What happens when you inherit your uncle’s underclothesPAUL JOHNSON
Just as the English have inspired supreme artistry in male dress, symbolised by Savile Row and Beau Brummell, so they have also contributed a dissenting movement of genteel shabbiness or grand nonconformity.
The fictional archetype of this kind of gentleman is Sunny Farebrother in Anthony Powell’s Music of Time. He insists on wearing his worn and faded, much-repaired but originally well-cut service dress from the first world war, right through the second, where he rises to the rank of colonel and does battle with Widmerpool at Corps HQ. Sunny, though secretly affluent, makes a wartime virtue of natural stinginess, practising with delight stringent economies in his gear, and travelling with elaborate kit of pre-1914 vintage. I don’t know whether Uncle Tony had anyone particular in mind when creating Farebrother but he could easily have been based on Sir Alan Lascelles, secretary to George V, Edward VIII, George VI and, for a year or two, the young Elizabeth II, and whose sharply written diaries have just been published.
Lascelles had served the future Duke of Windsor when he was Prince of Wales, but resigned in disgust, one reason being (I suspect) the prince’s obsession with new clothes and the hefty sums he spent on them. The war came as a godsend to Lascelles, as it was an opportunity to stop acquiring clothes in the national interest. He delayed buying a new suit until 1945, and was then horrified to discover his London tailor proposed to charge 16 guineas for it. Then, by a miracle, he discovered the Fifty Shilling Tailors, and patronised them patriotically.
His diary entry for 17 April 1945 records that, about to go into dinner, ‘I found myself unable to move my legs.’ This was because ‘I was wearing an ancient pair of drawers, and the tapes through which one’s breeches go had apparently broken during my walk through the park; the drawers had slipped down to the level of my knees, completely hobbling me. I had to call the party to a halt while I made the damage good.’
One would have liked to hear his explanation to ‘the party’. Actually these drawers, made before the days of elastic (hence the tape for breeches) had not been bought by Lascelles. They had belonged to his uncle, A.G.C. (‘Dolly’) Liddell, who had acquired them during the middle years of Queen Victoria’s reign and left them to Lascelles with all his underclothes and shirts, when he died in 1920. Lascelles had worn them for the next quarter-century, and this pair of drawers must have been about 80 years old when its tapes finally gave out.
Kenneth Rose, leading authority on the family, relates that Lord Salisbury, head of the clan and prime minister, was constantly rebuked by Edward VII, especially for wearing the wrong trousers. He replied, ‘It was a dark morning and my mind must have been occupied by some subject of less importance.’
Lascelles’s elderly but well-pressed clothes must have attracted the attention of George VI. But the king, though a sartorial martinet, sympathised with curtailing expenditure in wartime, and practised many economies himself with eager self-satisfaction. I am told that he even had leather patches put on the elbows of his tweeds, and leather strips on the fronts of the jacket, when they became frayed. This wartime fashion was much encouraged at my school, to save ‘coupons’, though my mother could not abide it. Actually, according to Norman Hartnell, King George VI took more interest in his wife’s new clothes than his own, and fell into one of his terrible rages (known as ‘Nashvilles’) when the details of a new ballgown were leaked to the press. The king was fussy about butter and sugar rations and enjoyed enforcing austerities on royal meals, thereby classifying himself along with Farebrother.
I don’t know whether he went as far as Lascelles, who used the backs of bits of paper for all but the most formal letters, and re-addressed old envelopes to save paper. Lots of people did this for many years after the war — indeed my father-in-law persisted in it until his dying day — in an atmosphere of austerity in which Hugh Gaitskell, as chancellor of the exchequer in 1951, called on the public not to take baths more than six inches deep. He was another Farebrother type, as his pinstriped brown suits testified. Did these, I wonder, also come from the Fifty Shilling Tailors? Making old clothes last was not a matter of class but of temperament.
The Cecils were egregious rag-bags. His son Robert was ‘mistaken for a workman’. Another son, William, a bishop, was said to have ‘grains of earth lurking in the crannies of his picturesque, disordered garments’. His daughter Gwendolen went about in a coat which ‘looks like a man’s’, and was of ‘a pervading shabbiness’.
But, lower down the social scale, a tremendous Farebrother type was George Orwell, whom his friend Inez Holden described as ‘a fantastically silly Robinson Crusoe’, especially when he was on his Hebridean island. He showed her how he cut up tiny sticks of wood and covered them in sulphur. ‘They will grow into matches.’ ‘Yes, but you can buy a box of proper ones for tuppence on the mainland.’
The real difference between those under 50 and those over it is that the young expect possessions to be more or less new, and cheerfully throw away anything old. They say, ‘Bin it!’
We never threw things away. They were handed on, or down, or sold to rag-and-bone men who called at your back door, or given to ‘bring and buy’ sales. Everything was mended, especially socks, shirts, collars, trousers and gloves, beautifully darned in wool or stitched with cotton or silk. This was known as ‘work’, and every lady had her ‘work basket’ full of garments needing attention. I recall that in Dorothy Sayers’s The Nine Tailors, a neatly mended pair of men’s drawers provides Lord Peter Wimsey with an important clue.
Young people who work in the City and live in my neighbourhood of Notting Hill would never be seen in darned socks, and their ‘partners’ do not know how to darn, or sew, anyway. These people have their flats or houses redecorated from top to bottom every few years and sell the ‘old’ furniture down the line of affluence or throw it on to skips. I like the house slowly to acquire the patina of age, accumulating objects at every stage of my life, so that it is a family autobiography, everything in it telling a story of time, chance and taste, the last reflecting passing decades. It would never occur to me to consult, let alone employ, a decorator.
On the other hand, I would hate to be a Farebrother, rejoicing in inherited long johns, striped braces in OE or MCC colours circa 1912, or Inverness capes faded, grass-stained and moth-eaten, said to have belonged to Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman. One of Keir Hardie’s cloth-cap deerstalkers? No thanks. It is good to have the chutzpah to look like a tramp, but inconvenient. Salisbury, when directing the largest empire the world has ever seen, was refused admittance to the Monte Carlo casino. Suit not up to scratch.
Paul Johnson. "What happens when you inherit your uncle’s underclothes." The Spectator (December 9, 2006).
This article is from Paul Johnson's "And another thing" column for The Spectator and is reprinted with permission of the author.
Copyright © 2006 Paul Johnson
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