Button up

There is something immensely satisfying about the ritualistic act of putting on clothes for a special occasion, perhaps laid out the preceding evening or morning, and getting ready to go forth and mingle. I had this feeling of apprehension and excitement on Monday of this week when I made ready to teach the first classes I’ve taught in fifteen months, having enjoyed a sabbatical year, spent in Canada, France, and the UK, as well as the US, taking up three different fellowships. For me, the emblematic moment is buttoning up my shirt before putting on a necktie. It is an act which takes me back to the age of 4 years old and wearing my first school uniform (with a pre-tied necktie), or 11 years old and beginning a new school (with a real necktie), or 19 years old and buttoning up the 33 buttons of the black cassock of my religious order (a symbolic number representing the 33 years of Christ’s life). It is a reassuring and measured sartorial ceremony and different men have their own methodology; some commence from the bottom and work their way up -the optimists; others work their way down -the realists; while others make at it in an apparent haphazard fashion -the thrill seekers. We might take buttons for granted, but they’ve been with us for five thousand years and, unlike garments such as ties or decorative scarves, their purpose is eminently -though by no means always- practical, serving to keep the very fabric we wear together. As such, they represent that peculiar human trait of wanting to keep our skins and bodies concealed from our fellow creatures.

ImageButtons can be very ornamental and occasionally outshine the jackets or shirts which they embellish. There have also been particular peaks of buttonery mania; the Victorians favoured painted buttons with characters from their preferred plays, novels, and opera, while gentlemen at the end of the eighteenth century often wore porcelain buttons such as the cameo ones shown above (from the extensive button collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum), designed by Josiah Wedgwood. Being buttoned up evokes, perhaps above all, the dress uniform of the armed forces, particular the British ones, whence the expression the “top brass” originating from generals festooned with an array of brass buttons. Brass buttons were the preserve of the military in many countries until relatively recently, one reason being that they are relatively inexpensive to manufacture, polish very well, and can easily be stamped with regimental or national insignia or logos.

ImageThe painting above, of Edward VII on his coronation in 1902 (painted by Luke Fildes) shows one occasion on which gilt brass buttons are positively overshadowed by the rest of the monarch’s dress, a quite unusual state of affairs for such prominent buttonery. Edward came to the throne at the age of 59 years old, reigning from 1901 to 1910, having once remarked that he seemed to be blessed with an eternal mother (Queen Victoria) as well as an Eternal Father. While his reign was relatively brief, he gave his name to an era, the Edwardian one, and was to prove a capable and popular monarch, personally brokering the Entente Cordiale with France in 1904 and being responsible for forging warmer relations with the papacy. This was despite all expectations and previous evidence to the contrary; Edward was not only what was euphemistically called a womanizer, he was also almost certainly a sex addict. He used the pretext of afternoon tea to facilitate his liaisons, thus starting an adulterous subtext that continued for decades surrounding this apparently innocuous break, perhaps best exemplified in Cole Porter’s Tea for Two, which has little to do with taking tea and everything to do with an assignation. Rather bizarrely, this whimsical song from a musical was set into a 45-minute arrangement, Opus 16, by Dmitri Shostakovich in 1928, as a result of a wager made with the composer. Despite Edward VII’s wandering eye and attentions, he nonetheless had a genuine affection for his long-suffering Danish wife, Alexandra, who was serially late for anything and everything, very nearly causing the coronation to be delayed. On his deathbed, the Queen arranged a discreet visit of his beloved mistress, Alice Keppel, so that the pair could say goodbye to each other; this must have been a difficult decision yet it is an extremely humane and sensitive one. Alice is the great grandmother of the present Duchess of Cornwall, formerly Camilla Parker-Bowles. It is possible that Edward was also received into the Catholic Church at around the period, during the last two weeks of his life, by the chaplain to the French Embassy in London.

