items of headwear have all survived well into the 21st century. Most men and women would wear them anywhere and everywhere, and think absolutely nothing of it. And yet, the same freedom of movement has somehow never been afforded to the humble pith helmet, which I think is a shame, given its noble history and many excellent qualities.

This post aims to explain the wonders of the Pith Helmet. What makes it such an iconic and fascinating…well…hat…essentially, and why it lasted so long.

What Is a ‘Pith Helmet’?

The Pith Helmet is a hard-shell, high-crowned hat with a wide, sloping brim made of the ‘pith’ (soft heartwood) of the Sola plant. It’s for this reason they’re also called ‘Sola Topees’ or Sola hats. Other names include sun-hats or sun-helmets. Pith helmets are constructed thus: Soft pith from the Sola plant is placed on a mold and glued on, layer after layer, forming the shell of the helmet. The helmets are built up kind of like how you make papier-mache. Once the glue dries and a hard shell has been attained, the helmet is removed from the mold and is swathed in tight-fitting cotton to protect the shell.

Originally, this cotton covering was white, but over time, most pith helmets were stained an earthy sand colour called Khaki. This was originally a form of camouflage in the sandy regions of Africa, India and the Middle East, but soon it became standard on most pith helmets. These days, pith helmets are typically manufactured in two colours – white, and khaki. There is no real distinction between one or the other, except that white pith helmets are used largely for ceremonial roles, and khaki pith helmets are used for more practical roles.

The word ‘Khaki’ comes from the Persian word ‘Khak’, which literally means ‘soil’. Therefore – Khaki-coloured helmets were helmets which were the colour of soil, or dust. Some people in Britain still use the slang-word ‘khak’ to this day, meaning general filth, grit, grime and mess.

What are Pith Helmets Made Of?

Traditionally, pith helmets were constructed of sola pith, although when pith wasn’t available, they were also made of cork. Today, helmets tend to be made out of one or the other, depending on local resources. Pith helmets made in Vietnam (where a lot of pith helmets are made for export) are still made of traditional pith.

What is the Purpose of a Pith Helmet?

OK, they look cool…but…what the hell do they DO??

The Pith Helmet’s design was taken from the German Pickelhaube helmet (Those fancy Prussian ones with the brass spikes on top), and came into being around the mid-1800s. The Pith Helmet was designed for use in hot, dry and humid climates, such as Africa, Asia, the Middle East and India. It has a number of features which make it ideal for these kinds of conditions. Let’s see what they are…

My own pith helmet, made of cork, lined in dark khaki cotton fabric with a neatly folded puggaree around the crown. Leather chin-strap and six riveted ventilation holes. French colonial style.

The pith helmet has a high crown. This keeps the top of the helmet away from your hair and prevents sweat-buildup. The hard shell made of pith means that no matter what happens, it won’t cave in and cause sweat to build up in your hair. The helmet comes with steel-reinforced ventilation holes. The number of vent-holes varies depending on the style of helmet you have. My helmet up above is the French colonial style. These traditionally came with six vent-holes – three on each side, arranged in a triangle. Wind blowing through the vent-holes cool the head down and wick away sweat.

One of the most noticeable characteristics of the pith helmet is the wide, sloping brim. This is designed to keep the sun and rain off your face and neck. The leather belt across the front brim is actually meant to be a chin-strap, stored up there when not in use.

However, one of the most famous characteristics of the pith helmet is that it’s designed to get wet!

Soaking your Helmet

Pith helmets (Well-made ones, anyway), are designed to be soaking wet when they’re used. A good-quality cork, or pith helmet is designed to retain water. On a hot day, dunk the helmet in a bucket of water, or flip the crown upside down and fill it with water and let it soak in for a few hours. Drain off the excess water, shake the helmet to remove the runoff, and then put it on.

Out in the heat of the sun, the water evaporating from the helmet will keep you cool. The helmet’s rigid shape will stop the water getting all over you and the hard shell won’t collapse on top of your head. So long as the helmet is regularly re-hydrated, it’ll remain cool and comforting throughout the day. It was the pith helmet’s ability to act as your own personal cooling-device that made it so popular in hot and humid countries like India, Singapore, Vietnam and elsewhere.

The History of the Pith Helmet

Developed in the mid-1800s, the pith helmet was originally military-wear. It was modeled after the German Pickelhaube helmet and was issued to troops stationed in Africa, the Middle East and Asia from the 1850s up until after the Second World War. Apart from soldiers, they were also issued to police-officers in places like China, Hong Kong, Thailand, Vietnam, Malaya and Australia.

Helmets were originally white, but the whiteness made the soldiers which wore them a target to the enemy. To make them less conspicuous, they covered them in dust and sand. This stained them a sandy yellow-brown hue which was named ‘Khaki’, after the Persian ‘Khak’ (‘Dirt’). This led to the helmets being manufactured in both white and khaki. The colours of the helmets issued to soldiers varied according to the uniforms they wore and the ranks they held. Badges of rank were placed on the fronts of the helmets.

The pith helmet soon became popular with Western civilians living in hot climates and it was worn by both men and women. Europeans going to South America, Panama, the Caribbean, Africa, or Asia would buy a pith helmet before going. In fact for a time it was believed that if you were going to these places, you NEEDED a pith helmet because the paler Caucasian complexion was too fragile to bear up under such strong, equatorial sunbeams. A large, broad-brimmed helmet to provide defense against the rays was essential!

Pith helmets continued to be popular, and continued to be military-issued, right up until the 1950s. Due to the wide range of locales where they saw service, pith helmets gradually developed into about half a dozen different distinct styles, each one associated with a specific country or organisation.

The Types of Pith Helmets

Over time, the pith helmet developed into about six different distinct styles, each one associated with a specific country or organisation. They were, in no particular order…

Foreign Service Helmet

The Foreign Service Helmet is the quintessential Victorian-era British pith-helmet! It conjures up images of the colonial wars of the 1800s, of Safaris in Africa, of the British Raj, of the film ‘Zulu’, and the big game hunters of old. The Foreign Service Helmet has the highest crown. It also has a protruding, beak-like rim and sloping back. These are designed to keep sun and rain off the face and neck. They were available in both white and Khaki.

French-Style Pith Helmet

To protect them from the heat in such places as French North Africa, French Guiana and French Indochina, the French Army adopted this pith helmet. It’s got a low crown, it’s oval-shaped with a wide, turned-down brim. It has six vent-holes (three on each side) for cooling the head.

USMC Pith Helmet

The United States Marine Corps (USMC) adopted the pith helmet as part of its uniform starting in the early 1900s. At first-glance, it looks just like the French one, but it’s got a much higher crown and more vent-holes. Twelve, instead of six.

Bombay Bowler

Winston Churchill wearing a Bombay Bowler

Named after the Indian city of Bombay, this type of pith helmet was more ‘hat-like’ than other helmets and was designed more for civilian wear than military use, despite this, it still had the same characteristics as all the other helmets – it was lightweight and retained water for use in hot climates. While other helmets were more rounded, the Bombay Bowler has a flatter crown and straighter edges.

Vietnamese Pith Helmet

Worn by the North Vietnamese Army during the Vietnam War, this pith helmet is one of the most distinctive styles ever made. It is the only commonly-accepted version of the pith-helmet which isn’t white or khaki – but green, to go with classic Military Green of army uniforms. It’s also the most ‘bowl-like’ of the helmets, having a uniform dome-like crown and rim.

The Safari Helmet

The more generic ‘safari’ helmet

 

The last style of pith-helmet is the safari helmet. This varied significantly in size, crown-shape and height, and the number of ventilation holes. It doesn’t conform to any particular style previously mentioned. It most closely resembles the French-style pith helmet, but the positioning and number of the vent-holes does not always match the traditional three on each side, set out in an upright triangle.

These various styles of pith helmets remained common up until the mid-20th century but are now usually worn only for costumes, parade/ceremonial uniforms, or historical reenactments. That said, a well-made pith helmet is still one which will fulfill its original functions and capabilities as orginally intended. The next time you head out into the wilderness with a break-open shotgun and a yen for some big game, perhaps bring one along. If you go camping in the bush, the desert or the outback, one of these might prove useful. If nothing else, it’ll help hold a small amount of water if you turn it upside-down! They’re whimsical, useful, classic, charming and practical.

 

‘Through the Looking Glass’ – A History of Spectacles

It’s always important to make sure that you have everything you require before you leave the house. Spectacles, testicles, wallet and watch.

Lots of people wear glasses, even if they don’t want to admit to it. Regular glasses, reading glasses, bifocals, sunglasses, pince-nez, monocles, quizzing-glasses…where do all these different types of glasses come from? Put on your favourite pair of specs and let’s see if we can’t focus in on this fuzzy little problem.

Focusing on Lenses

Lenses used for correcting vision or for magnifying small objects, have been used since ancient times. Originally they were polished stones or crystals. When early glass-making was perfected, a spherical glass container filled with water was discovered to have magnifying properties. In the Medieval era, people with poor eyesight might use a “reading-stone” to better examine the words on the page in front of them. Reading-stones were spheres of glass sliced in half and polished, so that they could be slid along a page, magnifying the text underneath.

By the late 1200s, the first two-lens eyeglasses of a kind which we might recognise today, were developed, most likely in Italy in the 1280s. By 1301, Venice, the famous center of glass-blowing and glass-making in Europe, had established a guild to regulate the manufacture and sale of spectacles. Once the blowing and grinding of lenses had been perfected, and had been fully taken-over by glass-makers, mankind could then start focusing on mounting these lenses into frames.

Early Spectacles

Early spectacles were very crude. Two lenses in a pair of frames, joined together.

And that was it.

The frames holding the lenses, if they were identical, might be hinged in the middle, to fold up, or they might have a ribbon or chain about them to catch them if they fell, but from the Middle Ages until the 1600s, most spectacles were simple hand-held things. Like if you took a regular pair of glasses and snapped the arms off it. They might have a small handle on the side with which to hold them, or else you just held them by the frames. Useful, but hardly practical. Because spectacles could be expensive, if you managed to buy a pair, you probably wanted them to look nice. Frames of gold, wood, ivory and bone, or actual tortoise-shell were popular. Those ugly ‘tortoise-shell’ glasses you used to have as a kid? Cheap plastic junk. Real tortoise-shell used to be used back in the old days.

As you can imagine, having to hold your glasses to your face with your hand was extremely impractical. The distance between your spectacles and your eyes changed constantly, pulling things in, and out of focus. It made the hand and arm tired, and it used up one hand, which might otherwise be doing something useful.

The Pince-Nez

The first solution to this was the Pince Nez (French, literally, for ‘Pinch-Nose’, pronounced ‘pas-nay‘).

Solid gold pince-nez glasses. The frames could be pushed apart, and the clip in the middle literally pinched the nose to stay on the face. The handle on the side held a ribbon or string, which would attach to the wearer’s clothing to prevent loss, or breakage if dropped

Pince-Nez spectacles came with a spring-loaded clip between the lenses, and underneath the bridge that held the two frames together. The clip quite literally pinched your nose and held the glasses in front of your eyes, allowing both hands to be free for use. This was an advancement, but constantly having the clamp biting down on the top of your nose was uncomfortable in long stretches. Most people kept their pince-nez on a chain and only put them on when it was really necessary to do so, to prevent the constant pressure and pinching from becoming irritable.

The Lorgnette

Although pince-nez allowed people to use their hands, the constant pinching was irritating at best and distracting and painful at the worst of times. One alternative was the lorgnette.

Antique, gold-mounted lorgnette from the late-19th century. It’s held by the handle on the left. The ring on the side would be for a ribbon, string or chain, with which to secure the lorgnette around your neck, or to your clothes, to catch it if dropped

Like the ‘Pince Nez’, the ‘Lorgnette’ did not come with folding arms. It came with a small handle that stuck out the side of the frame, which you gripped in your fingers and held in front of your eyes. The handle might have a cord or ribbon run through it, to catch it if you dropped it. Lorgnettes were common during the 17-1800s. For fairly obvious reasons, they, like all previous designs, were used as sparingly as possible. Some lorgnettes came with a folding bridge, that allowed the entire thing to be folded up to be more compact. Others came with spring-loaded handle-cases. The spectacles were folded into the case. When they were needed, they popped out on a spring, and the case then doubled as the grip and handle.

