How to be “knuts” for war: refashioning male identity in WW1.

NPG Ax160184; Basil Hallam by Foulsham & Banfield, published by  Rotary Photographic Co Ltd
by Foulsham & Banfield, published by Rotary Photographic Co Ltd, bromide postcard print, circa 1915

Image of Basil Hallam, the Knut with a Capital K.© National Portrait Gallery, London. Reproduced with thanks under Creative Commons.

As previous posts on this site have explored, fashion – and war – could produce some unlikely conjunctions. The fashionable flapper of 1915 might be recognised by her cartridge buttons or the silken bayonet belt she might choose to wear, perhaps in Joffre blue. The appeal of fashion in Edwardian Britain was not, however, a purely female preserve. The knut — and the conflicts he could present in terms of legitimatised forms of male identity –  offers another site of change for words in war time..

When WW1 began, the knut or nut (both spellings are in use) remained undefined in the Oxford English Dictionary. ‘He has come too late for Dr. Murray’, a correspondent to the Times regretted (‘Dr. Murray’ referred to James Murray, editor-in chief of the OED). Its topicality was, however, undoubted. The most recent incarnation of a well-established pattern of male display, the knut was a descendant of the dandy and the beau, the macaroni and the toff. Favoured by young unmarried men, and -in comparison with the ‘toff’ markedly democratised (even a clerk might be ‘knut’ on his day off) — he could be recognised by his hat (floppy or silk), pastel gloves, bright socks, and indolent demeanour. In terms of langauge, the knut was the slang of the moment, as the Times commented in December 1913:

No self-respecting youth can use the slang of his uncle …. He cannot guess that his uncle, when he uses the word “toff,” remembers the time when he himself was one, just as he will remember the time when he was a “nut.”

Basil Hallam’s music-hall turn as Gilbert the Filbert, the ‘knut with a capital K’ — in the revue ‘The Passing Show’ (which opened at the Palace Theatre in April 1914)– only served to enhance the popularity – and prevalence — of the knut in pre-war days. As Hallam’s lyrics stressed, the knut was ‘the pride of Piccadilly’, engaged in nothing more arduous than ‘counting his ties’.

The declaration of war in August of that year nevertheless brought a new set of images of male identity into prominence. Recruiting posters which urged (male) addressees to ‘play the man’ did not have the knut in mind. The knut’s brightly coloured clothing  symbolised an ostentatious freedom from utilitarian constraint — a form of conspicuous (and leisured) consumption in which the performance of identity was very different. Such meanings could, in themselves, swiftly seem démodé. Young men who did not volunteer were liable to be proscribed as slackers and shirkers, epithets which took on pointed associations of cowardice or the deliberate avoidance of conflict in contemporary discourse. Continue reading

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