Sunday 20 October 2019

Did You Put On Your Jaegers, Henry?

ADA: Chilly enough I imagine. I hope you put on your jaegers ... Did you put on your jaegers, Henry?

HENRY: What happened was this, I put them on and then I took them off again and then I put them on again and then I took them again off and then I took them on again and then I ...

ADA: Have you them on now?

HENRY: I don't know.

Samuel Beckett, Embers

It is gratifying to know that there are other wives out there who also have the Badge for Unsolicited Advice. Ada, in Samuel Beckett's 1957 radio play Embersis a woman after my own heart. Solicitous (yet dogged) in the face of some Manly Absentmindedness. Never to be confused, of course, with nagging, Dear Reader. 

Up until very recently, my familiarity with the fashion label Jaeger extended only as far as the enjoyment of my vintage 1970s black, woollen, sunray pleated skirt, the only garment of theirs I've ever owned as back in the day I considered the label a tad Matronly. However, chasing an unrelated rabbit down an interweb hole led to the chance discovery that, lo!, Jaeger was in fact named for Dr. Gustav Jaeger, the German professor of Zoology and Physiology, and Dress Reformer.

Gustav Jäger exuding rude good health

Dress reform was quite a thing in the late 19th Century. In the Underwear Department, long johns / combinations / union suits were becoming popular and available in a variety of fabrics and qualities. Where Jaeger set himself apart was in his adherence to animal fibres, with an emphasis on wool, and on his Scientific Theory behind skin and sweat and his Scientific Proof that his Undies had health-giving properties: viz, sweating was important to removing the noxious vapours exhaled from the body.

Further investigation into the translation of Dr. Gustave Jaeger's 1880 "Essays on Health Culture", (I just couldn't resist), wherein he Scientifically Proves over the course of 200-odd pages his Hygienic Discovery, provided:

The conclusion which I draw as regards my Sanitary Wool System is as follows:-- Whoever, like the Wool-wearer, is proof against flies is also cholera-proof, and this is in complete agreement with the popular practice everywhere and at all times to have recourse to wool in cases of cholera.

Those who know my Sanitary System, and have tried it in their own persons, are aware that it first deodorises the body, i.e., expels from it mal-odorous perspiration, and afterwards hinders a fresh accumulation of mal-odorous matters. Now these last are precisely the matters which constitute the force of attraction for flies, and the adequate instinct matter for the germs of disease, especially for those of cholera.

In England, Lewis Tomalin secured the licence to be sole trader of the various Wonder Undies throughout the Empire, translated the work into English in 1884 and took the very 21st Century bold step of frenzied marketing of Dr Jaeger's Sanitary Woollen Clothing & Bedding System to the masses. Dr Jaegar became an instant celebrity. And his long johns went viral.

Ernest Shackleton photograph
This Henry - Sir Ernest Henry Shackleton -
 would certainly know all about it if his jaegers weren't on

Before you knew it, Jaeger woollens were off to Antarctica with both Scott and Shackleton; off to Africa with Livingston; and off to the Front as part of the uniform for the troops (by which time the brand was considered British not German).

The Underwear range included corsets, balaclavas, toed-stockings, babies colic belts &c. &c., as well as two-piece long johns. The idea was to cover every part of the skin with wool, alongside some other Lifestyle Tips like open windows and fresh air in your bedroom, to secure a healthy constitution. Dr. J. cleverly maintained that wearing his pricey garments wouldn't entirely stave off disease, but if some of the pesky germs caught up with you, the impact was lessened. In the pre-antibiotic days, any suggestions for maintaining good health were always going to find a receptive audience.

Jaeger woollen long johns advertisement 1940s
Putting the jaegers through their paces in the 1940s
All in the name of National Health

Well before the decade was out, the Jaeger System was cropping up in fiction. Without any effort, I found a short story printed in a newspaper in 1888, entitled "Our Spare Room" [much like a blog today, you could just about publish anything once with a catchy title like this!] and was delighted to read:

"It would be horrible", she went on. "I should feel that the next thing would be I should have to wear divided skirts and stockings with toes to them."

"I thought stockings always had toes", I said, but Margaret vouchsafed me no reply, not condescending to inform me that she referred to Dr. Jaeger's new system, where the toes of the stockings are separated like the fingers in a glove.

By 1932, when the saucy, comic writer Thorne Smith had penned The Bishop's Jaegers, the brand name was already a household noun.

Book cover photograph for "The Bishop's Jaegers" by Thorne Smith
Says it all!

The combination of quackery and pseudo-science met fashion head first after the Great War, and the Jaeger stores worldwide phased out underwear for outerwear. The dubious claims set out in the Woollen System were passed over while its catchier phrase "Wool, Cool in Summer, Warm in Winter" stuck like a burr. However, Dr Jaeger would be gratified that his humble woollen long john has been refashioned and embraced now by the açai-munching set as High Performance Base Layers!

