Winston Churchill wanted “to destroy all traces” of
telegrams revealing a Nazi plot to reinstate the former King Edward VIII to the
British throne in return for his support during the second world war, newly
released cabinet papers have revealed.
The telegrams document Nazi plans to kidnap the Duke of
Windsor – the title granted to Edward following his abdication in 1936 – and
his wife, Wallis Simpson, when they reached Portugal after fleeing their Paris
home when France fell to German forces in 1940.
The Cabinet Office file published on Thursday by the
National Archives reveals how Churchill appealed to the US president, Dwight
Eisenhower, and the French government to prevent publication of the intercepted
German telegrams for “at least 10 or 20 years”.
Churchill, the UK prime minister, said the captured German
telegrams offering Edward the British throne in the event of a Nazi invasion of
Britain were “tendentious and unreliable” and likely to leave the misleading
impression that the duke “was in close touch with German agents and was
listening to suggestions that were disloyal”.
Churchill made his appeal to Eisenhower after learning that
a microfilm copy of the telegrams, which were found in German archives at the
end of the war, had been sent to the US State Department and were being
considered for inclusion in the official US history of the conflict.
Eisenhower told Churchill on 2 July 1953 that US
intelligence shared his assessment that the communications were “obviously
concocted with some idea of promoting German propaganda and weakening western
resistance” and were “totally unfair” to the duke.
Churchill told the US president that fears for the duke’s
safety had led to his appointment as governor of the Bahamas, part of
“strenuous efforts to get him away from Europe beyond the reach of the enemy”.
The German telegrams claim that the duke and duchess reacted
with surprise when it was suggested to them that Edward might yet have another
opportunity to take the throne. “Both seem to be completely bound up in
formalistic ways of thought since they replied that according to British
constitution this was not possible after abdication,” one telegram says. “When
[an] agent then remarked the course of war may produce changes even in the
British constitution the Duchess in particular became very thoughtful.”
Churchill told cabinet on 12 August 1953, in a top secret
memorandum, that the duke had no knowledge of the telegrams. “The late King
[George VI], who had seen the documents, confined himself to insisting that if
publication could not be avoided, the Duke of Windsor should be given full and
timely warning,” the papers reveal.
Churchill succeeded only in delaying the publication of the
telegrams for a few years. When they did come to light, in 1957, duke denounced
them as “complete fabrications”.
• This article was amended on 20 July 2017. Due to an
editing error, an earlier version incorrectly said that Edward VIII abdicated
in 1938. This has been corrected. The picture caption said that in 1937 Edward
was later to become King Edward VIII. This has also been corrected.
Kenneth Harris interviews HRH Duke of Windsor, the former
King Edward VIII, and his spouse Wallis, Duchess of Windsor
Britain’s great pyrrhic defeat or inverse victory of 1940 has
been brought to the screen as a terrifying, shattering spectacle by Christopher
Nolan. He plunges you into the chaotic evacuation of the British Expeditionary
Force from northern France after the catastrophic battle of Dunkirk –helped by
the now legendary flotilla of small civilian craft. It is part disaster movie,
part compressed war epic, and all horribly appropriate for these Brexit times.
Nolan’s Dunkirk has that kind of blazing big-screen
certainty that I last saw in James Cameron’s Titanic or Paul Greengrass’s
United 93. It is very different to his previous feature, the bafflingly
overhyped sci-fi convolution Interstellar. This is a powerful, superbly crafted
film with a story to tell, avoiding war porn in favour of something desolate
and apocalyptic, a beachscape of shame, littered with soldiers zombified with
defeat, a grimly male world with hardly any women on screen.
It is Nolan’s best film so far. It also has Hans Zimmer’s
best musical score: an eerie, keening, groaning accompaniment to a nightmare,
switching finally to quasi-Elgar variations for the deliverance itself. Zimmer
creates a continuous pantonal lament, which imitates the dive bomber scream and
queasy turning of the tides, and it works in counterpoint to the deafening
artillery and machine-gun fire that pretty much took the fillings out of my
teeth and sent them in a shrapnel fusillade all over the cinema auditorium.
