Thursday, December 27, 2012

Beau Brummell: Lord of the pants

The widespread adoption of trousers – or 'pantaloons', after the commedia dell'arte character Pantalone – was literally revolutionary. For centuries, wealthy men had worn draped robes, or breeches and hose; trousers were a peasant garment. But they became the sartorial emblem of the militant working-class sans-culottes ('without knee-breeches') who had acted as French Revolution footsoldiers.

A sketch of a sans-culotte. They were often depicted in red, white and blue striped pants, with red caps and tricolour sashes.

After the Revolution, trousers (along with unpowdered hair cropped short in the 'Roman' style) became the mark of wholesome republican masculinity in France, as opposed to the decadent royalist effeminacy implied by breeches. Cut so slimly they almost resembled leggings, they were sometimes worn with a stirrup strap under the foot to achieve a fashionably 'classical' tautness.

"You could really be a Beau Brummell baby if you just gave it half a chance" – Billy Joel

More than any other individual, George Bryan 'Beau' Brummell was responsible for transforming this look into the uniform of the English dandy. Like Coco Chanel, Brummell was a self-made social climber in deliberately simple clothing; this middle-class lad eventually became close to the Prince Regent, the future George IV.

He stood out from and fascinated the Georgian aristocracy with his fastidious attention to personal hygiene and his taste for unadorned, fitted dark coats, pale buckskin trousers, crisp white shirts, carefully knotted cravats and shiny boots (which he recommended polishing with champagne).

Despite spending fabulous sums on a relatively unassuming wardrobe (Brummell reckoned someone could be tolerably well dressed on an annual budget of around £800, or around $162,400 in today's money), his consumerism was never splashy or hedonistic. Rather, Brummell was soberly devoted to the pursuit of subtlety and distinction in dress and manners.

However, Brummell's decline began when he turned his ever-impertinent wit on his patron. Snubbed by the future monarch at an 1811 ball, he retaliated: "I say, Alvanley – who's your fat friend?"

Surprisingly, he maintained his popularity even after falling from royal favour, but his finances had never quite covered his exorbitant lifestyle. His dad William died in 1794, leaving Beau a £30,000 fortune (£2.69 million in today's money) that his expensive lifestyle completely frittered away in just over 20 years. In 1816 he fled England to escape his creditors, dying in poverty in France in 1840.

This was a most ironic fate indeed for someone who had made dandyism such a decidedly English masculine ideal. Dandies situated themselves in opposition to an earlier kind of Georgian hipster – the macaroni, a term that had arisen in the 1760s when wealthy young men who'd tasted Italian food on their travels abroad adopted ostentatiously 'European' dress and manners once they got back home. (The song 'Yankee Doodle Dandy', written around 1755, makes fun of trashy Americans who thought all it took to be cool was to stick feathers in their hats.) Anything elaborate became very bad taste in England after the French Revolution.

The 19th century is often understood as the era of wasp waists for women, but a cinched waist was also considered the height of manly beauty. Perhaps Brummell's 'fat friend' resorted to a corset or girdle to look good in his clothes, as a significant minority of Regency men did. The rich fabrics and stiffly upholstered layers of 18th-century menswear had made pretty much everyone look stout, but Brummell's favoured silhouette was svelte and body-hugging.

During an 1808 battle against Tom Cribb, future publican Bob Gregson "refreshed himself with a tumbler of brandy".

Perhaps one reason their pants were so tight was that dandies celebrated the physical body and considered prize-fighters or 'pugilists' to be prime specimens of manhood. As we've seen, the outfits boxers fight in have had a profound influence on menswear silhouettes.

One favourite, the Lancashire giant Bob Gregson, retired in 1810 and became the publican at the Castle Tavern in Holborn, where dandies loved to drink. It would be like today's hipsters hanging out at a pub owned by a retired indie singer-songwriter.

Cool dudes in skinny jeans, sometimes even in women's jeans, are the cultural heirs of Romantic heroes in tight pants, from Mr Darcy to Lord Byron to Prince Albert. Indeed, pop and rock stars beloved of teenage girls often wear tight clothing to make spectacles of their youthful bodies. In a reversal of John Berger's theory that men look while women merely appear, the boys are the ones being ogled and objectified by lusty female fans whose behaviour is unruly and unpredictable.

