Recently, we examined the style of P.G. Wodehouse’s Bertie Wooster in the 1990s UK television series Jeeves and Wooster. As the show title suggests, Jeeves and Wooster are a comedic pair, like Laurel and Hardy, Abbott and Costello or Laurie and Fry, the actors who played them, so we can’t rightfully talk about Bertie’s style while ignoring Jeeves!
Although Bertie wears multiple outfits in each episode, Jeeves appears in the role of a valet throughout the series and is therefore nearly always in his valet’s uniform; as a servant, he doesn’t have the luxury of a varied wardrobe. In fact, he barely has a first name (revealed after more than 50 years to be Reginald). However, we can still derive a number of style ideas from what he wears and from the contrast between the two men.
Jeeves’s Uniform: Steering Clear of Black
It may be surprising to talk about Jeeves in terms of what one should not wear, considering how firmly he upholds the rules of British style–he corrects Wooster’s fashion faux pas, like his full-length fur coat, and is deeply troubled by them–but what suits a valet in the 1930s may not transfer well to today, especially a uniform based on black.
During the time in which the series is set, Jeeves would have been immediately recognizable as a valet or butler from his attire: black jacket and waistcoat, black necktie, gray striped trousers, white shirt and black hat. Given the rigid class structure at the time, this provided others with the required visual cues for knowing how to interact with him socially. Different color options and individual expression were the domain of the gentleman, not the “gentleman’s gentleman.” The sameness in the black clothes of staff was designed to make them fade back in the presence of color and variety, similar to restaurant servers today or even puppeteers on stage, who are clad in head-to-toe black. Yet, to our twenty-first-century eyes, Jeeves may actually stand out more because he comes across as looking highly formal, and Stephen Fry’s imposing 6’5” stature certainly adds to his presence.
These days, black tailored clothes would definitely stand out when worn in the daytime, though perhaps not for the right reasons. Many who are new to tailored clothing select black for their choice of a first suit, but it is actually the most overrated color in menswear. It should not be worn during the day by anyone seeking to represent a classic style unless attending a funeral.
The desire to purchase black tailoring is probably owed to photos of celebrities, so wearing it today would, ironically, make you look more like a musician (think Johnny Cash, the Blues Brothers or Antonio Banderas’ “Mariachi”) than a representative of classic style; Jeeves would shudder at the thought. When it is more classic than rock n’ roll, it tends to make you look like an undertaker or FBI agent. An exception is someone like Tom Ford. Though he also has a Hollywood persona as a celebrity designer and screenwriter, his use of black leans toward a classic menswear style. Achieving something similar without appearing to imitate him would require considerable panache, and it is still very much an attention-getting look. Ford’s use of a black necktie or a collar pin, like Bertie Wooster, is a more subtle approach that is easier to emulate.
Morning Dress: A Parallel for Jeeves
The most achievable modern parallel for Jeeves’ look within the realm of traditional men’s style is morning dress, which makes use of the same black and charcoal tones via a tailcoat and striped trousers. Jeeves usually wears a three-button jacket instead of a longer coat and a black waistcoat instead of a contrasting one typical of morning wear, but the similarities are certainly visible. Indeed, the contemporary uniform of the International Butler Academy in the UK even more closely resembles morning dress with the exception of a black necktie. The similarity is, of course, intentional, to enable staff to blend in appropriately during formal events. Morning dress for non-staff would again reflect a greater use of color, particularly in the fairly free choice of necktie and a blue, buff or light gray waistcoat.
Shirt Styles: Wing and Club Collars
An aspect of the traditional valet’s uniform that can be seen on the few occasions when Jeeves wears a tailcoat is the white wing collar shirt, with short stiff collar tips that stand up and point outward. It is the original shirt to wear with a tuxedo and black bow tie as well, though it has been supplanted by the softer and more comfortable turndown collar. In order for the wing collar to look good, it must be stiffly starched and, ideally, detachable, to best maintain its shape rather than looking flaccid. Those who wish to attend black tie events in classic style can’t go wrong with a wing collar.