The Quizzing-Glass

How can you give someone a quizzical expression without a quizzing-glass??

Yours Truly taking a closer look at his blog through his quizzing-glass…Oh dear! A spulling mistake!

Popular during the Georgian and Victorian eras, the quizzing-glass was a handheld pocket magnifying-glass. It was designed to be small, portable, and to be carried around by the owner so that he or she could whip it out at a moment’s notice and take a closer look at something.

Suffering from myopia as I do, my own 5x quizzing-glass is an essential piece of kit. I carry this with me where-ever I go. Vital for reading stuff like labels, menus and price-tags. There’s no reason a disability can’t have some flashy accessories

Although they were supposed to be visual aids, quizzing-glasses were also very fashionable, and it was common for men and women to keep one about their persons. Along with its better-known cousin, the monocle, peering at someone with upper-class disgust through the lens of your quizzing-glass has become a stereotype of aristocracy, nobility, old money families and the Nouveau Riche the world over! The quizzing-glass was born in the 1700s and lasted well into the Edwardian era. You can still buy them today, if you know where to look.

The Monocle

I say! When it comes to showing upper-class disdain, genuine curiosity, attempting to keep up appearances or finishing off that last bit of kit for your steampunk party-outfit, the monocle is considered the king of eyewear!

The monocle is the younger brother of the quizzing-glass. It differs in two ways:

1. It’s held in the eye-socket, and not away from the eye. 
2. It’s custom-cut and ground to fit its owner’s eye-socket. 

From the Georgian era of the 1700s until the mid-20th century, monocles were worn by almost everyone, from upper-class dandies, fops and toffs, to jewellers, gentlemen, ladies, aristocrats, the well-to-do, and German, Prussian and Austrian military officers peering down at maps, while they decided on their next move on the Western or Eastern Fronts during the Franco-Prussian War, WWI and WWII.

A monocle mounted in a gold-filled gallery-frame

The monocle was designed to be worn by people with poor eyesight in only one eye. It seemed silly and a waste of money to buy lenses for BOTH eyes when only one had a vision-issue. So the monocle was invented.

Properly cut and measured for its owner’s eye-socket, the monocle was designed to be held in-place by the cheekbone and the eye-socket and eyebrow. Fitted properly, it wouldn’t (or was less-likely) to drop out of one’s face and shatter on the ground, or land in one’s drink, if you saw something that shocked or surprised you.

Monocles have died out a bit in recent years, mostly due to advances in optometry, but you can still buy them, and wear them. And sometimes they’re still prescribed, due to customer not requiring a full set of glasses for his or her particular eye-condition.

Monocles come in one of three different styles. First is just a plain glass disc with ridges around the edge for grip. This is the simplest and cheapest form. Next is the metal-framed monocle, typically framed in gold or silver.

The last form of monocle is one with a gallery-frame, shown above. Galleried monocles were designed for people whose natural bone-structure or facial-structure did not work well with regular monocles. The lens itself was not held in the eye-socket. Rather, the extended gallery was held in the socket, and the lens was held to the gallery. This allowed a person to wear a monocle even if his personal bone-structure wouldn’t allow him to do so naturally.

Modern Spectacles

Modern spectacles or eyeglasses as we recognise them today, with identical frames, a bridge, nose-pads, and hinged, folding arms on the sides to rest on one’s ears, were invented in the 1700s. Throughout the 19th century, they were in constant competition with the other forms of eyewear previously mentioned in this posting.

Having to wear spectacles all the time was seen as a form of weakness. Physical weakness, because it suggested to others that the wearer did not have sufficient vision to handle regular tasks. But as attitudes changed in the 1800s, the weak stigma of spectacles began to be replaced by one of studious intelligence. And wearing permanent spectacles instead of carrying around occasional eyepieces such as lorgnettes, became more acceptable and stylish as the 1800s progressed.

Bifocals

Famous American inventor, printer, founding-father and general brainiac, Benjamin Franklin is credited with inventing a pair of spectacles with lenses of two different powers. Franklin suffered from both near-and-farsightedness. It was extremely frustrating for him to constantly have to change his spectacles while he worked. One pair for regular use, one pair for close-up use. Imagine having to repair his printing-press with one pair of glasses, then stopping, removing them, and putting on his other pair, to read the type in the print-bed.

Franklin solved these frustrations by cutting the lenses in half. His resulting creation meant that he could simply shift his eyesight up or down, to look through either the top, or bottom of his glasses, depending on what he wanted to read. The term ‘Bifocals’, or spectacles with two different types of focusing lenses, was coined in 1824.

Sunglasses

The first sunglasses of a kind were invented by the Chinese in the 12th century, using thin slices of smoky quartz crystal, polished until translucent. Sunglasses again appeared in Italy in the 1700s, made of tinted glass, they were worn by those who wanted to protect their eyes from the strong Mediterranean sun, or from the reflections of the sunlight coming off the sea, and were first made in Venice, the glass-blowing capital of Europe.

However, sunglasses as we would know them today – tinted glass or plastic lenses in a dark plastic, metal, or brass frame, are a relatively recent invention. They became popular in the 1910s and 20s, and were worn by film-stars to protect their eyes from the glare of early studio-lights, and the blinding flash of early flashbulb-cameras.

Ray Ban ‘Aviator’-style sunglasses

Sunglasses became more and more popular during the 1930s and 40s. One group of people who came to rely on sunglasses were early airplane pilots. Due to the un-tinted windows and windshields of early airplanes (or in some cases, due to the complete absence of windshields altogether), they required sunglasses to block the glare from the sun.

Among the most famous types sunglasses out there are ‘Aviators’, developed in 1936, for fighter-pilots in the United States Army Air Force (USAAF), to protect them from the glare of the sun while flying missions. Before, during and after WWII, ‘Aviator’-style sunglasses became popular with American youth, something which has not changed in nearly 80 years. Their sleek, simple, minimal design has ensured their popularity well into the 21st century.

 Want a Closer Look?

The History of Eyeglasses

“What Man Devised that he might See”

Quizzing Glasses

The College of Optometrists – Quizzing Glasses

The College of Optometrists – History of Various Glasses-Styles

 

 

A Little Wooden Jeeves – My Vintage Clothes Valet

The Valet Stand

I have wanted one of these things for years, to keep my clothes organised, instead of hanging them on hooks or draping them over the backs of chairs. Ever seen one? It’s called a clothes valet, or a valet stand…

Valet stands were once common in households of the well-to-do, typically, the Middle Class and upwards, who could afford nicer clothes, and could spend the money required for a stand to keep them neat and tidy.

Such stands were common from the 1800s up to the mid-20th century. When men’s daily fashion steered away from trousers, jackets, suits, sport-coats and blazers in the decades after the Second World War, valet stands became less and less useful, and eventually people stopped buying them, and making them. But they are handy pieces of kit for those who still tend to dress in a more conservative or traditional, vintage style.

Valet stands can range from the incredibly simple, to the amazingly elaborate. A really simple stand might just have a coat-hanger on top of a pair of legs with three connector-bars at the base to serve as a coat and shoe-stand. A really elaborate valet-stand can come with a coat-hanger, trouser-bar, shoe-rests, compartmentalised jewellery-caddy, tie-bar, hat-stand…even a chair with built-in nick-nack drawer!

The Backstory

A stand like this would’ve been typical of the style popular from the last quarter of the 1800s up to the postwar period, up to around the 1960s, when men’s fashion took a serious turn. I bought the stand featured in these photographs, today, at an antiques fair, for $5.00!

The clothes valet was standing outside one of the tent-stalls at the antiques fair, with some sort of advertising poster or sign clipped onto it, and it was obviously being used as a sandwich-board or an advertising-stand. And initially, I didn’t think it was for sale. But when I got right up close to it, I noticed a white price-tag hanging from it, which said: “$5.00”.

And my heart just went pitty-patter. I tracked down the stallholder and inquired about this amazing and under-appreciated piece of woodwork standing, unloved and ignored, outside her tent. She said that the price was indeed correct. $5.00. Once she’d removed the clips and the poster, I was welcome to take it, she said. So I coughed up a fiver and walked off with the stand.

The best five bucks I’ve ever spent. You’ll never find one of this vintage, of this style, in this condition, for that kind of money, not even if you tried. This was a real vintage score :D.

The Features of the Stand

So, let’s show you around the stand, such as it is…

Up the top here, we have the tie-bar, then below it, the shoulder-width coat-hanger. Underneath that is the recessed tray for things like watches, cufflinks, collar-bars, tie-bars and other such masculine jewellery.

Beneath the jewellery-tray is the trouser-bar, for hanging your trousers on. And right at the bottom is the…

…shoe-rest.

You simply can’t find beautiful vintage household pieces like this anymore, and I consider myself very lucky to have this, for such a super-low price. It’s in perfect condition, barring a few dings and scratches. Apart from that, it looks almost brand-new.

A valet-stand made today, brand-new out of the workshop, would probably cost you hundreds of dollars, even for a simple bog-standard one. A mid-range stand, looking something like this…I don’t even want to guess! Even antique ones aren’t cheap. I got this for a song, and I couldn’t be happier.

In retrospect, the song should probably be: “Top Hat, White Tie and Tails“. Hahaha!!

It’s absolutely beautiful, it’s been something I’ve chased after for at least five years, and I finally have one, for possibly the lowest price that one of these has ever sold for, barring one that was given away for free. And I don’t ever see something like that happening!

Clothes Valets Today

You can still buy clothes valets today. You can order them online and such. But nothing beats one that was built back in the days when they were an essential for any well-dressed man about town, and might’ve been found in almost any man’s bedroom. The quality, the style and the sturdiness comes as standard, and you can be assured that whoever used this thing before you was just as snappy a dresser as you are.

 

A Stitch in Time – A History of the Sewing Machine

Open your closet.

Take out any article of clothing.

A shirt. A coat. A pair of trousers. A pair of boxer-shorts, a blouse, a waistcoat, a T-shirt, a singlet, a glove…anything!

Now take out a magnifying glass and count every single stitch on the garment you’ve selected.

Imagine for a minute that you had to remake this garment. By hand. And that every single one of those dozens…hundreds…thousands of stitches…all had to be done, painstakingly, by you. One at a time.

Even working as fast as you could, as neatly as you could, it would be an exhausting, eye-bending, finger-numbing process to even make a simple shirt, taking countless hours and days and weeks.

But imagine that there was a machine that could do this for you. Something that could make dozens of stitches, hundreds of stitches every minute. Every single one the same, every single one identical, every single one just as strong and as permanent and as unmovable as the one that preceded it.

Now wouldn’t that be nice?

This is the story of the remarkable machine that singlehandedly changed the clothing industry forever. It is called the sewing-machine.

Who Invented the First Machine?

The sewing-machine was first conceived in 1790. It was the brainchild of English cabinetmaker, Thomas Saint. It was a heavy-duty thing used to sew together leather and canvas, but it was a sewing-machine. No actual Saint-style sewing-machines survive (if indeed one ever made it off the drawing-board). It wasn’t until nearly 100 years later, in 1874, that another sewing-machine manufacturer (a man named William Newton Wilson), discovered Saint’s original schematic drawings, hidden away somewhere in the London Patent Office. Out of curiosity, Wilson copied Saint’s diagrams and built a working replica of Saint’s 1790 machine.

It’s still around today. You can see it at the London Science Museum. Here’s a photo of a copy of that reproduction, in a museum in Japan:


The world’s first sewing machine! This model of a Saint sewing machine sits in the Sewing Machine Museum, in Nagoya, Japan.

Developing the Machine

Over the next few decades, the sewing machine was altered, improved and updated by a successive number of inventors and mechanics. Much like with the weaving machines of the 1700s, the sewing machines of the 1800s were met with considerable…

…anger.

See, because sewing took SUCH a long time, if you did it by hand, tailors could make a lot of money, since not everybody could do the precise, time-consuming, eye-straining work that they did every single day.

But if you had a machine that could do this, suddenly, their edge was gone!

Terrified that they’d be out of business, French tailors went on a riot! A French tailor named Thimonnier patented a new kind of sewing-machine in the early 1830s. Was it a success?

Hardly.

His brethren were so enraged that he’d developed a machine to take over their prized and highly specialised craft that they went on the rampage! Thimonnier’s machine-factory was ransacked! The machines were smashed to pieces and the entire factory was destroyed! By the early 1840s, it was all over.