The film is, of course, on a massive Nolanesque scale. The
Battle of Dunkirk is traditionally seen in terms of a miraculous underdog
littleness that somehow redeemed the disaster. The plucky small boats countered
the memory of a British army dwarfed by Wehrmacht strategy and a British
establishment humiliated by the suspicion that it was only Hitler’s
miscalculation or mysterious realpolitik in halting the German advance that
permitted the evacuation in the first place. A different kind of Dunkirk movie
might have included High Command scenes in Berlin showing the generals arguing
with the Führer about precisely this. Maybe Nolan didn’t want his film hijacked
by a lot of satirical fake-subtitle YouTubers.
The event itself entered Britain’s pop-cultural bloodstream
after the war by way of the opening titles to TV’s Dad’s Army, with its Nazi
map-arrows pushing north and the Flanagan theme inspired by Leslie Norman’s
1958 film Dunkirk, starring John Mills and Richard Attenborough. But Nolan is
not having any morale-raising laughter or chirpiness. His disaster is big; the
stakes are high, the anxiety is unbearable.
We are forced into eardrum-perforating action straight away.
A squaddie named Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) scrambles desperately to the beach
through the Dunkirk streets under heavy fire and sees the bad-dream panorama in
front of him: hundreds of thousands of stranded French and British soldiers
waiting all over the sand. Corpses are being buried there. There are no ships
to rescue them and – apparently – no air cover to prevent them being picked
off. Tommy is to come into contact with fellow soldier, Alex (Harry Styles,
making a perfectly strong acting debut). Meanwhile, RAF pilot Farrier (Tom
Hardy) is, in fact, engaging the enemy overhead and taking desperate risks with
fuel. A grizzled naval officer played by Kenneth Branagh – channelling Jack
Hawkins in The Cruel Sea (1953) – broodingly scans the horizon. And on the home
front, a Mr Dawson, laconically played by Mark Rylance, takes his little
cruiser, joins the people’s armada, encounters a traumatised officer (Cillian
Murphy) and endures a terrible sacrifice, which he lives to see mythologised
and falsified by the press.
In military terms, Dunkirk is almost entirely static for
most of its running time: the battle is over before the film has begun, and
there is no narrative context of the sort offered in Leslie Norman’s version.
Nolan surrounds his audience with chaos and horror from the outset, and amazing
images and dazzlingly accomplished set pieces on a huge 70mm screen,
particularly the pontoon crammed with soldiers extending into the churning sea,
exposed to enemy aircraft. It is an architectural expression of doomed homeward
yearning. There is a tremendous image when some of the soldiers do manage to
scramble aboard a destroyer, and are welcomed with tea and that now vanished
treat, bread-and-jam, and so tiny rectangles of red surreally speckle the
grey-and-khaki picture. It is also persuasively horrible when soldiers wait by
the surf’s edge, which has become a lapping scummy froth, as if these are the
survivors of some horrible natural disaster.
Christopher Nolan might have found some inspiration from the
Dunkirk scene in Joe Wright’s 2007 movie Atonement, but otherwise he brings his
own colossal and very distinctive confidence to this story. It’s a visceral
piece of film-making.
j’ai la joie de vous annoncer officiellement, avec presque
deux ans de retard, que mon livre “The Italian Gentleman” est depuis quelques
semaines chez l’imprimeur et qu’il sera disponible dans les librairies du monde
entier le 26 octobre 2017.
Afin de bien clarifier les choses en termes d’édition (et
d’éditeurs), ce livre verra tout d’abord le jour en langue anglaise (donc en
édition originale) chez deux éditeurs majeurs : Thames & Hudson à Londres
et Rizzoli à New York. Les deux éditions sont identiques, sauf la couverture
qui sera très légèrement différente. Thames & Hudson (mon éditeur
principal) couvrira prioritairement les marchés européens, moyen et extrême
orientaux tandis que Rizzoli couvrira prioritairement le marché nord-américain.
L’année prochaine, en 2018, trois autres éditions sont
prévues : une édition en langue française (avec a priori un contenu
photographique légèrement différent et la publication de nombreuses photos
inédites), une édition en langue italienne et une autre en langue allemande.
