I sometimes regret that I didn’t live in an earlier era — but only for one reason. I want no part of such features of former times as bad dental work, no antibiotics to arrest hideous diseases venereal and otherwise, rampant epidemics, no social net at all, racial and religious intolerance, lynching, wives and children dying at birthing time, and vehicle tires that only lasted ten thousand miles, but I sure do like the way men dressed in former times.
I look at old photos from the first few decades of the Twentieth century, and virtually every male was in a straw boater in the summertime. Boaters and seersucker jackets, replete with white trousers and the white shoes that were de rigueur in those salad days.
In the cooler seasons, off went the boaters and on came the derbies, homburgs or fedoras. For special occasions the topper was still a la mode. Suits were dapper in their three-piece glory, with gloves, topcoats and scarves to complete milord’s ensemble. Cool duds all.
I like the way gangsters of the 1920s and 1930s decked themselves, not only with pinstripes, but also those to-die-for Chesterfield topcoats with the velvet collars. Nobody, no matter how unspeakable otherwise, could look bad in gear like that. Al Capone may have been a coarse-talking homicidal pig, but he did dress splendidly.
My mother once told me that her dashing older brother, when he went out on a date, or to a party in the 1930s always wore a tuxedo. This was during the Depression, when he didn’t have the proverbial pot within which to micturate, but he had a tux, and he had the style of William Powell, Cary Grant, Doug Fairbanks, or any other swathe-cutting dude of the day. I would have liked that. Not the Depression part, just the natty dressing.
My paternal grandfather, even late in his life in the 1960s was always bedecked in three-piece suit, topcoat, homburg and gloves when he went out in public. It was what a gentleman did in his day, and he continued the behavior until the end of his life. He looked real spiffy in his casket.
So, what happened? How did we end up with my generation living in the era of the slob? A few years ago my wife and I were watching the film Diner, which is set in the late 1950s or early ’60s. All the young dudes (my chronological contemporaries, since I was in high school at that time), out for a night on the town, even to meet their buddies if a hot date hadn’t transpired, are bedecked in jacket, skinny tie, skinny slacks and spit-polished shoes.
My wife, who is more than a decade younger than I, suggested that the garb didn’t seem very authentic, that it seemed to be excessively formal for the early rock-and-roll era. Not so, I assured her, for that was the way ‘we’ dressed when going out. We wouldn’t have thought of going to a dance, or even a house-party sans jacket and tie. All the young dudes wanted to look cool and so we did. If you don’t believe me, check out old Ed Sullivan reruns and scope the way Bobby Darin or Frankie Avalon were geared out. They looked like gents, they looked uptown, and they looked cool. That was the way we all wanted to look. Only Presley dressed like Presley. Most of us dressed like Buddy Holly. Most of us looked like Buddy Holly – you know, crooked teeth and, in my case, glasses.
My concern today is that males in my society have become slobs, and they no
longer dress appropriately for their age. When I was a kid, dungarees and
tee-shirts were for kids. Adult males might wear them when doing yardwork,
but otherwise they dressed like men.
It is said that John F. Kennedy’s preppie style killed headgear for men
since he, despite the patrician protestations of that most dysfunctional of
nabob families, always went bareheaded in public. Prior to his uncovered tonsure on Inauguration Day, grownup men wore hats.
When we were kids we didn’t know what to call such grownup headgear, so we referred to them as “man hats”. It was an apt description because such a hat was part of being a man. We looked forward to the day when we could don our first man hat. Alas, that was never to be.
So what has happened to appropriate dress? Where did the ability to
discriminate between what was acceptable for pumping the septic tank and
going to an employment interview become blurred? Why do my wife and I
bother dressing for dinner when the people at the next table would
embarrass the Duck Dynasty clan due to their shabbiness? I’ve
attended weddings and funerals and seen folk in sweatshirts and jeans in
the congregation. If you cannot dress up a bit out of respect for the
newlywed or newly-dead, I must assume there would be no occasion that would
demand items more upscale than rag-picker’s gleanings.
My diatribe here is directed at my own sex for the obvious reason that most
(though not all, unfortunately) contemporary women still adorn themselves in
clobber that ranges from the acceptable to the striking. Pretty summer
dresses are still fashionable, and skirts have made a blessed comeback.
While some misdirected teenage girls have been convinced that with
boob-popping tops and bare midriffs Slutbunny Vogue is the mode of the
moment, they will grow out of their little vulgar protestations and develop
taste when the time comes. God, at least I hope so.
But gentlemen, what has happened to you? What happened to your pride of
presence? Why in summer do you feel it’s OK to walk down a public street in
a goddamn muscle shirt of the sort that should only be worn at the beach or
in your backyard? It’s an undershirt, for God’s sake, not
street-wear. And where did your mom’s admonition to always remove your hat
when entering a dwelling go to? Look around you in a restaurant and you
will see those ubiquitous ballcaps in every direction, all of them still
sitting atop pates. That’s not only slobbish, it’s ill-mannered. If you’re not the Dukes of Hazard, stop aping a repulsive style.
So, who or what is to blame for our seeming confusion in accurately judging
an occasion and dressing appropriately for that occasion? For some it’s no
doubt laziness. For others it is an utter inability to dress appropriately
because some men are hopeless at judging what they should wear. So, that’s
what wives, girlfriends or dapper male friends are for. For some it’s
rebellion against the strictures of society. For some it’s a nod to the
(utterly false) democratization of society, in that if we all dress the
same (badly) then nobody can tell anybody else’s social background, and
nobody will feel left out. People will still feel left out, regardless. So,
let’s dress with some class, and to hell with those who feel left out.
Personally I think neo-slobbism is a reflection of the breakdown of
society in that, while the old order might still apply in some circles,
nobody is feisty enough to enforce what once was enforced.