A contemporary observer will notice that in the 19th century, tight pants were actually quite baggy in the crotch. The folk mythology invented for the Prince Albert genital piercing (that it tucked his tackle neatly away in order not to spoil the line of his pants) isn't at all true.

Fascinatingly, current boy band sensation One Direction wear their skin-tight jeans just as baggy in the crotch. But while Regency pants were high-waisted, young men these days (and don't I sound a thousand years old as I write that) will wear their tight pants very low on the hips so that the putative 'crotch' of the pants actually sits more over the upper thigh. The waistband of their underpants is exposed, and sometimes large portions of the undies themselves. The look creates an optical illusion of elongated torsos and truncated legs.

Compare this look to the Ramones, whose tight pants are body-conscious in a way that looks almost feminine. Maybe it's because they were such unbelievable poseurs, standing with spread legs, cocked hips and thumbs in pockets in the way we're used to seeing women pose for men's magazines.

Monday, December 17, 2012

The pop culture of men's underwear

For centuries, men wore knee-length flannel, linen or wool drawers with drawstring waists. Long flannel one-piece affairs with button-up flies and rear flaps, known as union suits or combinations, were first patented in 1868 and marketed to men, women and children alike; they evolved from women's reform dress.

Men's underwear gets its superheroic connotations from the heroism of sports. Two-piece long johns are likely named after boxer John L Sullivan, the Irish-American heavyweight champion from 1881-92. Sullivan competed in long white leggings, as was customary in his sport at the time.

By 1925, boxers were wearing shorts held up by sashes or leather belts; but boxing equipment impresario Jacob Golomb, whose New York company Everlast had begun in 1910 as a maker of durable swimwear, had the bright idea of making the shorts elastic-waisted instead.

The design became popular as underpants, especially after WWII, where they had been standard issue underwear. Quite apart from the loose, airy sensation they offer – "there's nothing like running upstairs in silk boxers!" my friend Keith once swore – perhaps boxer shorts' original appeal lay in the possibility of feeling tough and strong like a pugilist or a soldier, but keeping this toughness hidden under one's clothes like Clark Kent, who made his DC Comics debut in 1938.

An image from Syd Miller's original Chesty Bond cartoon strip.

Australia's very own comic-strip superhero was Chesty Bond, who first pulled on his iconic singlet in 1940 to battle Hitler, Hirohito, enemy submarines, planes and spies. By 1942 he was appearing in Sydney's Sun five days a week. Cartoonist Syd Miller later told the Sydney Morning Herald that he'd envisioned Chesty as "an Australian strong man in deed and made super by or when he was wearing his Bonds singlet."

Chesty's famous lantern jaw was modelled on former NSW premier Jack Lang. Rugby league player and pro wrestler Max Whitehead modelled as Chesty from 1951, although he had to wear a prosthetic chin as nobody – with the possible exception of TV's Bondi Vet, Dr Chris Brown – looks like Chesty in real life.

Chris Brown: Chesty Bondi?

Superman also battled WWII-era villains in his trademark red briefs. Comic-book superheroes' outfits were modelled on the costumes of circus strongmen and acrobats; Jules Léotard, the French aerialist who first wowed London crowds in 1861, famously wore knitted tights to show off his athletic body and avoid getting tangled in trapezes. The contrasting-coloured trunks worn over the tights offered a degree of modesty as well as crotch support.

Hubba hubba: Jules Léotard.

Y-front briefs were innovated by Arthur Kneibler, who worked in sales and marketing for Michigan-based Cooper's Underwear. In 1934, when sleeveless, short-legged union suits already resembled swimwear, Kneibler received a postcard from the French Riviera depicting a very brief, topless bathing costume.

His version: snug-fitting underpants with no legs at all, and an overlapping front fly offering so much crotch support it resembled athletes' jockstraps‚ which themselves had been patented in 1874 for 'bicycle jockeys'. Hence Cooper's new brand name: Jockey.

