Oxford Bags, Pullovers and Northern Soul

‘Le Gandin’ by Auguste Bosc, published by Auguste Bosc (Paris, 1928) and illustrated by Clérice frères.

Bloomers were not the only pants fashion worthy of a song or dance. Proudly this young man struts around, wearing very capacious trousers called Oxford bags. The fashion of these wide-cut trousers started in 1924 in the city of youth, Oxford. They were typically made of flannel, with a circumference of usually 66 cm around the knee and 60 cm around the ankle. These Oxford bags were sometimes also named ‘Charleston trousers’ or ‘collegiate pants’.

In those days young men in Oxford were seen as fashion icons. They were reported in the newspapers and their vestimentary code had a worldwide impact. Our sheet music covers are sure witnesses of that influence on the vogue in Paris.

The instant popularity of the Oxford-style trousers is illustrated by the song C’est chic les longs pantalons or Oxford Bags created at the Moulin Rouge in 1925. The cover for this song is illustrated by Roger de Valerio. He might have drawn a self portrait here: the young man is wearing de Valerio’s typical round horn-rimmed spectacles. Or he could have been joking: allegedly some followers of fashion wore these round spectacles with plain glass just to give “an appearance of owlish sapience”.

French papers were making fun of the ‘elephant leg’ trousers. Surely, if fashion wasn’t French it could not be elegant, could it?

‘C’est chic les longs pantalons’ or ‘Oxford Bags’ by Fred Melé & Craven, published by Francis Salabert (Paris, 1925) and illustrated by Roger De Valerio.

It is said that these large trousers became the style because students were not allowed to wear knickerbockers in lectures, so they hid them under Oxford bags. However, the belief is now that rowers used to slip them over their shorts during cold weather, the equivalent of a tracksuit. One such a pair of rowing-over trousers (already coined Oxford bags in 1896) is kept at the River & Rowing Museum, in Henley-on-Thames.

At first Oxford bags were worn with a double-breasted blazer but soon they were accompanied by pullover sweaters, another Oxonian fashion statement. “Conservative Oxford continues to add bizarre notes to the prevailing mode of men’s fashion. After the flapping Oxford bags of a previous year fanciful coat-sweaters of exotic colours, called pullovers have captured the undergraduate fancy.” (The Chicago Tribune, 26 October 1926). The newspaper continued to state that the pullover’s unusual popularity may be traced to the 1926 lockout of one million coal miners and the ensuing cold lecture rooms.

Il a mis son Pull-over’ by René Sylviano, published by Francis Salabert (Paris, 1928) and Illustrated by Roger De Valerio.

The Oxford trousers as a fashion item were taken to extremes. One pair even had a 122 cm wide hem, and extravagant trousers such as these were getting all the attention. But still, the normal kind of Oxford pants were to stay right up into the 1950s.

‘Charming’ by Romain Macker, published by Harmonia (Brussels, sd) and illustrated by Peter De Greef.

In the 1970s Oxford bags found their second life in the Northern soul scene, a British subculture that emerged out of the mod movement in the North of England. The youths danced all night to rare vintage vinyls of black American soul with a heavy beat and fast tempo. They had a particular dance style, spinning around, kicking in the air, performing splits and backdrops. A typical sweat-soaked all-nighter was fuelled by popping Dexedrine pills to keep dancing for hours. Beer was not served though, because the dance clubs could stay open as long as no alcohol was offered.

For practical reasons the boys chose light and loose-fitting clothes to easily move in: high-waisted Oxford bags, polo shirts, sports or track jackets and leather soled shoes for good gliding across the dance floor. Often patches representing the soul club allegiance were sown on the vest or shirt.

In this 25 minutes ‘Wigan Casino’ documentary from the seventies we can appreciate the dance moves of Northern soul devotees who lose themselves to their favourite music. The Wigan Casino (1973-1981), a night club in Greater Manchester, was the primary venue for Northern soul music.

To March or not to March: La Marche de l’Armée

Sheet music cover for Marche des Chauffeurs
Marche des Chauffeurs‘ composed and published by Auguste Bosc (Paris, s.d.). Cover illustration by Léonce Burret.

Isn’t it ironic? Composing a march to celebrate another form of locomotion, really! The lady reading a book in her automobile has no intention at all to set foot on the ground, let alone to walk. Her chauffeur seems to question her attitude. Thank you Léonce Burret for this quizzical image.

