WHY AMERICANS WEAR DRESS COATS IN THE MORNING.
FROM OUR SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT.] New York, October 5, 1866. My theme is dress. I sing the dress coat, integument fearfully and wonderfully made ! I propose to solve that riddle,—so mysterious to many British travellers,—why " the Americans" wear full evening dress in the morning. In the first place, they don't. My letter might consist of the single Pontoppidanian sentence, " Americans do not wear black dress coats in the morn- ing, and full dress is more rarely worn by them than by any other civilized people." My attention having been attracted to the subject about three years ago by the remark of some traveller, Mr. Dicey or Mr. Sala, I believe, I looked closely during two days on my daily walk, at the time when the streets are most thronged, up and down the whole length of Broadway from Union Square, which, you know, is the great thoroughfare of New York ; and being on one of these days for two hours and more in a public place, in and out of which thousands of people of all condi- tions of life are constantly passing, I looked there also, as carefully as I could, for the black dress coat, which, in a higher or lower condition of rustiness, is, if most British travellers may be believed, the national costume of those very singular people, the Americans. In those two days I could not have looked at less than a hundred and fifty thousand men. How many dress coats do you think I saw ? Five hundred ? One hundred ? Fifty? A score ? A dozen ? Just three. Of these one was on a man I knew to be a Yankee ; one was worn with an air of conscious gentility, by an unmitigated Irishman ; and the third appeared to be the " cloth " of a distressed dissenting minister, lately arrived from England. Yesterday evening I went home by way of the Bowery, which is about as long as Broadway to Union Square, and which is the " unfashionable" thoroughfare of the city. It was filled even to jostling with the poorer sort of clerks, salesmen, and artisans going home from their day's work, although it was between half-past five and six o'clock, and bright daylight. In all this throng, although I looked carefully, I did not in half
an hour's walk see one dress coat. It might be expected by my readers that among people in this condition of life dress coats would be more rarely worn than among those who• were richer. But the contrary is the case, and I should not have been surprised to find between a dozen and a score in the course of this walk, whereas the nearest approach to it that I discovered was the rusty black frock in about that number of cases. All the rest of these people, like those in Broadway, wore sacks, or broad- skirted coats with flapped pockets, made of roughish cloth of various tints of grey, brown, and blue.
This, however, is not the whole story. The wearing here of rusty full-dress suits, more or less past their best, in the morning, which has elicited from travellers only an expression of surprise or a sneer, has had heretofore a social significance which mere- travellers could hardly be expected to perceive, and which perhaps our own people have not discerned. For thirty years ago dress- coats and broad cloth in the morning were not uncommon here,. among people who would now about as soon think of appearing in the street clad only in a straw hat and a pair of spurs._ Andwere not these hideous garments—the dress coats, not the hat and spurs—worn more commonly in England by men in certain class of life, neither the highest nor the lowest, of the last generation than of the present? I can remember being taken upon the knee of a grand uncle wearing the nankeen trousers, white waistcoat, white cravat, shirt frill like a limp perch fin, and blue dress coat with brass buttons, which I afterwards saw worn on the stage by English actors who did the heavy fathers. I have seen Daniel Webster walking in a procession in a blue dress coat with brass buttons. Although I was a lad, it struck me as. peculiar ; but if it had been a black dress coat that he wore, I should not have remarked or remembered it. For although at that time dress coats of any colour were becoming uncommon among people of Mr. Webster's condition in life, black ones were- not so rare as to attract particular attention to anybody. They disappeared very rapidly among such people when they began, to be looked on with disfavour, and have not been worn in the- morning for twenty years, except in very rare and exceptional cases. And yet the recent British traveller, remembering the comment of his predecessor, has rarely, if ever, failed to seize upon the rare swallow-tailed bird that flitted across his path as an occasion for the remark that a rusty black dress suit is morning, costume in America. The reason for the once more common wearing of dress coats in the morning here than elsewhere is to be found in what we loosely call democracy, that is, the absence of any recognized distinction of class or station. With this co-operated a frugality which men of forty can remember as almost a national trait in their childhood, but which has been swept away by the flood of wealth that has poured through every avenue of life among commercial peoples during the last quarter of a century.. I have more than once remarked in these letters that although social sets are very exclusive here, and people may live next door to each other for twenty years and never know more of their- neighbours than their names and their faces, and no offence- be taken, yet when men meet they do so on a footing of ab- solute equality. This of course begets a desire, among the poorer people especially, to appear in public and on all occa- sions when they are not at work in a dress " as.good as the besb," or at least in one which in its fashion shall not be in any way indicative of condition of life. A full-dress suit thus became the first need, in his estimation, of almost every man who could afford. to buy clothes. He must make his visits and go to his parties,. if he were journeyman carpenter or mason, in just the same style of dress that was worn on similar occasions by men in the wealthiest and most cultivated circles of society. And even now, the very first crave of an Irish peasant after his arrival here is a swallow- tailed coat and a stove-pipe hat, which he usually gets at a second- hand slop shop. A dress suit, as the outward and visible sign of "gentility," was regarded as a prime necessity even among people of a much higher condition of life than those which I have mentioned. This being the case, men who did not really attend much to dress, and who could not spend much upon it, wore their old evening dress suits in the morning; and the consequence was a procession of men down Broadway and the Bowery in the morning clad in black dress suits, more or less rusty and shiny, according to their ability to renew them. This notion or fashion still lingers among some of the rustic and least educated people in the remoter rural districts. I saw a man in Broadway a few mornings ago resplendent in shining black from top to toe, and with such a tail to his coat as would have astounded D'Orsay. He was having a pair of boots blacked. from which the knobbed protuberances upon them showed that his huge feet were vainly endeavouring to break out. One had been brought by a very small boy into a condition of sable brilliancy that rivalled that of his hat, while the other still bore the tawny hue of sole leather from the country mud from which it was only freed on great occasions. I shall never forget the appari- tion in full dress of a farmer at whose house I was stopping some years ago. I had been accustomed to see him in his farmer's working dress, oftenest without a coat, and with a straw or felt hat, in which he was a flue, manly-looking fellow. But he was goin' to York," and he must make himself fine—no, not fine, but in his eyes as " genteel " as anybody—which he did by putting on as a travelling costume a full dress suit and a stove- pipe hat. How it belittled and vulgarized him, and made him ridiculous ! The merchants of the past generation, from motives of frugality and policy, also wore their old dress suits in the morning.