Les pré-commandes de l’édition originale sont d’ores et déjà
ouvertes chez Amazon.fr comme vous pouvez le constater en suivant ce lien : The
Comme vous pouvez vous en douter, et au vu de l’immense
investissement personnel et financier que ce volume a représenté pour mon
équipe, pour mon camarade Lyle Roblin (photographe du livre) et pour moi-même,
toute pré-commande de votre part sera la bienvenue et sera très (très)
L’événement de lancement et de dédicace du livre aura lieu au
mois de novembre à Paris dans un lieu très prestigieux. La date et le lieu de
l’événement vous seront révélés dans ces colonnes durant les premiers jours de
En attendant, et pour vous remercier de votre patience et de
votre fidélité, j’ai le plaisir de partager avec vous aujourd’hui en
exclusivité la préface intégrale du livre en langue française.
En espérant que ce premier paragraphe vous donne envie de
faire l’acquisition du livre, je vous donne rendez-vous en novembre pour une
soirée de dédicace qui s’annonce d’ores et déjà comme exceptionnelle.
THE ITALIAN GENTLEMAN
par Hugo Jacomet
Photographies Lyle Roblin
Ce livre constitue, de très loin, le projet le plus long, le
plus excitant, le plus exigeant, le plus émouvant mais aussi, et surtout, le
plus complexe de ma vie d’auteur, de chroniqueur de l’élégance masculine
classique et peut-être, l’avenir me le dira, de ma vie d’homme tout entière.
Si j’utilise ici, à dessein, le terme complexe, si cher à
Edgard Morin, c’est qu’il décrit à merveille ce projet éditorial extravagant
qui aura occupé presque trois années de mon existence.
J’étais parfaitement conscient, au moment où j’ai accepté
d’écrire ce livre, que la tâche consistant à tenter de rendre compte de
l’apport exceptionnel de l’Italie à l’élégance des hommes, surtout depuis les
années 50, serait compliquée. Mais je n’imaginais pas un seul instant que la
tentative de décrypter, à défaut d’expliquer, le style italien masculin dans
toutes ses dimensions, tout son foisonnement et tout son génie, demanderait
autant d’efforts et, oserais-je le dire, autant de sacrifices.
Je savais, dès le début du projet, qu’il me faudrait passer
un peu de temps de l’autre côté des Alpes afin d’approfondir ma connaissance,
que je considérais par ailleurs comme déjà excellente, du sujet. Pourtant après
quelques semaines seulement en Lombardie, à Rome et dans la baie de Naples j’ai
vite compris que j’avais très largement surestimé mon expertise dans le domaine
et que mener – vraiment- à bien cette entreprise allait me prendre du temps.
Beaucoup de temps.
Au début de l’année 2015, en pleine période de finition de
mon premier livre « The Parisian Gentleman », deux choix s’offrent alors à moi.
Soit je décide d’écrire le livre depuis mon bureau parisien
avec les outils d’aujourd’hui (comprenez l’internet et les e-mails) en
demandant à mon ami le talentueux photographe Lyle Roblin, canadien de
naissance et milanais d’adoption, d’effectuer des prises de vue dans certaines
maisons – tailleurs, chemisiers, bottiers, fabricants d’accessoires –
sélectionnées par mes soins.
Soit je prends le risque de me lancer à corps perdu dans une
entreprise déraisonnable à tous points de vue (surtout économique) et de
produire cet ouvrage « à l’ancienne », en m’installant – littéralement – avec
Sonya mon épouse adorée, en Italie pour une année entière (qui se transformera,
finalement, en presque deux années) et de sillonner le pays sans relâche à la
recherche des meilleurs artisans oeuvrant, en pleine lumière ou dans
l’obscurité, à l’élégance des gentlemen du monde entier.
Le livre que vous tenez aujourd’hui entre les mains est donc
le fruit de ces deux années d’immersion totale au cœur de l’Italie de
l’élégance masculine : plus de 100 ateliers, boutiques, usines, showrooms
visités un par un, plus de 70 diners aussi gargantuesques que sympathiques de
Biella à Rome, de Milan à Naples, de Florence à Bologne, plus de 15 000 prises
de vue effectuées par mon complice Lyle, sans qui ce livre n’aurait jamais vu
le jour, probablement plus de 4000 kilomètres parcourus dans la bien-nommée «
botte » italienne en voiture, en train, en avion, en taxi, en Vespa et à pied
et, finalement, plus de cinquante maisons choisies, étudiées, photographiées et
chroniquées dans cet Italian Gentleman intégralement produit « à la main » et
qui, je l’espère, vous servira de guide dans cet immense labyrinthe aussi
fascinant que déroutant de l’élégance à l’italienne.
