Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Gentlemen's Politeness & Fashions

What I find interesting about this article are the attitudes of the times. These are the kinds of things I like to know when I'm writing a historical novel. In this excerpt from "The American's Gentlemen's Guide to Politeness and Fashion"©1860 we find a letter written to a nephew about the proper way to act as well as appear.

To descend to particulars designed to include all the minutiae of a gentleman's wardrobe, were as futile as useless ; but a few hints upon this point, may, nevertheless, not be wholly out of place in epistles so frank, practical and familiar as these are intended to be.
The universal partiality of our countrymen for black, as the color of dress clothes, at least, is frequently remarked upon by foreigners. Among the best dressed men on the continent, as well as in England, black, though not confined to the clergjr, is in much less general use than here. They adopt the darker shades of blue, brown and green, and for undress almost as great diversity of colors as of fabrics. An English gentleman, for instance, is never seen in the morning (which means abroad all that portion of the twenty-four hours devoted to business, out-door amusements and pursuits, &c.;—it is always morning until the late dinner hour has passed) in the half-worn coat of fine black cloth, that so inevitably gives a man a sort of shabby-genteel look; but in some strong-looking, rough, knock-about "fixin," frequently of nondescript form and fashion, but admirably adapted both in shape and material for use—for work. Of this, by the way, every man, worthy of the name, has a daily portion to perform, in some shape or other—from the Duke of Devonshire, with a fortune that would purchase half-a-dozen consort-kinggrowing German principalities, and leave a princely inheritance for his successors, to the youngest son of a youngest son, who, though proud of the "gentle blood" in his veins, earns, as an employe in the service of the government,—in some one of its ten thousand forms of patronage and power—the limited salary that barely suffices, when .eked out by the most ingenious economy, to supply the hereditary necessities of a gentleman. But this is a digression. As I was saying in the morning, during work-hours, whatever be a man's employment, and wherever his outside garb should be suited to ease and convenience, its only distinctive marks being the most scrupulous cleanliness, and the invariable accompaniment of fresh linen.
Coming to the discussion of matters appertaining to a toilet, elaborate enough for occasions of ceremony, I think of no better general rule than that laid down by Dr. Johnson (in his character of a shrewd observer of men and manners, rather than as himself affording an illustration of the axiom, perhaps)—" the best dressed persons are those in whose attire nothing in particular attracts attention."
There is an indescribable air of refinement, &je na sais quoi, as the French have it, at an equal remove from the over-washed look of your thorough Englishman (their close-cropped hair always reminds me of the incipient stage of preparation for assuming a strait-jacket!) and the walking tailor's advertisement that perambulates Fifth Avenue, Chestnut-street, the Boston Mall, and other fashionable promenades in our cis-Atlantic cities, in attendance upon the locomotive milliner's show-cases, yclept "belles"—God save the mark!
The essentials of a gentleman's dress, for occasions of ceremony are—a stylish well-fitting cloth coat, of some dark color, and of unexceptionable quality; nether garments to correspond, or in warm weather, or under other suitable circumstances, white pants of a fashionable material and make; the finest and purest linen, embroidered in white, if at all; a cravat and vest, of some dark or neutral tint, according to the physiognomical peculiarities 6f the wearer, and the prevailing mode; an entirely fresh-looking, fashionable black hat and carefully-fitted modish boots, white gloves, and a soft, thin, white handkerchief.
Perhaps, the most arbitrary of earthly divinities permits her subjects more license in regard to the arrangement of the hair and beard, than with respect to any other matter of the outer man. A real artist, and'such every man should be, who meddles with the "human face divine" or its adjuncts, will discern at a glance the capabilities of each head submitted to his manipulation. Defects will thus be lessened, or wholly concealed, and good points brought out.
If you wear your beard, wear it in moderation— extremes are always vulgar! Avoid all fantastic arrangements of the hair—turning it under in a huge roll, smooth as the cylinder of a steam-engine, and as little suggestive of good taste and comfort as would be the coil of a boa constrictor similarly located, parting it in Miss Nancy style, and twisting it into love [soap ?] locks with a curling-tongs, or allowing it to straggle in long and often, seemingly, "uncombed and unkempt" masses over the coat-collar. This last outrage of good-taste is so gross a violation of what is technically called " keeping," as to excite in me extreme disgust. HI, indeed, does it accord with the trim, compact, easily-portable costume of our day, and a miserable imitation, it is of the flowing hair that, in days of yore, fell naturally and gracefully upon the broad lace collar turned down over the velvet or satin short-cloak of the cavaliers and appropriately adorning shoulders upon which, with equal fitness, drooped a long, waving plume, from the wide-brimmed, steeple-crowned, picturesque hat that completed the costume.
While on this subject of collars, etc., let us stop to discuss for a moment the nice matter of their size and shape. Just now, like the " life " of a " poor old man," they have "dwindled to the shortest span," under the pruning shears of the operatives of the mode. Whether this is the result of a necessity growing with the lengthening beards that threaten wholly to ignore their existence, you must determine for yourselves, but I must enter my protest against the total extinction of this relieving line of white, «o long, at least, as the broad wristband, now so appropriately accompanying the wide coat-sleeve, shall remain in vogue.
The mention of this last tasteful appendage naturally brings to mind the highly ornate style of sleevebuttons now so generally adopted. Eschew, I pray you, all flash stones for these or any other personal ornament. Nothing is more unexceptionable for sleeve-buttons and the fastenings of the front of a shirt, than fine gold, fashioned in some simple form, sufficiently massive to indicate use and durability, and skillfully and handsomely wrought, if ornamented at all. Few young men can consistently wear diamonds, and they are, if not positively exceptionable, in no degree requisite to the completion of the most elaborate toilet. But those who do sport them, should confine themselves to genuine stones of unmistakable water, and never let their number induce in the minds of beholders the recollection that a travelling Jew—whether from hereditary distrust of the stability of circumstances, or from some other consideration of personal convenience, usually carries his entire fortune about his person! Better the simplest fastenings of mother-of-pearl than such staring vulgarity of display. And so of a watch and its appendages. A gentleman carries a watch for convenience, and secures it safely upon his person, wearing with it no useless ornament, paraded to the eye. It is, like his pencil and purse, good of its kind, and if he can afford it, handsome, but it is never flashy!

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