The changing face of gentlemen’s fashion in Untold Surrey

Championing a more exuberant look

Championing a more exuberant look - Credit: Phil Berkin

Amateur ‘historian’ Morris Otley brings us further outlandish tales from our county’s illustrious past, with a healthy disregard for much historical accuracy (if any at all)...

Summer! Finally, the dark palette of human winter clothing has morphed into something rather more joyful.

Although not known for flaunting themselves within the pages of the fashion magazines, local historians harbour quite a reputation for bucking sartorial conformity. For example, there’s a portly curator of this county who, when not swaddled in the whites and pink baldricks of his morris dancing set, is perenially immaculate in boisterous tweeds and a crimson cravat. He can’t be missed and if encountered in broad daylight on a wide street is a perfectly cheery sight.

But what’s your point, Otley? Well, forgive the rant, but in the name of Ethelred, is it only those of us with a historical bent who know that this country’s sumptuary laws have been repealed? The days when a man could be transported to Australia for wearing sky blue espadrilles (Crown v Blenkinsop 1849) are long gone. People of Surrey, we can wear whatever we choose! Whatever the season!

Sumptuary laws (rules governing consumption and frequently applied to clothing) are responsible for, amongst other things, depriving the Highland Scot of his kilt temporarily. But this, though he doesn’t half go on about it, was really no more high-handed than the curbs once inflicted on the fashion conscious male of Surrey.

Sartorial Surrey

Unlike your proud Scot, however, no son of Surrey today parades about another chap’s wedding brazenly flaunting his kneecaps; the banning of the Esher culotte seems to have put paid to that. And no maiden ever gasps at the louche embroidery of a Surreyman’s piffle slippers, or asks how he sustains the proud profile of his chubpiece.

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Though, to be frank, this is probably a good thing. In 16th century Surrey, the fashion for such ridiculous accoutrement had got completely out of hand.

Although our county is not mentioned specifically in her Statutes of Apparel of 1574, it’s pretty obvious that when Good Queen Bess referred to ‘the wasting and undoing of a great number of young gentlemen, otherwise serviceable’, it was the natty Surrey gent she had her eye on. With his ‘excess of apparel and superfluity of unnecessary foreign wares’, he might not have been bringing about the ‘manifest decay of the whole realm’ she fretted about, but he was certainly blowing a fortune on tailoring. However, even more annoying, he was insubordinately messing with the order of things.

Today, whilst it’s still possible to make a reasonable stab at a man’s rank by observing the colour and ribbing of his corduroys, wearing the wrong trousers is not the terrible faux pas it once was. However, such tolerance is, historically speaking, exceptional. Until even quite recently, people could get mightily worked up if they judged someone to be dressing above their station. With his fondness for riotous colours, flouncy trimmings and trivial accessories, the 16th century Surrey fashionisto was obviously trying it on and the Establishment wasn’t having any of it.

Elizabeth’s Statutes of Apparel were repealed in 1604, but if, as they say, history has a peculiar habit of repeating itself, who knows what sartorial straight-jackets may be forced upon us in the future. So, with this in mind, why not champion a more exuberant wardrobe this winter? Hang commutery conformity, banish those dull greys and think in colour... before someone gets it into their mind to write another law on the matter.

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