Question: When did the modern men’s lounge suit become the de facto uniform for working men? If you cast your mind back through the decades, beyond the suit’s ubiquity in street scene photos during the 1940s and ‘50s, you probably imagine a gang of suave upper-class men during the Jazz Age, drinking, exchanging witty banter in some salon, making fatalistic proclamations and driving recklessly along coastal highways. And fashion has a reputation for being frivolous.
Whatever the men’s suit has come to represent, its eventual social acceptance was preceded by a single, radical event which convulsed England’s political establishment, only resulting in gradual change decades after the original seismic activity. In London’s House of Commons during the 19th century and well into the 20th, the uniform worn by absolutely every MP was a black frock coat, black silk top hat and starched wing collar shirt. And then Keir Hardie, the first MP elected to Parliament from the newly formed Independent Labour Party, arrived for his first day of work on August 3rd, 1892, dressed in a tweed suit, a red tie and a deerstalker cap. His fellow MPs were to learn that the least controversial thing about Keir Hardie was his dress sense. But that did not limit the scandal of that day. And it introduced the modern men’s lounge suit to polite society. Polite society welcomed it with a sneer.
Today’s popular opinion regarding the development of men’s fashion has been warped by excessive and uncritical attention paid to toffs like Edward VIII, a.k.a. the Duke of Windsor. The moment a reputation rises up around a person to the point that it attains the status of “common knowledge”, evaluating it cleanly becomes a struggle. The fact that we often look no farther than the frequently photographed for lifestyle tips rather than pay attention to actually interesting people (Bill Cunningham prominently exempted) is the result of a shallow media gene pool coupled with general incuriousness. The defrocked Edward VIII, helped by his odious woman friend, exhibited a taste for fascism in backing the wrong side during the Second World War and throughout his life acted as a life preserver for what remained of a vampiric social order in his own country, one of the first great redemptive axe-blows against which had been delivered a half-century earlier by Keir Hardie.
Ironically, it’s the 1998 auction of his majesty’s wardrobe, the public’s first full-colour glimpse into his garish tastes, that settles the case: the Duke of Windsor would be more properly remembered today as the royal equivalent of a Hawaiian shirt connoisseur if he hadn’t had the good luck to be photographed mainly in black and white. Yes, the man cut a nice silhouette, but so will almost anyone with an absolutely empty schedule and an endless money supply. The stakes really could not be lower. Let’s make it interesting.
Keir Hardie was employed at seven years old and never went to school. He would, like many others in the same situation, have grown up illiterate but for his mother and father deciding to teach the child themselves. His father was trained as a ship’s carpenter, working in the shipping industry in Glasgow, and later helped build the railroad between Glasgow and Edinburgh. Hardie started work in the mines as a pony driver at age 10 and by 20 had become a skilled miner. Despite working 12-hour days, he continued the self-education his mother had set in train and by 17 had taught himself to write.
Literacy inevitably provided him with news of the plight of other miners in southern Scotland, and he spent time establishing bonds of solidarity with them. Eventually, he wrote pro-labour articles for various newspapers and helped launch The Miner in 1887. This type of activity got him and his brothers blacklisted by the mining company for whom they worked, a move that handed the young man both time and necessary anger for perfecting his speaking, writing and organisational skills, which led directly to a career in politics. Surely someone at the company must have later regretted that if only they had kept the young man gainfully employed and within arm’s reach, he might not have become the thorn in their side he later so poisonously was. But further examination of Hardie’s character makes one wonder if even that would have stopped him.
So radical were the causes advocated by Keir Hardie when he arrived in Parliament that it would curl the teeth of even the most liberal-minded reader of today. Let’s roll through a few of them: 1) Free education for all, supplemented by school meals for hungry children. 2) Votes for women. 3) Self-rule for India. 4) The end of segregation in South Africa. 5) A minimum wage. 6) A graduated income tax. 7) Old-age pensions. 8) Maintenance of the unemployed. 9) Abolition of the House of Lords.
Yes, really. All but one of these objectives have been achieved and all of them are regarded as absolutely uncontroversial, common-sense positions held by any able-minded modern person. Hooray for modernity and how the world turns, I suppose. Probably the easiest one to actually abolish is all that remains of that list.