So much for the French attempts at a sewing machine.

The next player in this game was an American. Walter Hunt.

Hunt was an inventor. And a big one. Here’s a list…

– Sewing-machine
– Safety-pin
– Repeating rifle
– Knife-sharpener
– Streetcar bells
– Coal-fired stoves
– Street-sweepers
– Ice-and-snow ploughs
– The velocipede

For those people scratching their heads right about now, the velocipede was an early type of bicycle.

Hunt’s machine was interesting, but hardly practical. Due to a design-fault, the machine was more of a hindrance than a help. The feed-dogs didn’t work very well, and this held the machine up.

The feed-dogs are little teethed pieces of metal underneath the needle-plate. The needle-plate is the plate of steel directly underneath the needle. As the machine runs, the feed-dogs rub back and forth and their ribbed surfaces push the fabric along, tugging it between the needle-plate, and the foot-plate (the metal clamp that snaps down on top to hold the fabric in place to stop it sliding around). Ideally, the dogs would move back and forth ‘feeding’ fresh fabric under the needle (and between the needle-plate and foot-plate), while also passing the finished fabric out the other side of the machine.

Ingenious!

But Hunt’s machine didn’t have dogs that worked properly. Instead of the machine pushing the fabric through at a regular pace, the sewer had to do it instead. And this was slow, tricky, imprecise and very frustrating. For all of Hunt’s inventions, his sewing-machine was a failure.

The next man to come along was Elias Howe.

Howe’s entry into the sewing-machine was pretty interesting. Like everyone else, he was trying to figure out how to make a better, smoother machine with stronger, more permanent stitches that didn’t come apart so easily.

To achieve this, Elias Howe invented something that every single machine has today.

A needle with its eye (hole) near the tip of the needle, instead of near the head (which is where the eye usually is, for hand-sewing needles).

Legend has it that Howe came to this realization after a nightmare. During the 1840s, while he was turning his sewing-machine idea over in his head, he had a horrifying dream. He’d been kidnapped by savage natives who were planning to kill him. They’d harpoon him to death with their spears!

Spears with…holes in the spearheads…

When Howe woke up, he suddenly realised that a needle with a hole in its tip would feed the thread headfirst into the fabric, instead of having the thread trail into the fabric after the needle. This would make the whole process faster and neater. And it allowed him to create the lockstitch sewing machine.

The lockstitch is the basic sewing-machine stitch. It happens when the thread fed down from the needle intertwines (locks) with the thread fed to the fabric from the bobbin, underneath the machine. The result is a tight, unbreakable stitch formed from two lengths of thread…something that would have been impossible without Howe’s eye-point needle.

Howe’s luck didn’t last long, though.

The moment this new revelation went public, everyone started copying him! Howe had long and frustrating court-battles to protect his invention, and he did eventually win, forcing his competitors to pay him royalties everytime they built a machine that utilised his new needle. They couldn’t get around it because a machine needed his needle to work properly. So there was at least a certain level of happiness to the end of this story.

One of the men that Howe dragged, kicking and screaming to the courthouse was the son of a German millwright. A man named Isaac…Merritt…Singer.

Singer Sewing Machines

Every industry has one leader or one brand which is instantly identifiable.

Rolex makes watches. Mercedes makes cars. Harley Davidson makes motorcycles. Steinway makes pianos.

Singer makes sewing-machines.

Although, what the connection between sewing and pizza happens to be, I’m not quite sure…

For over 160 years, Singer has been considered the first name in quality sewing-machines. Ask your mother. Grandmother. Aunt. Most likely, they own, or know, or knew, someone who did own, or does own…a Singer. And it’s not a sewing-machine…it’s a Singer. ‘Sewing machine’ is a mean, base word, offensive to the ears. ‘Singer’ is a sign of quality, craftsmanship, durability and style.

So where did it start?

Singer, the name known the world-over for its top-quality sewing-machines, was established in 1851 by Isaac Merritt Singer, the guy who Elias Howe dragged to court for stealing his special needle.

With the aid of New York lawyer Edward Clark (1811-1882), the company was established as I.M. Singer & Co. In 1865, when the American Civil War ended, the company changed to the Singer Manufacturing Company. Most vintage Singers will have “SIMANCO” stamped onto their various components. It stands for the SInger MANufacturing COmpany. Now you know.

Singer machines were stupendously popular. In 1853, the company sold just 810 machines. By 1876, they had sold 262,316! And climbing!

Singer machines were popular because they were stylish, simple, well-built, easy to care for and solid as Gibraltar. Even today, Singer machines that are 60, 70, 90, 100, 120, 140 years old…still work perfectly…for the pure fact that no corners were cut and everything was machined to perfection.

Like a lot of companies, Singer stopped manufacturing its breadwinning products during the Second World War. Instead, they built military hardware. They tried manufacturing automatic pistols (five hundred all told), but the results were hardly spectacular, and five hundred were all that were ever made. Today, those five hundred Singer sidearms are pretty rare…and valuable!

Singers were made all over the world. Not just in America, but also in Russia and the United Kingdom, and exported to every corner of the globe.

Singers were popular because of their wide range, good designs and their easy operation and maintenance. They built everything from huge desktop treadle-powered, belt-driven machines that were as big as desks, and which could sit in a standard parlour or living-room in a middle-class residence, to small, portable, hand-cranked machines, like this one:

Something small like this could be carried onboard a ship and placed on a table. The hand-crank meant that there was no electricity required to run it. Just muscles – handy in parts of the world which didn’t have electrical grids. Hand-cranked Singers were made well into the 1930s, even as electrical models were starting to come out in the ’20s.

Singers were famous for their jet-black bodies with their fancy goldwork and patterns around the wheels, machine-beds, sides and tops, a distinctive style that lasted for over a hundred years.

Designed to be as portable and as self-sufficient as possible, Singers came with all kinds of nifty attachments and features, as did some other machine-makers of the day. Underneath the machine-bed was a storage-compartment. Here you could put extra thread, needles, chalk, spare keys and any other necessities that you needed. The machine-manual, attachments, accessories, repair-tools and equipment were also stored in these little hidden compartments. The famous curved ‘bentwood’ cases that covered the tops of most (but not all) Singers came with brackets and hooks inside them, to safely store things like knee-bars, cans of machine-oil and so-forth, to stop them rattling around and damaging the machine. It was expected that no matter where you were, you could operate, clean and repair your machine, no matter what happened.

The sewing machine has come a long way from the Georgian one-time experiment to the robber of tailor’s livelihoods, to becoming the cornerstone of the clothing industry. This is just a brief look at the history of a truly marvelous machine that made countless lives easier around the world.

Looking for more Information?

www.oldsingersewingmachines.com

www.sewalot.com

www.singer.com

Dedication

This posting is affectionately dedicated to my beloved, late and much-missed grandmother (7th May, 1914 – 28th Nov., 2011). A professional tailor and seamstress of nearly fifty years’ experience, she fixed all my clothes when I was a child. She passed away at the impressive age of 97. It was her machine which was the inspiration for this article.

My grandmother’s sewing-machine, a Singer model 99k, made in 1950, in Kilbowie, Scotland

 

Choking or Charming? The History of Ties and How to Tie One

Ties. They can look flashy, fashionable and snappy, or they can bring back visions of boardrooms, the office, school or military dress-uniforms. They can be stylish and colourful, or they can be choking and restrictive, or possibly inducive of autoerotic asphyxiation…which might not be a bad thing. But I digress; fewer articles of clothing are more polarising to men other than whether you would, do, would not, or do not, choose to wear a tie.

Some people wear ties on a regular basis as part of a uniform. Some men wear ties because they’re part of their personal style or ‘look’. Personally, I’m in the camp of the latter. I started regularly wearing ties again about two years ago, and I’m still wearing them regularly today. In fact, I’m wearing one right now as I type this.

But how long have men been putting things around their necks? Where did they come from? Why on earth would someone do this?

The History of Neckwear

People have been putting on neckcloths for centuries. The modern necktie and its cousin, the bowtie, the two most common neck-coverings today, were descendants of one of the most common neck-coverings of the 17th century – the Cravat.

The cravat, a wide, scarf-like neck-cloth tied loosely around the throat, was the neck-covering of choice from the 1600s up to the 1800s. Some people who want a more loose and loungey, casual look in their neckwear still wear cravats, and their cousins, the neckerchieves, today. The word ‘cravat’ came from the French  ‘cravate’, which was a corruption of the word ‘Croat’, from the country of…Croatia, where the cravat was born in the 1630s.

The original purpose of these neck-coverings and cloths (be they cravats, kerchiefs or ties), was actually to hold the shirtfront shut, and to stop wind and cold air from blowing down into your clothes and onto your chest…it was a comfort thing.

The Birth of the Tie

By the mid-1800s, the cravat, a staple of men’s wardrobes for the past two centuries, was beginning to get a bit raggedy around the edges. As with a lot of other elements of men’s clothing at the time, people started wanting simpler, better-fitting, less flamboyant clothing. The cravat was being seen as a relic of the Regency era of the 1810s and it was quickly becoming sooo last century.

So the modern necktie was born. While the cravat and the neckerchief never really went away, by the last quarter of the 1800s, they were beginning to do serious battle with the new kid on the block – the necktie.

The necktie was popular for a number of reasons.

– The cravat is generally tied loosely and floppily around the throat. This was fine…so long as you didn’t have to keep tightening it up all the time. In the increasingly mechanised world of the late 1800s, the loose, wavy cravat was a liability. If it unluckily unravelled over a piece of whirring machinery, it could strangle the wearer to death! The necktie was done up so that it provided a tighter, safer knot.

– The necktie was simpler and didn’t take up so much real-estate. Cravats are like icebergs – three quarters of the cloth is stuffed down your shirtfront. And cravats are big, bulky things – that leads to a lot of excess material. Neckties were slim and simple, without wasted fabric.

– The necktie was easier to put on. A cravat had a lot of fabric and tying one could be frustrating. A necktie was thinner and had less to fuss around with, making it faster and more convenient to tie.

Tie Knots

There’s a multitude of tie-knots out there. According to author Thomas Fink, who did a study of the necktie, there are no fewer than 85 ways to tie a necktie. Screw that! I’m only going to talk about two knots.

Not all shirts are the same and not all collars are the same. So you should always know at least two tie-knots. One of the most common knots is the Four-in-Hand.

Four-in-Hand Knot

The four-in-hand knot is probably the simplest knot ever. Supposedly, it was named after coachmen, who would tie up the reins of their carriage-horses in a similar way, to stop them from tangling up during long drives. If you’ve never tied a tie and you really need to know how, this is the fastest way:

1. The tie’s draped around the popped-up collar and over your shoulders, with the right side longer than the left (and with the wider side on the right).

2. The right side of the tie is crossed over the front of the left and then pulled behind it to the right.

3. Then the right side of the tie is crossed over the left side again.

4. Then, it’s pulled up through the gap below your neck.

5. Using your fingers, wriggle a hole through the last of the two loops that you made around the skinnier portion of the tie.

6. Stuff the wide end of the tie down through that new hole you wiggled open with your fingers. Pull it down so that it’s nice and tight.

7. Close the gap below your neck by pulling on the short end of the tie to draw the knot up.

Note: As this is the knot that generally uses the least amount of material, you might end up with a tie that hangs down too low. If it does, untie and do it again. Simply repeat step 3 two or three more times. This uses up the extra fabric so that you don’t have so much left over when the knot’s done up.

The four-in-hand knot is best used with shirts with spearpoint collars, that leave only a small space between the ends of the collar. This is because the knot that results from tying a tie in this fasion is rather long and skinny (unless you wrapped the tie around the knot a few more times to use up the extra fabric like I mentioned up above).

The Windsor Knots

The knots which are collectively called the Windsor knots, go by many names. But the general style was named after the dapper Duke of Windsor (who caused a scandal in 1936 when he abdicated the British throne). However, the knot itself was actually invented by his father (King George V), who had a reputation of being a strict dresscode adherent.

Windsor knots are also called Full Windsors, Double Windsors and Half-Windsors.

What the hell is the difference?

Full Windsor and Double Windsor are the same thing.

Half-Windsor is…a…half-Windsor.

So how do you tie one?