ImageButtons have made out of many materials through the ages, from precious metals to shell, ivory, and my own favourite, horn, as seen in the distinctive horn toggles, crying out duffle coat, in the image above (sold by Benno’s as an organic product).  Charles Dickens wrote a charming essay, “What there is in a button”, appearing in 1852, which concludes with the words: “It is wonderful, is it not? that on that small pivot turns the fortune of such multitudes of men, women, and children, in so many parts of the world; that such industry, and so many fine faculties, should be brought out and exercised by so small a thing as the Button”. Quite. The word itself derives from the Old French bouter or boter, itself a Germanic borrowing, meaning to thrust out, which is the origin of the modern words bud (in the sense of a shoot thrusting forward) and butt (that part of us which stands out behind -on some of us much more than others, it might be added).

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Today’s cufflinks are really quite lovely, being made out of brass with a real red garnet gem in the middle. They’re shaped like semi-globes and have an interesting ornate pattern repeated across their surface. They bear the maker’s mark of Michaud. This is the married couple of Gladys and Arthur Michaud who founded their company in the 1930s, a venture which lasted half a century. Gladys would scour the Paris flea markets for buttons which were then converted into cufflinks and sold to high-end stores on the East Coast of the USA. This pair, which might be unique, is almost certainly made from brass military buttons, with the garnet being employed to cover up a hole. I like the recycling that has gone into this product and while they most likely date from the late 1930s, the buttons look like they might be from the nineteenth century. There’s something especially appropriate about buttons metamorphosing into cufflinks since the French term is boutons de manchette, literally “sleeve buttons”. While I adamantly refuse to wear my heart on my sleeve, my cufflinks show how I manage to button up my lax, emotional self in a triumph of style over substance. And thus attired, I am ready to face the world, bright as a button, it could be said!

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Painted black

Black has had a very bad rap, as they say. The colour has long been associated with mourning rituals, evil, and has sometimes possessed unpleasant racialist connotations. Its reputation has been blackened, so to speak. We speak of blackspots and of people being blackballed, though Black Friday and black markets are not entirely negative, neither is being in the black, the ideal financial situation. It is, nonetheless, a particularly prized colour for flowers mainly because of its rarity, so black orchids are especially well esteemed and black roses and tulips were the objects of myth. Coco Chanel was the designer who reclaimed black from mourning during the twentieth century with her concept of the LBD (little black dress). Inspired by the dress of rural peasant widows, this is one of the rare cases in fashion history of a trend beginning from the working classes and working its way up rather than the other way around. Perhaps the most iconic depiction of the LBD is in the 1961 movie Breakfast at Tiffany’s based on a short story by Truman Capote. Holly Golightly, seen below as portrayed by Audrey Hepburn, looks stunning in her ensemble. However, the colour she wears is associated with her superficial and vacuous character; she is colourless and is, in all but name, a prostitute.

ImageOne of the reasons for which black became so popular following Chanel’s vogue for the LBD is that production methods made its manufacture much cheaper in the twentieth century than had hitherto been possible. Historically, black dyes have been very expensive to produce, a rather ironic fact given that black has often been adopted by religious groups as a symbol of penitence and worldly spurning. The puritans had the best of both worlds in that they wore black clothing as a sign of mortification but in reality it was a deep indigo, so they avoided any great expense in their outward display of renunciation.

ImageIn a sense, Chanel was repopularizing the colour. We might imagine that sovereigns were festooned with ornamentation and fine livery in former times in Europe, but really many monarchs wore black from the fourteenth century on, particularly the Holy Roman Emperor, as seen above in Titian’s breathtaking portrait of Charles V who ruled from 1519 to 1556. It was painted in 1548, when the Emperor was 48 years old, yet he looks like a much older man here; the years and events have visibly taken a heavy toll. What I think Titian conveys in a striking way is a man racked by doubt. This is not the face of an imperious, decisive man, and his slightly awkward pose -particularly his legs which do not align with the chair or his sword- reveal a man who is trying to project majesty yet is not quite sure of himself. The fact that the sword is hidden to the right is significant; Charles was dragged into many wars yet obsessively wanted peace. The black that he wears makes him look human and, in a curious way, endearing. It hints at a certain mystery which is certainly real. Within a few years of this scene, Charles abruptly and unexpectedly abdicated in 1556, retiring to a monastery to spend his last remaining two years, surrounded by clocks affixed to every single wall of his apartment.