A marche that wasn’t composed to accompany a brisk walk or hike. We found this same kind of contradiction for ‘marches‘ that praise cycling,…

Sheet music cover illustrating the Marche des Cyclistes
Marche des Cyclistes‘ by Louis Desvaux, published by Emile Gallet (Paris, s.d.) and illustrated by Hyacinthe Royet.

salute ballooning,…

Sheet music cover for 'Marche des Aëronautes'
Marche des Aëronautes‘ by Charles Grelinger. Published by Portius (Leipzig, 1907), unknown illustrator.

or cheer the enjoyment of gliding on ice…

Illustration for 'Skating March', a composition by Cécile Reubère, published by Fatout & Girard in Paris
Skating March‘ by Cécile Reubère, published by Fatout & Girard (Paris, s.d.). Unknown illustrator.

or over snow.

illustration by Georges Desains for the sheet music cover 'Skiers Marche' by Adolphe Gauwin
Skiers Marche‘ by Adolphe Gauwin. Published by L. Paroche (Paris, 1906) and illustrated by Georges Desains.

We recognise a good old-fashioned march when we hear or see one. Something that encourages a fast pace in a military spirit, and that goes a long way, on foot of course!  Here it is, the Marche du Matin strongly illustrated by Lucien Faure-Dujarric. 

Sheet miusic cover for 'Marche du Matin' by Léon Fontbonne. Illustration by Lucien Faure-Dujarric
Marche du Matin‘ by Léon Fontbonne. Published by Société Musicale G. Astruc & Cie (Paris, 1904) and illustrated by Lucien Faure.

I mistakenly assumed that the Marche du Matin was composed to hearten the soldiers during their daily early morning exercise. No, the title of the march refers to Le Matin, one of the four big French newspapers before WWI.

Front page of Le Matin newspaper in 1904
Front page of ‘Le Matin’ on the next day of the contest. (source: gallica.bnf)

On the 29th of May in 1904 Le Matin organised a promotional stunt: with the encouragement of the Minister of War and the cooperation of the Army top, each French regiment selected 10 of its men to participate in the big Marche de l’Armée. The walking contest started at the Place de la Concorde at 7 am, with the playing of a military march. Then the 2000 men in battle dress and heavy boots assembled in two long columns and charged up the Champs-Elysées to commence the 45 km (!) long itinerary that would bring them through Paris as far as St-Germain-en-Laye and back. Large crowds, cheers and flags accompanied the men.

Postcard (1904) showing the Marche de l'Armée
Postcard illustrating the festive ambiance at one of the checkpoints on the Marche de l’Armée. (source: eBay)

France’s Bibliothèque nationale is a real treasure trove.  After some digging we were lucky to find interesting pictures of this arduous march by the photographic agency Rol.

Photo of the Marche de l'Armée
Lutte pour la première place, passage sur le pont de Saint-Cloud.‘ [Battle for the first place on the Saint-Cloud bridge.] – Photo Agence Rol (source: gallica.bnf)

Photographic picture of La Marche de l'Armée (1904)
Caporal Piscau dans la montée du Coeur Volant, à Marly.‘ [Corporal Piscau on the Coeur Volant slope at Marly.] – Photo Agence Rol (source: gallica.bnf)

Photo of La Marche de l'Armée (1904)
St-Germain: arrêt des soldats à la buvette, place du Marché Neuf.‘ [In St-Germain: the soldiers at the refreshment bar on the Marché Neuf square.] – Photo Agence Rol (source: gallica.bnf)

Photo of La Marche de l'Armée
Les soldats place du Marché Neuf, à Saint-Germain-en-Laye.‘ [The soldiers at the Marché Neuf square in Saint-Germain-en-Laye.] – Photo Agence Rol (source: gallica.bnf)

Marche de l'Armée, photo Agence ROL
Le premier: soldat Girard, vainqueur de la Marche de l’Armée, arrivée à la Galerie des Machines.‘ [The winner: soldier Girard, champion of the Marche de l’Armée, arrives at the Galerie des Machines.] – Photo Agence Rol (source: gallica.bnf)

Marche de l'Armée, photo by Agence Rol
Stade Buffalo: Rodolphe Muller serrant la main du soldat Girard, vainqueur de la Marche de l’Armée.‘ [Stade Buffalo: Rodolphe Muller shakes hand with soldier Girard (left), the winner of the Marche de l’Armée.] – Photo Agence Rol (source: gallica.bnf)

I won’t recount the whole day, nor the numerous incidents and accidents. After more than 5 hours the first contestant arrived at the finish. That day the weather was abnormally hot, and the men suffered. Many abandoned the march. Some soldiers were taken to hospital, at least one died. What should have been a festive day became a painful spectacle. The next day L’Humanité, the communist newspaper would report: “The sight of Gerard, the winner, had made the crowd cry out in pity. The unhappy boy could not even, at the end, lift his painful feet swollen with fatigue. The sight of the last groups deeply moved the spectators. The sturdy lads, who had left so happily in the morning, returned broken with fatigue, devastated, drenched in sweat, haggard eyes, clenched hands, clenched jaws, stumbling at every step, threatening continually to fall on the pavement.

