Thursday, 16 June 2016

Brahn boots

Implausibly, I am going to write here about clothing styles. This is not my area of expertise, and there are some who would say my ignorance of fashion goes far beyond a simple academic blindspot, but a small incident recently has pointed up a bigger theoretical issue.

Rapidity of cultural change has always been a matter of interest for folklorists. The foundation of the discipline was driven in part by a notion that as times changed the ancient past, which had lingered on into the present, was now being lost. Folklorists have moved away from such positions over the last century, but such notions still crop up among amateur enthusiasts (and not just there).

In some cases this shaped a romantic glorification of the lore being documented with the result that other lore that did not fit the required model was at best marginalised, at worst ignored completely. This was the notion of 'rescuing' lore from folk who did not understand its significance and therefore could not ensure its survival: it was an overstated argument, of course, predicated on an often wrong-headed interpretation of the material in question, and it served to remove the lore from the folk. The Edwardian folk song collectors, for example, had clear ideas of what they were looking for, and they not only did not collect the music hall songs their informants were singing alongside those traditional songs they also did not always note down what they were or that they were being sung: the result is a fantastic body of what the collectors regarded as 'folk songs' proper, but a much sketchier notion of what, how, when and where people actually sang.

This has been addressed by more recent scholars, who have identified both the newer material present in repertoires and the problems this causes in the actual practice of singing. As Ian Russell put it in his 1977 doctoral thesis 'Traditional Singing in West Sheffield, 1970-2' (which I consulted at the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library):

'[A] singer who is exposed to vast amounts of new material quickly becomes unable to assimilate it. Secondly, such is the speed of "turn-over" in popular songs that singers do not have the time to absorb a new song. In practice, therefore, the availability of both recorded and broadcasted music in large quantities almost certainly produces a decline in the need for singing or playing an instrument even though it may increase the desire'.

What happens, then, with styles of dress? I am not particularly talking about either a notional 'traditional dress', assumed (probably wrongly) to be ancient and static until it is swept aside by the advent of a conveniently nasty modernity, nor of a rapid turnover of fashion, but of the ethnographic sense of dress conformity. How you dress may be the best way of putting it, because it would cover a season's fashion fads just as much as the rather slower-changing attitude towards formal wear. (I note that I come back, in my thinking here, to notions of folklore as often quite conservative in its formalising of relationships within a group).

This was prompted by going to the wedding of a very dear cousin a couple of weeks ago. For context, the bride and groom are around 40 and live in Surrey. Both work in insurance (a factor I think is important, as I will explain). The groom, his ushers and best men all wore uniform striking blue suits and brown shoes. During the speeches my uncle, the bride's father (who worked in the financial sector himself) made an oblique reference to his inability to agree 100% with the groom on style matters. On investigation I noticed that my uncle was wearing black shoes.

I also don't particularly like the look of brown shoes with strong blue suits. I would like to believe that that is a style preference all my own, but it is shaped, I know, by familiarity and expectation. The blue suit/brown shoes combination strikes me as a younger look of city/financial professionals, which may also provoke a certain reaction from me. It isn't a look I'd choose for myself, which may be an unexamined instinct I need to work through.

In the evening, sitting with another family member (81 years old, retired after a lifetime working in banking), I mentioned to my uncle that I was with him on the colour combination. This prompted an interesting exchange.

My uncle said that his attitude was shaped by an entire working life. When he had started working in the City in the late 1960s/early 1970s it had been made clear to him that he could wear a brown suit with brown shoes on a Saturday, but during the week he was expected to wear a dark suit with black shoes. My other relative, a decade or so older, agreed completely. There was an expectation imposed by work, yes, but one that shaped and trained their dress.

After they had agreed on this, my older relative laughed and said, 'Of course, it is a bit ... Brahn Boots!' This monologue by R.P. Weston and Bert Lee is most famously associated with Stanley Holloway, who recorded it in 1940. It concerns a cousin who turns up at a funeral in brown boots and is shunned by the family as a result. Only later do they realise it is because he has lent his black pair to someone who has no boots at all.

If brown shoes with blue suits becomes more established it may not only mean a change in dress trends (which might previously have been interpreted as the end of a particular dress tendency, although that's a perverse way of looking at changes in the way people actually live their lives): any such such change would be accompanied by a change in cultural representations. The less surprised people are at seeing brown shoes with formal wear the less likely they are to remember such pieces from an earlier period, or even to invoke them. I don't feel regretful at this, although some such pieces are better than others: I am interested to see what happens and how.

For completeness' sake, I should note that I was wearing a brown suit and brown shoes. But then, it was a Saturday.

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