'Tighty-whities' were so popular in the mid-20th century that they still hold that era's associations with clean-cut conservatism and hidden sexual perversity. A young Tom Cruise in Risky Business created an iconic image when he danced in his shirt, socks and underpants to Bob Seger's 'Old Time Rock'n'Roll'. As in many 1980s teen sex comedies, Cruise's undies signal dorky sexual inexperience.

Kevin Bacon wears them in the film National Lampoon's Animal House, set in 1962, as he's spanked with a paddle during a hazing ritual for an uptight college fraternity. "Thank you sir, may I have another?" he squawks absurdly between each stroke. Playing a conservative 1980s Los Angeles mayor in Rock of Ages, Bryan Cranston also gets paddled in his undies.

Cranston had already donned tighty-whities in a much-circulated publicity image from TV series Breaking Bad, in which he plays a mild-mannered chemistry teacher-turned-increasingly ruthless drug dealer. It's appropriate that 'breaking bad' means letting loose and challenging conventions, because more recently, pop culture depicts Y-fronts as undies for feckless slobs. Russell Brand wore them in Arthur, as did Will Ferrell in Talladega Nights; Jack Black has made them a signature garment.

However, pop culture still thinks of skimpy briefs as 'European', even more so now that boxer briefs have become a popular choice for men. Bikini briefs are associated with sleazebags and strutting Casanovas, especially in bright colours and animal prints. The Wedding Singer's oily villain Glen Guglia wears a leopard-print pair; Kazakh caricature Borat cheerfully dons a lime-green mankini.


Wednesday, December 12, 2012

The circular logic of online DIY tutorials

Today at the op-shop I continued Seven Sisters Summer by purchasing a circular tablecloth in a seersucker-ish blue gingham, which I plan to make into a circle skirt.

You can see it already has a hole in the middle. I was sure this was going to earn me a discount off the price, but the op-shop lady told me the hole was intentional because the cloth was meant to be used on an outdoor table with a central umbrella.

I still tried to haggle because c'mon, look how crappily cut out the hole is!

But ultimately I gave up because it is a charity, and because $5 is still an okay deal for a large amount of fabric, ready-hemmed and already in a circle so I don't have to do that bit myself.

I remember a few years ago Lady Melbourne had a circle skirt DIY (here's part 1 and part 2) but I'm not sure I can be bothered with a proper waistband and zipper, since I haven't got a sewing machine (though my mother's always like "You can always borrow mine; I never use it") and my sewing skills are really not that advanced.

From some of the DIYs I've looked up, I think the way to finish the skirt will be to fold the tablecloth in half, then in half again, and then measure the waist (the 'circumference' of a small circle in the middle of the skirt) by measuring the radius of that smaller circle from the narrow end of the fold.

But how to calculate the radius? Lady Melbourne reckons you take your waist measurement, add on "an inch or two" for seam allowance, then divide by 3.14 (pi), then again by 2.

Another DIY says the correct radius is your waist measurement plus two inches, divided by 6.28 (pi times two).

This DIY (admittedly, for stretchy fabric) reckons the correct radius is your waist measurement minus two inches. ("Do not add 2"!")

One DIY says the correct radius is your hip measurement, minus four inches, divided by 6.28.

This DIY reckons the correct radius is your hip measurement plus two inches, divided by 3.14, then divided by 2.

But this DIY reckons the radius is simply 1/6 of your waist measurement.


While researching my chapters on sizing I developed a lot of respect for patternmakers and the ways they come at the industrial problem of having to develop good fits for bodies in a wide range of shapes and sizes, within commercial limits.

By contrast, online DIY tutorials are personalised and amateurised. They are even a step below home dressmaking patterns (which I've also researched for the book) in that the process of creating the garment is flexible and intuitive, like cooking from a description rather than a strict recipe. They are often ad-hoc, based on repurposing existing materials rather than working from scratch, and making calculations on the fly that can then be fixed later in the process if they turn out to be wrong.

This suits my way of working with clothes. I should probably do a future blog post about my crappy customised clothes; I did one back in 2009 and I should let you know that the pink dress was a complete failure. I think I crumpled up the fabric in rage and despair and threw it in the corner of my room, because I found it there last Saturday while searching for some Christmas wrapping paper.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Riches to rags: the long life of clothing

Shoppers at a secondhand clothing market in Harare, Zimbabwe. Image: The Zimbabwean

We like to think that the secondhand clothing market is all about exercising creativity, or rescuing the past. But what happens to the clothes that don't meet the vintage industry's criteria of individual value?