A l’instar de mon précédent ouvrage « The Parisian Gentleman
», ce livre n’a pas pour objectif de constituer un catalogue exhaustif et
parfait de toutes les maisons transalpines spécialisées dans l’art tailleur et
bottier. Dix livres n’y suffiraient sans doute pas. Cet « Italian Gentleman »
n’a pas non plus la prétention de raconter avec une précision académique
l’histoire du tailoring Italien, de ses racines et de tous ses acteurs, car
cela demanderait le travail d’une vie entière pour le faire correctement.
Ce voyage au cœur de l’Italie de l’élégance masculine est
plus simplement le compte-rendu d’un voyage personnel de deux ans m’ayant
conduit des showrooms les plus luxueux aux ateliers les plus sommaires, des
palaces les plus rutilants aux sous-sols les plus crasseux et des usines les
plus chirurgicalement organisées aux salons de maitres-tailleurs ayant appris
leur art dans les années 30 et 40 et produisant encore dans leur propre salle à
manger des vêtements comme plus personne n’en réalise sur terre.
C’est de cet amalgame anarchique, de cette sédimentation
complexe, de cette histoire fabuleuse, mais que personne ne raconte de la même
manière de l’autre côté des Alpes, que j’ai tenté de rendre compte avec ce
Deux années à essayer de trouver son chemin dans un tel
foisonnement humain, cela vous change un homme. En ce qui me concerne, je ne
serai plus jamais le même, et pas uniquement parce que depuis un certain séjour
de quatre mois à Naples, je parle désormais avec les mains…
— — —
Pré-commande du livre disponible sur Amazon : The Italian
Nothing about Nadar was ever straightforward, as the
photograph on the cover of When I Was a Photographer reveals. There he is, a
dapper daredevil in his top hat and floppy cravat, in the basket of a gas
balloon, floating high among the clouds, binoculars at the ready, ballast and
grapnel hook within easy reach. He’s scanning the horizon, coolly indulging one
of his ardent enthusiasms: human flight.
But the photograph is a fake: it was staged in his plush
studio on the top floor of 35, Boulevard des Capucines, in the heart of
fashionable Paris. The clouds are a painted backdrop, the basket dangles in
perfect safety a couple of feet above the floor of the studio. Even that intent
gaze is a con: Nadar, who was myopic, could see into the distance only with his
He was 80 when he published Quand j’étais photographe, now
translated for the first time into English and recently published by MIT Press.
The book presents a fresh opportunity to consider a bizarre and compelling
character whose genius blossomed in mid-19th-century Paris just as Baron
Haussmann, under orders from Emperor Napoleon III, was radically reshaping and
modernising the French capital by tearing down medieval neighborhoods and
laying out broad, tree-lined boulevards.
Half a century before he published When I Was a
Photographer, Nadar was already a notorious Paris bohemian and a celebrated
caricaturist. Then, in his mid-30s, he abruptly emerged as the world’s first
great portrait photographer. He made it his mission to create individual
portraits of the entire Parisian cultural elite, from Alexandre Dumas to Honoré
Daumier, from Sarah Bernhardt to Hector Berlioz, each one a penetrating likeness
that captured what he called the “moral intelligence” of the sitter and
demanded to be appreciated as a work of art.
In the age of the selfie, Nadar reminds us of the brave
beginnings of a medium that changed the world. A pioneer photographer with any
ambition needed to be part scientist (Nadar liked to call the darkroom his
laboratory), part artist, part salesman – and yet a whiff of the mountebank
clung to the nascent profession.
Though Nadar believed fervently in the artistic value of
photography, he also understood that photographs and publicity work hand in
hand. The self-portrait-as-balloonist, probably taken in 1864, was a carefully
thought out exercise in self-promotion, essentially a publicity shot designed
to sell two publications: a memoir and a manifesto.
