150 years ago, Alexandre Dumas introduced two minor characters to dinner at the Count of Monte Cristo’s, dressing them perfectly for the occasion in brand-new clothes from the finest real-life tailors and outfitters, and then immediately set their fellow dinner guests to criticizing them. “These Italians are well named and badly dressed,” quips one. His friend suggests he is too demanding: “Those clothes are well cut and quite new,” eliciting the coup de grâce, “That’s just what’s wrong with them. That gentleman appears to be well dressed for the first time in his life.”
Newness, that supposed bogeyman of classic clothing! Legends pile up, no doubt almost as fictional as Dumas’ novel. The old saw about English aristocrats forcing their butlers to break in said aristocrats’ new custom shoes (rather harsh, this, considering servants were no doubt on their feet much more often than their masters and could have used a comfortable pair of shoes that weren’t made to fit someone else). Fred Astaire throwing his new Anderson & Sheppard suits at the wall to get the “stiff, square newness” out of them. Yet another nabob, whose name escapes me, taking a bath in his new custom suits to exorcise that same parvenu newness. What commitment it must take to put on a suit and wear it in the bath! That can’t be very comfortable. One wonders if he also put on a shirt and tie as well. And socks? Only a hippie would wear a suit barefoot, after all. Did he wear shoes, too, or was his butler bathing in those?
What a flex! By criticizing someone for wearing clothes that show their newness, Dumas’ fictional critics and the legends of the stories are suggesting that it’s not enough to have the means and desire to afford beautiful clothing. (Not enough for what? For entrée into whatever society these folks hope to join or stay part of.) Instead, you have to have what can’t be bought: time, time for the clothes to have worn in and aged. And implicit in that suggestion of time are multiple other requirements: not just that you had to have money and clothes for a long time, but that you had to have the training – through upbringing or otherwise – to wear your clothes right, to have the right clothes for every occasion so that you were not wearing your hard-earned new suit of clothes every day. You also had to have the army of valets, tailors and menders who would scrupulously clean, press and repair that suit of clothes over the years, because perhaps worse than newness would be dirtiness and unkemptness.
And those clothes, tailored jackets, trousers, and a “black satin stock, fresh from the maker’s hands,” were, are, complicated to maintain. Some valet no doubt had to put a crease back in Astaire’s newly wallbanged suits, and some other servant, cursing under his or her breath, must have had to carefully air dry, reshape and gently iron the suit that was bathed in. And then mop up. Clothes lose their newness quickly without the support of that army of labor. A labor of skilled hands, cheaply paid. It takes time and attention to spot clean and press a suit well, and a considerable amount of dexterity to invisibly mend frays and holes. Today, the number of professional reweavers, the only people who really know how to do that work, can be counted on the fingers of a single hand in most countries. And if you get your suits brushed and pressed (not dry-cleaned, which all iGents know can reduce the life of a suit if done too often) after each wearing, or do so yourself, you’re a better man than I.
Labor costs a lot more nowadays, which is good for most of us except for snobs who have to iron their own shirts. After all, almost all laundries will press shirts in a button-cracking appliance called a mangle or mangler (and yes, there have been at least two horror movies about such a machine coming to life and, well, mangling people).
So today newness really is just a bogeyman, an old but unfounded scary story. Unpacking my suit during a business trip reminds me that newness and all the stiffness and other mythical monsters associated with it will disappear very quickly today. Unlike travelers of Astaire’s, let alone Dumas’, generation, we don’t travel with wardrobe trunks for our garments to hang in, or with servants. I almost always never check luggage, in order to get through airports quickly (among other reasons). Long ago I mastered the tailor-blessed method of packing a jacket for quick travel (inside out, tucking one shoulder under the other, and folding), but my suit still came out of the case looking like Alex from A Clockwork Orange, rather than Astaire or Gene Kelly, had been doing a dance on it. I shrugged and hung it up in the closet. At least it had good bones, and over a night got to a place of more or less presentable character, but certainly not newness. Hopefully Dumas’ Château-Renaud and Debray wouldn’t mind. These old clothes are still dear.