Friday, November 6, 2015

Mr. Darcy strips off...

by M.M. Bennetts

Upon occasion I feel the need to bring the late M.M. Bennetts' work to the forefront again. Today is one of those days. I'm sure you'll enjoy this amusing post, whatever era interests you. And if you have not read her books, please take a look at them. And now, the entertaining M.M. Bennetts:

First off, we have a conundrum.

Because, of course, there are two versions of the novel featuring Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy, set in two sartorially different periods. Do I tell you about Mr. Darcy circa 1796-97 when First Impressions was being written? Hmn. Well, that's easily solved. In 1797 wealthy young men were wearing cravats in the style of the Prince of Wales, which "were then worn without stiffening of any kind, and bagged out in front, rucking up to the chin in a roll." Messy. Very messy. Not to say slovenly...

Therefore, a picture of Darcy circa 1813--when the revised novel, Pride and Prejudice as it was now called, was published--is no doubt the better choice.

Gentlemen's clothing had undergone a radical change during the early years of the 19th century. The long war with France had isolated Britain from the Parisian trend-setters who had dominated the 18th century, along with their preference for brightly coloured silks and satins. In their place, a new, austere, almost monochromatic aesthetic had taken hold, courtesy of one George Brummell, based on the finest of British tailoring, and drawing its inspiration from the military, from English horsemanship and a classical standard of masculinity as seen in the ancient Greek and Roman statuary, most notably the Apollo Belvedere.

And this ideal of "unity, simplicity and a continuously flowing movement from one part of the body to the next" is at the core of Regency menswear.

The body beneath must needs be moulded into a figure worthy of the clothes too--hence the daily exercise taken by gentlemen at the many boxing saloons, such as Gentleman Jackson's, or Fencing schools about London. Riding is also known to build strong back and shoulder muscles, as well as those of the thighs and calves. Carriage driving also requires very strong shoulders...

So, there's the man and the ideal...but what's he wearing?

Among the essentials of this new neo-classical look were breeches or pantaloons for the day, made either of doeskin or chamois leather or a soft stocking-like fabric. (If made of soft leather, often the wearer first wore them dampened, allowing them to dry to his physique so that they more closely resembled a second skin--they weren't called bum-clingers for nothing.) Both had corset lacing at the back, a fall front fastened by side buttons over the stomach, and were held up with braces to maintain the severe and fitted line over the thigh. They were also cut wider on one side at the top of the thigh, and higher on the other, to accomodate the family jewels, in a custom known as dressing to one side. Beneath the knee, button fastenings kept the fabric taut down the length of the leg.

Evening breeches or pantaloons were made of sheer black silk jersey, knitted cashmere or a stretchy silk-stockinette imported from India, made with only one seam per leg and that along the outside--though this was sometimes embroidered or 'clocked' down the length of it--all of which was intended to frame the muscles of the thigh.

For summer, the breeches would be cut the same, but made of stout pale or white linen or nankeen, a heavy twilled cotton.

Just as important was a gentleman's fitted waistcoat, which would have been made of white or skin-toned fabric--the idea being that if a gentleman were to remove his coat, in his shirtsleeves and from a distance, he would resemble nothing so much as a naked Greek god, muscular, beautiful, carved from marble or stone.

Coats were now made of dark matte fabrics such as wool Bath cloth or 'superfine', sculpted through the back and shoulders, with a high collar to provide a contrasting frame to the whiteness of the starched cravats. Our Mr. Darcy has several specialist tailors from whose work to chuse: John Weston's at No. 34 Old Bond Street, or even Mr. Brummell's favourite, Schweitzer & Davidson on Cork Street.

Beneath it all, the shirt of white linen, plain and lightly starched, with collars "so large that, before being folded down, it completely hid [the] head and face..." with tiny buttons at the neck and cuffs. Cuffs were worn long--a good inch or two longer than the coat sleeve to emphasise the fact that the gentleman did not work.

About Mr. Darcy's neck was his starched cravat.

Made of fine Irish muslin, a triangle was cut on the diagonal from a square yard of fabric, with its edges plainly stitched. This triangle was then folded twice and wrapped carefully about the neck, with the ends tied in one of several manners before the wearer lowered his chin to create a neat series of folds which were either rubbed into place by a day-old shirt or pressed with a hot iron. (I favour the day-old shirt method, myself...less danger of frying the larynx.)

Footwear? Highly polished Hessian boots with spurs by day and thinly-soled black pumps for evening.

Underwear? Very little was worn and then only rarely--it being pretty much a thing of the 18th century, although it was still in use (in cold weather, for example) and referred to as 'summer trousers'. In this look of careless, casual, sensual arrogance, there was no room for lumpy knickers or rucked up shirt tails. However, due to the transparency and cut of the tight kneebreeches and pantaloons, a lining of either flannel or cotton was sometimes incorporated into the garments.

Mr. Darcy would have dressed some three or four times during the course of a normal day.

He would also have required, per week, in addition to the usual "20 shirts, 24 pocket handkerchiefs, 9 or 10 summer trousers, 30 neck handkerchiefs, a dozen waistcoats, and stockings at discretion", a chintz dressing gown and Turkish slippers for taking his breakfast.

