About a year ago, popular writer and high-society socialite Danielle Steele announced that she was departing San Francisco, throwing out this complaint as she left: “There’s no style, nobody dresses up – you can’t be chic there.” Nostalgia columnist Carle Nolte agreed: “There was a time when people thought it was important to dress well in this city . . . Men wore a suit to work, or a sport coat. Women wore heels and dressed for success. . . . Now San Franciscans, men and women, wear jeans to work, rumpled shirts, running shoes, flip-flops, baseball caps. When they go out on the town they look even worse.” Steele and Nolte have a point.
The picture above, the Giants’ Polo Grounds in early 1900s, can be contrasted with the picture below, the Giants’ AT&T Park in the early 2000s. One notices the new informality of the clothes (and the new logo’ed gear, and the women, and the small children).
The greater informality of middle-class people in public life can probably be rooted in the 1960s. I recall the shock some people had that young men walked about in their tee-shirts and then in their tee-shirts with slogans printed on them. But the concern about clothes and what clothes say about American culture, the connection between evolution of clothing and the evolution of our democratic sensibilities, has a long history. What we wore always said something about who we, as a people, were.
Ranks and Threads
Sumptuary laws, laws that regulate consumption, particularly who can wear what kind of clothing, go way back in western history. They were meant to let everyone know the social ranks of others in the crowd by the frills and colors that each class or ethnic group was permitted to wear. In the 17th century, Massachusetts prohibited anyone worth less than £200 from wearing finery such as gold or silver lace or silver hoods. Such laws were hard to sustain in America and largely ignored.
During the prelude and then the afterglow of the Revolution, patriotic Americans like Ben Franklin urged one another to wear homespun as a way to spurn British imports and express democratic solidarity. In the late 1760s, Harvard and Yale graduates demonstrated against the British by attending their commencements in downscale homemade clothing. But as the Revolutionary fervor faded, the standard pattern — average Americans wearing scratchy, dumpy, home-made clothing while the well-off wore smooth, stylish, tailor-made duds — asserted itself.
Then came one of the major commercial (and gender) revolutions of the 19th century: the arrival of “ready-made,” mass-manufactured clothing that was comfortable, copied high fashion, and sold cheap. (Sources on this topic include this, this, this, this, and that.)
Some 19th-century grumps still complained that certain people were dressing above their stations, but the garment industry ultimately outfitted Americans, men at least, with roughly comparable clothing. From afar – as in the first photo above – American men seemed roughly indistinguishable common folk. Up close, of course, the subtleties of style, the wear in the fabric, the cleanliness of the collar would tell the wearer’s class.
In 1961, Bruce Gimbel of the late, great Gimbel’s Department Store in New York (as in the classic question, “Does Macy’s tell Gimbel’s?”) complained about the trend toward casual clothing. Merchandisers were “taking the easy way out” and “not making enough effort to create the image of the well-groomed boy who goes to school in a suit with shirt and tie.” If the sports-shirt-and-blue-jeans trend is not checked, he warned, “our future generations of fathers may well be dressing in exactly this fashion when they go to their jobs as executives and white-collar workers.” At least Mr. Gimbel did not have to see Steve Jobs in his denim or Mark Zuckerberg in his hoodie.
While it appears that the concern for some observers in earlier eras was that lower-class people might dress above their status, the concern these days seems to be that upper-status people dress down, still confusing us about who ranks where.
I’m still uncertain, however, whether today’s leveling of clothing, even as economic standings have become more unequal, is for real. There is a visible difference, I assume even if I can’t quite see it, between Walmart’s $10 blue jeans and True Religion’s $400 jeans.