Wednesday, 11 January 2012

Brown in Town

Clearly, George V, Edward VII and, before them, the Prince Consort had, as keen sporting men, worn brown (and other colours of tweed), but it is extremely unlikely that they would have worn it when they were 'working' in town. That was an age of extreme formality and even the Cabinet and the Privy Council wore Court uniforms in the King's presence.

The predeliction for black/dark blue coats for town day and evening wear began in Brummell's time. As a result of his influence, the Prince Regent abandoned the French tailor, Louis Bazalgette, and gravitated to the likes of the more sombre Meyer. There is a famous Grego cartoon of Brummell ‘in deep convesation with the Duchess of Rutland’ in Almack’s ballroom, around 1815 and in this he is wearing a blue coat and black pantaloons; one male guest is in a brown coat but, gradually, during the following reigns, especially that of Victoria, black or blue coats became the normal town wear for the governing and professional classes at work and in the evening, declining (if that is the word) from frocks and morning coats and dress coats to short coats (strollers) and dinner jackets after WWI. Then plain blue and grey dittoes became prevalent for daytime, followed by bolder patterns and now, apparently, and in accordance with some destiny, the world is returning to brown.

A great deal is made of ‘no brown in town’ but we must not forget that black in the countryside is sometimes even more de rigueur than it is, these days, in town: formal hunt coats (apart from those in hunt colours) are black; so is the topper that may be worn with the  hunt frock coat; so too the boots, with black patent tops.

It would be wrong to say that ‘brown in town’ for town men at work is a phenomenon confined to the inter-war years  (however much revisionist history is a popular art), but the modern adventure, into colours beyond blue and grey, is arguably just a muted  reversion (in a sense), to the tastes in colour of the ancien regime.

I think that, where the Gordon Geckos of this world seek the power suit, the British look for men who tow the line of social expectation and are ‘dressed like us’; not so much in search of neutrality of dress but in search of a tribal identity, symbolizing a totem, which, after over a thousand years of miscegenation, our genes have, in reality, denied us: so, if the outer man is dressed according to tribal custom (and never too carefully), he will be safe to deal with.

The British definitely suspect the wrong clothes (Edward VII and George V had the sharpest eyes for them), and there is a very fine line indeed between being ‘dressed to the nines’ and being ‘dressed up like a dog’s dinner’.
Brummell at Almack's by Grego


  1. 'Dressed like us' is such tricky business that I have given up on it!

  2. Well, 'dressed like us' in my case is in swimming shorts, a summer shirt and Jesus sandals (brown ones too).