TREWgear lightweight wool bottoms advertisement

Putting the modern Base Layers through their paces
All in the name of Personal Development

So I had skimmed some of Dr Jaeger's treatise Health Culture. I had chuckled over samples of the many thousands of advertisements and editorials published in Australia alone from around 1886, when lecturers in halls around the country evangelised to Ladies' Sanitary Associations and the like on the prevention of "Colds and their evil effects" &c. by wearing only Woollen Underwear. I marvelled at how Dr Jaeger's Sanitary Woollen Clothing & Bedding System spread around the world faster than any modern day fashion trend ... And yet in spite of my new-found respect for this old wisdom, I find myself guilty of not heeding my own good counsel, playing Henry instead of Ada, and so my failure to don these miraculous garments sees me this weekend nursing a Cold. 


  1. One never knows what one will encounter here.
    On one hand, I am all for wearing "base layers" aka long underwear in order to keep the central heating to a very low level. My relatives back in the USA chill their homes to the point of needing long underwear from May to September and heat their (huge) homes to tropical levels from November to March. I remember visiting friends in the Netherlands in winter; I had the impression they heated their beautiful and also huge home only enough to keep the pipes from freezing. In view of environmental devastation, that seems luxurious enough. On with the sweaters and long underwear!
    OTOH, wool cannot do everything. It certainly has some advantages, but also disadvantages, such as itchiness and shrinking. Yet, who would have thought that at some point we would all wear clothes made of petroleum?

  2. Herr Jaeger was a visionary. I hadn't realized that toe socks date back beyond when they were last fashionable in the 70s. Thanks for sharing a very interesting story on 'dress reform'!

  3. Well, Taste of France - a rummage around in my metaphoric handbag can produce anything from a bit of lint to a lonely bobby pin. Even I don't know what's coming out next! ... Your central heating observation was nicely played out in tv series called "Freezing" where the American wife (Elizabeth McGovern) and her English husband (Hugh Bonneville) fought over the thermostat in their London home. "Just put a jumper on", he'd say! Dr. Jaeger would then enter with a merino knit from the latest collection ... No, wait, I just imagined that bit ... There's certainly lots to say about the clash of limited resources and modern man's willingness or otherwise to adapt sustainably to his environment. It's one thing to loll about in your underpants on the Equator with a hand fan to keep you cool, and a complete other story to survive near the Arctic Circle without some serious modification to your dress and home!

    Bea, I'd forgotten about the 70s toe socks! I had multicoloured (of course) stripey pair but the relative chunky acrylic knit made them very hard to wear. The fine jersey knit of Dr. J's must have been more comfortable but their fiddly and no doubt expensive construction must have contributed to them not taking off. Jaeger had lots of more to say which this post couldn't possibly accommodate but he has to be my most favoured discovery this month!

  4. I'm not sure I'd like to wear woollen undies. I am sure I'd be constantly scratching and fidgeting. Dr Jaeger sure came to some interesting conclusions didn't he?

  5. You have to wonder, Loree, why they were so popular? I'm curious to see a pair in the flesh, as it were - the knit must surely feel different and smoother to how I imagine. Or maybe, for the devotees, it was akin to wearing a hair-shirt. No pain, no gain, haha!! Yes, Dr Jaeger was one straight out of the box.

  6. I HAD NO IDEA this was the history of that EXPENSIVE well made line!
    Thank YOU for INFORMING ALL OF US as now I will add this to MY FUN FACTS too TOSS out at those dinner parties NO ONE EVER THROWS ANYMORE!

    Waiting for the electricity to go OFF ONCE AGAIN this time for three days!FIres North of MARIN COUNTY and terrible 70 mile an hour winds do soon!Wish me LUCK NO INTERNET NO TV...........whats a GAL TO DO?!!


  7. I have never heard of Dr Jaeger or his base layers but do lament all the silly women that insist on the sole layer of yoga pants as daily uniform. I find it even unsightly on those with a prima ballerina's figure. Way, way, way, TMI!

  8. Factoids are essential, Contessa!! Sadly, Jaeger has recently gone the way of many old labels, apparently ... Oh dear, fires are stressful. No electricity for 3 days? Hope you are a good Girl Guide and are suitably prepared! If you're not in danger, you can have a nice romantic time and read your books by candlelight. Very Little House on the Prairie! xx

  9. Oh, GSL, I agree!! When did that memo go out?? I did not get it. Dr Jaeger would have been shocked to his back teeth that so many women were risking the prospect of cholera by engaging in such Unhealthy Habits.


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