Other formats

    Adobe Portable Document Format file (facsimile images)   TEI XML file   ePub eBook file  


    mail icontwitter iconBlogspot iconrss icon

The Spike or Victoria University College Review June 1926

Of Clothes

page 3

Of Clothes

"The two images farthest removed from each other which can be comprehended under one term are I think, Isaiah, "Hear O Heavens, and Give Ear, O Earth!"; and Levi of Holywell Street, "Old Clothes T; both of them Jews, you 11 observe. Immane quantum discrepant!

—S. T. Coleridge.

Looking at a stale paper the other night before going to bed, in the somewhat disillusioned hone of finding something of vital importance to the world or myself, I came across one of the advertisements of that accomplished manufacturer of clothes, Mr. Milligan. I tore it out, finished my apple (you may remember how Mr. Babbitt—but I must stick to my point) put my head under the blankets and began to meditate. Mr. Milligan's message to suffering humanity runs as follows (I trust he will not receive a bill for reprinting, though time was when the disconcertingly eagle eye of the "Spike's" business manager lit on all these little things):

"One of the Pleasures of Life Is a Seasonal Change of Dress.
It Gives a Holiday
To the man suffering from
The Dull Monotony
Of Wearing the Same Suit
Every Day.
The Newest Suitings Showing at
Kelburn Avenue
Are a Real Tonic"

I must confess this struck me as extremely odd. The clothes hung over various portions of my own imperfect anatomy no doubt exhibit a disgusting decline from the true ideal of sartorial perfection; the Platonic idea, the shining form of the eternal, irreproachable pair of trousers laid up in Heaven for the difficult apprehension of dialectic the rare, the divine, bears, I doubt not, but a remote resemblance to the baggy bifurcations which shield my frail limbs from the gusts of winter. The distance between that sublime creation of the godhead, indeed, and a masterpiece of Mr. Milligan's is no doubt far shorter than that between the masterpiece of Mr. Milligan's and the distressful apology that satisfies me. Therefore, on reading Mr. Milligan's advertisement, so chastely worded, so succinctly put, so full of the perfect lines of sartorial precision, I pondered; and as I rapidly fell into that noble oblivion which is sleep, I pondered more. I am tempted here to step aside into a panegyric on sleep, or rather on the comforts of a good bed on these outrageously chilly nights (Shakespeare, if I remember aright, has had a few words to say on sleep, and it would ill become a countryman of his to detract from his glory.) However, I will not digress; the comforts of bed we have all felt, its praises we have all hymned; and it behoves a writer in treating so urgent a subject as clothes to tread a line of like exactitude—shall I say?—as the crease in a pair of Mr. Milligan's page 4 own ineffable trousers. I pondered; for unlike the great minds who apparently exist outside my own inconspicuous orbit, I had never regarded dress in the light implied in this excellent advertisement. Dress as a convenience, dress as a mode of warmth, dress as a mark of that primal physical modesty, that measured restraint, that pudor, that marks off the distinguished product of two thousand years of western civilisation so effortlessly from the wanton negligence of the pre-missionary South Sea Islander, dress as a method, perhaps even now merely temporary, of delimiting the sexes—all this I can understand; but the fact that One of the Pleasures of Life is a Seasonal Change of Dress was a thing to which hitherto my sensibility had been dead. The ineluctable revelation that for untold months I had been suffering from the Dull Monotony of Wearing the Same Suit Every Day was indeed sufficiently blasting. But the realisation that all this had been happening to me, and that I, a fairly average specimen (I flatter myself) of homo sapiens, not unaware of the existence of the League of Nations, Signor Mussolini, Mr. Coates's Cabinet, and other peculiar phenomena, had been ambling through the world in total ignorance, even in a moderate cheerfulness, was more than blasting. Curious it is with what a phlegmatic indifference to the main currents of thought, to the great causes which are agitating the universe, with what a singular nescience of so cardinal a fact as the Tonic-value of Milligan's Newest Suitings, humanity advances on its difficult progress towards a higher life. The immortal Burke, in one of the bursts of expansion that agitated that majestic mind, once defined history as "the known march of the ordinary providence of God"—words themselves like the advance of a panoplied host of Miltonic angels. Alas' Burke was ignorant of the mission of Mr. Milligan—what knew he of the wise preparations of an all-seeing; providence for the relief of mankind's ennui? Was his philosophy complete? Marie Antoinette he had seen in her youthful glory, Marie Antoinette's end he foresaw with only too melancholy a clearness; that mighty heart, warmed by the fires of patriotism, lucid with political wisdom, stormy with forebodings, its latter darkness cleft by the lightnings of intuition and desperate prescience, saw his world going up around him terribly in fire and horror. How much better would have been the ebbing hours of the statesman if he had only known that one day in the calm idyllic future, Mr. Milligan would give a pleasant change to the man suffering from the Dull Monotony of Wearing the Same Suit Every Day! Was not Gibbon right (I ask myself in terror)—is not unawareness, however amiable, however well-intentioned, of the Pleasure given to Life by a Seasonal Change of Dress, one of the crimes and follies which (little else) make up the history of mankind? Gibbon, I fear, was the Man with the Message. This horrible monotony! I cringe!

