The Dirty Suit Men

Blimey we’re not toffs – we’re working class mate!

Logged: 21 September 2019

One day an archaeologist will shine a tentative light into a dark abandoned film vault, examine some grainy archive documentary film, and conclude correctly there was once a strange breed of men who worked at the London Docks. They dressed in a manner that defies logic. It had nothing to do with the complete illogic of dressing in a ludicrous ceremonial way beloved of the priesthood, the judiciary, the House of Lords, and Rap artists. I call them the “Dirty Suit Men”. As the name is one I invented, it’s unlikely academics will adopt it. They’ll probably arrive at something similar with a more fancy technical name that means essentially the same thing. I’m not upset about it. The papers academics publish are aimed only at other academics. I don’t begrudge them their own specialised language.

For those who don’t know, The Dirty Suit Men were dock labourers who, perhaps surprisingly from the standpoint of our casual dress-down era today, routinely wore three-piece suits and ties while loading and unloading ships. Their only apparent concession to being labourers was a flat cap. It’s possible they had anxieties about being mistaken for the gentry or bankers if they’d looked too smart on the dockside. Because of that they did whatever they could to ensure their suits were absolutely filthy, and drew attention to it by wearing a ceremonial flat cap of hard labour. This was not an odd choice made by a deranged few, but the absolute required uniform of the day. A scene in a documentary showing a large group of these men waiting for their work assignments at the docks makes it appear that Dirty Suit Men were being bred in captivity like Salmon – though obviously without the cages, water, and posh restaurants queuing up to cook and serve them to hungry customers.

Suits in our modern era have a single phase of life, after which they are left in the wardrobe, or find their way to a charity shop. Occasionally they’re just binned from the fear of being shamed as “unfashionable.” In the 1950s a man’s suit had four times as many phases to its life. Each was a step to a lower rung of the ladder. Each occurred once a suit had dropped to a certain level of wear and deterioration. Unlike today, a suit’s actual stylistic appearance then was never a factor, as owners of the notorious “Demob” suit would doubtless confirm if any survivors from that time weren’t justifiably embarrassed at having owned one.

The descending phases of a 1950s suit’s life are worth dwelling upon briefly:

Phase I): Sunday Best.
Phase II): Everyday work clothes for one’s employment.
Phase III): A suit for gardening in.
Phase IV (and normally the terminal phase): The suit to dress a guy in on bonfire night.

There may have been other lesser known phases, but they were all aberrant offshoots that didn’t occur very often. The bookends that defined the lifespan of a suit in the 1950s were “Sunday Best”, and “Bonfire Night.” How long it took to make that agonising journey depended on how much churchgoing the suit enjoyed during its initial phase, how many “dirty loads” the wearer worked on at the docks, how much gardening he did, and ultimately how much he enjoyed fireworks.

One renegade and showy refinement to the Dirty Suit Man uniform fell to those workers who were required to stand in huge vats of grain as they shovelled it towards a suction hopper, and others who dealt with assisting the passage of coal into a hold amid lethal turning machinery. They were rewarded with a dizzy badge of rank that involved tying straps around their trousers at regular intervals all the way up the legs. The theory or principle behind this was a practical one. It certainly wasn’t an aesthetic one. The legs were just strapped-up in the hope they wouldn’t flap about quite as much.

Trousers in the dark monochrome days of the 1950s generally had legs wide enough to smuggle an entire body in and still be worn. A stiff breeze would cause them to flutter alarmingly like flags during a storm. They even allowed some men to pretend to have a waistline that started around their chests, like a clown. This, inevitably, led to ties that were six inches long – again like a clown. Thankfully this uniform was spared the big floppy shoes. The only period in which I can recall men looking more ridiculous voluntarily was the 1970s – interestingly an era with trousers that shared some of those characteristics. Short ties are now making an unfathomable comeback at some schools. They looked idiotic in the 1950s, and they still look idiotic now. That’s probably why the kids love them.

Any trousers readily accessible for snagging by lethal, callous 1950s machinery capable of dragging a man to an abrupt and horrible death, needed a few cursory precautions. In this context of course, the word “precautions” is a relative one. Health & Safety regs then tended to be looked upon as slightly wimpish, and men who depended upon them even more so. The compromise between manliness and safety was a few straps on each leg. I haven’t been able to find any stats regarding their effectiveness, reminding me again of the joke about parachutes; nobody ever comes back to complain when they don’t work.

It wasn’t uncommon for social events involving dock workers of a certain age to look like a gathering of men who had been cannibalised for spare parts. Many of them lacked fingers, or some other useful appendage that when torn away didn’t result in immediate death. My father spent more than a decade working in that sort of environment. He was gifted with a macabre sense of fun, and indulged it by holding up a hand in greeting (when introduced to people who’d never met him before) that had half a finger missing. He was one of the lucky ones.

The odd occasions when my father slipped or was knocked into the dock water from a ship, always led to him spending a few days in hospital. The dock water was so polluted at that time it was like falling into a vat at a chemical plant. People who wrinkle their delicate noses and wave their hands in the air self-righteously whenever they’re in the vicinity of someone using an e-cig might want to think about that and develop a sense of proportion. Your parents and grand parents had it much worse.