The Windsor-knot is famous, not only because of its royal connections, but because it’s a fat, chunky knot with a lot of symmetry. Here’s how you do one up.

1. Drape your tie over your shoulders and around your popped-up collar. Longer, wider side on the right, skinnier and shorter side on your left.

2. Cross the long side over the short side (left).

3. Loop the long side behind, and then up, through the gap below your neck, and outwards. Then, pull down. The front of the wider end of the tie should now be hanging down, on your left-hand side.

4. Cross the wide side of the tie back behind the knot again, but this time, pull it right across to the right side of your body.

5. Pull it up and stick it through the gap below your neck, keeping to the right side, this time. Pull it down. This is similar to step 3, only in reverse and on the other side of the knot. In this case, the BACK side of the wide end of the tie should be facing outwards.

6. Draw the wide end of the tie across the front of the knot to the left, and then poke it through the gap below your neck from behind, again (as in step 3).

7. Toss the wide end of the tie back over your left shoulder. Stick your finger down the front of the knot to make a hole there. Stuff the rest of the wide end of your tie down that hole and pull tight.

8. Pull the shorter, back end of the tie down to close the knot.

If you’ve done it right, then you should have a fat, triangular knot. Also, there should be a little dimple in your tie just below the knot – a distinctive trademark of a Windsor knot.

Alright. You’ve just done a Full or Double Windsor knot. Again, as with the four-in-hand knot, if you’ve left with too much fabric, undo the tie, readjust and tie again, but repeating steps 3 and 5 one or two more times to use up the extra fabric to make the finished length more correct.

So how do you do a Half-Windsor knot?

Easy. Just do half the steps. That’s why it’s called a Half-Windsor!

Do steps 1-3. Then instead of doing step 4 (bringing the tie around the back of the knot to the front to the right and stuffing it down the neck-gap again), simply bring it around the back, all the way around the front and to the back again (in a loop), then do steps 3, 7 and 8. Done.

The Four-in-Hand, the Full/Double and Half-Windsor knots are the most commonly-used tie-knots. The Windsor knots, because of their chunkier results, are best tied on shirts with spread collars, where a knot that takes up a lot of shirt real-estate is preferrable.

The Bowtie

Like the necktie, the bowtie is descendant from the granddaddy of all neck-cloths, the cravat. Okay. I won’t go into all that again.

Doing up a necktie is easy. Most boys learn how to do one up for school uniforms and the like. But a bowtie can be daunting and scary and intimidating!

It isn’t.

Bowties carry certain connotations – You’re a professor, banker, teacher, doctor, Hercule Poirot, or if you wear thick-rimmed glasses, have buck-teeth and wear a shortsleeved shirt – a nerd. But bowties can also carry a connotation of skill…mostly because they’re perceived as being impossible to tie.


Agatha Christie’s dandy Belgian detective, Hercule Poirot (portrayed by David Suchet), with his trademark bowtie

They’re not.

And this is how you do it.

I’ll be honest. There are a bazillion video-tutorials on YouTube that show you how to do up a bowtie. And you could disregard everything here that’s to come, and just go and watch one of those. But one reason why there’s so many of those videos is because they all show you how to tie a bowtie…but they don’t tell you. “You do this, then this, then this, then this, then this…voila!”

Yeah. Slow down. The video’s over in two minutes and you’re standing there with a piece of crap tied around your neck and your big fancy Black-Tie dinner is in half an hour. You’re screwed.

Tying a bowtie is easy – I got it after just three attempts. If a doofus like me can do it, anyone can. Here’s how:

1. Pop up your collar.

2. Adjust the length of your tie. Quality bowties have a cinch or an adjuster on them. Use this to get the length of the tie right.

How long does the tie have to be? Well, if it’s draped over your chest and around your neck, the left end of the tie should be at your nipple or at the top of your sternum. The right end should be about an inch or so longer than that. Adjust the tie’s length so that this is achieved (the short end of the tie is always on the left, the long side is on the right). Go ahead. I’ll wait…

3. Okay, done that? Now, to tie stuff up. Cross the long end of the tie over the short end (to the left). Stick the long end up behind the knot and pull up, firmly. The long end of the tie is now on your left shoulder and it should’ve looped around there from behind the left part of the tie. Yes? Good. Leave it there.

4. The other half of the tie is now pointing straight down. It should be shaped like a fish, with the tail pointing down and the head pointing up. Fold the tie in half across the middle of the head. Then twist this part of the tie to the left. You should have a nice, bowtie-looking shape under your chin if you’re looking in the mirror.

5. Keeping this position, flop the other part of the tie (on your shoulder) down over the middle of this bowtie shape.

6. Pinch the head and tail of the fishy bow which you created in step 4, together, and pull outwards. You’ll now have two holes. One between your neck and the tie itself, and one smaller one in front of that, just big enough for your finger to poke through.

7. The long half of your bowtie is now hanging down just like the other half was, with the fishtail pointing down and the head pointing up. Do as you did with the other half of the tie – Fold the head in half and twist it to the left.

8. Now for the tricky bit. Remember that little hole I mentioned at the end of step 6? You’re now gonna shove the folded head of your other fishy through that hole. I find it helps to fold the fish again, lengthwise, to fit it through here.

9. Done that? Now you should have:

Front bow – folded side on the left. Fishtail on the right.
Back bow – Folded side on the right. Fishtail on the left.

During this procedure, the middle of your bowtie knot might become a bit twisted. You can untwist it slightly to make it a little neater.

Now, to tighten and neaten.

Pull on the two fishheads to tighten the knot, and on the two tails to loosen the knot. Keeping pulling on the heads and the tails until symmetry and a comfortable tightness has been attained. Straighten out the fish-heads (especially the inner right one, which may have become a little crinkled in the exercise), and you’ve got a perfect bowtie!

Now you’re ready for that school formal or prom or that Black Tie family reunion or that fancy dress party which you’re attending as a Computer Nerd.

To undo the tie later, simply pull on the fishtails, and the whole thing just comes apart.

Note: Don’t worry if the tie isn’t absolutely super-duper crazy mega-perfect. No self-tied bowtie ever is. But you can try to get close.

 

The History of the Collared Shirt

The shirt is probably the most common item ever worn by man and any well-dressed man is likely to have several of them in many colours and styles. But where does the shirt come from and how has this simple garment evolved over time?

Where Does the Shirt Come From?

The modern shirt that a typical man wears on an almost daily basis is a garment that dates back into the Middle Ages and before. Exactly when it was invented is unknown. Most shirts were cheap and handmade at home out of wool, but by the 1300s, men started looking for people who made shirts for a living. It was at this time that the shirtmaker started to rise in European cities, manufacturing comfortable shirts out of cotton, silk and linen. These shirts felt much better against the skin than ordinary wool and the demand for comfort meant that the shirt began to spread around the world. The basic shirt remained the same for centuries, as it does today. It was the components of the shirt that changed with the times.

The Rise of the Shirt

Originally, all shirts, as with all other garments, were handmade. If you wanted a shirt, you went to a shirtmaker, just like if you wanted shoes, you went to a cobbler, and a tailor for your suits. In the 1700s and the 1800s, the rise of the Industrial Revolution meant that shirts could now be mass-produced cheaply from cotton, mostly grown in the Deep South of the United States of America and sent to cotton-mills in the nothern states, or to England and Europe. While the shirt’s popularity spread, its status remained the same.

A Social History of the Shirt

These days, it’s common for men to show off their shirts. You wear a shirt open-collared with a pair of trousers or jeans. Or you open the front of your jacket to show off your shirt. Or you wear a waistcoat but ditch the jacket, to show off your shirtsleeves. Or you might spend fifteen minutes trying to figure out whether or not a particular tie goes with a particular shirt. However, this trend of showing off your shirt as an item of ‘designer fashion’ and style is actually a pretty modern one. Prior to the second quarter of the 1900s, good manners dictated that you never showed your shirt in public. At all. Not the back, the front, the sleeves and certainly not the shirttails. Why? Because the shirt, like your briefs or your boxer-shorts, was considered an item of underwear, a frame of mind that had existed for centuries before.

Because the humble shirt was, for centuries, relegated to and given the same level of decency as your lucky boxer-shorts with the picture of the ‘Blasting Zone’ roadsign on the back, a typical shirt was rarely washed. While today it’s common for a man to change his shirts every couple of days, prior to the end of the First World War, most men wore shirts for much longer intervals. It wasn’t uncommon for one shirt to be worn for two days. Three days. A week. Two weeks. Sometimes even a month…or more. Don’t forget that the modern washing-machine hasn’t been around for very long. Before its invention, the family wash was an event that took several days of boiling, soaking, soaping, scrubbing, beating, rinsing, scrubbing, rinsing, mangling, drying, ironing, starching and folding. Because of the effort and time required to do a single load of laundry, which could take up to a week, men were eager to wear their shirts for as long as possible and to only wash them when it was absolutely necessary. And because of this, the shirt was naturally kept hidden from public scrutiny as much as possible.

Anyone who’s done a lot of work in a shirt and worn it for a while and then had to handwash it, will know that a shirt’s collar and cuffs can turn black from the accumulation of grime, sweat and skin-flakes that comes away from the human body during the course of the day. With the majority of a man’s shirt hidden by a waistcoat and jacket or a sweater or some other suitable overgarment, it wasn’t necessary to change it until it was absolutely essential. But the exposed parts of the shirt – the collar and cuffs, which could become filthy after just one day’s heavy use, would naturally have to be changed on a regular basis, since this was something that couldn’t be hidden from the public eye.

Collar Studs…

…and how they’re used

Collars and Cuffs

To combat the problem of infrequent and long wash-days, early shirts came with detachable collars and cuffs, not something found on most shirts today. While a shirt was worn for days or weeks on end, the collars and cuffs were changed and replaced as necessary, perhaps once a week, or more, if needed. The collars and cuffs on shirts were held on with special buttons called studs. There were two studs for the collar (front and back) and additional studs for the cuffs (one stud for each sleeve). While most people are familiar with all manner of cuffs, from one-button, two-button, convertible cuffs and the variations of the French cuff (for which cufflinks must be worn), detachable shirt-collars have largely slipped from the public consciousness. Here’s some of the more common collars…

Wing Collar

The wing-collar, so-called because of the two ‘wings’ at the front, is popularly associated with the turn of the last century. Wing-collars are typically worn with more formal attire, such as White Tie, but they were also popular everyday collars. This particular type of collar retained its unique shape thanks to copius amounts of starch used in the ironing process that helped the collar stay stiff, even in the hottest, soggiest weather. As you may have guessed, the wing-collar doesn’t fold down. So if you’re going to wear one, you better know how to tie a good necktie or bowtie, because any imperfections in the knot will be extremely visible.

Eton Collar

Named for the prestigeous Eton College in the United Kingdom, the broad Eton Collar has been a part of the school’s uniform since the 1800s.

Spear-Point Collar

The spear-point collar was popular in the United States during the first half of the 20th century, distinguished by its excessively long, pointed collar-tips.

Club Collar

Popular during the Victorian era and well into the early 20th century prior to the Second World War, was the club collar. Unlike the other collars shown so far, the club collar has rounded collar-points.

Clerical Collar

This flat collar is the one traditionally worn by members of the clergy (hence its name), such as priests, vicars, and pastors. It was invented in the mid-1800s by the Rev. Dr. Donald McLeod of Scotland, and by the late 19th century, had become a common part of clerical attire.

Imperial Collar

The Imperial collar was another popular collar of the late Victorian and Edwardian periods. This was one of the more extreme collars of the era and could be upwards of two or three inches wide. This could make it a bit uncomfortable to wear and probably thankfully, it was considered a formal collar, only to be worn on special occasions.

Because a man could have a wide variety and large number of collars in his wardrobe, they were often stored in leather collar-boxes such as this one:

While some collars were soft and floppy, others, particularly the nonfolding rigid ones such as the Wing collar and the Imperial collar, were treated extensively with laundry starch to help them keep their shape (as well as making them easier to clean).

Detachable shirt-cuffs also existed and like with collars, they were often treated with starch to make them stiff so that they would hold their shape. As mentioned earlier, cuffs were held onto a man’s shirtsleeves with cuff-studs. A pair of detachable cuffs are shown below:

The two buttonholes at the tops of the cuffs accomodated the cuff-studs. The two other buttonholes further down existed for the use of cufflinks.