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Black was, in many respects, the very lifeblood of the nineteenth century, not least of which because of the Industrial Revolution. Claude Monet’s magisterial La Gare Saint-Lazare (1877) captures the decidedly unromantic scene of a railway station. The smoke drowning out the sky, the grey and black hues, and the faceless figures all seem to denote the downsides to progress and the terrifying march of progress. Yet this would miss an important point: all of the black in this painting, and it’s the predominant shade of the scene, is actually made up of extremely vivid colours such as vermilion red, ultramarine blue, and emerald green. In fact, Monet used almost no black pigment at all in this painting. Is it possible to see a work of art in which seeing is not believing is depicted so forcefully, almost brutally? It’s in the Musée d’Orsay, a museum that is worth visiting for this painting alone (though, in point of fact, there are many works that could claim this title there).

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I have platinum-blond hair, so black is not a frequent sartorial choice, since it makes pale-skinned Celtic lads like me look like freshly revived corpses in a nightmarish zombie holocaust. I did of course, wear it as a trainee priest for two years, though had a bespoke cassock made by Parisian tailors, which was, in retrospect, a sign. However, I love today’s cufflinks, a pair crafted out of black enamel with brass fasteners by Jules Perrier, a Quebec-based founder of a family-run firm that is still going strong, and which was founded in 1956. What I especially like about this pair is the ruthless subversion of the black. They most likely date from the 1960s, given their style. The lozenge shape and delicate gold-painted motif are strenuously futuristic, yet based on the traditional black. This shade is, after all, the colour of space and our cosmos, so what better choice for representing the past, or, indeed, the future? Black truly is and always will be the new black.

Seeing red

It’s fair to say that no other colour stimulates a reaction in us quite like red. There are immediate, almost visceral, responses to seeing this shade ranging across the gamut from danger to passion (though passion is, of course, often dangerous…). The use of red on the highway to indicate vehicles must stop, in the form of stop signs and traffic lights (as well as on the brake lights of cars) is universal and has historical and practical origins, rather pleasingly. Red possesses a longer wavelength than other colours and therefore doesn’t scatter as easily, making it more distinct to the naked human eye. The green for go and red for stop may well derive from maritime rules governing the right of way where precedence is given to starboard ships (green) rather than vessels on the port (red or left) side. In medieval liturgical texts, instructions were provided in red ink, leading to the motto “do the red, say the black”. From this use, we have gained the term “rubric”, coming from the Latin word for red (ruber, rubri). I am pleased that this ancient use is retained in the otherwise soulless Microsoft Word, in which the tracking feature employs red for comments and deletions. It was also used in headings and to mark special feast days, which is why we still talk of a red-letter day. Even if signage might be crooked or askew, as in the pedestrian lights I snapped below in Paris this summer, on the rue des Archives, we always know that we need to proceed with caution.

ImageRed has traditionally been one of the most expensive and laborious colours to produce, which has led to its appropriation by the rich and powerful. The most sought-after reddish shade, carmine (from which derives crimson) was made from kermes insects for centuries, who would absorb the tint of the red oaks on which they lived, then was replaced by the blood of cochineal beetles from the New World. Many food dyes and cosmetic products still rely on the blood of the female beetle, which lives on prickly pears and is still harvested by hand  in Peru and Chile. In clothing, the use of it has trickled down. Originally the imperial colour, it became more widespread among the elite when Tyrian purple was preferred by Roman emperors (see my post here on this topic). Popes wore it until the sixteenth century until the election of Pius V in 1566 who, as a Dominican friar, preferred to retain his white habit. The cardinals, whose official colour was purple -we still talk today of a man being raised to the purple upon his elevation to the cardinalate- then took on red for themselves. While the papal colour is still white, any accessories have remained the original red – cloaks, shoes, capes, and headgear – at least until Pope Francis preferring to keep with black shoes, a sartorial single-mindedness that is not unlike his Renaissance predecessor.

