Magazine article The Spectator

In Praise of FDR's Tweed Suit, a Pope's Giant Slippers and Other Old Rags

Magazine article The Spectator

In Praise of FDR's Tweed Suit, a Pope's Giant Slippers and Other Old Rags

Article excerpt

While American immigration officials desperately try to stop Mexicans crossing into the United States, on the other side of the border Mexican customs officials are fighting a losing battles against the smuggling of American old clothes. Why Mexico should want to impose heavy duties on these items is unclear, but it does, and as a result Brownsville in Texas has become the world's old clothes centre. One business there employs 350 people and handles 50 tons of second-hand clothing every day. It sells not just second-hand skirts, jeans and shirts in bulk, at $1.25 a pound, to impecunious Mexicans, but vintage items at high prices to collectors in Japan, Italy and elsewhere. Here is a theme for Dickens, who wrote a novel about the Golden Dustman who inherited a valuable heap.

I have no false delicacy about wearing clothes which once belonged to someone else. My favourite garment was given to me by a lady who inherited it from, I think, a great-uncle. It is a magnificent rust evening jacket of velvet corduroy, superbly lined in satin with wide lapels, made long, long ago by Simpson's, who ruefully admit that they do not sell such items any more. I pass on stuff too. Some years ago I made over to the only one of my sons whom my clothes will fit a series of monumental Harris tweed suits I had constructed in the 1950s. It is virtually impossible to wear out these integuments, which, come the millennium, will be half a century old.

It used to be quite common for people to inherit clothes. For instance, Franklin D. Roosevelt had passed on to him by his father, in about 1910, a tweed suit which had been made in 1878. FDR wore it constantly but in 1926 passed it on in turn to his eldest son, who was still wearing it in 1939. My ecological friend Teddy Goldsmith used proudly to show his fine pair of highly polished and much-mended shoes which had originally belonged, I think, to his great-grandfather. It would not surprise me if those shoes were still in use, though leather, alas, unlike Harris tweed, is not imperishable.

Nor need the whims of fashion preclude the wearing of inherited clothes. I recall Cristobal Balenciaga, greatest of the postwar Paris designers, boasting that his ballgowns, if properly looked after, would last for ever, and I was not surprised to come across a girl who occasionally wears a Balenciaga evening frock first made for her grandmother in the early 1950s. The workmanship, especially the hand-sewing, on an authentic item of Paris haute couture is breathtakingly fine and durable. The unpleasant and ignorant little man from Luxembourg who currently runs the Brussels bureaucracy recently abused Britain for having what he called `Dickensian sweatshops', as though such places were unknown across the Channel. He cannot ever have been in a Paris couturier's atelier; there is no other way to produce clothes of the highest quality than by using the nimble fingers of indefatigable young women. I don't know whether it would be right to call these places sweatshops, as the girls are very well paid today, but they are Dickensian in the sense that they involve a lot of people crowded together and working very hard indeed with their hands.

The Victoria & Albert Museum now collects and displays a superb procession of grand dresses, some of them going back to the early 19th century, every one of which could be worn with reclame tonight. A finely conceived and well-made dress is good for all seasons and centuries, as our ancestors knew. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.