This post was originally published with Parisian Gentleman.
Charley: The young ones have no manners. The other day at the carwash, a young man looked me up and down and asked me if I was a natural blonde.
George: What did you say?
Charley: I looked him straight in the eye and said, ‘well let’s just say, if I stood on my head, I’d be a natural brunette with lovely breath.
George: You didn’t?
Charley: I did.
The ribald exchange between the despondent Charley and the depressive George Falconer in Tom Ford’s movie adaptation of Christopher Isherwood’s A Single Man is an impertinent, if wickedly funny, addition. The dialogue is Ford’s. It does not feature in Isherwood’s original novel, and nor can we imagine it doing so. The pun works in the movie because it pierces the enveloping darkness and distracts, if momentarily, from the apparent inevitably of George’s suicide when the dinner party with Charley ends. For me, the pun also works on another level. In choosing to use a gag that references the sexual innuendo about matching ‘collar and cuffs’, Ford could not have been oblivious to the obvious sartorial allusion and the fact that his personal dress is often remarked upon for the sharpness of his actual collar and cuffs. I like to think Ford is having a bit of fun, finding another way to put his subtle mark on the movie. To his credit, he does this without compromising the integrity of Isherwood’s deeply moving story. Fundamentally, and for my purposes most pressingly, Charley’s ripe rhetoric reveals how sartorially – and culturally – significant the collar and cuffs are.
Stuff & Nonsense?
According to Alan Flusser, a doyen of modern men’s dress, 1827 was a particularly significant year for the collar. This is when a certain Mrs Montague, of Troy, New York, no less, cut the collars from her husband’s shirts, because they were a nuisance to iron. ‘Thus was born the detachable collar.’[i] Flusser is right, but his no-nonsense guide to fine dress overlooks the fact that Mrs Montague’s act of sartorial vandalism – even if her husband’s shirts were ‘filthy’ – was to revive a style, rather than create one.
Since the sixteenth century aristocratic men (and women) had been wearing detachable collars or ruffs, as the starched and frilled variants are invariably termed, to denote their membership of an early modern Leisure Class. Like their American successors, whom Thorstein Veblen theorised about in the nineteenth century, the early adopters of the ruff, whose head was literally ‘held high in an attitude of disdain’, indicated to all that they were unable to undertake practical labours, and did not need to.[ii] The ruff had an avowedly sociological purpose, as portraits of Ançien Régime aristocrats reveal. It was also delicate. If the intricately cut and embroidered starched lace got wet, it would instantly droop, which would have been a fitting, if frustrating, reminder that facades can slip.
The powerful portraiture also shows that the silhouette of men’s dress between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries was generally tubular, although toward the end of this period shoulders were narrower.[iii] So long as the sun shone, the ruff increased the man’s physical size and, simultaneously, drew attention to the terminus between the body and head.
More so than the ankles and waist, the neck has always been an alluring erogenous zone. This point is possibly more apparent for women, whose garments occasionally feature plunging necklines revealing, and crucially also concealing, their chest. That said, an increasing number of men (including Tom Ford) seem keen to flash their ‘man cleavage’ or ‘he-vage’, as the practice is derogatively referred to. For men, a delicate balance needs to be struck. Revealing a lot of neck and chest seems to work if you have a carpet of chest hair à la Tom Jones. A time machine to transport you back to the Seventies would also be a boon. To reveal too much neck and lack the chest hair can bring on the charge of effeminacy. There is another issue. For a man to wear an open neck or loose collar is, and always has been, to signify that he is casual in mode and ‘off duty’. Serious men wear their collars fastened and tight. Too tight for some. The Men’s Dress Reform Party, active in England between 1929 and 1940, declared:
…the time has come when, for instance, the young neck of boys, as well as those of girls, should have their share light of air and not least for the sake of the precious thyroid gland which so largely controls the proper development of body and mind.[iv]
The Party went on to suggest that unless boys’ necks were released from their sartorial shackles, their future as leaders of the country would be jeopardised. This is not to say that they would have necessarily approved of the billowing cravat, the bulk of which reduced the size of the collar during the seventeenth century.[v] This ephemeral flowering around the neck was to be the last time the collar played second fiddle to the neckwear. Ever since, men’s neckwear has been subordinate to – quite literally under – the collar. The collar has been adapted and cutaway to accommodate certain types of neckwear, notably during the mid-eighteenth century, but the stiff and vertical fabric that frames the neck and shirt has survived through to today.[vi] The collar is generally less ostentatious, but the fact that it is no longer detachable means it has acquired an important role in men’s shaping dress and aspects of their masculinity.
