Buttoned Up

Tim Koch writes:

HTBS has recently been looking at the historical development of oarsmen’s trousers, both long and short. I would like to stay on the subject of clothing but to move above the waist, inspired by the picture below. It shows us a nowadays little known rule of gentlemen’s dress that was rigidly followed until the 1920s.

The year is 1908, the place is almost certainly Henley and the young men are probably from the First Eight of Wadham College, Oxford. If so their blazers would be light blue with white facings (the Second Eight would be white with light blue facings).* It is clearly a hot day and the eye is first caught by the parasols that the men are carrying. However it may then strike the observer that, despite the temperature, they all have their heavy wool blazers buttoned up. Why? It is simply because, throughout the nineteenth century and well into the twentieth, men’s shirts were considered underwear and were to be kept covered, except for collars and cuffs, at all times (I am using ‘shirt’ in its British-English sense, it would be ‘dress shirt’ in American-English). Notice that the blazers button very high so as to cover the body of the shirt. It was acceptable to have a jacket unbuttoned – but only if a waistcoat (American: vest) was worn underneath. Thus braces (American: suspenders) were buttoned to the outside of trousers (American: pants) as they would never be seen. Conveniently, the man in the background, just to the right of the group of rowers, shows us the exception to this rule. He is clearly a labourer of some sort, which is shown by his cloth cap and the fact that he has removed his jacket. Men who performed heavy manual work could appear outdoors without a jacket or coat providing that they wore a sleeveless waistcoat over their shirt – effectively they could show their shirtsleeves.

I have less information about men using parasols. The only evidence of their use, other than by women, that I have found comes from another picture taken at Henley.

Henley, 1908. This is from a nice collection of HRR photographs on the BBC Berkshire website.

I would have thought that, at the time, men using such an article would be considered unacceptably ‘feminine’. Perhaps it was an undergraduate affectation, not something to be considered by mature men (if this sounds over-sensitive, consider the example that wristwatches for men were considered effeminate and too much like a women’s bracelet until their practical use in the trenches of the Great War made them acceptable).

‘In the meadows’, Henley, 1881. Here we see more traditional users of the parasol plus gentlemen showing a little leg (but staying ‘buttoned up’).

* See the Walters of Oxford webste for all the blazers of the College Boat Clubs of Oxford.

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