Is There an English National Costume? Six Possible Contenders
It is often said that there is no national costume for England like those for Scotland (usually identified as a man in Highland dress based on the tartan kilt), Wales (a woman in a red cloak and tall black hat, although arguably also the druid in a white gown or cloak) and Ireland (a woman in a green dress over a white blouse), but this is not entirely correct today. Firstly, it should be noted that the national costumes of the other members of the British Isles are more or less nineteenth-century constructs, albeit weaving in earlier historical elements to a greater or lesser extent. As would be expected for England, the first industrialised country of the modern era, characterised by rapid change, any pretender to the title of national costume from before the eighteenth century is likely to have been left behind by the growth of towns. For example, embroidered smocks were worn locally in many a bucolic heartland, but did not find their way into the iron foundries of the labouring class. Smocks became a symbol of a rapidly passing rustic way of life, hardly the emblem of a striving nineteenth century empire founded on industry, exploration and urbanity.
A straw poll of men with a taste for fashion was conducted as part of this enquiry. They were asked about their own views on the existence or otherwise of a national outfit. One chap in publishing said that the bowler hat and dark suit were quintessential, later adding facial hair to the ensemble. An Englishman from the shires selected Morris men but also track-suits. A commentator on men's fashion who runs an influential blog chose the ill-fitting grey suit because he saw it so often on the streets. A fellow from a Jermyn Street store picked a velvet jacket with check trousers plus a waistcoat, shirt and tie. A stylish young man who makes accessories listed flannel trousers and tweed jacket with double breasted overcoat. Full classic unbranded cricket whites were an offering from a liberal-minded artist.
Number 6.The Country Gentleman.
The costume comprises a tweed or wool suit worn with brogue shoes. Wool has been a staple of the English economy for centuries, long before cotton appeared. The prosperity of entire regions such as East Anglia depended upon the wool trade, mainly with Europe. It is no surprise that garments made of wool would be worn, especially due to the warmth and water repellent qualities of the fabric. Even if it was worn by the labouring class and by clerics, the version which came to symbolise the English countryman - a two or three piece suit in tweed - is thought to originate in the nineteenth century. The name tweed may derive from a copying error, where the Scottish word tweel was taken for tweed, in the mistaken belief that the cloth came from the area around the river. An alternative view is that it came from the word tweeled meaning twilled. During the nineteenth century it became popular among the wealthy and educated English classes to visit remote and wild areas, especially in Scotland, where they bought estates. A romantic fashion developed for commissioning bespoke tweeds, like Prince Albert's Balmoral tweed, designed around 1850. The diversity of patterns and colours found in tweed today is the result.
Modern brogues are a form of outdoor country walking shoe developed in Scotland and Ireland. When first constructed they contained tiny holes which allowed bog- and rainwater to drain out. The etymology of brogue is Gaelic/Scottish/Norse, but by the early twentieth century the style was being sported by the Englishman, usually in a rural setting. Nowadays, however, brogues are even considered suitable for business wear.The irony of the country gentleman outfit will not be lost on England's neighbours, but it shows that one of our characteristics is the ability to adopt and adapt ideas and styles.
Number 5.Morris Dancers. There are many local Morris traditions, with the earliest-known English written record of the dance dating to 1448. The type of Morris which is taken to represent England is the white-wearing, bell-jangling, handkerchief-waving, prancing-and-dancing variety usually found in the South, but there are many regional variations. It was thought that The Morris was in decline, but with the advent of the Internet and references to it in books such as Terry Pratchett's Discworld series, it is undergoing a revival. Whilst it has been exported (with limited success) to other countries such as America, it remains firmly rooted in the English national consciousness, standing for tradition, eccentricity, copious amounts of frolicking accompanied by drinking, and a gentler version of masculinity. With the true origins of The Morris shrouded in antiquity, it fulfils one of the essential desires of the English: to be mysteriously unknowable.
Number 4.The Redcoat.
