Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Too Popular For Its Own Good

"...He now rose, holding a white object. And at the sight of it, I realized that another of our domestic crises had arrived, another of those unfortunate clashes of will between two strong men, and that Bertram, unless he remembered his fighting ancestors and stood up for his rights, was about to be put upon.

I don’t know if you were at Cannes this summer. If you were, you will recall that anybody with any pretensions to being the life and soul of the party was accustomed to attend binges at the Casino in the ordinary evening-wear trouserings topped to the north by a white mess-jacket with brass buttons. And ever since I had stepped aboard the Blue Train at Cannes station, I had been wondering on and off how mine would go with Jeeves.

In the matter of evening costume, you see, Jeeves is hidebound and reactionary. I had had trouble with him before about soft-bosomed shirts. And while these mess-jackets had, as I say, been all the rage—_tout ce qu’il y a de chic_—on the Cote d’Azur, I had never concealed it from myself, even when treading the measure at the Palm Beach Casino in the one I had hastened to buy, that there might be something of an upheaval about it on my return.

I prepared to be firm.

“Yes, Jeeves?” I said. And though my voice was suave, a close observer in a position to watch my eyes would have noticed a steely glint. Nobody has a greater respect for Jeeves’s intellect than I have, but this disposition of his to dictate to the hand that fed him had got, I felt, to be checked. This mess-jacket was very near to my heart, and I jolly well intended to fight for it with all the vim of grand old Sieur de Wooster at the Battle of Agincourt.

“Yes, Jeeves?” I said. “Something on your mind, Jeeves?”

“I fear that you inadvertently left Cannes in the possession of a coat belonging to some other gentleman, sir.”

I switched on the steely a bit more.

“No, Jeeves,” I said, in a level tone, “the object under advisement is mine. I bought it out there.”

“You wore it, sir?”

“Every night.”

“But surely you are not proposing to wear it in England, sir?”

I saw that we had arrived at the nub.

“Yes, Jeeves.”

“But, sir--

“You were saying, Jeeves?”

“It is quite unsuitable, sir.”

“I do not agree with you, Jeeves. I anticipate a great popular success for this jacket. It is my intention to spring it on the public tomorrow at Pongo Twistleton’s birthday party, where I confidently expect it to be one long scream from start to finish. No argument, Jeeves. No discussion. Whatever fantastic objection you may have taken to it, I wear this jacket.”

“Very good, sir.”

He went on with his unpacking. I said no more on the subject. I had won the victory, and we Woosters do not triumph over a beaten foe..."

~Right Ho, Jeeves, Ch. 1, J. G. Wodehouse, 1922.

click photos to enlarge

The mess jacket: bathed in honor by the military, bored servitude by waiters and bellhops. No middle ground between the two.

But that was not always so.

I've enjoyed the look of the mess jacket since first seeing it. It's a sleek, dashing article that gives the wearer the appearance of long legs and an athletic figure (it helps to really have an athletic figure). That's why I bought one.

While the mess jacket grew out of military formal tradition and had been around for quite some time, it first became popular with civilians in 1933 for warm weather semi-formal dress occasions. As pictured above, regular high-waisted dinner jacket trousers were to be worn with it along with a cummerbund, bowtie and a semi-bossom shirt. An elegant and sophisticated look with, perhaps, a touch of Eastern influence.

Unfortunately during the mid-1930s the mess jacket became too popular for its own good. Waiters and bellhops eventually adopted the look, thereby relieving the stylish and fashionable of their individualistic outfit. Once the masses got ahold of the mess jacket its time as a viable fancy dress suit was up. By 1936 several influential men's style magazine were mocking the mess jacket and its wearers into sartorial oblivion. It also didn't help that the mess jacket is only flattering on athletic frames. On anyone else who is plumper it becomes fairly outrageous and reveals more than one wishes to see. Unfortunate, that.

Here is the vintage mess jacket I recently picked up. It dates from the late 1950s or early 1960s, is a U.S. Navy jacket and was tailored in the Philippines by 'Yee Fook Tailors' (giggle, snort). Like any good mess jacket it is made of lightweight cotton material for those warm summer evenings and is cream, though mess jackets can also be black or very dark blue. It is meant to be worn open as the Esquire illustration above shows but can be buttoned up if needed.

Being military, mine has a few items that would have to be removed for civilian wear such as the ribbon around the arms, the epaulette straps on the shoulders and the brass U.S. Navy buttons traded for more conventional buttons, brass of otherwise.

An unconventional look that, if done well, could be pulled off in this day and age without looking like a professional waiter. I for one would like to see the mess jacket come back into popular wear for civilians just as it did back in 1933...


The Eccentric Orange Gentleman said...

I thought I was the only one....

Horatio said...

I first encountered a similar kind of jacket in the form of my father's old military-issued Eisenhower jacket. I wore it in high school and loved the lines.

Later, I saw modern mess jackets on certain New Romantic pop stars, and loved the elegant look. Sadly, I was never able to emulate it, and now, I fear my chance has eluded me....

Love the jacket. Best of luck in finding a venue to wear it, and even more luck in not getting flagged down to take a drink order. Sadly, I'm afraid that's how it'll be seen :-(

Pancho said...

I thought of this post last night while watching a movie. "The Road to Singapore" was on TCM and there's a character (the fiancee's brother, I think) in the yacht party scene who wears a mess jacket so I guess around 1940 there were still a few holdouts. I agree, it does look good and needs to come back in style!

It not only suits athletic builds but I think it might also flatter shorter (but still trim) men because the shorter jacket and longer trouser line enhances the appearance of length and height.


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