He would also have several driving coats and/or greatcoats, caped, and made of a heavier wool worsted or "Norwich stuff" for colder, rainier weather (read every day from September to May and most of June).

Like Brummell and other gentlemen of his class and station, Darcy would have bathed every part of his body every day, and in hot water. He would have used no perfumes (they were considered very 18th century!) but smelled instead of very fine linen and country washing.

So there he is--drab greatcoat emphasising the width of his shoulders, thigh-hugging doeskin breeches, pale waistcoat, dark coat (navy, grey or black being the preferred colours), and pristine white cravat and collarpoints outlining the strength of his jaw. Polished Hessians are on his feet.

Does he not look fine? Every inch a god?

So now...let's take it off.

His high-crowned bevor, his cane, his gloves and his greatcoat he has, fortunately, left with the footman belowstairs. The door is shut.

His boots (with or without horse muck on them) have been left at the door or really anywhere but in the bedchamber, if at all possible. There are two reasons for this. One, this may be a good idea at a time when there are no Dysons or Hoovers. But also, the method of removing one's boots generally required the backside of another person, and gentlemen didn't much care for bootjacks as it was said to break down the back of the boot. Equally, the reason a gentleman did not 'sit down in all his dirt' was a pungent one.

So shoes are a better bet. Easier to slip off.

And it all starts this way: with the the kissing...this could go on for a long time. A very long time. Because the most important thing is always that his Eliza feels and knows that her wishes and desires are paramount to his.

Then, the coat comes off. It's easier, I'll be frank, if she'll slips her hands upward from his chest toward his shoulders and lifts it away from him. But assuming she's not forward and that he doesn't have his coats cut so as to make removing them akin to peeling an obstreperous orange, he shrugs the thing off, first one shoulder, then the other, all the while still kissing her.

Then, the waistcoat. Button by tiny button. All eleven or so of the things. More than that if the waistcoat is double breasted. And with each button, a sensation of incremental yet greater sensual liberty is attained.

The waistcoat now on the floor with the coat, Darcy slides his index finger into the front of that knot of white linen at the base of the throat and pulls. And index finger into the remaining tied-bit and pulls. And freedom. And the end of the cravat is yanked and pulled off and discarded onto the floor.

Then he takes down his braces, first one, then the other.

And finally, he undoes the small Dorset buttons at his neck and cuffs. But being not a little impatient, he pulls the shirt off over his head without unbuttoning it all the way.

But the removal of the shirt only happens when she wishes it to happen. For all the time, his removal of his clothes is secondary to touching her, kissing her, telling her in every wordless way that her beauty blocks out the sky and the stars and is all that he sees.

And that's how he did it.

"To teach thee, I am naked first..." John Donne




~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~


M.M. Bennetts was a specialist in early nineteenth-century British and European history, and the author of two historical novels set in the period - May 1812 and Of Honest Fame: Amazon. Find out more at www.mmbennetts.com.

13 comments:

  1. Great entry!

    I think the most fascinating thing I ever read about menswear during the period involved men using stuffing/false calves in their leg wear to give themselves beefier calves and impress the ladies.

    I bet Darcy wouldn't need any fake calves. ;)

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  2. and by the time he'd finished undoing all the buttons and ties and wriggling from tight sleeves, he'd forgotten why he was getting undressed in the first place :)) brilliant post as usual :)

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  3. Great post! Fascinating and highly amusing. But at the end, as I read it, his trousers are still on; can this be right ....? Please don't say he simply unbuttoned the flap - that's just not elegant!

    And what about socks? Riding boots without socks would be very hard to remove.

    Anyway, now we're in urgent need of part two - stripping Elizabeth, or what Mr Darcy uncovered! I can't wait (nor could he?)

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  4. You've had the Apollo Belvedere--that's a sportsman uncovered. Ha ha!

    As for the breeches--they have a button fastening at each of the top corners of the fall front, and beneath that, the waistband meets in the middle and is again fastened with usually two or three buttons.

    Stockings would always have been worn--either of finely knitted wool or of silk--though as I mentioned, removing the boots without the aid of a valet is a tricky business...(I can't get my riding boots off without the aid of a bootjack or a second person.)

    Does that help?

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  5. Weren't the fastenings concealed by the fall-flap known as 'French Bearers?'

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  6. I'm tired just reading about this process. No wonder the valet was an indispensable need to a gentleman.

    Thanks that was fascinating!

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  7. As Mr. Brummell said to the first valet he tried to hire in London, a man who had worked for one Colonel Kelly ('the vainest man in London' after he burned to death trying to rescue his favourite boots from a burning house)...well the man asked for £200 a year in wages. "Make it 200 guineas and I'll work for you," replied Brummell.

    Valeting was a high-maintenance position. And the clothes were in the main designed to be high-maintenance and to draw a line of distinction between the 'gentleman' and those who were so unfortunate as to need to work in some way or other...

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  8. Oh my! Is it hot in here or is it just me? ;-)

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