it occurs to me, each time i fail to wrangle a half-Windsor knot around my gizzard, how little we understand the formal clothes we wear. Mulling neckties and collar styles, wingtips and French cuffs, one has to wonder: Whose harebrained idea was this stuff? For my money, the most confounding piece of formalwear has got to be the cummerbund.
The cummerbund (no, it's not cumberund, or cumberbunn) is a funny contortion of fabric that most any guy who's been to the prom has wrestled with at some point. Worn around the waist in lieu of a belt, it is perhaps the most pretentious of black-tie apparel. At its best, it can make a tux look stately; at its worst (I'm thinking baby-blue tux with the Hawaiian-print bow tie), it does a fantastic job of exacerbating an already-cheesy ensemble.
The cummerbund is a traditional garment originating in India and the Far East. When the Brits occupied India in the 1800s, the military adopted it as part of its official get-up. This was not, at the outset, a wholly aesthetic choice. It was widely believed that in such far-flung, disease-ridden outposts, wearing a cummerbund carried significant health benefits.
In his book Colonialism and Its Forms of Knowledge: The British in India, author Bernard S. Cohn notes that the cummerbund was used as a protective barrier between a person's skin and the atmosphere, "against the passage of heat and gaseous particles either way," thus helping prevent nasty outcomes such as dysentery and cholera. As late as the 1940s, the cummerbund was known as a cholera belt. Flannel was the material of choice; believers saw it as porous and spongy enough for "harboring perspiration" and not letting the skin cool too quickly.
The word cummerbund is derived from the Persian kamar, which means waist. Band, of course, means band. Whoever changed it to bund was obviously suffering from the heat. In later years, reality settled in and medical science determined that cholera is not contracted through osmosis. By then, the look had already taken root. The cummerbund came west.
Over the years, the cummerbund has devolved from a graceful formal accessory into a clip-on tie for the gut. These days it's a one-piece deal, with a clumsy clip in the back and an elastic strap. With no backing, it can be ill-fitting around the waist if not sized properly, or if you're not in possession of six-pack abs.
A question: How do you know when your cummerbund is upside-down? If you think of the cummerbund as a wrap, the answer is clear: There's no top or bottom. You can wear it either way. It has been speculated that the "pleats" should be face "up," as some "users" (say, black-tie ticket-takers or waiters) might tuck stubs of paper conveniently into the pleats. It has also been suggested that the pleats are there to catch crumbs as you sit at the table gorging yourself on the free grub. If you're using your cummerbund this way, next time you might want to consider a bib.