Once bought, clothing progresses through a chain of degradation. It can be resold several more times, especially as bulk exports to developing countries. Many of the old clothes we donate to charity end up being sold in secondhand markets in Africa. As much as 80 per cent of donations don't even make it into op-shops.

Instead, charity organisations on-sell them to textile recycling factories, which sort and repackage them into bales to be sold abroad in bulk. As of 2004, the United States both exported the largest volume of second-hand clothes and derived the most money from the export, followed by the United Kingdom, Germany and the Netherlands.

Stacked on pallets, shrink-wrapped in plastic, the bales look unnervingly like lozenges of chewing gum – poised to deliver refreshment. Those graded as 'Premium' are destined for Asia, Central America and Europe; in 2004, Europe accounted for about a quarter of all second-hand clothes imports.

However, sub-Saharan African is the most popular destination for second-hand clothing. Clothes designated 'Africa A' go to wealthier countries and 'Africa B' to the poorest ones. In Ghana and Togo, they're jocularly known as 'dead white man's clothing', while Tanzanians call them 'dyed in America' and in Somalia it's 'huudhaydh', the phonetic spelling of "Who died?"

In Rwanda, used clothing goes by the local word for 'choose'. And in Zambia, the market stalls where locals come to rummage through piles of Western cast-offs are called 'bend-down boutiques'. Everyone shops for clothes this way, from government ministers to the poorest subsistence fishermen.

In debt-crippled Zambia, the domestic clothing industry was entirely snuffed out during the 1990s by the free trade that was conditional on loans from foreign donor countries. Endless container-loads of foreign second-hand clothing fatally flooded the local textile market. Even used, these garments were often better made than locally made equivalents; manufacturers simply couldn't produce the same quality at the same volume and low cost.

Now, everyone in Zambia wears second-hand clothes. Wholesalers import them duty free, and then onsell to an ecosystem of progressively smaller-scale dealers who fan out into their own districts. Many of them are teenagers who've been locked out of an unaffordable education system, or former teachers, public servants and nurses who've turned to entrepreneurship after losing their jobs.

A secondhand clothes dealer transports his merchandise. Image: Africa Review

When American essayist David Rakoff travelled to a Playboy TV shoot at Cayo Espanto, a hyper-luxurious private resort island off the coast of Belize, he was troubled not just by the contrast between the decadent pampering he received there and the poverty of neighbouring town San Pedro, but also by his knowing, guilty surrender to indulgence.

As Rakoff boards his departing plane, he notices that the baggage handler is wearing "a tight, faded yellow T-shirt with Daffy Duck on it, bearing the slogan, 'I was Loony as a Toon at Samantha's Bat Mitzvah'":
It would be nice to think that this T-shirt was his from the start, that he was at Samantha's bat mitzvah, sharing in her family's joy as she came into Jewish womanhood, and came away with this souvenir of his time there. But … I kind of doubt it.
For Rakoff, the tightness, the fadedness, and most of all the cross-cultural incongruity of the T-shirt mark it not as a prized heirloom, nor even an ironic gesture, but as sartorial imperialism.

If you think that's abject, I haven't even begun to talk about rags. In the past, old clothes were once collected by rag-and-bone men and sold to dealers, the original rag-traders. Whatever they couldn't sell as a finished garment was shredded and put to other uses.

Linen and cotton rags are used to make paper – the fancy sort that's coveted for business cards and wedding invitations. Other clothes go to industrial workplaces for cleaning machinery and wiping workers' hands; they're cheaper and more absorbent than paper towels. Jeans end up soaking up oil spills on factory floors; T-shirts are used in polishing and car detailing.

Fibre from rags can fill car doors to weight them for that satisfying clunk, be used in home insulation, soundproofing tiles, furniture stuffing and upholstery, carpet underlay and movers' blankets, and even mixed into asphalt. Some clothing is broken down into its original fibres, which are re-woven, or its synthetic components, which are melted down and reconstituted.

