The Weekend Australian - Review - - Viewpoints - PETER GLAS­SON on what trousers tell us

IT all be­gan with Ge­orge Bryan Brum­mell, known to pos­ter­ity as Beau Brum­mell. He was the ar­biter of el­e­gance and hy­giene in the cir­cle sur­round­ing the prince of Wales dur­ing the Re­gency pe­riod. The prince and his friends were spend­thrift and exclusive, even af­ter Brum­mell rid them of body odour.

With­out money, mem­ber­ship in such cir­cles tends to lapse. Faced with mount­ing bills from his tai­lors, hat­ters and boot­ers, Brum­mell de­vised a money- sav­ing in­no­va­tion: in­stead of im­ported silk, he would wear a suit of cheaper English cloth. Coat and trousers, shirt and neck­tie, boots pol­ished with cham­pagne for ex­tra sparkle.

It was the trousers of the ensem­ble that con­ster­nated many.

Brum­mell had dis­pensed with silk stock­ings, taken breeches to the an­kles and given the cloth a trim cut to fash­ion the gar­ment.

They were im­me­di­ately adopted by con­tem­po­raries who mat­tered: the dandies. They dressed with a sense of aes­thetic bal­ance wor­thy of Pi­casso or, as By­ron said of Brum­mell, with ex­quis­ite pro­pri­ety.

Their ef­forts were a su­perb re­al­i­sa­tion of style, re­sistible only by the re­gres­sive.

Tens of mil­lions of men in the world have since lived out their lives in Brum­mell trousers.

Yet only the English hon­our Beau with a statue. It is just as well. The truth about trousers is not with­out em­bar­rass­ment and must be whis­pered lest the chil­dren should hear it: trousers are the tra­di­tional at­tire of bar­bar­ians. Clothes eas­ily donned for trou­ble or plun­der an­swer to bar­bar­ian needs. As no his­to­rian has noted, bar­bar­ians are quick dressers.

It trousers the ar­gu­ment like a bag to say all trousered males are bar­bar­ians. Clothes do not make the man; they re­flect only his de­sires. For ex­am­ple, when he de­sires re­spect, he wears the colours of a caste he cul­tur­ally iden­ti­fies as re­spectable, namely that of the cler­ics. It favours black, grey and deep shades. Gloomy, yes; re­spectable, none should doubt.

If the part­ner of the male buys his clothes, they will re­flect no de­sire for the male; they will re­flect un­re­quited so­cial am­bi­tion. Males usu­ally con­sign the re­sult to their wardrobe rather than their bod­ies, pre­fer­ring so­cial dis­com­fort to be quar­an­tined rather than en­dured.

Brum­mell’s so­cial am­bi­tion cou­pled with lack of money did not con­fine his wardrobe. It had the un­in­tended ef­fect of mak­ing him the pre­cur­sor of a uni­ver­sal fash­ion. Trousers were a per­fect fit for a bur­geon­ing com­mer­cial age.

Trousers lev­elled males of all classes into a uni­form of fash­ion: in­dus­tri­al­ists and politi­cians, land­lords and ten­ants, gen­er­als and sol­diers, man­agers and work­ers. Trousers made the world safe for democ­racy.

There was a dark side: trousers were an ideal fash­ion for stul­ti­fy­ing fac­tory work and the killing fields of war.

Bright in their prom­ise, or dark in their mis­chief, Brum­mell’s trousers marched on.

Fifty years af­ter Brum­mell ap­peared in pub­lic, trousered and proud, the last Lon­don club to up­hold breeches and stock­ings as suit­able for gen­tle­men gave way to the tide of fash­ion. The trousered bour­geoisie was at the doors of the noble es­tab­lish­ment. It was bru­tal. Ac­cept my trousers, ac­cept me.

Trousers could have re­mained the fash­ion of the English democ­racy had the paramount civil­i­sa­tion of the day been other than Eng­land. Its ubiq­ui­tous stan­dards en­sured the male was uni­ver­sally trousered. Its bit­ter­est en­e­mies took to wear­ing trousers. They still do. Pause and ad­mire this unique achieve­ment in the his­tory of the world — of trousers tri­umphant over guns, of fash­ion might­ier than force — for the glory day of trousers was brief.

