As I Was Saying/Essay XIX

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Essay XVIII As I Was Saying
Essay XIX
written by Gilbert Keith Chesterton
Essay XX



Essay XIX: About White Fronts

A TREMENDOUS international truth dawned upon me the other day in connexion with the subject of dress clothes, which we rather incorrectly call evening dress. For in that shade of difference there is a deep and strange division, and a sort of abyss yawns between England and Europe. The occasion of the thought may appear somewhat trivial for so vast and solemn a matter. I met an educated and experienced Englishman, in a great Italian city in which he had apparently lived for about fifteen years. But the power of detachment in some English exiles is extraordinary. This honest gentleman was snorting with fury and contempt because a very famous foreign author had just given a lecture in the town; and this benighted foreigner had outraged the primary laws of the cosmos by wearing a white shirt-front, though it was only five o'clock in the afternoon. Now, I have not lived in Italy for fifteen years; but I had not lived in London up to the age of fifteen without hearing from somebody who knew something about the world that white shirt-fronts do not mean the same thing in Europe that they mean in England. They do not stand for evening dress; they only stand for full dress; for formal or official dress. Sometimes, I believe, they are worn by students going in for important examinations. When I had a private audience with the Pope, I wore what we call evening dress, though it was eleven o'clock in the morning. I did the same when I had an interview with Mussolini. It is simply the recognized uniform worn to express any sort of special respect for a special occasion; as Englishmen would wear Court dress at Court. But in England it has had a particular evolution and adaptation to a particular social purpose, doubtless for various local reasons. I suspect that one cause was the common habit of the English gentry of hunting and riding for long stretches; so that when they returned weary and muddy they naturally wished to change into something, and fell into the habit of changing into full ceremonial dress.

But there is nothing central or essential about this particular use of the thing. What we call evening dress has nothing about it especially suggestive of the evening. Rather, we might say, its black and white effects suggest the strong light and shade of broad daylight, and might be a fitting uniform for noon. Anyhow, it is not specially suggestive of twilight. So poetical a people as the English, if they had wanted to invent vestments full of the subdued glow of the gloaming, could surely have invented something richer and softer than that. A single gleam of golden shirt-front, a touch of crimson tie, and the rest sinking into dimmer shades of purple and violet trousers would be more suggestive of the tints of an English sunset. But the English did not invent evening dress to symbolize the evening, because the English did not invent evening dress at all. They took some modification of the general European form of full dress; and, being rather specially fond of comfort and cleanliness and such eccentricities, they made it a sort of luxury to change in the evening. There is nothing wrong about that, and there may be much that is right about it. The customs which I have conjectured to be connected with it are quite good customs in their way. It is a very jolly thing to ride horses; it is even a laudable thing to please ladies. But it is only one of the ten thousand good customs there are in the world; and it is a local variation of something that existed before in a more general and formal form. But so completely had my friend succeeded in living spiritually in Surbiton, while living physically in Florence, that he had never so much as heard in all those fifteen years that foreigners wore shirt-fronts on a different system of etiquette. He regarded the poor foreign gentleman as some sort of impossible swaggering snob, whose raging vanity and vulgarity could not be restrained from beginning to put on evening dress immediately after lunch. This seems to me a very extraordinary state of things; very comic and rather tragic, in these days when so much may depend upon Christian nations understanding each other.

I do not want the English or anybody else to be international in the sense of cosmopolitan. Christendom has developed in a national form; and men who have no patriotism are not inside Europe but rather outside it. A Frenchman who does not love France, an Englishman who does not love England, is a bad European and not a good European. He has no sympathy with some of the strongest motives of all other Europeans. But the case I mean is something quite different from the case for cosmopolitanism. Indeed, the case is exactly the other way. Bigotry of the kind I mean does not arise from feeling vividly the points of difference, but rather from not realizing that there can be any differences at all. It does not come from valuing a local thing as local, but from exactly the opposite error of supposing that it must be universal.

The English are not Nationalist enough. They love their nation; but they love it almost without knowing that it is a nation. And even when such an emotion is both natural and noble, there is always some miscalculation or confusion when things are not loved strictly according to their own nature; as there are people who cannot be persuaded to love a dog as a dog or a child as a child. An attachment to particular variations of custom or humour is weakened when it is watered down to a sort of false generalization. Now, the common English error is excellently illustrated in that trivial topic of dress clothes. The English do not say, "This is the English way and a jolly good way it is." They say, "This is the only way; and it is a curious fact that, wherever we go in our travels, we notice that it is only the English who really observe it." Instead of saying that their custom is a good custom, or even that it is the best custom, they say that nobody except themselves seems to bother about observing the custom which every one must admit is the best. And this blunder comes from blindness to national differences, rather than from exaggeration of them. It does not come from being too vivid, but rather from being too vague, about the difference between an Englishman and an Italian.

I am inclined to think that this vague prejudice is now much more dangerous than a more violent prejudice. It is not the old problem of softening almost savage prejudices in the provinces of Europe; it is not that Englishmen have any particular tendency to hate Frenchmen or Germans; for the English have very little natural tendency to hate anything. It may well be said that there are many things, such as some of their own abuses and falsifications, which they do not hate enough. The nature of the error lies in this: that they never by any chance think of an English thing as a variation of a European thing. Only too often they think of a European thing as a mere misapplication of an English thing. If they saw a portrait of Francis I in a wide flat cap and a square-cut jacket, they would not unnaturally say that Francis I was dressed like Henry VIII. The trouble is that they never think, even experimentally or fancifully, that Henry VIII was dressed like Francis I. There would always remain with them a shadowy, fantastic idea that Louis Napoleon had borrowed the top-hat of Lord Palmerston, and that it could not possibly be the other way round. They do not distinguish, for instance, between certain modern inventions which really did originate in this country and others which have equally certainly originated in other countries. They think of a railway train as an English thing, and they are right; for it did actually spread from England to Europe. But they would hardly think of a motor-car as a French thing, though it actually originated in the same sense in France and spread to England. Even the familiar name of the Italian inventor would hardly make them think of wireless sets as Italian, although the word "Marconi" is almost a synonym for "wireless." True, for some of us it is still a synonym for other things.