In those days it injured a merchant's credit here to be dressed too fine, or to have his counting-room much better than a merely habitable place for human beings. Things have bravely changed in this respect ; but it is not many years since these dismal dens, with sanded floors, wooden-bottomed chairs, and hideous stoves, disappeared, even among merchants whose ships were at the ends of the earth, and who were the lords of the Exchange. Now the rivalry seems to be in extravagance of decoration and furniture ; luxury glides to meet its victims over carpets of three-piled velvet, tallow changes hands under frescoed ceilings, and you approach your banker through marble halls wainscoted with por- phyry. The change is two-fold, and by way of inversion. The man who thirty years ago would have received you with some ceremony in a den hardly more comfortable or cheerful than his own stable, but who would have worn a fine black dress coat and a white cravat, now receives you with no ceremony in something like a little palace, while he probably wears a sack coat and trousers of cloth that would make very good blankets for not over fastidious horses. The change indicates no progress except in mere luxury and material taste. Not that we have not made pro- gress like the rest of the world, but our advance has not been in refinement or social culture; for our fathers wore dress coats in their manners that we have also in great measure laid aside.
In my letter from Woodside upon the territorial democracy, I was led into an error, trifling indeed, but upon a characteristic trait of society here, as to which two correspondents of the Spectator have somewhat called in question my previous state- ments. I said that in the neighbourhood where I was writing, Monmouth county, New Jersey, that now rare animal, the Yankee household servant, might be found. The fact that there was one in the house misled me. I found out afterwards that she went to service--" lived out," as it is called here—only on account of peculiar circumstances. She was a waif and stray, an alms-house child, who knew no mother's care from her tenderest years, and having neither kinsfolk nor acquaintance except among her few fellow-paupers, she was bound out and led a hard life, from which she was willing to escape into the comparative comfort of house- hold service. But on my inquiry whether some of the young women in the smaller farmers' or the mechanics' families would not take such a place as hers, my hostess exclaimed with surprise at my seeming ignorance, and told me that she could not even propose such a thing without giving great offence, adding that on one occasion, when left in the lurch by a servant and put to much inconvenience (for here they go, if they please, at an hour's warning, although they are generally obligingenough to stop until you can supply their places), she ventured to ask the daughter of their own farmer to come and " assist" her for a short time ; but that although she made her approaches in very humble form and asked it as a great favour, the young lady would not listen to the proposition and held her head very high at it, although in consideration of all the circumstances she took not mortal offence. These girls, almost all of them, get more than enough needle-work, or rather sewing-machine work, to employ all their spare time at home. They dress gaily, and, as they think, fashionably ; they go to " York " once in a while ; they present their compliments, and I don't know but they have the honour. They marry, and in due time have to set their children up in a row on a high shelf, while they scour their milk-pans. On the shelf of the sitting-room or, as it was called by the last generation, and by this in some parts of the country, the " keeping-room," in contradistinction from the parlour, in this same house, is a pair of brass candlesticks, having nothing at all remarkable about them until you take them up. Their weight then astonishes you, for they are literally as heavy as lead. They are in fact solid lead, the sheet brass of which they are made being run full of lead from their necks to their broad bases. They are relics of the college days of the
present master of Woodside. In Cambridge it is or was the fashion for the Freshmen to " haze" the Sophs. To haze is not to bully, but to worry, to tease. But this worrying and teazing got to be so grievous that the Faculty, as we call the Dons, took it up, and on their own part the Freshmen provided themselves with these inoffensive-seeming but in fact almost murderous articles to hurl at the heads of the Sophs. Why not fight with fists, in the good old English way? Because then the stronger and more skilful would be sure to beat, and the weaker and unskilled Freshman might have to submit to one who was not only a Soph, but victorious Soph exasperated by resistance. The object was not to find out who was the best man, and let him be master, but to stop the outrage ; and whatever might be the penalty to a Freshman for throwing a loaded candlestick, every Soph knew what would be the effect if one took place upon his own head ; and the consequences of this knowledge were very pleasant to the Freshmen. I only explain the rationale of the matter here, neither