by Réginald-Jérôme de Mans

Recent Tumblr posts from my e-friend voxsartoria featuring Anthony Andrews and Jeremy Irons in Brideshead Revisited reminded me of an idiosyncrasy of Sebastian Flyte, Andrews’ character. Not his dissipation and fall from grace (apologies for spoilers of inevitable plot elements that you should have seen coming), but his attitude towards hairbrushes.  Early in Evelyn Waugh’s book, Flyte visits a barber seeking a luxury hairbrush only for the purpose of spanking his gigantic teddy bear. He was an Oxford undergraduate at the time, the reader – or more likely the viewer, since Brideshead really took off as proto-Downton period soap opera-cum-lifestyle porn when Granada Television made a miniseries of it – may recall, so apparently such eccentricity was to be delightfully expected. (Stephen Fry once noted that any such teddy bear-toting behavior would have been wiped out with flamethrowers at Cambridge, his alma mater.)

I thought of Flyte’s cosmetological preciosity again when I saw an image that’s recently been making the rounds of the Internet comparing bespoke and made-to-measure. Bespoke, it suggests, is completely handmade, and will last a lifetime. Made to measure is supposedly machine-made and will last a couple years. The persistence of something handmade until you are just a memory, simply because it is handmade, is a suggestion as inane as Flyte’s affectation.  Handwork by itself has nothing to do with whether an item is bespoke or made to measure, and little to do with how long it will last.  

Still, traditional handmade craftsmanship remains a grail, in part because of the seductive idea that a handmade item of classic design and quality is built to last a lifetime – or several. That must be what pushed me to purchase a handmade ebony hairbrush from an English brushmaker that has been in the business for two centuries. (If my fellow fops can casually refer to their bootmaker, cordwainers or shirtmaker, I will presume on your amused tolerance by referring to “my brushmaker” from here on.) I desired the luxury of owning something good enough to maintain and repair. A well-made bespoke suit traditionally contains inlays sufficient to allow you, or your heirs, to significantly lengthen, shorten or let out hems, seams and waistbands in order to keep the suit in service over the years, or generations. Similarly, my brushmaker used to offer repair and restoration services for its antique brushes to make them live another lifetime. (The extra allowance inside the hems of good bespoke trousers must be included with the owner’s heirs in mind – surely tailors don’t expect most of their customers, grown men, to undergo a growth spurt or spend time on the rack?) As in other crafts, in order to survive, my brushmaker has had to expand its lines to include cheaper machine-made items, but said it would only repair and restore its handmade line.  

I’m not a complete fetishist – I never felt the urge to order a traditional toothbrush, made of hand-drilled bone. But I do succumb sometimes to the luxury of owning something good enough to repair in an age when disposal and replacement are the easy and automatic norm. I stand by my old definition of luxury:  that done well which does not need to be done at all.  

No one needs a hairbrush good enough to repair, just as no sane human being or literary character should have bought a luxury hairbrush to spank a teddy bear with. Nonetheless, just like the bespoke tailors claim about their suits, my brush is one of a very few still made the same way as they did two centuries ago, giving us – well, at least me – that frisson of impression that we are supposed to feel when faced with such heritage and tradition. Whether that claim is true or not – and I am sure any Highlanders reading this have better things to do than confirm it (now being the time of the Gathering) – the brush is made from a single block of ebony, hand sanded, hand drilled, and threaded with natural white boar bristles. The maker calls it club-handled, meaning it actually has a handle, unlike the other iconic gentlemen’s brush, the so-called military-style oval-shaped brush. Well-dressed men of the early 20th century owned those in pairs, the better to grasp one in each hand and smooth back brilliantined hair. (Admit it, you can hear the old-timey music playing right now.)  Old dressing kits contained brushes of that type mounted on silver backs, on tortoiseshell, or in other precious materials.    

And yet, trying to justify owning a completely handmade brush because of its repairability would be to fall into the same trap of overthinking I described when I first began offending the Internet with my writing. Delusion is baited with rationalization. That overthinking is when we try to rationalize our fetishes, whether those fetishes are supposedly heirloom-quality clothing and accessories or something more socially acceptable. We choose the best dry cleaners we can find, only to find that after carefully disassembling and cleaning a delicate handmade brocade tie, they stitch it back up by machine, or, as happened to a friend, that they press flat the lapels of a handmade suit.

The brush is much more comfortable than the cheaper model brushes from the same maker, which used to turn up on eBay as returns from time to time.  Handwork - on a handbrush, at any rate - seems as unnecessary as the handstitching down the straight seams on bespoke trousers from a handful of especially fancy tailors. Handstitching a long seam is a bit like hand-hammering a body panel on an Aston Martin: charming on an antique but unnecessary and perhaps a bit behind the times on a modern object of desire. But for unnecessary handwork, a brush like this is a silly but relatively affordable affectation in comparison to such tailors’ onerous bespoke prices.  

In the few years since I bought it, my brushmaker no longer makes claims about restoring and repairing old brushes on its website. However, before I fret about its future survival, my brush has plenty of life in it, and my heirs will no doubt ignore – or be ignorant of -- my past eccentricities. I wasn’t the one with the teddy bear, after all. But just because something is handmade, even handmade well, does not mean it will last a lifetime – and bad handwork is far more common than good. If you want something good enough to last, its maintenance costs could make you think twice about the possibility of realizing any savings from that persistence. There’s still a pleasure in the echt, something that supposedly is made with fidelity to some historical ethic, but that’s simply ego-massaging. In the end, the items we take pleasure in using prosaically – the experience of wearing a handmade bespoke suit, or of my silly handmade hairbrush, were once taken for granted by classes who exalted in their misuse. Today’s epicureanism is to simply enjoy using what we have, for the purposes for which it was made (that is, not for spanking teddy bears) – even if the maker ultimately ends up giving you the brush-off.