The memoir was a breathless account of his disastrous flight
in a humongous gas balloon he christened Le Géant. He had built it with the
express purpose of proving the futility of attempting to navigate in balloons –
Nadar believed the future of flight would be in “aero-locomotives”, an idea
which baffled his contemporaries. He demonstrated the perils of ballooning with
his epic second ascent in Le Géant: it ended with a crash-landing that dragged
on for half an hour, as the balloon bounced perilously through a rural
landscape, nearly killing everyone aboard. The catastrophe made headlines from
Paris to New York.
The manifesto, called Le Droit au Vol (The Right to Flight),
is a polemic in favour of “heavier-than-air” aerial navigation – and against
the helplessness of balloons wafted here and there by the wind. “When he wants
to,” Nadar writes, “man will fly like a bird, better than a bird – because … it
is certain that man will be obliged to fly better than a bird in order to fly
just as well.” He sent the manuscript to his friend Victor Hugo, who replied in
an open letter – modestly addressed “To the Whole World” – in which he hailed
Nadar as a prophet and a hero. Nadar evidently agreed; witness the pose he
struck in the faux-ballooning photo: Prophetic Hero Aloft.
One of the more amusing chapters in When I Was a
Photographer tells the story of how, when Paris was besieged by the Prussians
in 1870, Nadar established the world’s first airmail service, organising a
fleet of balloons to float sacks of correspondence over enemy lines. There was
one problem with the scheme: the mail could get out (as long as the balloon
landed beyond the reach of the Prussian forces), but because balloons can’t be
steered, return mail couldn’t be sent back in.
The ingenious solution, proposed to Nadar by an anonymous
citizen, was photographic – or, to be precise, micrographic. The return
correspondence was photographed on microfilm and the tiny negative strapped to
a carrier pigeon’s leg. Once safely in Paris, the microfilm was enlarged, the
precious letters distributed. “Our Paris, strangled by its anxiety over its
absent ones,” Nadar writes, “finally breathed.”
Who was this curious creature? Born Gaspard-Félix Tournachon
in Paris in 1820 (Nadar was a nickname that became a pseudonym), he was a
promising but erratic student. His father, a publisher and bookseller, went
bust when Nadar was 13 and died four years later. From the age of 16, Nadar was
essentially on his own; instead of family, he had friends, a network of
bohemians who lived in garrets, assembled in cafes, and wrote or painted – or
at least aspired to write or paint.
Nadar wanted to write and called himself a man of letters.
But in fact he was a hack journalist and a mediocre novelist. He drew with
greater success, and by the time he was 30 was better known as a caricaturist
than a writer. He spent a great deal of time and energy satirizing the
political aspirations of Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte, the nephew of Napoleon I,
but no amount of ridicule could slow the rise of Louis-Napoléon, and when he
proclaimed himself emperor in 1852 he dispensed with the liberal pieties of the
Republic and muzzled the press. Political caricature, which time and again had
swayed French public opinion, was expressly banned.
Nadar took refuge in the cultural life of the capital. He
launched an epic project (he liked to think big): a series of four outsized
lithographs depicting 1,200 luminaries, with a separate sheet devoted to
writers, playwrights and actors, artists and musicians. He only ever got around
to a first sheet, showing the writers and journalists, but the 250 caricatures
in the Panthéon-Nadar secured his fame. A financial flop (only 136 copies of
the lithograph were sold), it was a critical triumph – “The Panthéon-Nadar will
be the joy of every museum, of every intelligent salon” – and made Nadar a
household name in Paris.
Ambitious and chronically restless (his friend and fellow
bohemian Baudelaire exclaimed: “Nadar, the most astonishing expression of
vitality”), he veered off in a new direction as soon as the lithograph was
published. Having paid for his feckless younger brother to apprentice with a
professional photographer, he helped set him up with his own studio – and in
the process caught the bug.
“Photography is a marvelous discovery,” he wrote a couple of
years after his debut in 1855, “a science that engages the most elevated
intellects, an art that sharpens the wits of the wisest souls – and the
practical application of which lies within the capacity of the shallowest
What set his own work apart, in his estimation, was his feel
for light and the connection he made with the sitter. The early camera was a
bulky box perched on four rickety legs. When the photographer ducked under a
black cloth to peer through the lens, the contraption looked like a giant caped
spider staring with a single dark eye. Nadar relied on the flow of his famously
charming banter to trick the sitter into ignoring this unnerving instrument.
