John Considine was born in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) in 1966, the son of an academic and a poet. He grew up in England, and was educated at a fee-paying boys school called Bedford Modern School, and at Oxford. He has lived and worked in Canada since 1996, returning annually to England, where he spends most of his time in hill country or at the edge of the sea.
I first met Dr. Considine as a student in his class on Etymology. Although I was there to learn about word origins, I couldn’t help but spend some of my class time growing more and more curious about Dr. Considine’s style: a mix of bowties, tweed jackets, waistcoats and, every so often, a kilt. Here, he talks to WORN about well-dressed literary figures, fashion-related etymologies and what makes a good tie.
How did you dress as a university student?
I think I wobbled rather from attempts at grandeur to hopeless shabbiness: jacket-and-tie shabbiness, of the sort which one sees on some of the people who spend their afternoons in pubs in England. I remember once walking through a quadrangle in Oxford, in a dinner jacket (I mean the whole suit, what you’d call a tuxedo, with the trousers and black bow tie) and a new pair of dress shoes with hard leather soles, and being very happy at the way that the clattering of my footsteps echoed within the stone walls. I remember also dining with the Principal of my college, a mathematician called Sir Christopher Zeeman, and looking at his clean shirt cuffs and golden cuff links, and comparing them with my own shirtcuffs, which were not as clean as they should have been, and hoping that Sir Christopher hadn’t noticed.
Tell us about the garment you love the most.
I don’t think one should love garments very much. What I do certainly love is my skin: it makes sense to love your own body, and Christians (I am one) are specially enjoined to do that. I’m usually happier without clothes than with them. So, a reason to like clothes is that they’re basically inessential: when there’s a reason to wear them, they had better give pleasure.
Have you ever felt that you’ve had to limit the way you dress in the workplace? How important is it to maintain a professional appearance?
I’m employed by a university, and that means no dress code. I wear a suit (or a kilt with a jacket and tie) to teach, as a gesture of respect towards my students. That sort of gesture is bound not to speak equally clearly towards everyone, of course.
What makes a tie interesting? Where do you get your ties?
A tie had better not draw too much attention to itself. I buy mine in England, and when possible from good traditional tailors: city ties (spotty bow ties, that sort of thing) at Walters in Oxford, country ties (there’s a couple with a motif of pheasants of which I’m rather fond) from Whites of Wensleydale, definitely the shop where I’m happiest buying clothes, which is in Hawes, a market town up in the hills of North Yorkshire.
Are there any people in your life that have influenced your style? Who, and why?
My father, certainly. I think I still follow all the rules I learned from him: always tie your own bow tie, that sort of thing. The philosopher William Charlton is the person whose clothes I most admire, but the qualities I like in them are not easy to define, and trying to imitate him, perhaps by having a tweed suit made for me to mimic one of his, would be a great mistake. A remoter influence is Sir Walter Scott who helped the peoples of the British Isles to imagine the kilt as a garment which could be worn beyond the Scottish Highlands, by anyone for whom the Gaelic world was an inheritance.
If you could sum your style up in 3 words (from any language or time period), what would they be?
I think one word would be enough: I’d like to think that I dress like a gentleman. I don’t mean gentleman in the sense “member of the British landowning classes” (which I am not: William Charlton is, and that’s doubtless relevant to the way he dresses) but something more like “someone with integrity and confidence in himself, who could not reasonably be accused of being dishonest or vulgar.”
What do you think about a faux-academic style (including fake glasses or ironic bowties) making a comeback with young people?
I’m very strongly in favour of clothes which show a sense of humour.
A lot of your work involves a thorough understanding of different historical periods—what is your favourite historical era in terms of fashion?
The past probably looks best from a distance. For instance, the best clothes of the 1860s and 1870s look rather fine to me, as in Tissot’s portrait of Captain Frederick Burnaby or his “Le Balcon du Cercle de la rue Royale,” but contemporaries like Ruskin sometimes thought the general standard of that age was very depressing. The pre-colonial costume of West Africa may have been as beautiful as human clothing gets: superb textiles, worn very simply. You’d need much darker skin than mine to show those clothes off to their best effect.
I am currently in your class on Etymology. Can you give us a fashion-related etymology (of your choice)?
I like cravat: that’s a word which has meant a number of kinds of scarf or neckcloth in English, but which I first encountered as the kind of scarf a man might wear under an open-necked shirt in the 1980s. It’s from French, of course; and French cravate originally meant the kind of decorative scarf worn by Croatian mercenaries in the seventeenth century, cravate and Croat both being from Croatian Hrvat, “Croat”: I like the idea of these very beautiful and probably very dangerous mercenaries being remembered in quite a commonplace word.
1. THE DUKE OF DORSET in Max Beerbohm’s Zuleika Dobson is supposed to be the best-dressed man in the world: an Oxford undergraduate, infinitely rich and infinitely aristocratic, who commits suicide by diving into the river Isis in the dress robes of a Knight of the Garter.
2 and 3. At the other extreme are ADAM and EVE, who were also the best-dressed people in the world until the failure and shame which led them to put on clothes (“garments of skins”: what animal was killed for the sake of their sexual modesty?).
4. And in the middle, SIEGFRIED FARNON, the mentor of the vet James Herriot, as played by Robert Hardy in the television series All Creatures Great and Small. Well-worn tweed suits and checked waistcoats. I see that not for the first time, I’m making a connection between desirable clothes and the hills of northern England.
5. ARAGORN, in The Lord of the Rings, is presented as someone who can wear dignified ceremonial attire but also the drab weather-stained garments of a Ranger to noble effect: Tolkien’s imagining someone who is well-dressed by force of character as much as on account of what he actually wears.
6. I see the same connection between character and ideal though undramatic clothing in the MEDIEVAL MONK imagined by Umberto Eco in his essay on blue jeans, his body “protected by a habit that, ennobling it, released it.” I like the idea that being well dressed is a kind of freedom.
7. A monk’s habit has its own glamour, but for glamour at a different level, the costume of the CALIPH OF BAGHDAD and his retinue in a production of James Elroy Flecker’s Hassan in which I took part as a schoolboy stays in my mind. James Lynch, the art master at my school, worked fanatically for months designing the costumes and supervising their making, with all the most gorgeous sari material in town to give him inspiration.
8. Real literary figures must include writers, among whom POPE BENEDICT XVI has a distinguished place: I greatly admire the gaiety of the beautiful and endearing hats whose use he has revived, the fur-trimmed camauro and the round-brimmed saturno, and of other traditional garments like the different kinds of mozzetta for different seasons.
9. Also keenly aware of the power of traditional ceremonial garments was another writer, the historian and genealogist SIR IAIN MONCREIFFE OF THAT ILK, who looked equally splendid in his official outfit as Albany Herald or in a kilt and waistcoat of the Moncreiffe tartan, with an eagle’s feather in his bonnet on account of his being the chief of his clan.
10. Finally, I mentioned Tissot’s portrait of CAPTAIN FREDERICK BURNABY above. Burnaby was a writer too ― his Ride to Khiva is a classic Central Asian travel narrative ― and he has a place in this list on account of that one amazing portrait. The polished breastplate beside him is part of his uniform as an officer in the Guards; he’s taken it off, but he’s still really in armour, a lot of private unhappiness behind that immaculate exterior. Like some other handsome men, the mathematician G. H. Hardy for instance, he disliked his own appearance.
- Hailey Siracky