Country Mouse & City Mouse

Country Mouse & City Mouse

Almost all of menswear’s tradition is based in England, and particularly the England of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The lifestyle of the upper and upper-middle classes at the time - professionals and gentry alike - was sharply defined by geography. If you had the money, you lived two lives: one in the city, one in the country. Each of these lives had a wardrobe, and each of these wardrobes was distinctive.

This separation still shapes our dress today. Let’s take a look at how.

You can see this distinction if you watch a period television show. Jeeves & Wooster is a favorite of mine, with two brilliantly hilarious performances from Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie. As Bertie Wooster, Laurie flits between city and country, discarding his conservative urban attire (left), and donning country togs (right). Sometimes absurdly outrageous ones.

As Downton Abbey has crossed the threshold of World War One and moved toward modernity, the clothes have become more recognizable there, as well. Since almost all the action on the show takes place on a country estate, you’ll see almost exclusively country clothes. You’ll also recognize the role that outdoor sports have played in the development of menswear, and of the distinction between country and city.

But is this antiquated tradition meaningful to us in modern times? Do we owe anything to the gentlemen above, passing each other on the train platform, one headed into town, one out?

Absolutely.

Let’s start simply, though, by defining better what “country” and “city” clothes are.

What Are City Clothes?

Broadly speaking, city clothes are made to match the aesthetics and demands of city life. That means they’re largely built for business.

Defining characteristics:

  • An urban color palette of gray and blue.
  • Solid-colored suits.
  • Business-striped suits.
  • Small-scale checks in conservative colors.
  • Worsted wool.
  • Black leather shoes and accessories.
  • Color in patterned shirts and (in some cases) ties.
  • Dressing down from suits with conservative blazers.

What are Country Clothes?

Country clothes are defined by their sporting heritage and their ties to the colors of the outdoors.

Defining characteristics:

  • A country color palette featuring the colors of nature, like tans, browns, and greens, with sometimes-bold complimentary accents, like burgundy and orange.
  • Frequent use of bold patterns, like checks and multi-colored tweeds.
  • Suits often replaced with sport coats and odd (non-matching) trousers.
  • Sporting details like hacking pockets, ticket pockets, patch pockets and leather buttons.
  • Fabrics with soft finishes and sporting heritage, like tweed, corduroy and flannel.
  • Brown leather accessories, including suede and heavier shoes and boots.

What does this mean today?

Unless you’re a member of the House of Lords, it’s unlikely that you’ll be flitting between a Mayfair manor and a country house, with a special wardrobe for each and a valet like Jeeves to keep you dressed appropriately for your milieu. Many folks in the first world live between country and city these days, in suburban and exurban environments that are neither dominated by gray concrete nor appropriate for grouse hunting. The days of strict adherence to the line between country and city are over - but understanding the line is still important.

Remember that these lines aren’t just about place, they’re also about tone. City clothes are still the most appropriate for most business contexts. Show up to court in tweed and you’ll still look foolish in the 21st century. Country clothes are still the most relaxed - that’s why you can wear heavy country brogues with jeans but sleek black cap-toes would look out of place.

So consider the tone of the place where you live, and the activities that make up your daily life. If you’re a city lawyer, your wardrobe should be dominated by traditional city clothes. On weekends, you can dabble in country garb. If you live in the outskirts of Savannah, where you’re a graphic artist, you can wear blue jeans and tweed without looking out of place at the Piggly Wiggly. No matter what you choose to wear, let it be informed by a hundred years of history and tradition.

