Classic scruffs

Discussion in 'General Attire & Accoutrements' started by Artifex, Feb 25, 2021.

  1. Artifex

    Artifex Familiar Face

    Nottingham, GB


    This is more an idle conversation starter than anything of substance, but perhaps of interest all the same.

    At least from this side of the pond, there is a strong association between formality and tradition, including in the wardrobe department. That's hardly surprising. A man may wear a top hat to his own wedding, when it would be the object of confusion on any other occasion. Tailcoats and wing collars may be seen at orchestral concerts, but almost never elsewhere.

    Those are both very old-fashioned, but they represent very much the crisp, showy side of the vintage wardrobe. In many places, businessmen and politicians can be seen in lounge suits. It seems a conservative choice today, but was once considered more casual - one step above the stripy blazer of a young sportsman.

    In old photographs, it appears that everyday work clothes for normal people were far closer in construction to the city fashion than they are today. Felt hats, shirts with collars, cravats and waistcoats with lapels can all be seen on people in dirty jobs, with no uniform, in situations that would not warrant the Sunday best.

    That leads to three questions:
    - Is the above a fair representation of history?
    - Does anyone still wear such clothes in a casual and dirty context?
    - Did ladies' clothing follow a similar trend?

    Even the humble flat cap - which I consider a thoroughly practical all-purpose article - seems to have ended up as the choice of the relatively wealthy. What's going on?
  2. Edward

    Edward Bartender

    London, UK
    'Scruff' always makes me think of dear old Stuart Goddard, aka Adam Ant:

    I'm the dandy highwayman so sick of easy fashion
    The clumsy boots, peekaboo roots that people think so dashing
    So what's the point of robbery when nothing is worth taking?
    It's kind of tough to tell a scruff the big mistake he's making

    There's certainly been a long period these last number of decades of once-workwear becoming everyday fashion. In the US - and everywhere Hollywood's cultural reach had impact - it's obvious with the switch in blue jeans going from workwear to fashion, a trend reaching its zenith in the early 20th century when publications like GQ and Esquire started referring to "dress jeans" in all seriousness.

    In terms of what you're observing, I think you hit the key point with the mention of the lounge suit being a standard item of 'casual' clothing. As I've always understood it, a lot of 'workwear' back in the day was people's 'casual / Sunday best' once it had passed that. Same approach my own father, in his seventies now, still has to shoes. At any one time, he has a pair of shoes he wears day to day, and a pair for 'best'. When day to day gets too worn looking to be worn out in public, they either go to the garage, or the bin, and the 'Sunday best' pair, now well enough broken in to be worn daily without discomfort, become the daily pair, with a new pair purchased for 'best'. Similar happened back in the day for men who had their clothes they wore to work and 'best' for Sunday. Of course, there were also different qualities and materials of suits; working class, labouring men would have bought suits in heavy, hardwearing fabrics that would last. The vintage repro notion of the "work suit" reflects this. As a stylistic thing, many clothes designed for that sort of environment for fashion reasons aped the lounge suit - in much the same way as nowadays fashion items intended for dressier wear now ape workwear. Peaky Blinders captured this all very well for the inter-war period in England. Currently, brands like Old Town capture the vibe of a working man's casual lounge suit in that era very well. They would have cost more, relatively speaking, than many outfits today, but there was also the fact that people didn't have the extensive wardrobes we do now (unless very rich). Military surplus as workwear is also a pretty old concept in the UK. Way back historically a lot of men leaving the military might not have had much more than uniform; as memory serves, one of the victims of the Peterloo Massacre was a soldier who had been at Waterloo, and who had worn pieces of his uniform as daily clothing after leaving the army. Post WW1, it was very common for labourers in England to be seen wearing the wool 'greyback' collarless shirts that had been issued to troops during the conflict; initially this was men wearing their own former uniform, but as time went on, these were also purchased as government surplus. Alongside (and prior) to that, labouring men would typically have worn an old shirt, just without the attached collars. The success of government surplus selling of old greybacks for this seems to in part have created a 'new' market - I've seen ads from the 20s selling 'collarless' shirts (what we've now call 'grandad' shirts, in fashion terms) which were intended to be worn that way, not with a detachable collar as was the norm into the 20s. Military surplus was for many decades the preserve of the labouring man for cheap, working clothes, and those too poor to afford anything else for 'normal' wear. When I got into it as fashion at the tail end of the eighties, my Dad, who would have turned eighteen in 1964, was always bemused by it given that in his era it had been so much building site and poor people clothing, whereas for me it was edgy, subversive, punk rock - not to mention cheap and better quality than most fashionwear of my day.

    Probably also worth remembering that particularly those of us Generation X and newer are conditioned to view the world quite differently than people back then; we tend to think of denim or sportswear styles as 'casual', but that wasn't always so. I'm sure trends varied in the US. Over on this side of the ocean, in the UK and Ireland denim was very much a postwar phenomenon. In this era of denim as a casual norm, any non-jeans-cut trousers can look to a modern eye very much more dressy than was actually the case. Corduroy and moleskin were common, heavy cotton, less refined wools like serge or melton.

    In terms of what workmen actually wore in the first half of the twentieth century, at least here in the UK & Ireland, the norm back then was hardwearing fabrics like corduroy and moleskin, drill cotton. If you see photos of Ken Calder of Aero, Ken dresses in a manner very much the same as a man in his trade might have done back in 1930. (and looks great, too.)

    As for "upward" travel of fashion, the notion of today's casual being tomorrow's formal is nothing new. Much of this had to do with the phenomenon of wealthier people who didn't do manual labour adopting a version of working clothing for comfortable or fashionable casual wardrobe. Of course, here in England (and by extension the rest of the UK, and Ireland) there was also the taint of the class system engrained in this. A wealthy country gent might adopt corduroy or moleskin - but he'd be as likely to wear it in bright colours that would need regular cleaning if any actual work were done. A regular, working man would probably be in black , navy, olive; dark shades that could hide the occasional stain. These slight variations as clothing worked its way up through the class system were common - don't forget this is the world where everything had a code, a meaning, u or non-U and such. The butler at dinner would be dressed much like the host and his guests, except that the butler would be wearing 'grey tie' (like white tie but with a black waistcoat and black bow) so that the 'staff' were readily identifiable and nobody made a faux pas.

    Other than denim, probably the biggest example of a practical, working garment travelling so far up the line it became, by the mid twentieth century, entirely the preserve of a higher strata of society, was the bowler hat. The bowler - or the 'Coke' - began as a form of safety hat for the Thomas Coke, the Earl of Leicester's groundskeepers. It was, originally, entirely a working man's hat - hence it being the most common hat in the 'Wild West', and the way it was depicted in Laurel & Hardy.

    Funnily enough, I was only yesterday morning standing in Docklands waiting for my wife to come out of the Excel centre, currently set up as a vaccination post, pondering (talking aloud to the dog) about the monument there to the working people of the London Docks from the 1860s to 1983 when it finally shut down, and remaking on how they were depicted as being dressed. No matter how well understood or explained, there remains an appreciable irony that to a modern eye they look dressed for the office to do manual labour, meanwhile people head out to do office work while dressed for manual labour... .

Share This Page

  1. This site uses cookies to help personalise content, tailor your experience and to keep you logged in if you register.
    By continuing to use this site, you are consenting to our use of cookies.