Photo by Giacomo Augugliaro
Artillery Row

Cufflinks for Christmas

It is much better to be overdressed than underdressed

I was positively filled with festive glee to note my fellow Critic critic, Alexandra Wilson, observing that dressing well is good for the soul. Her crusade against the tyranny of scruffiness echoes my own campaign with its oft-lonely banner that sartorial Albion is slowly receding to the detriment of our personal pride and well-being. There was a hint of a fightback during the Plague Year with the “Dress Up, Not Down” online campaign, but the noble battlements of The Shire seem since to have been overwhelmed by Mordor’s hordes of hoodies, denim and trainers.

Often, it’s the little things that elevate run-of-the-mill attire to elegance — not just blingy shoes, rings or handbags, but the right broach, bracelet or necklace. For the man about town, a pair of tasteful cufflinks, well-polished shoes or snappy braces (suspenders in transatlantic-ese) complete the ensemble, for this is the time of year when we exchange such accoutrements. After books and scent, they are the world’s most popular seasonal gifts. Not only smart, such adornments often hint, sotto voce, at heavy-hitting style and influence.

Yet, these traditional baubles are fast becoming the clothing language of the old guard. Although fashion is always on the move, we are less stylish than we once were. Perhaps propelled by Mrs Thatcher’s homely handbags, refinement in dress is receding from everyday life. The fact that our current Prime Minister, like his predecessor-but-one, rarely sports cufflinks is a symptom of a greater sartorial malaise.

Masculine fashion was bowled over by the frock-coated Prince of Wales

Links evolved in the 19th century as a means of displaying wealth and class, following the ruffled nonsense of the Elizabethan and Baroque eras and floppy sleeves sported by Beau Brummell and his Regency dandies. After Prince Albert had popularised the watch chain named after him, masculine fashion was bowled over by his son, the frock-coated Prince of Wales, later Edward VII. “Gentlemen, you may smoke,” he proclaimed on ascending the throne in 1901, instantly removing Queen Victoria’s ban on puffing away on the royal estates.

Apart from making a profession out of cigar-smoking, the new king influenced many clothing innovations, including trouser turn-ups (a last-minute tailor’s resort), those monstrous “Windsor” tie-knots, and leaving the bottom button of a waistcoat undone (due to the imperial stomach). The most colourful were His Majesty’s shirt embellishments designed by Fabergé. They immediately prompted Europe’s middle classes to weigh-in with gold, enamelled or monogrammed cuff jewellery, without which the aspiring Edwardian-era male was, frankly, naked.

Not compatible with the rigours of combatting the Bosche in the trenches of the Great War (when the affectation of tucking a muddied or bloodied handkerchief into one’s coat sleeve re-emerged), cuff-links returned with vigour during the Jazz Age. Their reappearance, along with spats (worn around the ankle) was due to the lack of central heating in His Majesty’s realm. All those draughty corridors in smart houses (and lack of instant remedies for colds and flu) necessitated warm ankles, with silk-wrapped necks and wrists protected by elaborate studs and links.

Resurgence was brief, for the aforesaid gentleman’s accessories almost vanished in 1939–45 with the advent of austerity imposed by adversity. Skullduggery by German submarine captains created shortages of fine shirting. The resultant famine of silk and cotton in turn destroyed the double cuff, which hitherto had been bound together so effectively by links. As it was deemed unpatriotic in the many countries at war to advertise luxury, these flourishes fell out of fashion completely.

Winston Churchill compounded this utilitarian mood with his man-of-the-people “siren suits” (predecessor of today’s onesies). They reflected the epoch of clothing short-cuts, such as collar-attached shirts, zip fasteners and trouser belts, replacing collar studs, fly buttons and braces — all, you will note, gifts from our Transatlantic cousins. Although men’s hats were retained for warmth, mainly disappearing in the 1960s because of our extended lives in automobiles, these moves to simpler clothing (even if, in Churchill’s case, adorned with a spotted bow tie) also threatened the permanent demise of the cuff-link. More correctly, they threatened cufflinks, for these are only of value in the plural.

Indeed, “what is the point of cufflinks?”, I hear you ponder. Anthropologists will tell you that man is a curious creature. From the dawn of time, he has had a weakness for asserting individuality, to signify class or leadership, or oft-times as part of a mating ritual. Archaeologists will reference troves of treasured jewellery in excavated graves. Historians cite portraits, engravings, photographs and uniforms, monocles and cravats as proof of this down to modern times. Staying with a barrister friend recently, I was shown his collection of about fifty pairs of cufflinks. Their designs reflected his three lives as a reserve officer, lawyer and freemason.

