Saturday, 29 January 2011

Dress Rules, Custom and Social Sanctions

This consideration of dress ‘rules’ flows from a request on the forum for an answer to the question when did it become ‘the rule’ for the full white evening dress waistcoat to be covered by the fronts of the coat. He who poses the question rejects contemporary illustrations.
People often carp on about ‘rules’ as to dress and their dislike of them. There is a lot of muddled thinking over this and, I confess that, on page 17 of History of Men’s Fashion, I contributed to it; although, when I referred to ‘general rules’ instead of ‘general customs’, I had no idea of the avalanche of protest that it would provoke, from some members of a generation who want to ‘hang loose’ and ‘free the spirit [man]’.
There are some circumstances in which there are still legally enforceable rules as to dress and these rules might, as in the case of the armed forces’ regulations as to dress, be enforceable by way of disciplinary proceedings and even, ultimately, dismissal from the service. Another example is that a Judge may refuse to hear Counsel whom he holds to be improperly dressed: Counsel becomes invisible.
There were, before the Second World War, detailed prescriptions of (royal) Court dress for all the categories of those attending Court and also in relation to different events and times of day. These prescriptions were made, from time to time, under the authority of the Lord Chamberlain. Infringement of them might, at least, be met with a humorous suggestion from Mr Wilkinson’s man*, that “sir might try harder next time” to, at worst, exclusion from an event. RAB Butler was once turned away from the Privy Council because he was wearing the ‘wrong coat’. The worst outcome then has been social exclusion from a place or an event for breach of a social custom as to dress.
Social exclusion as a sanction is, less and less, a sanction that is exercised in the modern world in relation to customs as to dress; although, for example, the Caledonian Ball organizers refuse to admit men who pitch up in a mere dinner jacket and there are many West End and City clubs where I am sure the senior porter would not hesitate (on the sound basis that he represents that the greatest good of the greatest number should prevail) to say to a member “I hope that you don’t think that you’re coming in here dressed like that, sir!” just as a club servant enforced the rule against smoking in White’s against the Prince of Wales (later Edward VII) who then went off in a huff and formed the Marlborough Club. In these places you seldom see: tweeds, brown shoes, blazers or straw hats. I go into this more in my forthcoming book History of Men’s Etiquette: A Short Guide to The Sporting Life. Even the last incarnation of the Eccentric Club had a sign (beneath a picture of a naked lady) which warned: “Ties must be worn at all times”.
However, I doubt whether anyone has ever suffered social exclusion because his Marcella vest did or did not protrude from beneath his coat fronts. The nearest that I can get to a specification of the most formal early twentieth century evening dress is from the 1912 edition of Dress and Insignia Worn at His Majesty’s Court (Harrison). This prescribes that the waistcoat should be:
“Single-breasted [Sorry, Mr Bingley], White Marcella with a roll collar and three small gilt buttons of the same pattern [as the coat buttons], the distance between the bottom button and the bottom edge of the waistcoat to be the same as the distance between the buttons. Waistcoats with long pointed fronts below the bottom button are not to be worn. When the Court is in mourning the waistcoat should be of the same material as the coat.”
There is nothing here which expressly states that the waistcoat should be covered by the coat fronts but there is a heavy implication that this was expected because long waistcoats were expressly forbidden.
But if anyone wants to find specific evidence of such a ‘rule’ or custom, excluding illustration, he will search in vain.

*Wilkinson was an ancient court tailor and robe-maker, which spent far too much time policing Court events and not enough time minding the shop so that it eventually went out of business.

Today's picture is of a feather in every cap: Sir Phillip Mitchell, G-G of Kenya, in his tropical uniform (and swan plumes), with local Chiefs (and ostrich feathers), awaiting the arrival of the Princess who would leave Kenya as HM Queen Elizabeth II.


  1. I was asked by someone to provide written evidence of the waistcoat rule and he wouldn't accept photos or images from the period which was frustrating since they often are the best evidence available.