ImageThe image above shows Raymond, Cardinal Burke dressed in the red of his rank, though the finery is meant to symbolize a reminder that these princes of the Church should be ready to shed their blood for Christ. To show that she was dying a martyr for her Catholic faith, murdered by her heretical tyrant of a cousin (Elizabeth I of England) , Mary, Queen of Scots wore a red dress to her execution. She had concealed this very political statement under an enveloping black cloak, only revealing her red dress at the scaffold in what must be one of the finest last-minute acts of revenge in history. As well as her martyrdom, Mary should be remembered as the first woman to play golf in history -at St Andrews-, an act for which her dour Calvinistic denizens never forgave her. At the same time as red’s positive religious connotations, it possesses markedly negative ones too. In the Old Testament, we read “Though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow” (Isaiah 1:18; KJV). Towns have red-light districts and adulteresses were marked with a scarlet letter as a visible sign of their shame. In accounting, debits were written in red ink, giving us the expression to be “in the red”. In fact, red is probably the colour used more than any other in expressions, from red herrings to a red rag to a bull, from being a red flag to being marked by a red arrow. There is something about this colour that fascinates and appeals to us, reflected in its broad use and the ambivalence of the meaning and significance that we give to it.

ImageI am particularly interested in the use of red in clothes. Once the preserve of the mega-wealthy – scarlet was originally silk cloth from India, the most costly material but the price of red dye resulted in it becoming synonymous with the shade itself- it is used in the ceremonial costumes of the professions – judges, clergy, and academics. Holders of doctorates from the old universities in the United Kingdom have red academic dress, and the photograph above shows me wearing mine and looking like a member of some extinct, pompous avian species. This semester I will once again have the pleasure of teaching one of the loveliest novels in human history, Mme de Lafayette’s La Princesse de Clèves, first published in 1678. I make it a point to re-read every text again that I teach, no matter how many times I’ve previously read it, and this will be the twenty-fifth time I will read the work again. The heroine, the eponymous princess, blushes at several points during the narrative. Rather than being a sign of her shame or embarrassment at her behaviour, the novelist turns this visual trait into something else: an indication of her innocence and unwillingness to collaborate with the superficiality of court intrigue. In this, the author is subverting the deep-seated erotic links that go with the colour and which still, largely prevail, and which have such cultural markers as the extremely sexual coming-of-age fairy tale of Little Red Riding Hood to Chris de Burgh’s song Lady in Red (1986). Clearly, then, red does not cease to be both ravishing and perturbing.

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Today’s cufflinks are made by Rafael Alfandary, one of the best known of the Canadian modernist designers, although he was born in Belgrade and moved to Canada in the early 1970s. Alfandary was a mechanical engineer who turned to jewellery making by accident when he made a necklace for his English teacher; he didn’t speak a word of English when he arrived in his adopted country. I love the chunky yet almost delicate lines of this pair, which are crafted out of brass and Murano glass and most likely date from the mid-1970s.

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The cabochon made out of Murano glass is very vibrant and has some lovely depths and interior detail, changing hue with the type of light. They’re an exceptionally beautiful pair of cufflinks, made even more special by the fact that Rafael produced very little jewellery for men. He died in Toronto in 2005 and during his last few years turned his hand to clock-making with his wife, Eriko, producing several dozen examples made in solid brass. Despite the ambiguous heritage of red, the subtlety of this pair inspires joie de vivre and leaves one wanting to, well, paint the town red.