A big manufacturer of mens’ shirts, collars and cuffs was Cluett, Peabody & Co. of Troy in New York State, U.S.A. They popularised the famous ‘Arrow’ brand of collars which were popular from the early 1900s up to the early 1930s. The Arrow collar lives on today in the lyrics of the Irving Berlin song ‘Puttin’ on the Ritz‘ (“…High hats and Arrow collars, white spats and lots of dollars…”).

Shirtsleeves

Apart from early shirts having removable and adjustable collars and cuffs, they also had adjustable shirtsleeves.

Early shirts came in one size. Extra large. Don’t forget that, because the shirt was considered an undergarment, no thought was given to its fit on a man’s body, since nobody was ever likely to see it. Shirts were sized roughly according to neck circumfrence and shoulder-width, but everything else was measured and made to be as accomodating as possible. This included shirtsleeves. Prior to the arrival of the modern shirt that we know today, shirtsleeves were all made and measured to be extra-long. This way, they would fit the largest man in comfort.

But what happened if you weren’t the largest man? What happened if, instead of being Robert Wadlow (8ft 11in), you were instead James Madison, who towered over ants at a staggering 5ft 4in.? Obviously, shirtsleeves would be too long. And if you weren’t able to find a shirtmaker, or as was more likely the case, weren’t rich enough to get a shirtmaker to custom-measure your sleeves, then what did you do?

Most men utilised these things:

Forever associated with bartenders, writers, banker-tellers and barbershop quartets, there was a time where almost every well-dressed man owned at least one pair of these things and kept them on his dressing-table. They’re called sleeve-garters. Made of elastic material (or in this case, springy steel), sleeve-garters were worn on a man’s shirtsleeves, just above the elbow. They worked by holding back the extra sleeve-material that would otherwise cascade down a man’s arms and prevent his hands from doing any useful work. They were also handy for holding a man’s shirtsleeves back if he was doing heavy work and didn’t want to get his sleeves and cuffs dirty.

Thanks to the modern, made-to-measure, off-the-rack shirt, sleeve-garters aren’t as often used as once they were. However, you can still buy them (they’re usually very cheap) and if ever you have a shirt you like but which you can’t wear on account of the sleeves being too long, you might want to break out grandpa’s sleeve-garters and slap them on. They can still come in handy.

The Modern Shirt

The shirt with detachable collars and cuffs died out during the interwar period and the shirt which we know today was born. With improvements in washing and cleaning clothes and the introduction of the first washing-machines in the 1920s, clothing could now be washed faster and more frequently. Public demand for shirts with detachable collars and cuffs gradually died away during the 1930s and by the middle of the century were more or less ancient history. Cloth-rationing during the Second World War probably played a significant part in their demise, since it would’ve been difficult to find the extra cloth needed for detachable collars and cuffs.

You can still buy shirt-collars and cuffs (either brand new or vintage) as well as collar-studs, shirt-studs and collarless shirts today, although understandably, they are much rarer than the shirts that most people have today. They’re still manufactured for formalwear, or for people seeking an authentic period look in their wardrobe for any variety of reasons from a desire for vintage style, historical reenacting or sheer convenience and comfort. Collar-boxes can still be found cheaply at antiques stores and flea-markets.

 

Men’s Hats: A Brief History & A Look at the Hat in the 21st Century

This posting marks the second anniversary of the starting of my blog, back on the 29th of October, 2009. To date, I have received over 253,500 hits. Thanks to everyone who has peeked in here and learned something. Thanks to everyone who has commented on, asked questions about, or clarified and improved on the postings that I’ve made over the last twenty-four months. And thanks to all my regular readers for checking back every now and then to see what’s new and leaving your marks in my comments boxes (yes, there are people who will subject themselves to the masochism of reading this blog on a regular basis). Yadda, yadda, yadda. I digress.

On this date last year, I wrote about how to effectively use a traditional straight-razor to get a superior (and cost-effective) shave. In the 21st century, straight-razor shaving is coming back into fashion as men become attracted to the nostalgia, the masculinity, the effectiveness, the ‘greenness’ and the thriftiness of straight-razor shaving.

This posting will concentrate another historical titbit that has recently started coming back into fashion:

Hats.

Hats are forever linked to history. We identify various periods in history by a lot of things: The technology, the science, the architecture, but probably most of all, we identify them by the fashions of the times. The hats and clothes that people wore. Or in more recent times, didn’t wear. For a period between the 1970s-1990s, mens’ hats went out of fashion. Nobody was wearing them. Hats were old-fashioned, dated, boring. They didn’t fit the clothes that people were wearing. But then,  in the early 21st century, hat-wearing for men (and women) is coming back into fashion. This article will look at the history of men’s hats and the hat’s place in modern society. Here we go…

The Hat: Yesterday and Today

Ever since ancient times, men have worn hats. To keep the sun off, to keep warm, to look fashionable or to add a few inches of height to their stumpy frames. In the early 21st century, hats for men are making a significant return to mainstream fashion, nudged along by recent movies and TV shows such as “Boardwalk Empire”, “Public Enemies”, “Upstairs, Downstairs”, “Downton Abbey” and “Underbelly: Razor”. But what are the histories of all these popular hats that we see in movies, TV shows and photographs? In period dramas? That we read about in books? Where did they come from? How long have they been around? Where do they get their names from? Let’s find out…

The Tricorne Hat

When? 1700s
Who? Patriots, sea-captains, any male cast-member of a colonial-era costume-drama.


Captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) wearing a tricorne hat

The tricorne is the famous, triangle-shaped hat with a round crown at the top. It’s the hat that Mel Gibson wears in “The Patriot”. It’s the hat worn by almost every male actor who’s ever participated in a 1700s historical reenactment of the American Revolution, or the French Revolutionary Wars. Where did it come from?

The tricorne is a stiff hat made of felt (usually beaver or rabbit felt). It evolved from the round, wide-brimmed hats of the late 1600s, similar to the ones shown below:

In the early 1700s, it became fashionable to fold up the circular brims of these hats and attach them to the crown with needle and thread. This stopped the wide, floppy brims from blocking the wearer’s line of sight, but the folded brims also became rain-gutters that stopped rainwater from simply sloshing off the old wide brims and down the back of your neck. The rain instead ran out the corners of the hat and down the back of your shoulders, away from your body.

The tricorne was invented by the Spanish in the late 1600s/early 1700s. It quickly became popular in France and other parts of Europe, as well as in England and in the American colonies. The hat remained popular right up to the end of the 1790s. It was then replaced by the bicorne hat, popularly associated with Napoleon Bonaparte.

The Top Hat

When? Early 1800s
Who? Abraham Lincoln, Uncle Moneybags (the ‘Monopoly’ man), the Fat Controller in Thomas the Tank Engine, anyone from Dickensian England.


A typical top hat

The top hat is very rarely worn today, except on the most formal of formal occasions, but there was a time not too long ago, when it was worn by everybody on every day of the week.

The top hat was born in the 1790s and became the replacement headwear for men after the tricorne hat of the 18th century started going out of fashion. The top hat is a stiff hat made of felt (usually beaver felt, but rabbit felt is also used). The top hat was worn by everyone during the Victorian era, from the poorest of paupers all the way up to the richest of royals. Abraham Lincoln is famous for wearing a top hat style popularly called the ‘stovepipe’, because of its excessively high crown. Considering that Lincoln towered over the average mid-century American at an impressive six foot, four inches, he probably didn’t need anything else to make him stick out in the crowd.

The top hat was worn for all kinds of occasions, from going to the theatre and to the opera, to weddings, important public events, formal social events or just for daily wear. Top hats worn for weddings are usually light grey in colour, while top hats worn for evening events are jet black. In the 1840s and 50s, the top hat started being made out of the more familiar silk that it’s known for today, and manufacture of beaver-felt top hats started to decline. Because of the top hat’s height and size, the collapsable top hat was invented in 1812 by Antoine Gibus. Its collapsable quality made it popular because such hats were easier to store in cloakrooms of hotels, theatres and restaurants.

Up until the early 1860s, officers of the London Metropolitan Police (Scotland Yard’s famous ‘bobbies’) used to wear strengthened top hats for head-protection as part of their uniform. In 1863, the present ‘custodion helmet’ replaced them.

The Bowler Hat

When? Mid-1800s
Who? Accountants, bankers, Charlie Chaplin, Oddjob, the Plug Uglies.


A classic black bowler hat

The Bowler hat, characterised by it’s dome-like crown, was invented in 1849 by a pair of hatmakers: brothers Thomas and William…Bowler. They were commissioned by the famous London hat retailer “Lock & Co” to invent a close-fitting, low-crowned hat that would be sturdy and which couldn’t be easily knocked or blown off the wearer’s head. The Bowler brothers later found out that their customer was Edward Coke, brother to the Second Earl of Leicester.

When the prototype ‘Bowler’ hat was invented, Mr. Coke came to check it out. He showed up in London on the 17th of December, 1849 and headed to Lock & Co’s shop to examine his new hat. Remembering that he had asked for a particularly durable creation, Mr. Coke threw the hat on the ground and jumped on it twice to check its strength. When the hat remained in shape, Coke proclaimed his satisfaction at this new invention and paid twelve shillings for the hat.

The Bowler hat remained popular throughout the 1800s and through the first half of the 1900s, being worn by everyone from politicians, actors and the everyman on the street.

But who, you might ask, are the ‘Plug Uglies’?

The Plug Uglies were an American street-gang of the mid-1800s. They were famous for almost all of them wearing their distinctive bowler hats. Because of the bowler’s strength, the hats were worn by the Uglies as helmets to prevent head-injuries in the middle of gang-fights.

The Fedora & Trilby Hats

When? Late 1800s
Who? Humphrey Bogart, Adam Savage, Frank Sinatra, Cary Grant, Prohibition-era gangsters, Indiana Jones, almost every man in the 20s and 30s.


Humphrey Bogart sporting a classic, wide-brimmed Fedora


Frank Sinatra wearing the Fedora’s little brother, a Trilby. You can immediately tell the difference between them: The trilby has a much shorter brim (and although you can’t see it in that photo, it would have a tight, upwards curl at the back)

The Fedora, and its little brother, the Trilby, are two of the most famous and timeless of all men’s hats. Both invented in the early 1890s, the Fedora and the Trilby remained largely popular into the 1960s. Since then, their popularity dropped significantly, but in the 2000s, they have returned to style thanks to recent 1930s-era gangster-films and TV shows that have been flashing across the television-screens of the world.

The Fedora was invented in 1891, and the Trilby in 1894. The Fedora features a wide brim, a hat-band or ribbon and a pinched and indented crown. The Trilby is similarly shaped, but typically has a shorter brim (and a tighter upturning at the back). Both hats are traditionally made of rabbit or beaver felt and come in both firm and soft varieties.

The Fedora and Trilby hats became popular because of their relatively compact size (compared with something like a top hat) and their lower profiles. They could be worn comfortably in cars and on public transport without the hat’s brim obscuring the driver’s line of sight. Hollywood movies of the 20s, 30s and 40s made the Fedora incredibly popular and it used to be that almost every man owned at least one.

Here’s an interesting fact you might not know: The fedora, when it started out in the 1890s, was actually a women’s hat! This trend lasted through the 1900s up to the late 1910s; all the males in the world sticking to bowlers, flat caps and top hats instead. However, fashion changed in the 20s (as did many other things) and today, the fedora, and its little brother, the Trilby, have become more than ever, associated with male wearers.

The Boater Hat

When? Late 1800s
Who? Punters, oarsmen, sailors, barbershop quartets, vaudeville entertainers, butchers, bakers, candlestick makers…


The Dapper Dans, Disneyland’s resident 1900s-style barbershop quartet, with their matching waistcoats, trousers, sleeve-garters and of course…their boater hats

The Boater hat, characterised by its flat crown, straight sides, flat brim and circular or oval profile, is the classic summertime hat. It gets the name ‘Boater’ (also called a ‘Skimmer’ hat) because it was traditionally worn by Venetian gondoliers. It was from Italy that the hat spread rapidly around the world. It remained popular from the 1880s all the way through to the 1930s and 40s, slowly dying off after the Second World War.

