Watching the film My Cousin Rachel, based on a 1951 Daphne du Maurier novel, the incredibly original thought occurred to me that one reason people love period dramas – this one is set in the 1830s – is the costumes. Not necessarily the satins and velvet of the dandy, but the ordinary clothes that most of the population wore – in wool, linen, or linsey-woolsey, for both men and women. The above photo of Sam Claflin, playing the role of Philip in the film, is a case in point.
It also occurred to me that if we like them, it’s because they’re frankly much more stylish than what we wear today. Wouldn’t life be different, if only those high-collared shirts and waistcoats and overcoats suddenly came back!
A little research led me to discover that they are indeed still being made, for example by a Sussex clothing company called Darcy Clothing. The company has been in existence since 2004 and provides a wonderful variety of period clothing for men, women and children and says “The clothing is largely made specially for us and is taken directly from original garments. The shapes and fabrics are uncompromisingly genuine. We only ever use natural fibres in any pre C20th garments. We now sell all over the world to everyone from sheep farmers in Wales needing sturdy braces to Hollywood stars playing pirates.” Here is an example of one of their daily-wear Regency waistcoats.
Aside from the obvious theatrical and cinematic clientele for these clothes, surely there are those who just like “dressing up”, or who believe that clothes were simply better made in those days, and had that inimitable hand-made feel about them.
Another company that produces nostalgia fashion (though at astronomical prices) is Private White V.C. Here is what they say about themselves, and the explanation for their name: “Based in the heart of Manchester, Private White V.C. is managed by World War I Victoria Cross recipient Private Jack White’s great grandchildren, who all share his undying love, passion and dedication to British textiles and local industry. In operation for over 100 years, we continue to produce garments in an honest and traditional way; using only the finest British fabrics, trims and components, sourced locally where possible.”
These are not theatre costumes, but clothes designed to be worn by the man and woman in the street – provided they can afford them. A single-breasted overcoat, for example, retails at £1,400. However, the detailing is extraordinary. A chore jacket will have so-called “butcher’s buttons” – beautiful buttons that can be removed when washing the article, a revival of a past vestimentary feature.
Today, just about anything goes – which means period clothing “goes” too.
At Loches market, near where I live, I’ve often been struck by the number of people who dress eccentrically, with a local collective passion for medieval dress whenever the opportunity presents itself. My own preference, as I am saying, is for Regency and early Victorian, but also Edwardian, clothes, though I no longer, alas, have a “dressing-up box” (not since the age of 9). However, it is in the cyclical nature of things that the old stuff is coming back. A 1950s French chore jacket – “bleu de travail” – will command a very high price on eBay, and the more stained and darned and sun-bleached it is, the better. In much the same way, the Japanese buy ripped and stained old sneakers for ludicrous prices because second-hand is the new first-hand – the more worn something is, the more real, even if someone else did the wearing-in for you.
Clothing is the front line, of course, in the quest for identity and authenticity, suggesting that for the quest to be necessary both are somehow curiously wanting in modern life, or waiting to be invented.