Jeeves & Wooster Analyzed – The Suits & Clothes of Jeeves

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

Jeeves

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.

The contrast in style between Bertie and Jeeves is apparent.

The contrast in style between Bertie and Jeeves is apparent.

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.

Johnny Cash Folsom prison

Johnny Cash Folsom prison

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.

Antonio Banderas

Antonio Banderas

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.

Tom Ford uses small mono splashes of sprezzatura on a black and white canvas of shirt and suit

Tom Ford uses small mono splashes of sprezzatura on a black and white canvas of shirt and suit

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.

Monsieur Jerome - club collar

Monsieur Jerome – club collar

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.

Club Collar 1

Club Collar

The Bowler Hat: A Signature Accessory

Jeeves wearing a bowler hat

Jeeves wearing a bowler hat

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.

Jeeves in Gray

Jeeves in 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.

Prince Charles is dignified in his bowler hat - Remembrance Sunday service London 2011

Prince Charles is dignified in his bowler hat – Remembrance Sunday service London 2011

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.

The black bowler hat with a pinstripe suit and umbrella creates a quintessentially British look

The black bowler hat with a pinstripe suit and umbrella creates a quintessentially British look

Cassius Clay in Stroller Suit

Cassius Clay in Stroller Suit

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.

CONCLUSION

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.

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Jeeves & Wooster Analyzed - The Suits & Clothes of Jeeves
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Jeeves & Wooster Analyzed - The Suits & Clothes of Jeeves
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Take a closer look at Jeeves' wardrobe and derive a number of style ideas; see the contrast between him and Wooster.
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Gentleman's Gazette LLC
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11 replies
  1. James de Saxton says:

    I have had a Bowler since youth here in the States. It was rather dapper when dressed for the City back then. Haven’t donned it in 30 years or so, but I have reached the age at which I may bring it out again. Last time I wore a grey Homburg, a chap whom I know, and who is older than I, remarked that his grandfather once had such a hat . . . .

    Reply
  2. Nigel says:

    Actually, the chap speaking to the Guardsman in the photo near the bottom is wearing the accepted off-duty Town rig expected of a British Officer – dark suit with or without pinstripes, bowler and rolled umbrella. It is still worn today on those occasions when an Officer, or retired Officer, participates in official events such as Remembrance Sunday and so forth, but does not wish to wear uniform. Dark suits, by the way, are charcoal grey and only charcoal grey. Blue is not at all acceptable, any more than black.

    Reply
  3. Gareth says:

    Wearing a bowler hat with a suit even in London would definitely get weird glances, unfortunately, unless you were in the situation above like the off-duty officer. Maybe one day hats will return to the clothing staple they once were… we can but hope.

    Reply
  4. John says:

    Wearing a bowler in London, even in the City, will not evoke a quintessentially British feel. It would make the wearer look like a muppet. Unless you’re an officer in the Brigade of Guards in civvies, or, in very special circumstances, an officer in other units of the British Army, or other branches of the Armed Forces.

    There seem to be a few misconceptions about British styles of dress. Hats have all but disappeared for town wear. In the summer, and in the country, men may wear Panama hats, but that’s just about it. You’re more likely to see beanies and baseball caps than bowler hats in London.

    Reply
    • Dr. Christopher Lee says:

      John, the absence of brimmed hats is notable everywhere. I’d say that the bowler still would evoke strong associations with British gentlemen if it is worn, even if it might seem rare or anachronistic (sadly, like many articles of classic menswear).

      Reply
      • John says:

        If there’s one thing which the British will pick up on immediately, it’s a foreigner trying too hard – be it in the accent, the manner, or the dress. Bowler hats worn by civilian (unless it’s a parade or something), in this day and age, will make you stick out, and in a bad way too. In the City, it’s best to go hatless. In Bolivia and parts of South America, it’s another matter.

        Reply
  5. Marc S. Duardo says:

    I occasionaly wear a bowler (I have 2) when at an event that would call for a suit. I used to wear one when “clubbing” with vest and jeans but that was 10 years ago. Most classic hats look quirky in today’s society. It is difficult for me to pull off any hat other than a “news boy” or Panama(I don’t wear ball caps) without a tie. Now, at my age, it takes a level of panache that I’m still working on.

    Reply
  6. Jackson says:

    I just got my first bowler hat this summer. I get a lot of compliments on it, even living in an East Coast American city. I love Jeeves and Wooster and they have influenced my style. Thank you for doing these pieces on them

    Reply
  7. Isaiah says:

    It’s a priceless photo of Cassius Clay! One of the best examples of a stroller I’ve ever seen. Impossible to imagine a boxer being dressed like this today… Interesting how it is so common to refer to black as “not classic”, “a wrong choice for daytime”, etc. and yet, black was the most standard color not only for evening wear but also for daytime attire in the period between the 1840’s and the early 1900’s (basically the whole Victorian period). Just look at portraits of European gentlemen (US presidents would be a good choice) from that period. On the contrary, before the Victorian period, there was no rule for men to wear exclusively black for evening events, and tailcoats in all colors of the spectrum were available, which were worn with light-colored knee length trousers, silk stockings, and slippers. I am not attempting to defend black suits (even though black tailored clothes can look great on SOME PEOPLE, if the cut and the accessories are just right), and black can certainly be matched with navy and other shades of blue. My question is — at which time did the “no black during daytime” rule appeared and what would be the cause of it? I’d say that it really became an unwritten rule and a sign of good taste after the First World War. Would be great to hear some thoughts on this. Thank you!!

    Reply
  8. H.E. Robinson says:

    Is it me, or is Jeeves committing rather a peculiar faux-pas in the first picture (the one in which he holds a cocktail on a tray) by wearing both a pocket watch and a wrist watch (which of itself is an odd thing to wear with tails) at the same time? Or am I mistaken, and it is something else on his wrist?
    I’d be delighted if anyone else has any further insight,
    Thank you Dr. Lee for another well written and educational article, and to Mr. Schneider for running such a great project,
    H. Robinson

    Reply

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