A worker sorts rags by fabric and colour and removes buttons at Eastern Outsource, a sheltered workshop in Mt Evelyn, Victoria.

There's something overwhelming about this ultimate disintegration, this annihilation of everything clothing represents – its design, its aesthetic, its function and its cultural significance. You see, every garment begins its life meaning something. It's designed, made and bought for a specific purpose, coveted, cherished, and worn with feelings of pride and shame. It snowballs in significance as it moves through history, becoming totemic of the time and place it was made.

As New York Times reporter George Packer observes, the pitilessly industrial logic of clothes recycling plants strips this significance away. "Whatever charming idiosyncrasy a pair of trousers might have once possessed is annihilated in the mass and crush. Not only does the clothing cease to be personal, it ceases to be clothing."

Yet once he travels to Africa, Packer is in awe of how good these same clothes look once they're displayed on a Kampala market stall. They "undergo a transformation like inanimate objects coming to life in a fairy tale. Human effort and human desire work the necessary magic."

It's kind of patronising to clothing consumers in the developing world to suggest they dress naively or thoughtlessly. Zambian 'bend-down boutiques' are every bit as thoughtfully arranged as an inner-city Australian vintage salon, with their latest and best acquisitions prominently displayed on hangers and racks to attract customers, while older, discounted items languish in piles on the ground. Younger boutique vendors, especially, curate their stock with a shrewd eye for visual flair and saleability.

In Zambia, young men covet business suits for their connotations of wealth and upward mobility, and American sports jerseys for their associations with US hip-hop stars. Really, how different is that to the way my friends and I used to buy second-hand Levi's 501 jeans when we were 15 from Dangerfield, American Rag and army disposal stores? They often had holes and worn patches, but that only added to their glamour in our eyes. What we loved about them was their patina of Americanness – the feeling that by wearing them, we could magically travel somewhere more exotic than Melbourne.

The vintage industry celebrates the clothing of the past by fetishising particular, wonderful, individual garments, which it goes on to invest with new retail value because they're now unique. But the fate of rags should warn us of the destructive power of not-wanting. When a garment is no longer desirable, it loses its value and purpose entirely.

Thursday, December 06, 2012

Seven Sisters Summer

Please indulge me as I explain my vision for how I plan to dress this summer. Basically, I'm aiming for a midcentury New England college campus look of the sort that is called Ivy League style in menswear.

Ivy style is the subject of a fascinating-looking exhibition on now at the Museum of the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York. (Here are pics, and an interesting critique.) I'd love to have been able to see it, especially as I'm currently reading F Scott Fitzgerald's debut novel This Side of Paradise, which is set partly at Princeton and was hailed as the quintessential portrait of post-WWI youth.

When I first discovered the iconic Japanese photography book Take Ivy, I was kind of shocked to realise that it was basically devoid of women. It's troubling that so many men who are into this aesthetic are drawing sartorial inspiration from such a hermetically sealed homosocial vision.

While men were at the Ivy League, their female peers were at the Seven Sisters: Barnard (associated with Columbia); Bryn Mawr (associated with Princeton); Mount Holyoake (associated with Dartmouth); Radcliffe (associated with Harvard); Smith (associated with Yale); Vassar (also associated with Yale) and Wellesley (associated with Harvard and MIT).

I have become quite absorbed in a Tumblr called Vintage Seven Sisters that features archival photos of student life at these colleges.

I find the idea of a women-only college campus as weird as an men-only one (and I speak as someone who went to an all-girls' high school), but perhaps historically these campuses offered young women a certain freedom from the expectations of 'ladylike' comportment, while cherishing sporting and intellectual endeavour for women in a way the outside world didn't.

Despite the fact that the whole 'Seven Sisters' idea came about as a way to rebrand Barnard and Radcliffe as elite WASP schools (they had large numbers of Jewish students), these campuses also seem to have been surprisingly cosmopolitan places. Check out the ethnic makeup of this Mt Holyoake PE class in 1912:

However, this image of Smith College students has really inspired my Seven Sisters Summer:

It began as merely a Summer of Denim. Right now I have an antipathy to jeans, and denim skirts seem a bit too 'sister-wifey' to me:

But I haven't owned a blue denim jacket since my beloved jacket was stolen from a bar a few years ago, and I like the way it can instantly make an outfit look more insouciant. I recently invested in both a denim jacket and a denim shirt in roughly similar shades of blue.