A small marine infantry soldier, seized by a dizzy spell, takes two steps back. An officer holds him and shakes him. Another one shouts at him: “Hold on, no more than 25 meters left!”. Hardly recovered, the poor child, he is not yet twenty, continues on his way staggering. A hundred meters from the checkpoint, he stops again and brings his clenched hands to his throat. But an officer motions him forward, giving him a word of encouragement. He stiffens then, and feeling his strength completely abandon him, he rushes in a last effort towards the finish post near which he comes crashing down.
And these sorrowful scenes went on and on …

Hm… I think that white fatigue trousers will forever remind me of the deplorable scenes above.

From Harem Pants To Bloomers Or Vice Versa

The New Costume Polka‘ by Mathias Keller, published by Lee & Walker (Philadelphia, c1851 ) and illustrated by James Fuller Queen. Source: The Library companion of Philadelphia).

On the cover of The New Costume Polka an elegant woman holds a tiny blue parasol. She wears a corseted coat and wide skirt over her white bloomers. The outfit is trimmed with elegant golden galloons and decorated with blue ribbons. We see other women dressed in bloomer costume on the sidewalk and entering the shop (which is a detailed depiction of the music publisher’s store, see the street address and the model harp above the entrance). The sheet music is dedicated to Mrs. Amelia Bloomer.

‘The Bloomer Polkas’ published by G. H. Davidson (London, sd) and illustrated by S. Rosenthal.

Bloomers first appeared in the 1850s as an alternative to the heavy dresses. They were loose-fitting ankle-lenght trousers, inspired by Turkish pantaloons and worn under a shorter skirt. The garment was named after Amelia Bloomer, an American women’s rights and temperance activist. Amelia Bloomer did not invent the bloomers though, it was another women’s rights advocate, Elizabeth Smith Miller who first wore the outfit. But Amelia Bloomer enthusiastically promoted wearing pantaloons in The Lily, the first American newspaper edited by and for women.

Left: ‘New Bloomer Dances’, by Paul Henrion and illustrated by S. Rosenthal (publisher unknown, sd). Right: ‘The New Bloomer Polka’ by Alfred Mellon and illustrated by J. Brandard, published by Jullien & Co (London, sd).

As most leaders of the women’s rights movement and emancipated women wore the new costume, bloomerism became synonym for an early form of feminism. The bloomers were fiercely mocked by opponents and an avalanche of cartoons and satirical poems followed, criticising those who wore them. The New Bloomer Polka was performed in the London sketch ‘Bloomerism or The Follies of the Day‘.

And so, although Amelia Bloomer dressed for several years in bloomers, in 1859 she dropped the fashion in favour of conventional ankle-length dresses. She gathered that the attention and the ridicule in the popular press became a distraction: “We all felt that the dress was drawing attention from what we thought of far greater importance—the question of woman’s right to better education, to a wider field of employment, to better remuneration for her labour, and to the ballot for the protection of her rights.”

‘Bicyclette-Polka’ by Emile Wesley, published by Emile Wesly (Bruxelles, sd).

The bloomer costume died—temporarily. It was to return much later (in a different form), as a women’s athletic costume in the 1890s and early 1900s. It goes without saying that these cycling trousers, along with women on bikes, were also a target of ridicule.

‘L’étrange valse’ by Maurice Yvain, published by Salabert (Paris, 1922) and Illustrated by Roger De Valerio.

But that wasn’t the swansong of the baggy garnment: the loose-fitting trousers surfaced again in 1911 when couturier Paul Poiret launched his Orientalistic collection and the Style Sultan. Remember that Parisians were at that time enchanted with eastern exoticism and easily dazed by Arabic-Islamic fragrance. From then on the harem trousers, as they became known in the fashion world, would follow the whimsical waves of what is in vogue, and sometimes even be seen as an anti-fashion statement…

Fatme – Orientalisches Foxtrot‘ by Carl Alfredy & Carl Böhm. Illustration by Wolfgang Ortmann. Published by Max Jaschunsky (Berlin, sd)

What Amelia Bloomer and her feminist companions wouldn’t have dared to imagine is that the bloomers or harem pants would, certainly in the Twenties at the height of art deco, become a symbolic attire —admittedly with at least a hint of nudity— to represent women in their most servile condition: that of the harem woman, with no other role than to please men’s sexual fantasies.

Hey, what a perfect excuse to show some interesting sheet music covers in our collection. They use all the stereotypical elements of such imagery, including a languid female, the implicit eroticism, and an ethnographical backdrop.

Soave‘ by Paul Nast, published by Select Edition, Edouard Andrieu (Paris, 1921) and illustrated by Bouvier-Pellat & Co.

And even in the Sixties orientalism had not lost any of its British mystique… You’ll have to imagine your own entrancing rhytm to this silent Pathé film.

'Ceci et ça' about Illustrated Sheet Music