The British period drama Downton Abbey just wrapped up its fifth season on Canadian screens – the finale aired Sunday, March 1 on PBS. While most of the audience for the show is female, I believe there’s a good reason why more guys should watch. And I attended a butler academy to prove it.
This post isn’t just about clothes, even though that’s a main reason I started watching the show. As I’ve written before, watching TV, especially period pieces like Downton or Jeeves and Wooster, can inspire your wardrobe. I often watch episodes twice; once for the plot and once for the clothes. But in the case of Downton, there’s something else I watch for: the valets.
Mr. and Mrs. Bates hard at work in the boot room.
I watch for these characters, obsessively cataloguing every action, because I am finicky and fussy and love to do things the “right” way, especially when it comes to my wardrobe. I know Downton is not a documentary, but a lot of work is put into historical accuracy (at least when it comes to household duties). And that’s why I think the valets are relevant to guys today. Even though the show is set in the 1910s and 20s, a time we think of as very divided on gender lines, here were men who knew how to clean, cook, mend, polish, brush – many of the duties of the so-called ‘housewife.’ These men were self-sufficient and their masculinity was never questioned. And that’s what I aspire to because I feel that being a grown man is being able to take care of yourself.
How to impress the ladies.
Some of us, if we were lucky, learned household skills from our parents – I, for example, first learned how to sew and polish shoes from my mother. There are some great books that directly connect us to the past, like Stanley Ager’s excellent memoir and how-to. Most of us, however, learn from the internet and through personal trial and error; in truth, that’s how I’ve learned most of my skills. But that wasn’t good enough for me. So I took things one step further and enrolled in the Charles MacPherson Academy, Toronto’s own butlering school. But not to be a butler.
Mr. Charles “The Butler” MacPherson himself. [Photo courtesy charlesmacpherson.com]
Since I’m self-taught, having learned so many of my skills via YouTube, I was worried I was doing things wrong or there were things I could do better. Here was a chance to learn from masters. It’s also validation: I want people to take me more seriously when I talk about wardrobe care and having such a prestigious course under my belt really helps. But the Academy is not really intended for people like me, slightly obsessive types who want to upgrade their skills.
[Photo courtesy charlesmacpherson.com]
Even though the Academy does attract folks from many walks of life, it is intended for professionals working in the hospitality industry. I met people in my class who are professional assistants, others who work around the world at high end hotels and restaurants, even people in the clothing industry. But in one way or another, they all work “in service”, like the people downstairs on Downton, but in a modern context. For them, the Academy offers a multi-week, full butlering curriculum that covers everything from cleaning shirts to event management. I just took the “valet skills” course.
And what would Downton‘s head butler Mr. Carson think of the class? I’m sure he would be relieved that these skills are still being maintained and taught, and he would be mightily impressed by the Academy’s high standards and concern for doing things right. To be fair, however, things are not all done like they were in Downton’s time – for example, personal assistants are more likely to spend time updating their employer’s twitter feed than helping put on detached collars. But many of the old skills are still very much alive and required, like – I was a little surprised to find out – ironing newspapers so the ink doesn’t rub off on your fingers.
But why did I really take the class? Why should men try to be more like the valets of old? On a personal level, I believe that caring for your wardrobe is an extension of caring for yourself and others. It’s a way I exercise mindfulness, that I add value to my life by seeing the value in every aspect of my life. It’s also a set of skills that helps me build my confidence because if my shoe gets scuffed, or my shirt gets stained, I’m not helpless. And I have a son, so on a deeper level I am showing him that manhood and masculinity include being able to take care of myself, my wardrobe, my home. If I had a daughter, I recently read that this helps build true gender equality, because it turns out that when little girls see their dads doing housework, they are more likely to be ambitious in their career choices.