And yet! Perhaps I too have a fragment of the truth! Certainly it is a kindly service to the limbs to cast off the clinging fetters of day, to array oneself in pyjamas, chastely striped, light but warm, to sink into the snug luxury of—but I digress, my main motif is insistent. Perhaps even (for a sufficient sum down) Mr. Milligan would make me a pair of pyjamas, lovely to see, superbly grateful to the body, surpassing in truly pyjamian page 5 qualities all other products of this earth; but I doubt whether that is what Mr. Milligan means. Certain it is that a chief charm of the week-end, to me, is to drape my official (as it were) formal, Monda-to-Friday garments over the back of a chair (I own no trouser-press), and hitch up the wreck of a pair of shorts round my waist with the wreck of a belt; and in this guise to dare the works of Nature. Is this what Mr. Milligan means by those cryptic words, "a Seasonal Change of Dress':" Surely—surely—but no, i feel convinced that Mr. Milligan means something else. He means that Dull Monotony can be banished, but I am afraid he implies only, or most efficiently, or pre-eminently banished by the Newest Suitings Showing at Milligan's (which Are a Real Tonic.) That is what Mr. Milligan means, and knowing it I feel damned.

For do but consider, apart from the ethics of this business, the obstacles imposed. Given the greatest will in the world, many men, I am sure (I am one), even with a full recognition of the sovereign virtue of a Seasonal Change of Dress, have the greatest difficulty in approaching a dealer in clothes. There is the question of the cash basis of the transaction; but there are also more human elements. Let us not too exclusively restrict our discussion to a mere matter of coat, trousers, waistcoat. There is a noble conservatism, apart altogether from the die-hard prejudice of the crusted Tory, which clings to the proved friend of a hundred trials, of a thousand joys and sorrows, of a multitude of changes of weather, be it coat, shirt, or socks. A coat is not merely an article of clothing. It is part of a man's accumulated virtue. It is more—you can throw off a virtue without any great inconvenience; but to change a coat for no coat is inviting all manner of ills. It is stamped with a man's character; it is ingrained with his manifold peculiarities; it is as much a part of him as his skin or the odd cast of his features; it is the man. It is like style: L'habit c'est l'homme meme. A man's clothes are ambulatory history. They are his unabridged and unexpurgated diary. They are the authentic impress of his soul. How, then, are they to be lightly changed, seasonably or unseasonably? Does a healthy mortal suffer from the Dull Monotony of his own personality? His friends may, and our friends may suffer from our clothes; but surely that is their concern, not ours. Consider this coat—it has been new itself at some distant date, fast receding, already gone into the gratefully forgotten limbo; day after day it circumscribes your ribs, it clings round your arms, it fits your shoulders; its colour under the fold of the collar is a rich contrast to the rest of its surface, exposed to the sun and the air and all the healthy influences of nature; the pockets sag, a button hangs loose (you are always meaning to sew it on properly, but always forgetting) its wrinkles are habitual and familiar; it exhales a distinctive and rare odour, compounded—shall one estimate?—of equal quantities of personality and tobacco. In odd places it may be holed, it may display a sewn-up tear, fruit of unequal struggles with head-high gorse, the clutching, tearing bush of many conquered hills. It is a coat mature, a coat individual, a coat to whose making have gone not merely woven thread and uniform buttons, but difficult experience and divine memo page 6 ries, of street and hill and dale, of rain and wind and sun and mist, of night and morning, of days of endeavour and of sweet indolence. It is a coat a man would be martyred for. And not only of coats do I sing the praises. We shed tears over the open graves of our friends—shall we not weep for a waistcoat that has throbbed with the throb of our heart? Lycidas has his immortal triumph, his elegy; with what a melancholy cadence shall we not hymn our sorely tried trousers, that have too long taken the strain of countless strides and bendings? Shall we not breathe a mournful ave atque vale over that seat, too, too effectually rent? But yes!—men have bowels of compassion They investigate the eternal for their metaphysics; shall we not build a philosophy on a pair of pants?

