“And his cravat, that which was meant to be an elegant arrangement of stiff white muslin with a discreet knot at the base of his throat, looked more like a wadded bandage tied in the dark by someone wearing woollen mittens” (May 1812).
As those who have been following these blogs may have worked out, I prefer to write from experience, to have tried out a thing before I start writing about it. Thus, to get the true sense of the guns from the period, I have shot a 14-bore which was used at Waterloo; I have loaded the thing, smelled the powder, felt the kick against my shoulder, smelled the explosion, had my fingers stained with the powder…that sort of thing.
So I reckoned I should learn how to tie a cravat properly in a Gordian knot, which was the knot they used, so that when I wrote about it, it would be from a position of strength, knowledge and experience.
This may have been my first mistake.
I therefore got myself the large square of starched muslin; I folded the thing into the appropriate shape as described by the clever chappies who wrote all these books like Neckclothitania, etc. I got the thing about my throat with the ends left hanging. Fine.
The instructions then require one to take point K–that’s in your left hand–pass it on the inside of point Z–that’s the one in your right hand–and raise it. (And now we’re about to go to hell in a hoola hoop.)
Passing K up and under at the base of your throat so that it falls forward as it would if you were tying a modern day half-Windsor, you then wrap it around Z and pass it back through behind itself…
Are you lost now? Laughing hard? May I remind you that it’s my neck in the noose here, literally?
Having passed it through the knot and forgotten which is Z and which is K, I refer to the instructions and find that I am meant to flatten the knot with the thumb and forefinger “or more properly with the iron.” Bearing in mind that this knot is immediately adjacent to my larynx, you will understand why I may have decided to forego the latter instruction.
Also, I couldn’t extract my thumb and forefinger which were still stuck in the knot, but that was a trifling concern by comparison.
After that it gets simple. You cross K and Z below the knot and place a pin at the point of intersection. (Yes, of course, I stabbed myself by accident. DNA samples will be available for perusal in due course.) This gives you the basic Gordian knot from which all other knots were in some manner derived. Fine.
I then believe, in my folly, that I should do this a few more times in order to master the art of it. It does not grow easier with practice is all I’ll say. Nor did it help when I turned over two pages at once and found myself in the middle of the Order of Service for Holy Matrimony.
And as for all that gubbins about lowering the chin slowly and pressing the horizontal folds into the cravat with one of the day’s failures, so as to create a perfect Mathematical or a Trone d’Amour, that’s just utter bollocks.
All of which has led me to conclude that had I lived 200 years ago it would be an absolute necessity for me to employ a valet who could dress me every day; or I should never be properly dressed; or barring those options, I just would never get out of bed. Obviously becoming a hermit would work too.
N.B. It has recently come to my attention that I ought to have covered one other popular aspect of the gentleman’s cravat–the Belcher neckerchief.
Like perhaps wearing football strip or wearing a hat with a rugby club insignia today, wearing a Belcher neckerchief in place of a starched white cravat was an indication that the wearer was a sportsman. It proclaimed to the world that he was a supporter of the Fancy–aka pugilistic prize-fighting–and probably had sparring lessons in Gentleman Jackson’s Saloon on Bond Street.
A Belcher neckerchief was also one element of the uniform of the Four-in-Hand Club–that’s carriage driving with four horses–and hence the fellow wearing it would have handled the reins very well.
(I know it may sound posh and it may also sound cool, but what it really denotes is a superb skill with the reins, an outstanding physical strength, a great calm–because four horses is one heck of a lot of horse power at the end of those leather ribbons…)
The name comes, of course, from Jem Belcher, the noted bare-knuckle boxer of the day and a bit of a celebrity. Here is his picture and now you know what a Belcher neckerchief really looks like–essentially, it’s a large square of spotted or printed cotton. (Though one still has to tie the thing…)