Sunday, August 24, 2008


something like this, with buttons?

I’ve come across this term in Maugham’s story The vessel of wrath, set in the East Indies. It was an item of clothing with bright brass buttons. It appears to be something like a shirt, but with no lapels. There’s very little on the net about it.

I’m reading a collection of Maugham stories that I’ve read before. It took me a while to realize this. Something in his style – droning and forgettable. A certain shallow knowingness, to paraphrase Coetzee, though informative about the colonial world and the general feel of the times – eg anti-semitism and class attitudes in Britain between the wars, in Alien Corn.



At 12:41 pm , Anonymous m. mensah said...

Ihave read and reread Maugham's stories and enjoyed them each time for his storytelling style and his ability to so superbly evoke those far away places and times. And yes, I have come accross those critics who see shallowness in his seemingly expert knowledge of people and their affairs and relationships. Those critics take nothing away from the enjoyment this author has provided me for a long time. I do not see him as a philosopher or expert on human character. I see him as a simple superb storyteller who provides enjoyment and satisfaction to his readers. Isn't that a sufficient achievement for a short story writer? MMensah

At 12:36 pm , Blogger Stewart, aka Luigi said...

Thanks for your comment. Yes, maybe I'm being a little harsh on Maugham. I've enjoyed reading many of his stories, and I might give him another go sometime. Too busy reading non-fiction stuff at present.

At 10:36 am , Anonymous Anonymous said...

The Stingah-shifter thing is very interesting. Everyone has been nicely quiet about your misspelling (not that that is my point): I - like you - have tried to find out what it is, which is why I am here.
It could indeed be something relatively formal - possibly without lapels, as is worn in Spain in autumn. However, it occurs again and again in SM's novels, and always in the tropics.
I suspect he made it up.
Or else, it could be a shirt without its detachable collar. He (Maugham) does not wear one, and it is always the lower-middle class that do. In 'The Gentleman in the Parlour', a collar is mentioned as being worn by a lower middle-class missionary, and by a zoo-keeper.
One should perhaps contact Her Majesty's Foreign and Commonwealth Office; or, a reputable shirtmaker in Jermyn Street (difficult but not impossible).

At 5:01 pm , Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is by no means a misspelling.
It is how Mr. Maugham wrote it - 'stengah–shifters'...

At 6:28 pm , Blogger Stewart, aka Luigi said...

Good point. My spelling was based on Maugham's. How could it be otherwise, as I'd never heard of it before reading him. If he made the term up [possible, but out of what?], then presumably he made up the spelling too, and was 'entitled' to use variations of that spelling at whim.

At 11:09 am , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Did you ever find a picture? The word's derived from the Malay for half, Wikipedia tells me, and originally referred to a Stengah - half whiskey half soda. (Also mentioned in Maugham's lovely stories.)

A Stengah Shifter seems to be slang for a shorter "shift" (we'd call it a coat these days) worn by Dutch in the East in particular. There's a pic on Today in History - Mata Hari married a Dutch colonial (who's pictured wearing the Stengah Shifter) and they moved to Dutch Indonesia. The Stengah Shifter he's wearing is a low Chinese style collar, white, and with a double row of brass buttons down the front.

I've seen it written 'Stingah' but that seems to be rare.

At 8:08 pm , Anonymous Henri Theureau said...

Here's from Maugham's THE FOUR DUTCHMEN, a story that takes place in Singapore:
"They were all big, with large round bare red faces, with large fat arms and large fat legs and large fat bellies. When they went ashore they buttoned up their stengah–shifters and then their great double chins bulged over the collars and they looked as though they would choke. But generally they wore them unbuttoned. They sweated freely and wiped their shiny faces with bandanas and vigorously fanned themselves with palm–leaf fans."
So it does seem to be some kind of a jacket that you can button up, in the way of Navy officers' jackets. The four Dutchmen of the story are the captain and officers of a merchant ship.


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