I repeat, it is not merely these external integuments of our mortality that I discuss. Consider the faithful shirt, how it clings to our bodies, regarding or unregarding, with a love passing the love of woman. No man, I hazard it, sees without a pang the passing of this more than fidus Achates; no man willingly leaves off, for the matter of a hole or two, such a symbol of the perfect adaptation of his personality to its environment. And when it is too late, when the last word has been said, when we stoop to place pennies on the eyes of our defeated faith; and mother, wife, or she who is to be considered in all things remains in triumph on the field of battle, while we retire to the precincts of hucksters and those that deal in such things; can we purchase anew without a pang? For money has various uses—books, music, pictures, all the garnered nobility of men's minds will it purchase, things useful, things that will support the spirit of man though the universe totter, though the world burst in flames. To be compelled to pass by these things lovely and of good report, and buy clothes, repellent in their newness, uncompanionable in their very approach to the body, devastating in their price—is not this the authentic abomination of desolation? To cross the very portals of a shop is to enter upon a covenant with despair. Therefore do I, on these rare occasions, hover restlessly up and down the Quay and Cuba Street, approaching in turn every window, recoiling in sudden, nameless panic from each. The plunge must come, like marriage or like death; but man can, in the extremity of his soul, postpone the inevitable. So once at last, purged with pity and terror, did I enter into a shop, a shop advertised as par excellence for men, a shop marked with sight-stunning prominence on its exterior, "Sale," and asked for a shirt. "Yessir," carolled the ineffable exquisite behind the counter, "about what price, sir? Now, here's a very nice line of shirts at 10/6, or 11/6, or 12/6. What size, sir? 14 ½? What do you think of this for a nice stripe?" I said: "Haven't you got some in the window for 4/11?" He looked at me as if I had struck him in the face. Then, with withering sarcasm, "Oh, 4/11? Yes, here you are" He rushed to a pile, wrenched one out:" This do you? Here!" He threw a small, pitiful parcel at me like a man who is wrestling violently, despairingly, yet contemptuously, with the indefeasible iniquity of a lost humanity. But I knew his heart was broken. I had won, but I retreated from that shop like a defeated army. I had helped to break a page 7 fellow-being's faith in human nature. It is no business for a man of sensibility, this trafficking in the merchandise of the world. There are too many affections bound up in it. The wise man, the man of intellect as well as emotion, will wait steadfastly on Christmas or his birthday, and trust that his relatives will do the handsome thing. He does not treat even a pair of socks lightly. There may be more darn in the heels than sock; but he knows that wearing those socks the cloths of heaven are laid down before him; he treads on his dreams. Francis Bacon, Lord Verulam, in his "Apophthegmes" (so I see from a very handy book of quotations at my side) remarked, "Alonso of Aragon was wont to say, in commendation of Age, that Age appeared to be best in four things: Old wood best to burn, old wine to drink, old friends to trust, and old authors to read." We may add a fifth: old clothes to wear. And these are my considerations on Mr. Milligan and his advertisement.

I write not of the dress of woman. That is the last mystery. But it may well be doubted if a creature of such chameleon-like changes of affection towards the articles of her clothing can be worthy of the unswerving fidelity of any man.