But surely he was a very violent man, wasn’t he? Didn’t he advocate incredible violence or something as the only means of achieving his agenda of widespread social upheaval? Of course, in an ideal world we’d like equal rights for everyone, but these things take time, don’t they? Otherwise, you’ll have Jacobins displaying the heads of monarchs on pikes, or tens of thousands dead at the hands of the authorities in the aftermath of the Paris Commune.
Hardie wrote in a pamphlet published in 1910: “Socialism will abolish the landlord class, the capitalist class, and the working-class. That is revolution; that the working-class, by its actions, will one day abolish class distinctions.” Interpret that however you like, but could the erosion of class distinctions (all of them) be more inevitable and commonsensical in the opinion of the average person of today, even if it is still very far from actual attainment? His main conviction seemed to be that this revolution of the social order could only originate from “below”, owing to the tenacious grip of those “above”. I’m sorry, is this man menacing you?
Just to give you an idea, the vote for women was not widely supported even by fellow socialists. Hardie had to break ranks with his colleagues on the left several times and endured great ridicule for holding that conviction. He offered his support to the Women’s Social and Political Union, formed by Emmeline Pankhurst and her three daughters in 1903, which again rankled his Labour peers. He was arrested at a women’s suffrage meeting in London.
At the 1907 Labour Party conference, he threatened to resign as chairman over the issue: ”I thought the days of my pioneering were over but of late I have felt, with increasing intensity, the injustice inflicted on women by our present laws. The Party is largely my own child and I cannot part from it lightly, or without pain; but at the same time I cannot sever myself from the principles I hold. If it is necessary for me to separate myself from what has been my life’s work, I do so in order to remove the stigma resting upon our wives, mothers and sisters of being accounted unfit for citizenship.”
Isabella Ford, a member of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies, commented: “His extraordinary sympathy with the women’s movement, his complete understanding of what it stands for, were what first made me understand the finest side of his character. In the days when Labour men neglected and slighted the women’s cause or ridiculed it, Hardie never once failed us, never once faltered in his work for us. We women can never forget what we owe him.”
Hardie’s father raised him explicitly as an atheist, and on that front the son disappointed. He sharpened his gift for addressing large crowds through the practice of evangelical preaching, regarding the messiah from Nazareth as an exceptional socialist teacher. His religiosity didn’t stop him from retaining close friendships with Eleanor Marx and Friedrich Engels. And while pious himself, Hardie was far from dogmatic, stating in 1906: “Religion should be voluntary. Let every denomination have whatever facilities can be given outside of school hours for imparting religious instruction, place all denominations on an equality and lift our whole system of education beyond the reach of sectarian disputes.” Amen to that.
Speaking of sectarian disputes, he spoke up for Indian self-rule while in Bengal in 1907, outraging the Raj. Almost every biographical observation of Hardie comments on his courage. In Glasgow, Hardie delivered a speech against the South African War and was nearly killed during the ensuing riot. But Parliament could often be a physically dangerous place for him, too.
In 1894, the future lounge suit-connoisseur Edward VIII was born, an event which coincided with the deaths of 251 miners in an explosion at Pontypridd. The fawning over the infant by MPs, contrasted with their indifference towards the miners’ lives and deaths, led to an impassioned speech by Hardie in the House of Commons (interjections in square brackets represent the shouts of MPs): “From his childhood onward this boy will be surrounded by sycophants and flatterers by the score—[Cries of ‘Oh, oh!’]—and will be taught to believe himself as of a superior creation. [Cries of ‘Oh, oh!’] A line will be drawn between him and the people whom he is to be called upon some day to reign over. In due course, following the precedent which has already been set, he will be sent on a tour round the world, and probably rumours of a morganatic alliance will follow—[Loud cries of ‘Oh, oh!’ and ‘Order!’]—and the end of it all will be that the country will be called upon to pay the bill. [Cries of Divide!]” One memoir remembered the event: “The House rose at him like a pack of wild dogs.”
His attack on the preference of his fellow MPs for the royal child over the lives of workers destroyed in the mines again resulted in riots and Hardie was labelled a troublemaker by the nation’s newspapers. Edward’s granddad, Number VII, who had been cultivating a relaxed dress habit and a certain domestic freedom of his own, was scolded by a friend for having recently been nice to Keir Hardie.
Hardie was observed at Parliament during the long, hot summer of 1895 by a correspondent from The Scotsman: “Mr Hardie was really envied by other members as he lounged on the back benches during question time. He looked like a sturdy gamekeeper taking his ease on the hillside. His knickerbockers made the heat seem more oppressive, for they reminded the House of the wholesome freedom of holiday life and of the irksome restraint of frock coats and top hats.”