Before becoming the piece of classic summertime headgear which we know today,
the boater was the traditional hat of Venetian gondoliers, designed to protect them from the strong Italian sun

The classic boater hat is made of straw. This makes it lightweight, comfortable and breathable in hot summer weather, when thicker felt hats, more suitable for winter, would make the wearer sweat and perspire very freely. The boater remains popular today in countries with strong summers where other styles of hats would be uncomfortable to wear for long periods of time. Why is this hat also called a ‘skimmer’? Well, traditionally, the ‘boater’ had a more generous brim-width. The ‘Skimmer’ is a variant of the Boater with a narrower brim.

Panama Hat

When? Early 1800s
Who? Harry Truman, Edward VII, Sean Connery, Anthony Hopkins, Theodore Roosevelt


A traditional Panama hat, complete with its wide brim, perfect for protection from the tropic sun

Along with the Boater, the Panama hat is another classic mens’ summer hat. The Panama hat comes in a variety of crown-shapes, but it is distinguished by the material used to make it: The leaves of the Toquilla Palm. The fronds of this particular type of tree (although it is not scientifically considered a proper palmtree) are soft, strong and flexible, ideal for making light, durable, breathable summer hats.

The Panama was invented in the early 1800s, probably in the 1830s. Despite what the name suggests, the hats were not invented (or even made) in Panama. They were actually invented in Ecquador. They get the name ‘Panama’ because that was the country to which most of these new hats were exported. The tropical climate of Panama made just such a hat ideal to cope with the soggy, humid conditions in just such a country. As the hat’s fame spread around the world, it became a popular summertime hat and general travel-hat. It’s light construction and breathable material made it ideal for summer use and its soft, crushable material (which would retain its shape with some gentle prodding after being unrolled) made it perfect for travelling, when a man could just roll up the hat, tie a ribbon around it and put it in his suitcase.

The Panama remains popular today (along with the Fedora and the Trilby) as a summer hat.

The Homburg Hat

When? Late 1800s
Who? Winston Churchill, Anthony Eden, Edward VII, Hercule Poirot


Winston Churchill wearing his signature Homburg hat


Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot (portrayed by David Suchet) with his three-piece suit, pocketwatch, swan-headed cane and of course…his Homburg

The Homburg is a very distinct hat. It has a tightly curled brim on both sides and a dent or crease in the top of the crown, running lengthwise from front to back. The Homburg is named after Bad Homburg (‘Homburg Baths’), a town in the state of Hesse in Germany, where it was created. It was introduced to the world at large by the youthfully fashionable but increasingly overweight Prince Albert Edward, later Edward VII of the United Kingdom, son of Queen Victoria. The Homburg was a popular hat in the late Victorian period and remained popular through the first half of the 20th century. It was commonly associated with politicians; Winston Churchill was a notable wearer of this style of hat. Homburgs are typically made of rabbit felt.

The Flat Cap

When? 1500s
Who? Working-class men, newsboys, golfers, Dr. Harry Cooper.


Brad Pitt wearing a flat cap

The classic flat cap (also called a newsboy cap, eight-panel cap, driving-cap…the list goes on) is a light, floppy cap or hat, traditionally made of lightly spun wool. Variations of the flat-cap date back centuries, when wool was the backbone of the English economy. It arrived in its present form (and variations thereof) in the early 1800s. Because flat-caps were cheap, comfortable and long-lasting, they were frequently worn by poorer, working-class people looking for an affordable and effective head-covering to keep their heads warm during outdoor work in cold weather.

The flat cap comes in two varieties: The traditional flat-topped cap and a variation called the Eight-Panel Cap (alternatively, also the six-panel cap). The eight-panel or six-panel cap is characterised by six (or eight, hence the name) triangular panels sewn together to make a rough circle on the top of the hat, held together in the center by a cloth knob or button. This variety of cap is sometimes called the ‘newsboy’ cap, because it was commonly worn by newsboys (children hired by newspaper companies) who sold newspapers on street-corners in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

As the 20th century progressed, the flat cap became popular with a wealthier set. Because other hat-styles of the day were too bulky and cumbersome to wear with a pair of goggles, early motorists would wear a flat cap with their driving outfits when they went out for a spin. The flat cap’s low profile meant that it wouldn’t fly off in the slipstream generated by early, open-top cars, and it would keep dust and grit from getting into the driver’s hair. In Australia, the flat cap is commonly associated with noted veterinary surgeon, Dr. Harry Cooper.

The Pith Helmet

When? 1870s
Who? Big game hunters, soldiers, prospectors, Van Pelt from ‘Jumanji’.


A classic pith-helmet

The Pith Helmet is the classic hunter’s headgear. Together with a khaki outfit, boots, socks, a belt, a cylindrical canteen of water and a fully-loaded shotgun, it conjures up images of tracking and hunting big game in the wilds of Africa or the jungles of subtropic America. Or possibly, it makes you think of the British soldiers in the film “Zulu“.

The pith helmet was invented in the mid-1800s, but it gained its current, iconic shape in the 1870s. It’s made, not out of straw or felt, but rather out of a material called ‘pith’.

Pith is the soft, spongy tissue found inside the branches and trunks of trees. It’s typically white (or light brown) in colour. The pith used to make the classic pith-helmet comes from the Sola Pith, a flowering plant native to tropical countries such as India and Malaysia.

The Slouch Hat

When? 1600s
Who? Military personnel, the ANZACs


A vintage slouch hat from the Australian Army, ca. 1955. Note the upcurved brim, pinned in place with a ‘Rising Sun’ Australian military badge

The slouch hat, instantly recognisable from its pinched crown and wide, floppy brim, is a holdover from the years of Stuart England. The slouch hat was invented in England in the 1600s and it rose and fell in popularity for the next 200-odd years. It came back to fashion in the 1800s when it was adopted for use by the British Army and starting in the 1880s, the military forces of what would eventually become the Commonwealth of Australia. The slouch hat is a soft felt hat and its wide brim made it especially handy in hot weather when it kept the sun off the wearer’s face and body.

However, because of the hat’s wide brim, it soon became apparent that this hat was perhaps not the best choice for soldiers. The floppy, soft felt of the hat’s brim would get in the way of a soldier’s rifle when he raised it against his shoulder in presentation, or when he raised his arm and braced the rifle against his shoulder, ready to fire. To fix this problem, it became the fashion to pin up one side of the hat’s brim to make way for the rifle and to stop it from getting in the way. The hat remains closely associated with the Australian Army to this day, along with the pinned-up brim.

Hats in the 21st Century

Since the mid-2000s, mens’ hats have been returning to fashion with increasing speed, spurred on by popular new movies and TV shows that have their settings in the 1910s, 1920s and 1930s. The Trilby and its big brother, the Fedora, have become extremely popular and they’re now available in a wide range of colours, sizes and materials, ranging from the cheapest, mass-produced cheap straw and paper-woven $20 flea-market variety, to the heirloom-quality, felt hats of the early 20th century. Today, hats are being worn to keep the head warm and the face cool, hats are being worn to complete a vintage-inspired ‘look’, or to accessorise a more modern, casual kit. Is the hat here to stay? Maybe. Will its use continue to rise or remain steady? Or is it just a fad? Who knows? Everything old is new again. Fashion comes in waves, but style stays forever. As people become more health-conscious about the dangers of overexposure to the sun, and the comforts that a good hat can give them either in summer or winter, hats will continue to rise in popularity due to their sheer practicality, if for nothing else.

Buying a Hat Today

Okay. You’ve read all that stuff and now you’re bored. Or maybe you’re interested. Interested enough, perhaps, to buy your very first hat. You’re tired of those baseball caps that you collected when you were a kid and you want to get a proper guy’s hat. Maybe you’ve always wanted one. Maybe you think they’re stylish. Maybe you bought a new suit and you want a hat to go with it. Perhaps you just finished a “Boardwalk Empire” marathon? What do you look for in a nice hat?

Material

Hats can be made of anything. Plastic, wool, straw, sedge, paper…But a proper hat, a hat that you can wear out to dinner, or out on a cold wintery day to keep your head warm, is traditionally made of felt. Two different kinds of felt, to be precise.

Depending on where you live and which animal is more readily available, hats can be made of either rabbit or beaver-fur felt. In Europe, the tradition leans towards beaver felt first and rabbit felt second. In Australia, by comparison, hats are made of rabbit-felt (the rabbit being a plentiful and pestilential creature that roams the Australian outback in frustrating abundance). Rabbit felt is generally smoother and a bit firmer, while beaver felt tends to be a little ‘fluffier’ and softer. Benefits of animal felt in hatmaking include water-resistence (hats made of beaver and/or rabbit felt will not shrink if they get wet, as opposed to cheaper hats made of wool-felt), strength (they won’t rip or tear easily) and shape (they won’t deform as easily as other materials).

The majority of classic mens’ hats are made of felt. The Homburg, Trilby, Fedora, Top Hat and Bowler are all felt hats. Felt hats are usually winter hats. They’ll keep your head warm if it’s windy, rainy or snowy outside, and they’re nice and fuzzy and soft. However, felt hats are not very good for summertime use. There’s very little ventilation in such hats, so any heat trapped inside (which would be beneficial in winter) would become extremely uncomfortable in summer.

Summer hats are traditionally made of straw in a variety of weaves, that will make them either firm or loose and floppy. The Boater hat traditionally has a tight weave and is very firm and hard. The Panama Hat, by comparison (also made of a variety of straw), is lighter and floppier and a bit more breathable. Panamas are so cloth-like in their construction, that some varieties of this hat can even be rolled up for storage; something that would destroy a boater.

Lining

Not all hats come with linings. Some top-quality hats are deliberately sold without linings because the hat material would make linings unnecessary or ineffective (such as soft, floppy felt hats, where the lining would get crushed and crinkled anyway). Linings on hats are typically made of silk. On some hats (generally the newer hats), the silk lining is further protected by an additional plastic lining, which would prevent sweat-stains from damaging the silk. Plastic interior liners also have the advantage of being easier to wipe clean.

Sweatband

Eeeww yuck!

Oh come on. Everyone sweats. And those who wear hats are no exception. One way to tell a good-quality hat from a cheaper one is to check the sweatband. Cheaper hats may just have cotton sweatbands or no sweatbands at all. Hats of good quality (whether they be felt or straw) traditionally have sweatbands made of high-quality leather. Leather is soft, comfortable, strong and long-lasting. Leather sweatbands are traditionally machine-sewn into the linings of their hats, but in more modern times, sewing might be reinforced (or completely replaced) by super-strength industrial glue.

Ribbons/Bands

Awww. Ribbons…Cute!

Hat-bands or hat-ribbons have adorned hats for centuries. No, they’re not an indicator of quality, but they can be an indicator of style. Hats that are traditionally sold with ribbons will typically have them stitched loosely around the crown of the hat. If you feel daring enough, it is possible to remove the ribbon that came with your hat and tie and sew on a new ribbon that’s more to your taste. Hat ribbons are useful features apart from just being aesthetic. Hat-ribbons can be useful places to stick things such as cards (put on a nice suit, grab an old-fashioned magnesium flashbulb camera and stick a ‘PRESS’ card into your hat and you could look like a journalist interviewing one of the survivors of the Hindenburg Crash), matchsticks, feathers or, as was the style from time to time, decorative hat-pins.

How Does It Fit?

A good-fitting hat should sit firmly (but not temple-crushing tightly) around your head, with the brim resting on your ears. It shouldn’t fall off easily when you bend over and it should stay on in a fresh gust of wind.If you’re fighting to put your hat on every morning and it’s giving you migraines once you’ve won the battle…the hat’s too tight. Similarly, if your hat feels loose and shifty on your head and won’t stay in place: Then it’s too big.

Hats are sold in a variety of sizes and sizing-styles, from the standard “S/M/L/XL/XS” to fractioned and whole sizes (7 1/2, 9, 6 1/2 etc) and in centimeter measurements (my hat size, for example, is Size 7, or roughly 57cm, which is about a Medium).

Where to Buy a Hat?

You’re really asking two questions here in my opinion.

1. What hats are there out in the market today?
2. Where can I buy this specific hat that I want?

In the 21st century, with the steady resurgence of classic mens’ headgear, it’s becoming increasingly easy to purchase cheap cotton, wool-felt or even paper-weave hats online ranging in sizes from XS to XL. Or you can go to one of those ‘trendy’ ‘fashion’ clothing stores for the younger set, where hats like those are selling like hotcakes (I know, I used to work in just such a place), and if you’re looking to buy a cheap Trilby or Fedora just to try it on as an experiment and see whether or not you like the whole idea of wearing a hat and if you’re comfortable doing this, I’d recommend one of those shops and one of those more flashy, flowery, ‘out-there’ hats as a way to dip your toes in the water and see whether you like what’s further down in this pool of headwear.

