Under-covered agents – An Irishman’s Diary about the decline of the male overcoat

Augustus Saint-Gaudens’s statue of Parnell. Photograph: Kate Geraghty

Augustus Saint-Gaudens’s statue of Parnell. Photograph: Kate Geraghty

 

Shopping in Dunne’s recently, I overheard an interesting snippet of conversation in the aisles. It was before the blizzard-induced panic but, as it happens, I was in the bread section at the time. And there I accidentally eavesdropped on a man of about 50 chatting affably in a Dublin accent to a somewhat younger woman.  

The bit I picked up was this: “...and I gave him that Timberland jacket you robbed for me three year ago”.  

So only with heroic restraint did I resist the urge to look at either conversant immediately, until I had retreated behind the next shelf, pretending to buy cheese while still listening.  

Unfortunately, they must have sensed my ears twitch, because after the word “ago”, the volume of the conversation dropped sharply. Nothing else was audible.

Oh well. If there’s a consolation for Timberland, a company specialising in outdoors wear, it may be that the purloined jacket is now protecting some economically vulnerable person from the cold. Besides, along with the bread mania, this week’s storm will probably inspire an upsurge in weatherproof clothes purchases, more than compensating for the loss.

Who knows, our newly extreme winters might yet even send Irish men back to wearing overcoats: something that, as a recent letter-writer to this page noted, we don’t tend to do any more.  

More specifically, Pádraig J O’Connor suggested that “if you go into town and look around you carefully, you will observe that hardly any male (at least under 60) is wearing a full-length overcoat, even in the dead of winter”.  

Wondering why, he suggested two possibilities: “climate change” or the “brain-numbing influence of fashion”.

I don’t know which, if either, of those is to blame. Maybe the modern male’s distaste for coats is another lingering effect of John F Kennedy, who is said to have single-headedly destroyed the men’s hat industry by being the first US president not to wear one. 

But I plead guilty to the trend. I do not now and have never owned a proper overcoat, although as long ago as the 1990s I remember considering such an investment.  

Overcoat ownership seemed a rite of passage then: one of the stages by which you progressed to full male maturity. Somehow that hasn’t happened yet. Instead, perhaps indeed due to the brain-numbing influence of fashion, I’m still wearing butt-numbing short jackets.  

They’re not even from Timberland.

***

Changing the subject, for the moment, today is the 170th anniversary of the birth of a famous Irish-born sculptor.  

He doesn’t sound Irish, because he inherited the surname of his paternal ancestors, who had in turn received it from their place of origin: a town in the Pyrenees (where I’m sure they wear proper coats).  

But he had an Irish mother, Mary McGuinness. And it was because of her that Augustus Saint-Gaudens was born in Dublin on March 1st, 1848.  

Then the family emigrated to the US, when he was only months old. So it was as a product of three nations that Saint-Gaudens grew up to be one of the greatest monumental sculptors of his age.

Having lived through the American Civil War, he made his name in the 1870s with naturalistic depictions of its protagonists. His larger-than-life Abraham Lincoln, in Chicago, is considered not just his masterpiece but, by some, the greatest public sculpture in the US.

Throughout his life, however, he retained affection for this country, and several of his most important commissions had an Irish element. Statues aside, he was also a master of coin design. But when Theodore Roosevelt asked him to update the US $10 and $20 gold pieces in 1904, Saint-Gaudens at first struggled to find a suitable model for Miss Liberty.

Then one day, having lunch, he was attended by a waitress who had just the sort of Classical Greek features required.  

Her name was Mary Cunningham, and far from Greece, she was from Donegal. But the rest was numismatic history.

Back this side of the Atlantic, Saint-Gaudens’s greatest legacy is the statue of Parnell on Dublin’s O’Connell Street.  

It was his last commission, and created despite a disastrous fire at the sculptor’s studio that destroyed all but the head of his original bronze.

Still, the finished work is faithful to its subject. If you’re in town anytime soon, perhaps observing the lack of men under 60 with a proper coat, you might note that Parnell’s statue is wearing two. Only one is an overcoat, of course.  

Under that, he also has a frock-coat, without which gentlemen of his era were not considered dressed. 

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