decorated initial 'T' he introduction and five chapters of this slim, heavily illustrated volume purport to show, as the subtitles of its chapters state, "The 'Disappearance' of Men's Fashion and Consumption in Victorian Britain," "The Emergence of the Male Consumer and the Commodification of the Male Body," "Fashion and the Birth of the Men's Lifestyle Periodical," "Competing Masculinities and Class Aspirations," and "Class Performance and the Triumph of Middle-Class Sartorial Taste." Although The Cut of His Coat discusses some very interesting research by others, it rarely fulfills the promise of of its rather grandiose chapter titles. Since, despite its title, Shannon's volume chiefly concerns itself with the rise of the department store and the advertising and customers associated with it, he does make some good points about consumerism, but he never convincingly provides a discussion of either the "Commodification of the Male Body" or convincingly explains exactly what that commodification might mean in this context.

The center of The Cut of His Coat is pretty obviously the third chapter, which concentrates on Fashion, a magazine intended for male readers that first appeared in March 1898. As someone who's been reading dissertations for four decades now, I suspect Mr. Shannon came upon this periodical, decided to write about it, and had to find a way to create a long enough text for a dissertation (and dissertation book). This volume has other evidence of its origins as a dissertation in its excessive citation of sources. In doing doing so the author displays honesty about sources while simultaneously creating credibility when he shows that he has read a great deal about his subject. This approach proves a weakness, on the other hand, when he omits obvious works, such as histories of fashion, or shows too limited a field of vision or conception of his topic. Worst of all, as his interesting bibliographical note on the history of the department store reveals, he often doesn't take a stand, giving the impression thsat he doesn't want to alienate people in his field.

Some of the fundamental flaws that mar this slim study appear in the following statement of the author's intention:

Determining what men "really" wore during this period is perhaps an impossible task. Instead, the primary goal is to uncover and explore what was invested in the various and often competing discursive codes regarding male clothing and consumption. The study is thus as sketch of what kinds of dress, consumption, and class performance were privileged as "proper" and what were pathologized as "deviant." [17]

The central problem with this slim volume appears right there in the first sentence, which pretty much lets the cat out of the bag: "Determining what men 'really' wore during this period," the author confidently informs us, "is perhaps an impossible task." No, Mr. Shannon, it is not. It is just a very difficult one that might take years of work in archives and courthouses. It is in fact what social historians do. They search through wills, tax records, newspaper accounts, trials, correspondences, factory records, and so on. Of course, there's nothing wrong in studying what people say about a particular subject — just as long as one recognizes that what people often write and say all too frequently differs greatly from what they do, idealize, or fantasize about.

The author's lack of confidence appears in his inability to make statements using individual words without distancing himself in some unspecified way from them. Is there any doubt in any reader's mind that when Shannon uses "proper" and "deviant" in the passage quoted above we understand that he means what many people in the nineteenth century meant — and that he's not to blame for their attitudes? When Derrida brackets words he continually shows us how many of those we use are rickety planks over an abyss that we pretend have more reliability than they actually do and that we often find ourselves in this situation because we tend to treat provisional thought-forms, such as binary oppositions, as if they possess a universal reality and not merely provisional utility. How, Derrida reminds us, can a preface (which he also calls hors d'oeuvre and fore play) be both inside and outside a book? In contrast, when Shannon uses scare quotes he continually shows us an intellectual timidity that says, "Please don't blame me."

One of Shannon's most annoying habits is his continual use of the old bait and switch; that is, like a sleazy merchant, he promises one thing and delivers something quite different and much less valuable. By this I mean that he frequently writes as if he will inform his readers about a phenomenon involving enormous numbers of people during an entire historical period, but he ends up discussing a minute number of people during a very few years. Throughout these pages he often writes as if his points apply to virtually all British men during Victoria's reign, but as early as page 9 he admits that he will discuss "Britain's middle-class urban males in the decades surrounding the turn of the twentieth century" (9). His title promises us, however, that he will discuss "Men, Dress, and Consumer Culture in Britain, 1860-1904." Didn't an editor at Ohio notice this major disparity? Then, ten pages later we learn that he will in fact discuss only "single, middle-class males between the ages of fifteen and thirty-four residing in London (roughly fifty thousand in 1901)" a group that "represents a decidedly small minority of the 32.5 million living in England and Wales at that time" (19). What happened, one wonders, to men living in Scotland and Ireland? men living in Manchester, Liverpool, Leeds, and Sheffield?

