Thursday, May 10, 2007

101 Ideas Which Nearly Changed The World : The Saint-Simonite Waistcoat

Claude Henri de Rouvroy, Comte de Saint-Simon, was a splendid chap. Of all the people who nearly changed the world, he was one of the most prolific. And whilst his plans and schemes came to nothing under his guardianship, a few of them did go on to change the world when adopted by less quixotic characters in the decades and centuries which followed his death. Such a destiny cannot, as yet, be claimed for one of his most engaging ideas – the Saint-Simonite Waistcoat – but the twenty-first century is still young and who knows what lies around the corner.

Henri de Saint-Simon was born in 1760 and had connections to one of the great French aristocratic families, but the connections were somewhat fragile and he was far from rich. Whilst still a teenager he travelled to America where he fought for the American colonists in their war of independence against Britain. During a convoluted return journey to Europe, he stopped off in Central America and drew up the first plans for a canal linking the Atlantic to the Pacific. Despite being a supporter of the revolution, Saint-Simon’s aristocratic pedigree resulted in his imprisonment during the height of the French Revolution. However, despite being a proponent of liberty, equality and fraternity, he managed to make a small fortune by buying confiscated land and later selling them at a profit.

Once the fortune had been spent, Saint-Simon threw himself into his writing and produced volumes of detailed plans for the harmonious future of mankind. He was not the kind of person to make do with a general theory when a detailed blueprint could be produced. Thus when he put forward the first proposals for a European Parliament, he carefully calculated the size and location of each constituency and the detailed roles of all the functionaries. And when he published his great work “Le Nouveau Christianisme”, he not only described the basic principles of his new religion – a religion which, blending science, technology and humanity, would underline the equality of mankind – but also stipulated the detailed design of the churches and the manner of dress of the devotees.

And so to Saint-Simon’s contribution to the 101 Ideas Which Nearly Changed The World – the Saint Simonite Waistcoat. His detailed plans for the new communities which would adopt his philosophical teachings state that followers should all wear a particular type of reversed waistcoat, which laced up at the back. Thus they could only be put on and taken off with the help of a fellow human being. The garments would emphasise, in the most practical way, the inter-dependence which lay at the centre of the principles of brotherhood and equality. With inter-dependence reinforced, “evils will start to decrease, troubles to abate, wars to die away”.

By 1823, Saint-Simon had created a body of work which, he believed, would transform society and take it towards a new age of peace and prosperity. With appealing credulity, he informed the various leaders of European states that he was available to advise them on the way forward. Nobody replied and so he attempted to blow his brains out. He succeeded only in blinding himself in one eye, but shortly afterwards he died, a broken man. After his death devotees attempted to put his ideas into action and a number of Christian-socialist communities were established in Europe and America. His followers would wear the famous waistcoat which, by now, would have the words “le pere” stencilled across the front in praise of their founder. But within a few short years the communities had vanished and Saint-Simon, his ideas and his waistcoat had all been forgotten.

1 comment:

  1. (Hey, I'm in, I'm in!)

    Is this an idea for a loo book? It's a good one.


Black Friar

For a time, during the late 1970s, I had a job leading parties of foreign visitors on tours of historic London pubs. One of my favourite sto...