Q and Answer: What Rules Do You Break?
Kevin writes: I enjoy your posts on PTO, especially those that have to do with the  rules and conventions of style, many of which I wasn’t aware or just  hadn’t considered.  I’d be curious to see a post at some point regarding  those conventions with which you don’t necessarily agree (or just don’t  care to follow).
Great question, Kevin!
I get the feeling from emails to PTO that some of our readers presume that the rules and conventions of men’s style are abitrary. They rarely are. Typically, they’re grounded in practical considerations, and serve as a shorthand for a complex web of reasoning.
There was a time when these rules were generally known, at least among the affluent (those with more than one or two sets of clothes). At the time, breaking those rules was a genuine act of rebellion. (Or a genuine act of ignorance.)
These days, few know the rules. Alec Baldwin plays a business executive obsessed with status on 30 Rock, but buttons the bottom button of his coat. Men wear flip-flops in nice restaurants. Steve Harvey exists.
For that reason, I think there is much more currency in knowing and following the rules than there is in breaking them. If I see a man walking down the street wearing loafers with his suit, I don’t assume he’s a rebel. I assume he’s a doofus.
If appearing to be a rebel is your goal, your mastery of the rules must be complete and consistent. In order for the point of difference to resonate, you must establish a perfect baseline of skill. It’s a bit like sprezzatura - if you’re Gianni Agnelli, and your watch is on your cuff, it’s sprezzatura. If you’re Jack Welch, you’re a slob or a weirdo. Few are the men I see who can break rules effectively, particularly in more formal dress.
That said, some rules are more relevant than others.
One rule that I break pretty regularly is the distinction between country and city clothing. This grew out of an aristocracy in England who kept country estates and city businesses - watch Jeeves & Wooster (set in the 30s) or the wonderful parlor drama Downton Abbey (set in the teens, and now airing in the US on PBS’ Masterpiece) for a glimpse of this. Country clothing was (at least outdoors) geared toward sport: tweeds, checks, twill trousers, brogues and boots. City clothing toward business: dark lounge suits or morning dress, black shoes.
I live in Los Angeles. Not only is it about as rural as a city can get - just the other day a giant coyote was doing stretches on my deck - it’s also a place where the distinction between country homes and city homes is pretty much irrelevant. I don’t even own one house, much less two. My career as a public radio and television host doesn’t require sober business dress. So: brown shoes and tweeds it is for me, at least in winter.
Also, I never wear pants after 2PM.

Q and Answer: What Rules Do You Break?

Kevin writes: I enjoy your posts on PTO, especially those that have to do with the rules and conventions of style, many of which I wasn’t aware or just hadn’t considered.  I’d be curious to see a post at some point regarding those conventions with which you don’t necessarily agree (or just don’t care to follow).

Great question, Kevin!

I get the feeling from emails to PTO that some of our readers presume that the rules and conventions of men’s style are abitrary. They rarely are. Typically, they’re grounded in practical considerations, and serve as a shorthand for a complex web of reasoning.

There was a time when these rules were generally known, at least among the affluent (those with more than one or two sets of clothes). At the time, breaking those rules was a genuine act of rebellion. (Or a genuine act of ignorance.)

These days, few know the rules. Alec Baldwin plays a business executive obsessed with status on 30 Rock, but buttons the bottom button of his coat. Men wear flip-flops in nice restaurants. Steve Harvey exists.

For that reason, I think there is much more currency in knowing and following the rules than there is in breaking them. If I see a man walking down the street wearing loafers with his suit, I don’t assume he’s a rebel. I assume he’s a doofus.

If appearing to be a rebel is your goal, your mastery of the rules must be complete and consistent. In order for the point of difference to resonate, you must establish a perfect baseline of skill. It’s a bit like sprezzatura - if you’re Gianni Agnelli, and your watch is on your cuff, it’s sprezzatura. If you’re Jack Welch, you’re a slob or a weirdo. Few are the men I see who can break rules effectively, particularly in more formal dress.

That said, some rules are more relevant than others.

One rule that I break pretty regularly is the distinction between country and city clothing. This grew out of an aristocracy in England who kept country estates and city businesses - watch Jeeves & Wooster (set in the 30s) or the wonderful parlor drama Downton Abbey (set in the teens, and now airing in the US on PBS’ Masterpiece) for a glimpse of this. Country clothing was (at least outdoors) geared toward sport: tweeds, checks, twill trousers, brogues and boots. City clothing toward business: dark lounge suits or morning dress, black shoes.

I live in Los Angeles. Not only is it about as rural as a city can get - just the other day a giant coyote was doing stretches on my deck - it’s also a place where the distinction between country homes and city homes is pretty much irrelevant. I don’t even own one house, much less two. My career as a public radio and television host doesn’t require sober business dress. So: brown shoes and tweeds it is for me, at least in winter.

Also, I never wear pants after 2PM.