According to fashion consultant Tim Gunn, The Fairchild Dictionary of Fashion mentions 194 different necklines and collars and 19 different types of cuff.[vii] Alan Flusser’s list is more restrained, but still includes seven styles of collar (buttoned down, point, pin, Windsor, English spread, tab, rounded).[viii] For certain types of collar, there are various names. Flusser’s rounded collar is sometimes referred to as a club or penny collar, for example. The Windsor collar is probably now more conventionally referred to as a cutaway collar; the English spread as a semi cutaway. But the names are a secondary concern. More important is how the collar is worn. And here many men struggle. Despite wearing a suit – and I’ll focus on ‘business’ wear – that determines the silhouette of his dress, and envelops everything else that he wears, there is a tendency among men to view elements of their outfit – shirts, ties, socks, cufflinks – as entirely separate. For example, younger men in England have long had a preference to wear their tie with a bulky Windsor knot à la Premiere League footballers. The confidence and assertion that is proclaimed through this woeful sartorial choice is often lost, however, because the knot is frequently squeezed to fit a point or ‘conventional’ collar. A cutaway collar would be the better choice here. That said, rules can be broken, or at least bent a little bit. Occasionally, I like to wear a cutaway collar with a four in hand knot. The wide collar opening, which exposes more of the tie fabric as it passes around the neck, looks at once traditional and modern. The visual drama – if that doesn’t sound too hyperbolic – can be enhanced if the collar and cuffs are white and the shirt fabric has a light colour or pattern. Gordon Gekko, protagonist in the 1987 film Wall Street, did much to blacken the sartorial reputation of shirts with contrasting collars and cuffs, but this style of shirt, generally with less dramatic colour extremes, is becoming popular again.
Another collar-related style is also becoming more prevalent, albeit in a geographically specific area. In a recent book Gert Jonkers and Jop van Bennekom have drawn attention to the ubiquity of (generally) young men in the London Borough of Hackney who wear their shirts with all of the buttons done up, and without a tie.[ix] The authors rightly assert that:
The simple act of fastening a shirt’s highest button and the plainness of the look it creates belies a variety of intricate and complex intentions.[x]
The look is neat, but odd because of the conspicuous absence of a tie. It is rebellious and, perhaps, ever-so-slightly aggressive, associated as it is with the Mods. The decision to button-up also makes a statement about masculinity. In the same volume, Alexander Fury observes that:
A woman is buttoned into her clothes; a man buttons himself into his. At least, that’s what convention has told us since the mid-19th century, the last time the true gentleman didn’t dress, but was ‘dressed’ by his valet.[xi]
Men’s collars are no longer as strident as the ruff worn by their sixteenth-century forbears, but this does not prevent them from being a significant element in the fashioning of their image. A short collar can indicate conformity and rebellion. It can enhance or compromise perception about men’s masculinity. That said, modern men’s collars will remain as effective as a ruff on a damp day if it is not first understood that this is one area where size most definitely does not fit all.
[i] A. Flusser, Clothes and the Man: The Principles of Fine Men’s Dress (New York, 1991), 67.
[ii] J. Laver, A Concise History of Costume (London, 1969), 90-91.
[iii] A. Hollander, Seeing Through Clothes (Berkeley, 1978), 109, 114, 123.
[iv] B. Burman, Better and Brighter Clothes: The Men’s Dress Reform Party, 1929-1940, Men’s Fashion Reader, ed. P. McNeil & V. Karaminas (New York, 2009), 132.
[v] Laver, History of Costume, 117.
[vi] Ibid., 160.
[vii] T. Gunn, Tim Gunn’s Fashion Bible (New York, 2012), 120.
[viii] Flusser, Clothes and the Man, 75-78.
[ix] G. Jonkers & J. van Bennekom, Fantastic Man. Buttoned-Up: a survey of a curious fashion phenomenon (London, 2013).
[x] Ibid., 7.
[xi] Ibid., 59.