An early portrait of Théophile Gautier shows his friend
unbuttoned in every respect, dressed in an exotic-looking robe over a pale
shirt left open at the neck. Gautier also sports a loosely knotted,
flamboyantly striped scarf; one hand is buried to the wrist down the front of
his trousers, an insolent gesture just shy of obscene. He could only be a
bohemian, a wild and unconventional artist, the sort who would espouse art for
art’s sake (in fact, Gautier coined the phrase). Under a prominent brow and a
broad, brightly lit forehead, the eyes, baggy and shaded, gaze off into the
distance. It’s not that he’s unaware of the camera; he’s snubbing it.
Nadar had a nickname for his friend Théophile: le Théos, as
in the Greek for god. Already celebrated as a poet, novelist, critic,
playwright and travel writer, Gautier was not yet, at the time of the
photograph, at the peak of his fame. But his pose suggests that he saw no
reason to question himself or to doubt that he’d enjoy the approving judgment
Gautier was one of hundreds of writers, artists and
musicians who posed for Nadar. Their names, however, are not dropped in When I
Was a Photographer. The book is a grab-bag of unrelated pieces, some of them
only tenuously connected to photography. There are gems, flashes of charm and
brilliance, and also long stretches that will puzzle today’s reader. Nadar
wrote for his crowd, a plugged-in elite. He never stops to explain himself to
The most engrossing (and ghoulish) of the chapters,
Homicidal Photography, is about a notorious murder case of 1882: a pharmacist
who killed his wife’s lover with the help of his wife and brother. Nadar
doesn’t identify the perpetrators until the very end, and only indirectly, by
giving the name of the pharmacy.
Who killed whom isn’t the issue, as far as Nadar is
concerned. For him, the point of the story is the power of a single photograph
to shape public opinion. The victim’s corpse, fished from the Seine where it
was dumped, was photographed by the police, and the grotesque image inflamed
the passions of the crowd. “The whole mob set to barking,” Nadar writes,
“howling on this trail of blood.”
None of the other chapters is as dramatic; many are mere
anecdotes illustrating the newness of photography and the incomprehension with
which it was greeted. Written near the end of his life, When I Was a
Photographer is more of a postscript than an introduction. Digressive,
allusive, at times almost evasive, it gives the flavour of Nadar as a writer,
but not much in the way of practical information.
The bare-bones chronology at the back of the English
translation was lifted from the excellent, fact-filled catalogue (now, sadly,
out of print, but sometimes available in good used book stores) of the glorious
mid-1990s exhibition of Nadar’s work at the Musée d’Orsay and the Metropolitan
Museum of Art. That catalogue remains the best way to get to know the
enchanting and maddening Nadar.
Another way is to look closely at his photographs. He had
future generations in mind when assembling his portrait gallery of eminent
contemporaries; he wanted to present posterity with a “convincing and
sympathetic likeness” of the people he admired. Roland Barthes (who thought
Nadar was the world’s greatest photographer) confessed that his own fascination
with photography was “tinged with necrophilia … a fascination with what has
died but is represented as wanting to be alive”.
We can’t really know someone by peering at a photograph
taken 150 years ago (the same is true of a selfie taken 15 minutes ago). Yet
the magic of Nadar’s portraits – their sincerity, their freshness, the
unwavering faith they demonstrate in the possibility of capturing a piercingly
accurate psychological likeness – tempts us to forget our scepticism, to look
past the sepia tint, the old style hats and coats, and our doubts about the
veracity of photographic images. We’re tempted, when we first see them, to
trust the spark of recognition, that instant when we come face to face with a
fellow being who’s alive and knowable.
Other iems like the snake belt seem to have been oprimatily
worn in England. Some like the snake belt have almost disappeared. The
so-called 'snake-belt' was at one time an extremely common item of English (and
indeed of British) school uniform, although it tended to be worn on many other
occasions too as part of regular boyswear. It consisted of an elasticated
strip, fastened at the front with an S-shaped metal hook-buckle fashioned as a
snake; it was, obviously, this feature of the belt which gave it its popular
The so-called 'snake-belt' was at one time an extremely
common item of English (and indeed of British) school uniform, although it
tended to be worn on many other occasions too as part of regular boyswear. It
consisted of an elasticated strip, fastened at the front with an S-shaped metal
hook-buckle fashioned as a snake; it was, obviously, this feature of the belt
which gave it its popular name. A metal slide, together with a loop in the
belt, enabled it to be adjusted to an individual boy's waist far more
sensitively than could be done with the usual tang and series of holes and
also, of course, allowed its length to be increased as a boy grew. The slide
and loop arrangement also ensured that there was no long end left dangling - an
important matter of safety during the frequent rough-and-tumble of boy life.