Today, the direction of assertive male fashion is represented by two distinctly different paths. First, we have the cuff-linked approach of tradition. At the other end of the sartorial scale there is the route documented by Crawford and Lodder. Professor Tom Crawford at Oxford and Dr Matt Lodder of the University of Essex have noted separately that body art (or tattoos and piercings, as they used to be called) has been “a form of self-expression from time immemorial. One of the earliest inked humans was found preserved in a glacier, and dated to 3250 BC”.

Tattoos are a different way to express oneself, and they highlight imagery most important to the wearer. Which, one might observe, is also a purpose of cufflinks. Lodder goes further and explained to me at the recent Chalke Valley History Festival that “the modified human body is also an art object in itself”. In her 1998 history Body Art, the American art historian Amelia Jones made the same point and mapped out a history of this artform since the 1960s. She sets it in the same context as postmodernism and punk.

According to another academic, Professor Nicholas Thomas of Cambridge, the tattoo has made a powerful comeback: “There has been an extraordinary, epochal change in the last 30 years. When I was a child in the 1960s, we didn’t see tattoos everywhere. Since then, there has been an explosion in popularity, which tells us a lot about who we are, both culturally and as individuals.” Also the author of a study called Body Art, Thomas cites the fact that up to 38 per cent of Americans and a fifth of British adults have some type of long-term body art.

Modern body art mimics the individualism of cuff-links, cravats and snazzy attire

Whilst not personally an afficionado, tattoos and the British establishment have overlapped. In 1862 the future Edward VII acquired a Jerusalem Cross on his arm during a visit to the Holy Land. His regal mother was shocked, I tell you, quite shocked. Twenty years later, his son, later George V, was inked as a young midshipman in the Royal Navy en route to Japan. As a junior officer in India, Bernard Montgomery adorned both arms with butterflies, snakes and an antelope, the badge of his Royal Warwickshire Regiment. Rather ashamed of this earlier extravagance, the field marshal later wore his shirt sleeves down, even when Rommel-bashing in the Desert. Whilst modern body art mimics the individualism of cuff-links, cravats and snazzy attire, I sense it is still seen as a creature of Mordor — attacking, but yet to defeat, the walls of Helm’s Deep (J.R.R. Tolkien’s fictional fortress based on Cheddar Gorge in the Mendip Hills).

Yes, body and fashion ornamentation will always be with us, perhaps more noticeably over the festive period than at any other time, when we strut our stuff and, as Alexandra Wilson observed, feel good about ourselves. A favourite uncle once confided, “You can always laugh-off being overdressed, but to arrive at a function underdressed is the ultimate humiliation.” I tend to agree. Ever since, I have felt uncomfortable when lecturing if I don’t dress up for my audience. Putting on cufflinks is part of the same ritual as polishing shoes and idly selecting the right pocket square or silken tie.

Recently, Sir Richard Dearlove addressed a gathering of the elite in Prague. The venue was crowded, for every invitee was keen to hear what the great Knight of the Realm had to say. “Who is this Dearlove?”, I hear you muse. Head of Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service from 1990–2004, in spy terminology he was “C”. In the past his HQ at 54 Broadway, near to St James’s Park Underground Station, was disguised with a simple brass plaque describing it as the “Minimax Fire Extinguisher Company”. Like all British spymasters, he signed his memorandums in green ink — a tradition established by the first director, Sir George Mansfield Smith-Cumming. The Prague session was lively, not least with questions on all-things Ukrainian, Russian and Chinese.

At the last moment, a sinister-looking East European, noting the spy chief’s possibly weaponised cuff-links, interrogated “C” about them. For our man Dearlove, Knight of the Most Distinguished Order of St Michael and St George, was wearing miniature Marmite jars at the end of his sleeves. The left read “Love”, the right “Hate”. As the conference ended, the former “C” vanished, wraith-like, from everyone’s sight. His parting observation, presumably about the Marmite, but not the Chinese or the Russians, was “I’m a lover”.

Dearlove’s embrace of the yeast extract is the most we’ll probably ever know about this most professionally elusive of Civil Servants, trained to kill in 50 different ways with a single glance. His self-expression via cuff-links appeals to my inner popinjay, as it should to your partner, friend or lover, looking for a festive stock-filler. Espionage agent, proficient in unarmed combat, secret inks, miniature cameras and Walther PPK pistols I may not be, but I do possess a set for my shirts containing miniature, working compasses. More cufflinks are always welcome, and, by the way, I am also a Marmite-lover.

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