According to James Mavor, “Hardie looked like an artist, and indeed in general his point of view was that of an artist. Although his early education had been somewhat neglected. He was the only really cultivated man in the ranks of any of the Labour parties.”
He attracted the attention of Sylvia Pankhurst, an art student half his age, in the course of their mutual work in the suffragist movement. While Hardie’s wife’s attitude towards this affair is not preserved by history, neither Hardie nor Pankhurst made any attempt to be less then open about their affection for each other. She would arrive at the House of Commons in full view of everyone and they would go off together and they later shared a cabin Hardie had rented in Penshurst, Kent. Among other things, she was impressed by the uncompromising tone he took with newly arriving Labour MPs as their power continued to build and they became increasingly comfortable inhabiting the halls of power, not hesitating to upbraid them as opportunists or reactionaries. After attending a dinner held to welcome new Labour MPs to Parliament, Sylvia Pankhurst wrote, “He declared that he wanted to form an ‘anti-guzzling league’ and that the Labour Members should not accept the hospitality of the capitalist representatives whose only desire was to neutralise the hostility of the Labour Members in order to undermine their fighting qualities and influence with the workers outside. ‘We are only puppets to them,’ he said. We well remember his words.”
The Labour Party as it is now known did not then yet exist, but was negotiated into being during a meeting organised by Hardie in 1900 in order to provide a big tent for trade unions, working-class people and socialists. The result was dubbed the Representative Labour Party, later to be called the Labour Party. In that year, Hardie ran as a Labour candidate and won the riding of Merthyr Tydfil and Aberdare in the South Wales Valleys, the first year of the party’s existence. In 1910, Hardie and only one other Labour candidate won their seats, laying the groundwork for the party’s eventual success in the general election of 1924, by which point Hardie would be ten years dead.
In the lead-up to his career as an MP, Keir Hardie mainly worked as a labour organiser, not only in Scotland, Wales and England, but also eventually travelling throughout Europe, attending the Second Workers’ International in Paris in 1896 and visiting fellow labour leaders in Belgium, the Netherlands, Denmark and Switzerland. In 1909, he cemented his internationalist credentials by visiting the United States and criticising the socialist movement there for its sectarian bickering and pointed to the work he had done overseas in uniting many factions under a single banner. It was likely the feeling of solidarity forged by these journeys, and then of watching unravel the work of forging hard-won bonds among the working classes constructed as a bulwark against petty nationalisms suddenly unleashed that triggered his horrified reaction to the outbreak of war in 1914, at which time he issued the following statement: “The long-threatened European war is now upon us. You have never been consulted about this war. The workers of all countries must strain every nerve to prevent their Governments from committing them to war. Hold vast demonstrations against war, in London and in every industrial centre. There is no time to lose. Down with the rule of brute force! Down with war! Up with the peaceful rule of the people!”
Hardie witnessed the opening of hostilities which he believed had hopelessly reversed and negated much of his life’s work. In this, again, he swam against the tide. His anti-war stance marginalised him even more completely within the Labour Party, as it did many “conshies” throughout the UK for a long time afterwards. Suffering several strokes after the war began, Hardie died in September of 1915 in Glasgow.
Twelve years after Hardie introduced the lounge suit to public life rather scandalously and prominently, a tailor called Montague Burton opened a shop in 1904 which catered to a working-class clientele in Chesterfield. By 1939, at the outbreak of an even greater war than the one that had destroyed the morale of Keir Hardie, Burton had expanded his franchise and opened 595 shops. The lounge suit had become the uniform of choice for working men of all classes, including royalty and the political class, thus removing the class distinction of wardrobe, if not of the mind. The frock coat and top hat became relics of the past, just as inevitably as many of the other social and political relics Hardie had spoken out against would also later whither away.
In remaining uncompromisingly loyal to his origins and in fighting on behalf of people all around the world with whom he shared a common position in the social order, Hardie may not have survived to witness the fruits of his labour and may even have wrongly believed himself a failure. He did, however, always remember why he entered into public life in the first place. His friend Philip Snowden wrote: “He carried to his end an old silver watch he had worn in the mine, which bore the marks of the teeth of a favourite pit pony, made by the futile attempt on its part to eat it.”