Despite the common depiction of Jeeves and butlers in wing collar shirts, Stephen Fry’s Jeeves is almost always styled with a club collar, characterized by its rounded collar edges. The club collar originated in Eton College in the 19th century as a means of creating a distinctive look for its elite students. Those who wore it were thus “in the club,” so to speak. By the 1930s, when Jeeves and Wooster is set, the club collar had become a mainstream style worn by non-Etonians as well, though, interestingly, not by Bertie Wooster, even though he attended Eton. Since its collar ends are closer together than other styles, it invites the use of a collar pin, but Jeeves does not do this, perhaps because he considers accessories too flamboyant.
The club collar also must be worn with a tie to look good. It is less formal than the wing, and, although it can look businesslike, especially when worn with a contrasting white collar, it is often dressed down these days, such as with a knit tie. Ralph Lauren and others have promoted the club collar as part of an Ivy or preppy look, an American nod to its Etonian origins, and as such it can have a student vibe. Overall, its uncommon shape and the way it can appear to float away from the the shirt front give it a distinctly vintage look, evoking a time where stiff, detachable collars were the norm.
The Bowler Hat: A Signature Accessory
While Jeeves does not accessorize freely, if he can be said to possess a signature wardrobe item it would be his ubiquitous bowler hat. He wears it in both city and country, even on those rare occasions when he swaps his uniform for a gray three-piece suit.
As with the club collar, we can trace the exact origin of the bowler to 19th-century Britain, though it was not originally worn by the elite. Instead, the bowler was commissioned from Lock & Co. hatters by Edward Coke to outfit his gamekeepers; it is still sold by Lock and Co. as the coke hat. Although it is tempting to associate the bowler’s nomenclature with its round bowl-like shape, it is actually named for Thomas and William Bowlers, hat-makers who designed the hat for Lock and Co. The bowler’s characteristic hard felt and round shape were designed to fend off low-hanging branches when riding on horseback. Only later did it gain status, in an evolution opposite that of the club collar, becoming the hat of choice for London bankers until the 1980s.
In the United States, the bowler is referred to as the derby because it was first associated with what British gentlemen wore to horse races. Unlike its associations in the UK, the American derby has remained close to its working-class origins. It was notably worn in the Old West, again for its practical durability but is perhaps most associated with scamps and tramps like those played by Laurel and Hardy or Charlie Chaplain. On the street, you may be more likely to see it worn ironically or casually as a hipster nod to British style, perhaps like Alex from A Clockwork Orange.
Wearing it in the traditional “City gent” style of the London banker is probably best achieved in London itself along with the full suit and umbrella or perhaps with a stroller suit. Worn elsewhere, such attire, like Jeeves’s uniform, borders on costume and, at the very least, would evoke a strongly British and vintage feel. In fact, it may garner some looks in London too! To break these associations, a brown or gray bowler may be the better choice with an appropriately coordinating suit.
Do you wear a bowler hat? Share your ideas it in the Comments below.
Jeeves + Wooster: A Synthesis of Styles
Ultimately, as is typical of literary characters, Jeeves and Wooster are meant to symbolize or stand for something: a particular ethos or sensibility. Most simply, Wooster represents the dandy, willing to experiment with style and change. Jeeves is the voice of tradition and conservative style. To paraphrase Nicholas Antongiovanni (aka Michael Anton) author of The Suit, the contrast of styles between the two “means nothing other than that a man needs to know how to use both principles; and the one without the other is not elegant” (117). If you pursue only dandification, like Wooster or a Pitti Peacock, you risk looking ridiculous. Yet, precisely because Jeeves is such a staunch defender of traditional style his clothes are more difficult to pull off today; following all the rules is boring and risks being stuck in the past. Bertie Wooster’s double breasted suits and fedoras are still classic but very doable, yet a bowler hat and even a club collar are trickier to carry off well.
The ultimate lesson we can obtain by juxtaposing Jeeves and Wooster is that balance is ideal, and at a time in history when polarized opinions are reaching an extreme, finding a reasonable middle ground, both in style and in life, seems especially important.