Sometimes, but not always, a flap was provided behind the snake-buckle. Boys'
short and long trousers were provided with loops through which the belt could be
We are not sure precisely when the snake belt first appeared
or who invented it. It was clearly being worn by the 1860s, but we are not sure
that it was a specifically school style. Another portrait shows three brothers
wearing tunics with snake belts over them. We do not know if these were school
outfits. The earliest we note the snake belt in the photographic record was
belts worn with tunic suits by two Glasgow brothers in 1863. An Origin in
Most items of what has come to be regarded as 'traditional'
English/British school uniform were borrowed from sportswear of the late 19th
or early 20th century and in this respect the snake-belt is no exception, for
it was in sportswear that this distinctive item of dress first appeared. In
1888 the famous English cricketer W. G. Grace declared that 'braces
['suspenders' in America] are not worn when playing cricket': belts, he
considered, were less restrictive of movement. [Cunnington and Mansfield, p.
31.] The snake-belt was a favourite form. The early examples were made from
silk and were often advertised as 'cricket and lawn tennis belts', as in a
catalogue of 1907: 'ORDINARY CRICKET AND LAWN TENNIS BELTS / Silk, striped
colours fitted with snake buckles, each 2/6 / plain ... 2/0'. [Aldbrugham, p.
994.] The sums of money are in the British pre-decimal coinage and stand for
two shillings and six pence and two shillings respectively: 12.5p and 10p in
modern British currency). As the advertisement states, they were available in a
single colour ('plain') or in stripes: where there were stripes they consisted
of two outer ones in one colour and a central one in a contrasting colour. The
different colours meant that sporting clubs - cricket clubs, for example -
could obtain them in their own club colours. Not surprisingly, schoolboys would
wear them in school colours with cricket flannels when playing in school
cricket matches. From there they were adopted as part of school uniform wear.
Their availability in a wide range of single or twinned
colours meant that they could be readily obtained in school colours to match
those of blazer, school cap, tie, and badge. The travel writer Eric Newby
recalls visits to the Boys' Shop at the world-famous Harrod's in London in the
1920s and '30s to be kitted out with, amongst other items of school uniform,
'flannel shorts supported by belts striped in the school colours with
snake-head buckles. [A Traveller's Life, p. 44.] Occasionally, they might be
compulsory but more often they were optional. At my own schools in Luton, Beds.
they were not compulsory but many boys wore them. At Hart Hill Primary School,
which introduced a school uniform during my time as a pupil there, the
snake-belt had two brown stripes and a central yellow stripe. At Luton Grammar
School, where I started in 1957, the belt had two red stripes and a central
yellow stripe. The secondary school which my elder brother attended had two
dark blue stripes and a central pale blue stripe. Those worn by other boys whom
I knew in the town had two black stripes with a central red or a central yellow
stripe, two maroon stripes with a central grey or a central white stripe, and
two green stripes with a central yellow stripe. But other combinations were
Out of school uniform, a boy would still often support his
trousers with such a belt, usually his school one. You could, however, obtain
them in with two black stripes and a central white stripe: since black and
white were the colours of the Luton Town Football Club, some boys in my home
town wore a snake-belt with those colours when going to matches on Saturday
afternoons. They might also wear them on other occasions out of school in order
to declare their allegiance to the local football team.
Changes in the 1930s
At first, snake-belts had been made quite wide - 1.75 inches
(44 mm) - and occasionally they incorporated two snake-buckles, one above the
other, as in an early 20th-century postcard-size photograph in my possession.
