There are words that disappear with time. Dapper used to be a word that one heard regularly. My father was always described as dapper. Tall, handsome, he always wore the best clothes that he could afford. When he went commercial fishing, under his coveralls or nor’westers, he wore a white shirt and a tie. He was never into scruffy.
This was a time when houses had small closets because people didn’t have a lot of clothes. A woman would have her everyday house dress and a good dress for going out or going to church and special events. A man would have his work clothes and a suit or slacks and a blazer. Given what people earned, clothes were expensive. The world had not yet been flooded by cheap goods from foreign countries.
A lot of Canadians were only one generation or, at most, two generations away from immigration. The struggle was to not have an accent, to ditch the babushkas and the shawls, the home spun baggy pants and dress like the English did in the city. To get ahead a person had to fit in, not be foreign, not allow oneself to be stereotyped. People changed their names, anglicized them, Canadianized them, shortened them. When you were looking for a job, you didn’t want some person doing the hiring saying, “We don’t want a Hunky from the country. Or a Goolie from Gimli.”
Knowing how to dress well created opportunity, even if that opportunity was simply having a job at a bank or Eaton’s. Those jobs were better than digging ditches or working in a laundry.
Hollywood provided models. Those dapper leading men in well pressed suits, ties, polished shoes. The war also had an impact. No scruffy airmen, soldiers, sailors allowed. I was looking at a picture of one of my uncle’s yesterday. He’s around twenty, snappy in his wedge cap and blues. If it didn’t do anything else, the armed forces taught the boys to pay attention to their appearance. When it came to looking for jobs after the war, the men doing the hiring were often ex-officers and the condition of your shoes mattered. Before I went out for an interview for my first job, my grandmother said to me, polish your shoes.
Then the 60s and the hippies came. Scruffy, hairy, disheveled, in rebellion against dapperness and discipline. Some, like the Beatles, turned that rebellion into fame and fortune. They didn’t start out that way. Early pictures show them coiffed and pressed. Coiffed and pressed doesn’t work when you’re trying to reflect a generation in rebellion.
John Kennedy was dapper. But he destroyed the haberdashery business by appearing in public without a hat. Until that moment, no gentleman would go out without a fedora. My father leaned toward Hombergs. Hombergs have a certain ambience about them, a slightly rakish but serious aspect. He looked smashing in a Homberg. He loved my mother to dress well. He bought her jewelry. They weren’t rich. Often times were hard financially but the way they dressed mattered.
They weren’t alone. My home town, Gimli, was made up mostly of the descendants of parents and grandparents of Icelandic settlers. Icelanders, having gone through terrible poverty and plagues, placed a lot of emphasis on dressing well. Halldor Laxness, the Icelandic Nobel prize winner, would skip meals to have the money to dress well. He knew that appearance mattered, that dressing well meant he fitted in with decision makers in the countries where he wanted his books to be published. I’ve heard it said about visiting Icelanders, “He has a fortune on his back.”
So, although I’ve never been dapper, I applaud Justin and Sophie and their spread in Vogue. How nice to have a PM and wife that have some class. Nice to have a leader who can set some style. It helps, of course, when the magazine loans Sophie a dress that costs $5,700.00. However, cost doesn’t define style. I learned that when I taught at a private women’s college and the most stylish of the students was someone who put together her beautiful outfits from pieces bought everywhere, including WalMart.
Of course, being Canadian, it would never do if everyone thought our leaders being stylish is great. Canadians love to carp and complain. Jealousy, sometimes. Resentment, sometimes. Political bitchiness, quite often. A lot of the time, though, just disgruntlement at someone else having something they don’t have. I mean, how many of us have realized our youthful dreams? Instead of saying isn’t it great that we live in Canada, we have more than ninety-eight percent of the world, some of us have turned into shriveled up gnomes who have forgotten how to be proud. Disappointment turns some people mean.
Anyway, JT and Sophie, you look great in Vogue. Fantastic that a fashion magazine thinks you are classy enough to grace their pages. My Dad would approve.