This embraces military and civilian outfits, due to the close similarity of both. The evolution of red as the English soldier's colour was mainly due to the cheapness of red dyes and a growing sense among the population that red was the national English colour. The official adoption of the redcoat dates from February 1645, when the Parliament of England passed the New Model Army Ordinance. As 'England' became virtually synonymous with 'Britain' in the nineteenth century, 'redcoat' widened its meaning to include the British Army, and even today, scarlet is still worn by the Foot Guards, the Life Guards and by some regimental bands or drummers for ceremonial purposes. Scarlet is also retained for some full dress, military band or mess uniforms in the modern armies of a number of the countries that made up the former British Empire. The extensive use of this colour by British, Indian and other Imperial soldiers over a period of nearly three hundred years made red uniform an icon of the British Empire, as captured by the expression 'the thin red line.'The origin of the red hunt coat (bizarrely often referred to as 'pink') that everybody associates with English hunting is not easy to identify. Old prints show many of the men wearing red coats. The Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, by E. Cobham Brewer, 1894 edition, gives the following explanation: "The red coat in fox-hunting (or scarlet) is a badge ofroyal livery, hunting being ordained by Henry II a royal sport." With fox hunting now banned by statute, the red hunt coat has become a symbol of defiance, privilege, anachronism, and tradition: a typically English mixture of contradictions.
Number 3. John Bull.
John Bull is usually portrayed as a stout man in a tailcoat and waistcoat, with buff breeches tucked into boots, and a top hat.His costume evolved from the Georgian period, when his waistcoat was red and his tailcoat royal blue, to the now iconic Union Flag of the twentieth century, with a dark blue coat.Ironically, given his status as an English propaganda figure, the character was developed by a Scot, John Arbuthnot, as an allegorical representation of English character in a series of political pamphlets in 1712. His first great period was during the Napoleonic wars, in critical cartoons by Rowlandson and Gillroy which portrayed him overwhelmed by government policies, but by the later 18th century he had returned to robust prosperity.The character was popularised as a genial, reliable and trustworthy farmer in Punch cartoons. However, increasingly through the early twentieth century, with growing working class political consciousness, he was perceived as not particularly representative of the 'man in the street,' and during the First World War this function was largely taken over by the khaki-clad figure of Tommy Atkins. By contrast, in a very tangible way Winston Churchill was the personification of John Bull throughout the Second World War, an exemplar of 'the bulldog breed,' despite his Anglo-American background.Image and origin are often separate entities.
Some John Bull depictions appear in the first volume of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen by Alan Moore and Kevin O'Neill, published in 1999. Given the immense popularity of these modern comics, it is apparent that John Bull will remain alive in the collective psyche, but he is not as instantly recognised by the current generation as he would have been a hundred years ago.
Number 2.The City Gent.
He wears a black Bowler hat, a dark business suit and carries a furled umbrella. The Bowler hat, also known as a Coke, is of hard felt with a rounded crown originally created in 1849 for either William or Edward Coke, both aristocrats, who asked Lock & Co in London to provide a close-fitting, shallow-crowned hat for their gamekeepers.Either William or Thomas Bowler (or both brothers) assisted in the making of the hat. (As is typical of these investigations into the history of English costume, the precise details of the origins are confused or muddled.) The hat was popular with the working class during the Victorian era and later on with the middle and upper classes in Britain. The bowler was in fact the most popular hat in the American West, since it was secure even in high winds.Famous devotees included Butch Cassidy and other outlaws, suggesting both moral and class ambiguity - an enigmatic uncertainty continued by Charlie Chaplin's ne'er-do-well character The Tramp, the author of 'ultraviolence' Alex DeLarge in the 1971 film version of A Clockwork Orange, and John Steed in the 1960s television series The Avengers. However, from the 1930s to the 1960s, bowlers were appropriated by, and became the trademark indicia of, senior civil servants and captains of finance, especially in the City of London. For this reason, two bowler-hatted men were used in the logo of the British building society (subsequently bank) Bradford & Bingley. Such headgear signified respectability and stability, two factors vital when attempting to instil confidence in an investor. Gradually, however, stuffiness of attitude and a claustrophobic mind came to be seen as characteristics of the institutional wearer; hence John Cleese wore one when playing a civil servant in the famous Monty Python Ministry of Silly Walks sketch. The snobbish Captain Mainwaring from Dad's Army was in civilian life a bank manager in a small seaside town, and his bowler was a symbol of petty pomposity and meaningless formality. Not surprisingly, the habit of wearing these hats declined sharply in the 1970s and today they are rare sights indeed, cheap versions being sometimes worn by tour guides in London. That being said, they are undergoing a slight rehabilitation and revival, especially in non-traditional colours--a return to their diverse earlier pedigree.
