The other day, my brother called and asked if I would look and see if he had accidentally left his good trousers at my apartment while he was crashing with me; he needed to attend a funeral. I said he had, and that I would press them for him.
“I wish he could afford some better clothes,” I said regretfully to my friend. “But it’s not like anyone will be looking. And the lights probably won’t be be very bright.” (While this may seem a trivial concern, anyone who has worn black polyester to a funeral will know what I’m talking about.)
“It will be fine,” said my friend. “It’s not as though he’ll be in rags. Or a barrel and suspenders.”
This got us thinking about barrels and suspenders—the familiar image of an individual in visibly reduced circumstances. I imagined it had originated in old political cartoons or similar. And then of course we had to look it up.
Wikipedia informed us that, indeed, a cartoonist called Will B. Johnstone was known for having created a New York World-Telegram cartoon character known as the Tax Payer, who—presumably having been taxed so exorbitantly that he could no longer afford clothing—was portrayed sporting only a barrel held up by suspenders.
But the origin of the trope was most likely the Drunkard’s Cloak, or Newcastle Cloak, a form of pillory in seventeenth-century Germany and England in which the publicly inebriated were placed in a barrel colorfully illustrated with scenes of drunken antics. As one helpful Web site explains, “There were two kinds—the enclosed barrel which forced the victim to kneel in his or her own filth, or the open barrel which allowed the victim to roam about town, open to ridicule and scorn.” A Sophie’s choice, really. Especially as both barrels were likely employed for communal use and, presumably, never cleaned.
As late as 1865, an American newspaper, according to Curious Punishments of Bygone Days, describes how a “wretched delinquent was gratuitously framed in oak, his head being thrust through a hole cut in one end of a barrel, the other end of which had been removed, and the poor fellow loafed about in the most disconsolate manner, looking for all the world like a half-hatched chicken.”
But the best description comes from a fascinating site called TVTropes.org, which explains,
To show that a character is in such dire financial straits that he’s literally “lost his shirt” (though there are times where a character has to wear a barrel because he or she lost her clothes, not because he or she is poor) the otherwise naked character will resort to wearing a large barrel held up with suspenders. Primarily seen in cartoons.
After that, obviously, we had no choice but to descend into the rabbit hole of Stock Costume Traits, which taught us the distinction between Mystical High Collars and the High Collar of Doom; and then we talked about Halloween costumes for a while, and I said this year I was going to do Sexy Struwwelpeter, goddammit (here is a video of Heidi Klum with Struwwelpeter-inspired hair), or maybe Sexy Bella Abzug, and no one could stop me.
We arrived, somehow, at the question of Gilligan’s Island, and I said, There must be a minor indie band called the Professor and Mary Ann. I looked it up. And I still literally cannot believe there isn’t.
Somewhere along the way, I completely forgot about my brother’s pants. When he came to get them, they were still here, his good trousers, still wrinkled. I feel terrible about it, but the fact is, it is snowing so hard here, chances are everyone will get snow-caked on their way to the funeral home. Of course I know that is not the point.