I am particularly into the combination of blue denim and yellow. I have a bright daffodil-yellow high-waisted skirt, so I can do this look:

(Aside: I would also like a large, chunky gold men's watch.) Today I went to Savers and was looking at various navy and white gingham shirts so that I could achieve something similar to this:

(Although I would never wear a full skirt so grotesquely short. I am a grown woman, not a five-year-old. I think they look nicest at knee-length.)

I really like the idea of wearing clashing prints in similar shades:

However, none of the gingham shirts I saw today was quite right. However, I am immensely proud of today's turbo-charged Ivy-style purchase: a SEERSUCKER MADRAS SHIRT FOR $4!

It is from the embarrassingly dorky grandma brand Miller's, but I guess that's where you would logically expect to find this conservative stuff. Well, there or American Apparel.

I have rolled the sleeves up. I think it could look good worn untucked over my black ankle-freezer cigarette-leg pants, or tucked into a high-waisted skirt. I am going to wear the hell out of it this Seven Sisters Summer.

The other essential element of my Seven Sisters Summer is bobby socks.

Luckily, this time last year I invested in a bazillion pairs of colourful ankle socks.

If you'd like to follow my jaunty tastes in clothes, I have a Pinterest board dedicated to them. That's where most of these pics are from. I also have a Pinterest board specifically for Out of Shape source images – feel free to follow that too, or, hell, why not follow them all?

Monday, December 03, 2012

Berlei's dodgy survey boss

Professor Henry Chapman in 1928. 
Berlei might have employed some rad ladies, but the man in charge of the sizing survey was Professor Henry Chapman, of the University of Sydney's Medical School. The university's involvement – for which it was paid in £10,000 worth of Berlei shares – lent the enterprise a ring of reassuring medical authority.

Tall, imposing and with a forceful, charismatic manner, at the age of 47 the British-born Professor Chapman had already enjoyed a glittering academic career at the universities of Melbourne, Adelaide and Sydney, distinguishing himself in physiology, pathology and pharmacology.

Anthropometry wasn't really his bag… but more pertinently, he relished public attention and had an excellent reputation for working with industry. Chapman would have been a model scholar in today's corporatised, publicity-obsessed universities.

In the earliest of his many consulting roles, in 1908 Chapman testified before a Western Australian Royal Commission on the use of the preservative sulphur dioxide in meat processing. Thanks to his knowledge of yeast, in 1916 he helped found Sydney Technical College's first school of baking technology.

When he chaired a 1919-20 inquiry into lung diseases in the Broken Hill mines that recommended compensation for miners affected by phthisis and pneumoconiosis, Chapman also managed the impressive feat of being respected by both mining companies and union leaders.

For the Berlei sizing survey, he recruited his anatomy colleague, Dr Stewart Arthur Smith, plus two undergraduate science students, Mr R Tannahill and (the aforementioned rad lady) Della Lytton Pratt, as research assistants. While Chapman and Smith supervised, the students were in charge of collecting, classifying and correlating data from 23 different body measurements per participant, using specially designed calipers and rulers.

The Berlei survey was the high point of Chapman's career. In 1928 he was appointed as the university's Director of Cancer Research. Then, as now, cancer research was a prestigious gig, and Chapman's lack of experience in the field bitterly divided his colleagues. A 1930 series of media exposés painted him as a publicity-seeker with dubious research methods.

It seems his work took a toll on his family life. In 1916 Chapman separated from his wife Julie (with whom he had a son and two daughters), and maintained a glamorous bachelor lifestyle at the University Club in Sydney. He also kept apartments in the city and Bondi, and by the time of his cancer research appointment, he was living way beyond his means.

In May 1934, Chapman was caught embezzling cancer research funds and committed suicide by taking a cocktail of poisons. His estate was divvied up among his creditors. Unfortunately, today he's best remembered for this final disgrace, rather than his contributions to public health.