As to the dark suit, in the early nineteenth century Regency dandy Beau Brummell redefined the prevailing look for European gentlemen: well-cut, tailored clothes, and tidily knotted neckties. This austere new style contrasted strongly with the extravagant foppery of the earlier Georgian period. Brummell's influence introduced the modern era of men's clothing, which now includes the suit and tie, but this required a gradual transition from the dark tailcoats, pale waistcoats and trousers of that period through the Victorian frock coat (initially not just in black) and the morning coat, which were not worn with matching trousers.The early twentieth century brought a gradual phasing out of frock coats and the growth in popularity of the morning coat, before the adoption of the previously casual modern lounge suit as formal wear.
According to Chinese legend the origin of the umbrella goes back to about 2,000-2,400 years BCE and it became a distinctive mark of rank. Emperors and imperial potentates in Japan, Indian princes, Assyrians and Persians also used the umbrella to denote their seniority. It is thought to have entered Europe via Greece, Italy and Turkey. Tradition has it that the Normans brought it to England with them in 1066, but there is nothing very tangible to support this view. Interestingly, umbrellas were in common use in France in 1620. In England they are mentioned in John Gay's Trivia: Or, The Art of Walking the Streets of London, published in 1716. Jonas Hanway was the first Englishman to carry an umbrella regularly. He died in 1786 and is said to have carried one for thirty years, so the date of its first use (by him) may be about 1755. By 1788, however, they seem to have become accepted, as evidenced by a London newspaper advertisement for "the sale of improved and pocket Umbrellas, on steel frames, with every other kind of common Umbrella."In the modern mind the cartoon character Mr Benn, created by David McKee, probably epitomises the Englishness represented by umbrella-carrying. His conservative appearance belies the fact that he takes trips to other dimensions, suggesting the surreal Pythonesque side to the English, masked by apparent orthodoxy.
Number 1. Sherlock Holmes.
Sherlock wears a deerstalker and a cape coat; he carries a pipe and a magnifying glass. The deerstalker is a type of cap that was typically worn in rural areas in nineteenth-century England. It became especially fashionable between 1870 and 1890, when sports clothes assumed a more prominent position in menswear. It was usually made of cloth (often tweed) featuring the distinctive peaks at front and back with cloth ear flaps at the sides. While Holmes' headgear is never explicitly named as a deerstalker in Conan Doyle's stories, the descriptions of his hat led Sidney Paget to depict him wearing one in his famous illustrations. During the 1940s, in various war propaganda films starring Basil Rathbone (such as Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon) the deerstalker image was cemented. In the 2012 BBC television series Sherlock, which features modern-day settings of the stories, the deerstalker is spoofed repeatedly --for example, Holmes initially tries to go incognito from paparazzi by wearing one, a joke which plays on our universal familiarity with Holmes and his iconic hat.
Holmes' cape coat had two main versions: the Ulster and the Inverness, named after their respective birthplaces, caped coats which were originally double-breasted but later evolved into single-breasted coats, and both of which were formerly made of plaid wool or tweed. The Ulster, which was originally a Victorian working daytime overcoat, is named in several of the Sherlock Holmes stories, but for the purposes of the overall look, it does not matter whether or not Holmes wore an Ulster or an Inverness--either is often referred to as a Sherlock Holmes coat. The pipe and the magnifying glass are accessories which add detail to the familiar profile.
Is it important that the Sherlock Holmes costume is the winner? That depends upon whether or not (despite his probable Scottish origins) he displays desirable English characteristics. He is classless, concerned neither with rank nor status, an innovator as the world's first consulting detective. He is unimpressed by wealth or rank, playing the game for its own sake. Cerebral, detached, theatrical and dramatic, he has faults but is a superior man. Holmes is a complex public introvert, an inside outsider, a character who mirrors many of the paradoxes of the English. We all know Sherlock Holmes.
A national costume fulfils the same function as a national flag --it is a means of national identification instantly recognisable in the external world. The profile of Sherlock Holmes succeeds like none other. If there is another contender, let him step forth and throw his (doubtless less stylish) hat into the ring.--Alexander Betts