On Dress and Deportment

jerome.jpgOn Dress and Deportment
From “Idle Thoughts of an Idle Fellow,” 1886
By Jerome K. Jerome

They say — people who ought to be ashamed of themselves do — that the consciousness of being well dressed imparts a blissfulness to the human heart that religion is powerless to bestow. I am afraid these cynical persons are sometimes correct. I know that when I was a very young man (many, many years ago, as the story-books say) and wanted cheering up, I used to go and dress myself in all my best clothes.

When unpleasant sort of things happened and I felt crushed, I put on all my best clothes and went out. It brought back my vanishing self-esteem. In a glossy new hat and a pair of trousers with a fold down the front (carefully preserved by keeping them under the bed — I don’t mean on the floor, you know, but between the bed and the mattress), I felt I was somebody and that there were other washerwomen: ay, and even other girls to love, and who would perhaps appreciate a clever, good-looking young fellow. I didn’t care; that was my reckless way. I would make love to other maidens. I felt that in those clothes I could do it.

They have a wonderful deal to do with courting, clothes have. It is half the battle. At all events, the young man thinks so, and it generally takes him a couple of hours to get himself up for the occasion. His first half-hour is occupied in trying to decide whether to wear his light suit with a cane and drab billycock, or his black tails with a chimney-pot hat and his new umbrella. He is sure to be unfortunate in either decision. If he wears his light suit and takes the stick it comes on to rain, and he reaches the house in a damp and muddy condition and spends the evening trying to hide his boots. If, on the other hand, he decides in favor of the top hat and umbrella–nobody would ever dream of going out in a top hat without an umbrella; it would be like letting baby (bless it!) toddle out without its nurse. How I do hate a top hat! One lasts me a very long while, I can tell you. I only wear it when — well, never mind when I wear it. It lasts me a very long while. I’ve had my present one five years. It was rather old-fashioned last summer, but the shape has come round again now and I look quite stylish.

But to return to our young man and his courting. If he starts off with the top hat and umbrella the afternoon turns out fearfully hot, and the perspiration takes all the soap out of his mustache and converts the beautifully arranged curl over his forehead into a limp wisp resembling a lump of seaweed. The Fates are never favorable to the poor wretch. If he does by any chance reach the door in proper condition, she has gone out with her cousin and won’t be back till late.

How a young lover made ridiculous by the gawkiness of modern costume must envy the picturesque gallants of seventy years ago! Look at them (on the Christmas cards), with their curly hair and natty hats, their well-shaped legs incased in smalls, their dainty Hessian boots, their ruffling frills, their canes and dangling seals. No wonder the little maiden in the big poke-bonnet and the light-blue sash casts down her eyes and is completely won. Men could win hearts in clothes like that. But what can you expect from baggy trousers and a monkeyjacket?

Clothes have more effect upon us than we imagine. Our deportment depends upon our dress. Make a man get into seedy, worn-out rags, and he will skulk along with his head hanging down, like a man going out to fetch his own supper beer. But deck out the same article in gorgeous raiment and fine linen, and he will strut down the main thoroughfare, swinging his cane and looking at the girls as perky as a bantam cock.

Clothes alter our very nature. A man could not help being fierce and daring with a plume in his bonnet, a dagger in his belt, and a lot of puffy white things all down his sleeves. But in an ulster he wants to get behind a lamp-post and call police.

I am quite ready to admit that you can find sterling merit, honest worth, deep affection, and all such like virtues of the roast-beef-and-plum-pudding school as much, and perhaps more, under broadcloth and tweed as ever existed beneath silk and velvet; but the spirit of that knightly chivalry that “rode a tilt for lady’s love” and “fought for lady’s smiles” needs the clatter of steel and the rustle of plumes to summon it from its grave between the dusty folds of tapestry and underneath the musty leaves of moldering chronicles.

The world must be getting old, I think; it dresses so very soberly now. We have been through the infant period of humanity, when we used to run about with nothing on but a long, loose robe, and liked to have our feet bare. And then came the rough, barbaric age, the boyhood of our race. We didn’t care what we wore then, but thought it nice to tattoo ourselves all over, and we never did our hair. And after that the world grew into a young man and became foppish. It decked itself in flowing curls and scarlet doublets, and went courting, and bragging, and bouncing — making a brave show.

But all those merry, foolish days of youth are gone, and we are very sober, very solemn — and very stupid, some say — now. The world is a grave, middle-aged gentleman in this nineteenth century, and would be shocked to see itself with a bit of finery on. So it dresses in black coats and trousers, and black hats, and black boots, and, dear me, it is such a very respectable gentleman — to think it could ever have gone gadding about as a troubadour or a knight-errant, dressed in all those fancy colors! Ah, well! we are more sensible in this age.

Or at least we think ourselves so. It is a general theory nowadays that sense and dullness go together.

Goodness is another quality that always goes with blackness. Very good people indeed, you will notice, dress altogether in black, even to gloves and neckties, and they will probably take to black shirts before long. Medium goods indulge in light trousers on week-days, and some of them even go so far as to wear fancy waistcoats. On the other hand, people who care nothing for a future state go about in light suits; and there have been known wretches so abandoned as to wear a white hat. Such people, however, are never spoken of in genteel society, and perhaps I ought not to have referred to them here.

By the way, talking of light suits, have you ever noticed how people stare at you the first time you go out in a new light suit. They do not notice it so much afterward. The population of London have got accustomed to it by the third time you wear it. I say “you,” because I am not speaking from my own experience. I do not wear such things at all myself. As I said, only sinful people do so.

I wish, though, it were not so, and that one could be good, and respectable, and sensible without making one’s self a guy. I look in the glass sometimes at my two long, cylindrical bags (so picturesquely rugged about the knees), my stand-up collar and billycock hat, and wonder what right I have to go about making God’s world hideous. Then wild and wicked thoughts come into my heart. I don’t want to be good and respectable. (I never can be sensible, I’m told; so that don’t matter.) I want to put on lavender-colored tights, with red velvet breeches and a green doublet slashed with yellow; to have a light-blue silk cloak on my shoulder, and a black eagle’s plume waving from my hat, and a big sword, and a falcon, and a lance, and a prancing horse, so that I might go about and gladden the eyes of the people. Why should we all try to look like ants crawling over a dust-heap? Why shouldn’t we dress a little gayly? I am sure if we did we should be happier. True, it is a little thing, but we are a little race, and what is the use of our pretending otherwise and spoiling fun? Let philosophers get themselves up like old crows if they like. But let me be a butterfly.

Very young men think a good deal about clothes, but they don’t talk about them to each other. They would not find much encouragement. A fop is not a favorite with his own sex. Indeed, he gets a good deal more abuse from them than is necessary. His is a harmless failing and it soon wears out. Besides, a man who has no foppery at twenty will be a slatternly, dirty-collar, unbrushed-coat man at forty. A little foppishness in a young man is good; it is human. I like to see a young cock ruffle his feathers, stretch his neck, and crow as if the whole world belonged to him. I don’t like a modest, retiring man. Nobody does — not really, however much they may prate about modest worth and other things they do not understand.

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