This width was not really suitable for boys, especially smaller ones; the belts
also had insufficient elasticity and tended to become loose. In the 1930s the
width was reduced to 1.25 inches (32 mm) whilst the introduction of artificial
fibres gave a lighter webbing with greater elasticity and durability: 'the
result was a better belt with a longer life and much neater appearance. [Guppy,
The later, improved version was, as I recall from my own
schooldays, very comfortable to wear, since it would stretch as necessary with
a boy's movements during play - the very reason for their introduction into
games such as cricket and tennis. The only discomfort came if the metal slide
got twisted, as could happen occasionally: 'One glance was enough to reveal the
cause of the trouble,' relates Anthony Buckeridge in one of his Jennings
stories: '"Yes, I see what it is," she said. "A clear case of
twisted-belt-buckle-itis." '"Wow! That sounds bad," Jennings
exclaimed. "Shall I have to see the doctor, Matron?"
'"Oh, no, it's not serious." She straightened out
the twisted belt and slackened the adjustable buckle [that is, the metal slide]
at the back, which had ridden up over the waistband of his shorts' (According
to Jennings, London and Glasgow, 1954, 247). They were worn with both short and
long trousers; indeed, in conformity with changed times, the more recent
revision of the Jennings story alters 'shorts' to 'trousers' (According to
Jennings, revised edition, Wendover, 1986, 182-3; paperback edition, London and
Basingstoke, 1991, 196). Partly because of their comfort and partly, I suppose,
because of their often bright colours, they were very popular amongst boys
themselves: in the post-World War II Austerity era Ray Watkins regretted not
having one because of continuing rationing, but eventually obtained one with
some change from the purchase of a grey school shirt (Interview in 'Now the War
is Over', BBC2 Television, repeat 23 July 1990). Sometimes girls might even
envy the boys' possession of these distinctive items of clothing, as Dora Saint
(writing as 'Miss Read') recalls (Times Remembered, paperback edition,
Harmondsworth, 1987, 36).
Snake-Belt versus Braces
Braces (suspenders) were sometimes worn with school uniform
and both short and long trousers were provided with braces-buttons as well as
belt-loops. John Mortimer amusingly recalls his preparatory school headmaster
vacillating over the issue of braces versus the snake-belt: '... you are
round-shouldered through the wearing of braces! Unbutton your braces and cast
them from you. Each boy to acquire a dark-blue elastic belt with a
snake-buckle, to be slotted neatly into the loops provided at the top of school
shorts.' But a little later he fulminates: 'Why are you an offence to the eyes,
all tied up like parcels? I say unto you, there will be no more belts or the
wearing thereof. Abandon belts! Each boy to equip himself with a decent pair of
sturdy elastic braces!' (Clinging to the Wreckage: a Part of Life, London,
1982, paperback edition, Harmondsworth, 1983, 31-32)
In their heyday, from the 1930s through to the 1960s,
snake-belts were easily available from a large number of shops and stores and
even from market stalls which sold boyswear. Official school outfitters stocked
them in the colours of local schools, but most colour combinations - certainly
the brown and yellow of my primary school and the red and yellow of my grammar
school - were available at the other outlets, usually at less cost, although
they were inexpensive items wherever they were purchased - certainly when
compared with leather belts.
The Situation Today
The snake-belt is seen much less often these days, although
they can sometimes be found. They are sometimes even thinner, being about 1
inch (25 mm) in width. Occasionally too trousers for smaller boys will have a
sort of false version, consisting of just the two ends, sewn to the sides of
the trousers and fastening in front with the snake-buckle. The trousers have
elasticated backs and are self-supporting so that the 'belts' are decorative
rather than functional.
Aldbrugham, Alison. "Introduction", Yesterday's
Shopping: the Army and Navy Stores Catalogue, 1907, (Newton Abbot, 1969).
Cunnington, Phillis and Alan Mansfield, English Costume for
Sports and Outdoor Activities, London, 1969).
Guppy, Alice. Children's Clothes 1939-1970: The Advent of
Fashion (Poole, 1978).
Smith, Terence Paul. Terence submitted the first draft of
A Traveller's Life (paperback edition, London, 1983).
In the era before low slung jeans every boy in the land
would have had his trousers held up by these elasticated belts with traditional
metal snake fastening.
We have now had them remade in adult sizes so they are both
practical and nostalgic.
The adult belts will adjust from 22" to 42" waist
and are 1 1/8" wide
Plain and striped colourways.
Actual colours may vary slightly from the images
Made in England and sent in presentation box so an ideal
gift for the overgrown schoolboy..