For those of you looking to purchase a proper hat (I apologise if this term seems somewhat derogatory, but it’s true), by which I mean, a hat which looks good, which is made the traditional way, which will last for decades and which you can wear with a variety of outfits, then you can go to the websites of a number of prominent hatmakers and browse their catalogs, select the hat (and most importantly, the SIZE) that fits you, and then make the purchase.

Of course, buying online has one inherent flaw: You can’t try on the hat before you buy it. And unless you’re absolutely damn sure that you know what your hat-size is, I strongly advise caution and research before buying a hat this way.

Okay, great. Now I’ve scared you off of buying a hat online. Where can you buy them ‘in-the-flesh’, so to speak?

If you’re looking for a cheap and/or secondhand hat, trawl places like flea-markets, antiques shops, thrift-shops and those fashiony clothing & accessory shops that I mentioned earlier. There, any hats that you find that you like enough to buy, you can try on before you fork out the cash.

“Yeah but those hats are ugly, old, manky, ripped, loose, tight, stained, frayed, girly…” yadda, yadda, yadda. Yes I know. You want to buy a brand-new hat, but you want to do it properly. You don’t want to risk $100+ on a top-quality hat online which you can’t try on and which might not fit you when you finally get it in your hands, thereby wasting all your money. Now what?

Okay, a simple solution presents itself:

Find a hat-shop. Duh!

Now I realise that the recent history of the hat means that hat-shops are not as plentiful as once they were, which is a great pity, but sometimes, you strike it lucky.

Myself, I live in Melbourne, Australia (if there’s any other Melbournians reading this; take note…) and here in Melbourne, there really is only one place for the discerning hat-wearer to go to. If you want a nice, quality, long-lasting, oldschool felt, straw, Panama, Fedora, Trilby, topper, flat cap, boater etc etc etc etc ad nauseum, there’s really only one shop worth visiting…and I mean that quite literally because it’s the only shop in town. It’s “City Hatters” (for the Melbournians reading this, it’s on the corner of Flinders & Swanston, underneath the Station). I’m fortunate to have this city institution on my doorstep. It’s been operating out of the same shopfront for the past (as of the date of this posting), 101 years.


City Hatters in Melbourne is a traditional mens’ hat-shop and has operated continuously out of the same corner shopfront under Flinders St. Station in Melbourne since it opened in 1910

Now I realise that not every major city (and much less, smaller cities or country towns) have such well-established traditional hat-shops with ribbon-steaming services, brim-repairs and so-forth, but if you are so lucky, drop in at your local hatter’s, ask questions and start trying on lids. These guys will be thankful and appreciative of your patronage and, if they’re anything like the guys at my local hat-shop, will be happy to give you advice about how a hat should fit, feel and look on your head.

 

Suited Up: Stuffy or Stylish?

A while ago, I wrote a piece on the history of the suit. If you don’t remember it, you can find it here. Recently I started thinking about suits again. I started thinking about what they are and how they’re perceived in society. What they mean. What they evoke and how the suit has changed over the course of history. It’s a fascinating, sad, scary and hopeful and unfortunate saga that plays out almost like some sort of Shakespeare thing that you had to study at school.  So, where do we begin?


Along with men like Fred Astaire, George Raft and the Duke of Windsor, Cary Grant was always impeccably dressed

The Suit Today

In the 21st Century, the suit is viciously ripped apart and herded into one of two different camps. Those who see it as being super straitlaced, uptight, rigid, formal and uncomfortable and…okay who are we kidding? There’s really only one camp. But the point of this article is to show that there needn’t be this one camp and that indeed, this camp shouldn’t exist in the first place. The original purpose and history of the suit which was, as I said in my other article, a cornerstone of style, has been distorted, changed, warped and muddled up over the past fifty-odd years and today, how the public views the average two or three-piece suit, is very different to how the suit was originally viewed, a hundred, eighty, seventy-five and sixty years ago, when suits were worn on an almost daily basis. In this article we’ll look at what the suit traditionally was, how it changed from this to what it is now, and what, in the mind of this blogger at any rate, the suit should always and should continue to be. Let’s begin with the public perception in the 21st Century, of the typical man’s suit…

Perceptions of the Suit

There are two main perceptions of the suit in the 21st Century. Perception #1: A suit is old-fashioned. It’s formal. It’s for ‘special occasions’. It’s stuffy and constricting and uncomfortable and makes you look like a banker or a lawyer, a businessman or a mobster. You wear it for work and for work only. Then, there’s also Perception #2:  A suit is suave and sophistocated, it’s classy. It looks stylish and makes a man feel good, feel interesting, feel important, intelligent, in-control, comfortable, confident…sexy? Maybe that too. So my question is. Why? Why one and why not the other?

If a suit makes you look good. Why don’t more people wear them? And why does the suit have this unfortunate reputation that it does, as outlined in ‘Perception #1’. Is it deserved? Where does it come from? Why do we still have it?

The suit has a reputation of being stuffy and old-fashioned. Overly formal and uncomfortable. You put it on for special occasions and then store it back in your closet until you need it again, like some sort of military dress-uniform that you take out for promotions, parades or special presentations and ceremonies. Like…Weddings. But why should this be so? Where does it come from?

The suit’s current reputation comes from the period after World War Two during the 1960s and 1970s. Suits became synonymous during this period with employment and working and business and jobs. People wore suits all the time and as they say ‘Familiarity breeds contempt’. The suit became associated more and more strongly with work instead of play, with stiffnes and formality instead of relaxation and enjoyment. Because people had to wear them all day at work, it’s likely that they associated them too much with a lack of freedom and therefore, cast them off the moment they weren’t working. But that was never the suit’s job in the first place. It was never designed specifically as a work-uniform, but that’s where it’s been stuck for the last thirty or forty years. Even now in a new century when, with all the mixing and matching we’re doing with clothes, the suit seems to be jammed in some sort of timewarp. Today, when most people think of suits, they imagine TV shows like The Apprentice…

…a sad, but truthful look at the suit in today’s society.

Let’s move away from Perception #1 and move onto Perception #2…

Breaking out of the mould of business and employment, let’s take a look at the social history of the suit and a look at the suit from the other perspective that we have of it: As something classy and sophistocated. You have to understand that the suit wasn’t always seen as some sort of corporate uniform, the way that it might be today. For decades, the suit was seen as a form of, for want of a better and more contemporary term, ‘smart casual’ attire. The suit was the standard set of clothes that a man wore when he was out on the town. When he went out for dinner. When he went to work. When he followed the wife to visit friends or when merely going about his business. A suit used to be a sign of style, good taste, self-respect and confidence and power, sadly replaced it seems, by other qualities that are less indicative of what the suit should respresent: Masculinity and manhood.

So if the suit isn’t formal. Is it casual? If it was worn every day, it must be. But where does it lie on the dresscode scale? Let’s have a look…

At the top we have White Tie. Worn for the most formal of events such as weddings, important state functions and opening night at the theatre. White Tie is rarely worn today by most people except when it’s specifically asked for on an invitation-card.

Below White Tie we have Black Tie. Still fairly common today, Black Tie is worn for semi-formal occasions such as dinners with friends, parties, school or university events and presentations and awards ceremonies (Academy Awards, for example). White Tie is the most formal level of dress in the Western hemisphere. Black Tie, directly below it, is traditionally seen as semiformal dress, worn for more relaxed occasions.

To borrow a term from contemporary English, below Black Tie, we have ‘Smart Casual’. This was the area which up until fairly recently, was the domain of a certain set of clothes: The Suit. The suit was seen as a badge of pride and honour back in the old days. You wore it to show you had style, class and panache. It was the gold standard of men’s attire for well over a century. A man wearing a suit was seen as a snappy dresser who took care and pride in his appearance and who was someone worth taking notice of. Over the decades, suits changed in style, but they never moved from their rung on the wardrobe ladder. Up to the 1940s, a suit almost always had a waistcoat with it, making it a three-piece suit. The reasoning behind this was because it was considered unacceptable to display the white of your shirt. Your shirt was worn under your suit. It was an undergarment like your boxer-shorts or your briefs. Most likely, you only changed your shirt once a week anyway, so there was certainly no expectation that you’d want to show it off. Also, in days before central heating, the waistcoat provided an essential layer of warmth in cold, blustery buildings. Wearing two-piece suits regularly didn’t start becoming popular until after World War Two, when strict cloth-rationing made the manufacture of three-piece suits so much more difficult than it was before the war. Three-piece suits are much harder to find these days than two-pieces, but still, the suit remains.


Pussy Galore and James Bond (Sean Connery) in ‘Goldfinger’, with Bond wearing a three-piece suit

Finally, below the suit, we have street-casual, which is what most people wear today. Slacks. Jeans. Shirts. Pullovers. T-shirts and so forth. Traditionally, clothes such as these were seen as work-clothes. T-shirts, singlets and shirts were seen as underwear that you put on to absorb sweat and perspiration. Jeans were worn when you had heavy labour to do such as gardening, woodchopping, cleaning or any other activity that would’ve been unwise to carry out in a suit.

So as you can see, the suit is far from being some sort of formal, stuffy uniform. And it was never designed to be stuffy, anyway. Suits, when properly tailored and measured, are meant to be perfectly fitting and comfortable. If a suit is uncomfortable for whatever reason, then it’s not the right one for you. But just because a suit looks nice doesn’t mean that it’s automatically formalwear.

Suits: Casual or Formal?

This is the big style and fashion combat ground in the 21st century. Imagine an enormous table with thimbles armed with needles on one side and thread-spools armed with pins on the other with a battle-line of a tailor’s measuring tape running between the two. Where does the suit lie? In formalwear or casualwear? Let’s consider the photograph below for a minute…


Here’s actor Simon Baker wearing a three-piece suit. In no way does this look even remotely formal. Sleeves are up. Jacket’s off, shirt-collar is undone, he’s tieless and his shirtfront is open. This diversity of the suit, to look either elegant or relaxed speaks to me of its lack of formality as opposed to its abundance of it.

So the answer is that the suit does lie in the casualwear camp, and it’s just as well that it should, because that is what it was designed for. That is what it was invented for. That is what it’s meant to be seen as and used as. That’s why the perception of the suit as being a stuffy and formal and rigid uniform is unfounded. Because it simply does not exist. Invitation cards will say “White Tie” or “Black Tie”. Sometimes even “Smart Casual”. They will never say “Wear a suit”. Why? Because a suit isn’t formal. That’s why. And another reason why the suit wavers from formality is because formality is just that. It’s formal. White Tie is White Tie. Black Tie is Black. But a suit isn’t. It changes and alters constantly. Only casual clothes can do that. If you don’t believe me, then look up a fellow named Edward, Duke of Windsor.

Edward, Prince of Wales. Edward VIII of England. Edward the Duke of Windsor.


Edward, Duke of Windsor, with his wife, Wallis, the Duchess of Windsor

Apart from famously abdicating in 1936 to marry an American divorcee (Oh the scandal!), King Edward VIII was famous for one other thing – Rocking the suit. Before big fashion models showed up, the Duke was one of the most photographed men in the world, for his sense of fashion and style. And yet he always wore a suit. But that wasn’t the point. It wasn’t that he wore a suit, but rather what he did with it, changing, mixing, matching, mashing and churning things up. He was a style barometer that told the British people what to wear, how to wear it and if nobody else was wearing it, then he would. I can’t find the source on this, but I remember reading once that the Duke of Windsor was the guy who popularised zip-flies on trousers! Before then, trousers all had button-flies!

If you want more proof that a suit belongs in casualwear, think for a moment about a tuxedo and a suit. A tuxedo MUST be worn as a tuxedo. You can’t chop and change it. A suit is versatile. You can wear it with or without the jacket. You can put the waistcoat on if you’re cold, or you can leave it at home and wear it as a two-piece. You can use the jacket on its own as a sportsjacket or you can use the trousers seperately from the rest of the suit. You can wear the jacket and trousers with a contrasting waistcoat for a more broken up, less solid look and none of this will ever look wrong. It might look different, but never wrong. That’s not something you can say about true formal attire. Again, take a look at the photo of Simon Baker if you need any proof.

