Gobsmacked by a “Distinguished Professor”
Published: Nov 07, 2010
In a blog on “The Smart Set,” Paula Marantz Cohen recently “leveled my gaze at the men’s buttoned shirt in the hope that it might yield insight into the subtle expressiveness of the male wardrobe.” One aspect mystified her — the detachable collars on men’s 19th century dress shirts:
As originally designed, the collar was detachable, like the tie. One could speculate on why this was and why it changed. Perhaps the 19th-century man only needed to give emphasis to his head in public settings; at home, he could disregard this part of his anatomy, either because he deferred to his wife’s judgment or, contrarily, because brute force could serve him in lieu of brain power. Whatever the reason, in the 20th century, the collar ceased to be detachable. Public and private became less differentiated.
Paula Marantz Cohen is, according to her bio, “Distinguished Professor of English at Drexel University and host of The Drexel InterView, a talk show broadcast on over 275 public television stations across the country. She is author of four nonfiction books and three bestselling novels.”
Is it possible that a “Distinguished Professor of English” really knows nothing about the Industrial Revolution? How England, in particular, heated homes and offices with soft coal? Has she not read Dickens? Or Macbeth: "Fair is foul, and foul is fair: Hover through the fog and filthy air.”
And “filthy” was not dramatic exaggeration. From a fog monitor’s 1902 report: "White and damp in the early morning, it [London] became smoky later, the particles coated with soot being dry and pungent to inhale. There was a complete block of street traffic at some crossings. Omnibuses were abandoned, and several goods trains were taken off.” And the disgusting pollution persisted — in 1952, a soot-laden fog killed 4,000 Londoners.
Why were collars detachable? Because white collars quickly turned black. And so — as often as three times a day — gentlemen changed their collars, and for that matter, their detachable cuffs.
“One can only speculate.” Sorry. One could know.