The two left-hand images depict lower-middle class men of the type on whom Shannon concentrates in The Cut of His Coat. Left: Detail of an illustration by George Cattermole for The Old Curiosity Shop (1840); middle: detail of an illustration by Phiz for Bleak House (1853). Right: George du Maurier's depiction of men's dress in the 1880s shows what wealthier men wore. None of these pictures suggest in any way that then men did not pay cloth attention to changing fashions.

Perhaps the worst part of this rhetorically disasterous habit of promising more than he delivers involves his use of what is esentially a straw horse, in this case the notion of a "Great Masculine Renunciation" during which no respectable Victorian man supposedly paid much attention to his appearance. Shannon tells us he will show that no such attitude actually existed, but who ever thought it did? Part of the problem here arises in the widespread intellectual sloppiness of discussing six or seven decades of the nineteenth century as if they were one uniform, unchanging period. Mr. Shannon, a self-described "literary scholar" (15), might have looked a little more than he did at well-known Victorian novels. In Chapter 5 of Martin Chuzzlewit, for example, Tom Pinch, the narrator tells us, "never had much [regard] for the tailors', where the newest metropolitan waistcoat patterns were hanging up, which by some strange transformation always looked amazing there, and never appeared at all like the same thing anywhere else," but obviously some less saintly young men did. Near the end of the novel as the elder Miss Pecksniff's wedding apprtoaches, we learn that "Mr Jinkins, the only boarder invited, was on the ground first. He wore a white favour in his button-hole, and a bran new extra super double-milled blue saxony dress coat (that was its description in the bill), with a variety of tortuous embellishments about the pockets, invented by the artist to do honour to the day" (ch 49). Earlier we are told that

Poll wore, in his sporting character, a velveteen coat, a great deal of blue stocking, ankle boots, a neckerchief of some bright colour, and a very tall hat. Pursuing his more quiet occupation of barber, he generally subsided into an apron not over-clean, a flannel jacket, and corduroy knee-shorts. It was in this latter costume, but with his apron girded round his waist, as a token of his having shut up shop for the night, that he closed the door one evening, some weeks after the occurrences detailed in the last chapter, and stood upon the steps in Kingsgate Street, listening until the little cracked bell within should leave off ringing. For until it did — this was Mr Sweedlepipe's reflection — the place never seemed quiet enough to be left to itself." [ch 26]

Now let's turn to Trollope's The Way We Live Now, which describes Fisker, the visiting American, as

a shining little man,—perhaps about forty years of age, with a well-twisted moustache, greasy brown hair, which was becoming bald at the top, good-looking if his features were analysed, but insignificant in appearance.  He was gorgeously dressed, with a silk waistcoat, and chains, and he carried a little stick.

One could go on and one with examples from literature, but to see how silly is this idea of a "Great Masculine Renunciation" one only has to turn to a history of costume. Joan Nunn's chapter on what Victorian men, women, and children wore charts the changes decade by decade. Which raises the question, who believed in this renunciation to begin with? The answer turns out to be gender theorists who practicing history lite, didn't bother to check obvious souurces. Now Shannon, to his credit, knows that the idea of a "Great Masculine Renunciation" has been disproved, and yet he continually brings it up as if he started to write convinced of its existence and only too late resalized he no longer accepted it. But he keeps bringing it up, again and again. And again.

I feel bad, really bad, about writing such a negative review of a book into which Shannon obviously poured so much time and energy. This is not a book, however, that one could recommend to undergraduates or graduate students who knew little about the ninteeenth century, but Shannon does have some interesting material. Then I remember that the fall semester at my university is about to begin and in a few days I shall speak to students in a course concentrating on Anglo-American nonfiction of the past two centuries. We shall discuss Tom Wolfe's Pumphouse Gang. Despite my desire to say something nice about The Cut of His Coat. I have to admit that one learns more about the issues discussed by Shannon in the thirteen pages of Tom Wolfe's "The Noonday Underground" in that book than in this entire volume. And Wolfe is fun to read.

Related Material

References

Nunn, Joan. Fashion in Costume, 1200-2000. 2nd edition. A & C Black (Publishers) Ltd; Chicago: New Amsterdam Books, 2000.

Shannon, Brent. The Cut of His Coat: Men Dress, and Consumer Culture in Britain, 1860-2924. Athens, Ohio: Ohio UP, 2006.


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Last modified 12 January 2007