Monday, 2 November 2009

Oxford Bags at their widest

"Oxford Bags" at their widest, originally uploaded by Trevira.

Sometimes stories get a bit distorted over time, as evidence is repeated second, third and fourth hand until little essential parts of it go missing.

This picture was found in the book These Tremendous Years 1919-1938 published by the Daily Express. Its a marvellous run through of all the major events, personalities, fashions and crazes of that period, and here - in the 1927 section - is a photograph of a man wearing extraordinary trousers.

The text explains things quite clearly:

'"Oxford bags" at their widest were seen in the West End of London when a man, wanting to win a wager, walked out in trousers measuring forty-eight inches across each leg. The fashion of extra-wide trousers, begun in 1923, though still popular among undergraduates was now dying out generally, but trousers have never got back to the narrow widths of pre-war days.'

So this isn't a fashionable young man pushing the stylistic envelope. In fact he looks like rather a grumpy middle aged man who wants to prove a point. Oxford bags were widely mocked, and even, according to Beverley Nichols, 'somehow connected with atheism, [and] effeminacy.'

This man is ridiculing Oxford bags, and the godless, sissy undergraduates that sported them at the time! You can almost hear him harumphing as he submits to the newspaper photographer's attention while he marches down the road.

But the interesting thing is I've seen this exact photograph reproduced in a popular men's fashion history book to demonstrate the extremes that Oxford bags went to, with no mention of the wager at all.

So a humorous wager and publicity stunt gradually becomes recorded fact and the context is lost to history.

UPDATE: Having given this some thought, the original caption to the picture is misleading. It claims that the trousers measure "forty eight inches across each leg," but I would suggest that that was the circumference, and not the width. A 24 inch width (two feet) is still pretty vast. This confusion between circumference and width might account for the ludicrous misreporting (and its repetition over the years) of the Oxford bags phenomenon.

And further - I've found another picture of this same man in a rather more jovial mood. Perhaps he'd just collected his winnings?


fauxbrit13 said...

What an awesome article about one of the weirdest fashion items!!! Thanks for keeping us all in the know :) xox

Sarah said...

Thanks for commenting! Its really nice to have your appreciative response to my ramblings!

I do like baggy trousers - and wear them all the time myself - but there are limits!