Amid other sar­to­rial and so­cial tremors, Ma­hatma Gandhi launched a po­lit­i­cal at­tack on trousers. He made the de­ci­sion never to wear an­other pair of English trousers. He be­came the in­no­va­tor of a nat­u­ral, sim­ple style of dress that he made him­self, spin­ning the yarn of its ma­te­rial. The ef­fect was tremen­dous, as he in­tended. The trousers fell off Bri­tish In­dia. Em­bar­rassed and be­wil­dered, the Bri­tish de­parted In­dia. It was an un­fit­ting end to so much trousered pomp.

While Gandhi was fight­ing to de- trouser In­dia, Euro­pean women were fight­ing to be trousered.

French nov­el­ist Ge­orge Sand, fel­low trav­eller of Chopin, was the first prom­i­nent wo­man to wear trousers in pub­lic. Peo­ple who live to be shocked were scan­dalised. As 19th- cen­tury women were obliged to live for both, Sand had no im­me­di­ate fol­low­ing.

World War I gave Sand a post­hu­mous mass fol­low­ing. To­wards the end of the con­flict, women work­ing in in­dus­try and agri­cul­ture took to wear­ing over­alls, a work­ing vari­a­tion on trousers. Some women went fur­ther, tak­ing the short stride from over­alls to trousers. World War II turned this pro­gres­sion into a gal­lop. When the heir to the Bri­tish throne wore trousers as part of her war uni­form, it was the last word.

Com­mu­nist China dealt the fi­nal so­ciopo­lit­i­cal blow to the unique male­ness of trousers. Males and fe­males, they all pulled on blue trousers. They marched through the cities and coun­try­side of China, wav­ing lit­tle red books con­tain­ing the thoughts of Mao Ze­dong.

Ev­ery­one was equal in trousers. Ex­cept for peo­ple in non- blue trousers, who were more equal than peo­ple trousered blue. To­day the peo­ple of China are back to square one, the cut and qual­ity of Brum­mell suits defin­ing wealth and po­si­tion.

This re­vi­sion­ism has come too late. Trousers have con­tin­ued their de­cline as a male sym­bol. Fe­males, able to shake their own trousers on and off, take their so­cial par­ity with the male for granted. Males have not been un­af­fected. Cli­mate and weather per­mit­ting, males have re­turned to their beloved breeches. They call the re­vived fash­ion shorts. Th­ese trun­cated trousers main­tain the tra­di­tional length of breeches be­low the knee. Not too much, not too lit­tle.

Fe­males of­ten wear shorts cut above the knee. Never too much, never too lit­tle. The length of shorts can be more re­veal­ing of the wearer’s psy­chol­ogy than of their legs.

A short his­tory on the im­pe­rial age of trousers would be in­com­plete with­out con­sid­er­ing Ro­man Europe be­fore the bar­bar­ian tri­umph. The tu­nic was the uni­ver­sal fash­ion, the toga its so­phis­ti­cated de­vel­op­ment. Un­like trousers in their fi­nal form, the toga hung from the shoul­ders. It did not grip the waist with a belt. Nor did its col­lar grip the neck. Nor were a tight­grip­ping neck­tie and leg- grip­ping socks needed. The toga was el­e­gant and fash­ion- re­sis­tant. It made its wear­ers feel good and feel free.

The same can­not be said for trousers in a wardrobe aes­thet­i­cally cor­roded by chem­i­cals, elas­tic and mass pro­duc­tion. It is time for a bold new style, fit for a brave new world where sex is no longer a bar­rier to rea­son. Its in­no­va­tion re­quires that the eco­nomic lux­ury and the en­vi­ron­men­tal bur­den of fash­ion be weighed against that sim­ple truth known to our fore­bears: life with­out fash­ion is style.

Il­lus­tra­tion: Sturt Krygs­man

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