When Do You Wear a Suit?

I remember a while back, my father told me: “We should get you a suit. Something that you can wear for graduation”, by which of course, he meant my graduation from my bachelor’s degree at university. Oh boy. Oh boy oh boy oh boy! A suit! A suit a suit a suit! I’d never owned a suit before. I was excited and interested and fascinated. I was getting my first suit! I was gonna be a big boy! And then…bam! There it was. My first glimpse into how the suit is seen today. As something special to be dragged out on special occasions, paraded around as something special and unique and then shoved back into a box, like hauling grandpa out of the retirement home for a family reunion to remind people he’s still around before driving him back home at the end of the day.

But why?

Right here, you see the problem. Because suits have been elevated to the level of formalwear (a pedestal it was never supposed to occupy), the suit has been shunted aside to ‘occasional wear’. When’s the right time? When’s the wrong time? There is no right or wrong time to wear a suit. There are times where it might be more or less appropriate to wear one, but as I explained, a suit is casual clothing and therefore, fluid, with no real rules that govern its use. So when do you wear a suit? The answer really is: Whenever you like, so long as it doesn’t get damaged or dirty. After all, that’s what they were invented for. Do you really want to put on a suit only when you have a special occasion? Lying down in a pine box is a special occasion. Is that the only time you want to wear something sharp and snappy? I certainly don’t. So don’t let that be your only time that you’ll be wearing one either. Wear it on nice days. Crappy days. Days when there’s something interesting going on, or on days when there’s nothing on at all. A suit isn’t like a tuxedo that you can only put on after 6:00pm, it’s something you can wear all the time, so embrace it and do it and feel good about it.

Concluding Remarks

Okay. So where am I going with all this? The point of this posting is not to try and get every Tom, Dick, Harry, George and Michael into a suit…that would take far too much fabric anyway…but rather to try and destroy some misconceptions that have sprung up over the last thirty or forty years about the suit. The point of this posting is to clearly demonstrate the position of the suit and to illustrate that its current and unfortunate reputation that it holds, is unfounded, unwarranted and above all, unnecessary. The suit is a fine and elegant set of clothes, but that doesn’t make it formal or stuffy or straitlaced. It doesn’t make it rigid or tight or anything else along those lines. A suit is meant to suggest style, comfort, sophistocation and relaxation. After all, the suit’s full name is a lounge suit. So go ahead and lounge around in it. Be relaxed and casual, as the suit was meant to be. If you have a suit, don’t lock it away in the cedar cupboard up in the attic. Yank it it out, put it on and go out for a wander. We all want to look sharp and elegant. And it’s easy to be so. It just requires the shaking off of dust and a bit of a courage to do it. In today’s world of torn jeans, logo T-shirts and baseball caps, anyone wearing a suit will stand out as a sharp and shining example of manhood, confidence, style and sensibility. Be like the man who was king and rule the suit. Leave the Levis and the Piping Hot at home; suit up and step out.

 

Black and White – All about the Tuxedo

I think I should start this off by saying that this isn’t a fashion and style blog and it ain’t a menswear blog. It’s a history blog. I won’t be covering every single itty-bitty-titty-kitty detail about the do’s, the don’ts and the faux-pas of how to and how not to wear a tux. If that’s what you came here for, then you probably won’t find it.

The tuxedo is the ultimate men’s uniform. You see it at fancy parties, awards ceremonies, Christmas balls, royal gatherings, state dinners, weddings and anniversary celebrations. James Bond would never be seen without one. But it seems like these days, nobody really knows what a tuxedo is. They have a vague idea that it’s black and white and it’s mandatory daily attire for penguins…but that’s about it. What is a tuxedo, what makes up a tuxedo, when do you wear one? Why?…And why the hell is it called a ‘tuxedo’ anyway? That’s what this article is about.


All dressed up and no place to go…

The History of the Tuxedo

The tuxedo was born in the late Victorian era. By the 1870s and 1880s, people looking for a night out in snappy clothes were looking for a snappier alternative to having to wear glitzy, glamorous, over-colourful clothes that made them look like clowns. Stuff like frock-coats, cravats, buckled shoes and coloured waistcoats other articles of clothing, simply did not say “classy night on the town”. They wanted something simple, easy and sharp that would always look good. Black and white. Crisp and elegant. Enter the tuxedo.

The tuxedo was born in England in the 19th century. Elements of it had existed ever since Georgian times, but it wasn’t until the second half of the 1800s that the tuxedo really began to emerge in the form that we know it today. To understand how it came about, we need to understand when it was worn.

Victorian high society was all about social connections. Who you were depended on what you did, how you did it, who you did it with and who you knew. Connections and friendships were important. The way to meet people was at big social gatherings, events like garden parties, balls, dinner parties, luncheons, high teas and sporting-events. There was no Twitter, no FaceBook, no MySpace back then. You had to go out and find people to talk to!

Of course, part of being received in upper-class society was knowing what to wear. And you didn’t just wear anything to any occasion. There were amazingly strict wardrobe rules for every single event for every single hour of the day. There was morning dress, daytime dress and evening dress. The tuxedo fell under the umbrella of “Evening Dress”, meaning that you put it on after the sun went down. Typically, this meant changing into your tuxedo after six o’clock in the evening or at sundown (whichever came first). This is also why the black tuxedo jacket is also called a ‘dinner jacket’. The tuxedo was further broken down into “Evening Dress” and “Full Evening Dress”. Here’s where things can get complicated.

Black and White

‘Tuxedo’ is a very loose term. Like I said, people generally have a vague idea of what it is, and that’s all. But it’s rather more complicated than that. Traditional men’s evening dress is divided into two categories. Evening Dress and Full Evening Dress.

‘Evening Dress’ is the classic tuxedo. Also called ‘Black Tie’. A black dinner-jacket, a white dress-shirt with studs and a detatchable collar and french cuffs which had to be held shut with cufflinks and, as the name suggests…a black bowtie. Evening Dress was worn during semiformal social occasions between friends and professional acquaintenaces that took place after sundown, typically dinner, nights at the theatre or when providing private entertainment. Black Tie is what most people are familiar with today as being the classic tuxedo and which tends to end up as the dress-code on most formal social-event invitations.

The pieces of a traditional Black Tie tuxedo included…

Black one or two-button dinner-jacket or ‘Tuxedo’ jacket.
Black Tuxedo trousers.
Black low-cut Tuxedo waistcoat (optional. If you wear this, wear suspenders; ditch the cummerbund)
Black patent-leather shoes.
Black socks.
White dress-shirt with studs and cufflinks.
Black bowtie.
Cummerbund (that goes around the waist) or a pair of black suspenders that go over the shoulder, hidden by the jacket (which is usually kept closed).


Pierce Brosnan as James Bond wearing Black Tie

Less common today is the more formal ‘White Tie’ enssemble, which people tend to confuse. There are very few White Tie events that call for a dress-code like this, so people aren’t always aware of what to wear or what to expect.


German bandleader Max Raabe wearing classic White Tie complete with waistcoat, dress-shirt and studs, white bowtie and detatchable wing-collar

‘White Tie’ is the highest level of formality in male attire. White Tie is the kind of stuff you put on when you’re going to meet the Queen. The components of White Tie traditionally include…

Black tailcoat.
Black tuxedo trousers.
Black patent-leather shoes.
Black socks.
White, collarless dress-shirt, held shut with shirt-studs.
White detatchable wing-collar, held onto the shirt with collar-studs.
White bowtie. As the collar doesn’t fold down to hide the tie, it must be one that the wearer can tie. Not a clip-on.
White, low-cut waistcoat, usually with three or four buttons. For a time, black waistcoats of a similar cut were popular, but white is the most traditional.

In searching YouTube for those hideous “modern fashion-and-style guide” videos, I came across one that said that the only difference between Black and White Tie is that you change the jacket from black to white…WRONG! Black Tie is Black Tie, White Tie is White Tie. They are not interchangable and they are not synonymous. Show up for a White Tie event wearing a Black Tie enssemble and you’ll probably be kicked out.

Traditionally, studs and cufflinks would be white or mother-of-pearl. During funerals or wakes, especially during Victorian times, it was acceptable to wear black studs and links, as they were part of acceptable Victorian mourning-jewellery (jewellery that was jet black, in order to reflect the solemnity of the occasion). A thin and discreet dress-watch is one of the acceptable choices of timepiece for Black or White Tie. The best option is a gold chain and pocketwatch or no watch at all (wearing a watch suggests that you need to keep an eye on the time because you have somewhere else to be. And if you’re busy on the night that you’re attending a Black or White Tie event, then you really shouldn’t be there anyway!)

When to Wear Black or White?

Although both are only ever worn after six o’clock in the evening, as I said above, Black Tie and White Tie are not interchangable and one does not stand in for the other. So when do you wear what?

Black Tie is usually worn for events such as going out to dinner with friends, going to a friend’s house for a party, going to the theatre, attending a dance or a party and attending institutional functions, such as those held by schools or universities. You wear Black Tie when you go out for a classical concert or an evening at Carnegie Hall.

White Tie is worn for only the most exclusive of social functions. State dinners, meeting heads of state, attending the Opening Night of a theatre-production and attending evening weddings. White Tie is for those events where you need to know people in order to get one of those handwritten, security-watermarked invitations to get past the security guys wearing sunglasses and black T-shirts to enter the glitzy ballroom filled with celebrities.

The Tuxedo Through the Times

The modern Black and White Tie enssembles started showing up in the late Victorian-era as an alternative to the more colorful and flashy clothes that were typically worn by men of the period. Black Tie and White Tie were on the rise during the 1880s and through to the 20th century, reaching a peak around the 1920s-1950s, when it was popular to go out nightclubbing or fancy restaurants to see famous jazz-orchestras putting on a show or seeing great West End or Broadway Shows, which boomed during this interwar and immediate postwar era. Starting in the 1930s, the white dinner-jacket began to replace the traditional black or midnight blue one (as seen below) when a more comfortable alternative was needed when wearing Black Tie in a warm or tropical climate. Black absorbs heat so wearing full traditional Black Tie in a place like Florida or Singapore would be far too uncomfortable. White, which doesn’t absorb heat, was the natural and acceptable alternative.

During the 1920s, 30s and 40s, some swing-jazz big-bands would give live performances dressed in Black or White Tie. Occasionally, their version of Black or White Tie would be slightly altered so that party-guests wouldn’t mistake the musicians for other guests or staff working at the performance venue.

In the above photo, you can see Benny Goodman (front, with clarinet) and His Orchestra performing; ca. 1938. Bandmembers are wearing Black Tie, but with a more informal white jacket instead of the more traditional black, possibly to differentiate themselves from the audience. Sometimes, bandmembers would wear Black Tie while the bandleader would wear White Tie in order to make him stand out to the audience, such as in this photograph of the Paul Whiteman Orchestra taken in 1921:


Whiteman may be seen wearing White Tie (second from right, standing next to the pianist) while the other bandmembers wear Black Tie

Where did ‘Tuxedo’ Come From?

They’ve always been called ‘Black Tie’ or ‘White Tie’, differentiated by the colour of the bowtie and the presence or lack of a white waistcoat, but why do we also call them ‘Tuxedos’? Where did this term come from?

To be clear, the ‘Tuxedo’ is not the full getup. Traditionally, the ‘tuxedo’ was the black dinner-jacket. It wasn’t until later that the word ‘Tuxedo’ referred to the jacket and the black trousers as well. The word ‘Tuxedo’ comes from the town of Tuxedo Park in New York State in the United States of America.

Black Tie and White Tie Today

White Tie isn’t as common today as it used to be, unless you’re a filthy rich billionaire going to a charity fundraising dinner-party or something, at least. Black Tie still remains fairly common though, although it seems that there will always be a number of people who don’t know what it is or how to wear it…President Barack Obama for one…

…If you haven’t figured out what’s wrong here, Obama’s missing the wing-collar which goes under the bowtie and he’s missing the white waistcoat as well. Obama is supposedly famous for his high-fashion faux-pas…

Looking for more information? Then check out the Black Tie Guide, the definitive internet authority on Black and White Tie, what it is, how to wear it, where it came from and what makes it up.