Wednesday, July 20, 2005

We Dress Like Pigs

Over at the American Street I've put up a piece about a trove of photographs that have been unearthed in the Smithsonian's archives -- pictures taken in Dayton, Tennessee, during the Scopes Trial.

Eighty years ago today, in point of fact.

Because the Street's a mostly political sort of place, I kept the subject matter mostly in that sphere, letting H. L. Mencken's scathing essay on William Jennings Bryan, "In Memoriam, W. J. B." do most of my talking.

But over here, since we're making nicey-nice and keeping the polemics down to a dull roar, I thought I'd just dust off a favorite bugbear of mine and take it for a spin.

Let's take a quick gander at young John Thomas Scopes, aged 24, who was the schoolteacher on trial on July 20, 1925:

I put it to you that the straw skimmer hat is the single most beautiful thing ever to adorn the human male head. Look at the utterly insouciant swoosh it makes across the forehead, extending its rakish devil-may-care angle out on both sides of the head. Admire how the angle is echoed by the flat top of the chapeau, the whole thing a celebration of circles and angles and planes and intersections, completed by a wide ribbon hat-band, and worn at an elegant and playful angle.

Of course, walking around looking like John Scopes in that photo today, you might as well be wearing a sign that says "I Like It Rough." But oh, what a country we would be if we could revive a sense of shame in a man if he leaves the house in the morning without a sack suit, brogues, waistcoat with watch chain, shirtfront, string tie and skimmer! What a noble cause it would be to revive social opprobrium for crimes against elegance! A national Jeeves to sniff scornfully at the backwards baseball cap, logo-encrusted leisurewear in the office, the low-rise love-handle, the flip-flop, the peeping tattoo! You're not going out dressed like that, are you?

What, too William F. Buckley? Too Larchmont Lockjaw? Too Lilly Pulitzer?

In Mencken's gloriously vicious essay, he describes meeting Bryan on a street in Dayton the day before the trial, taking care to ridicule "the preposterous country shirt that he wore — sleeveless and with the neck cut very low."

I read that description and realized, "Fuckin' hell -- William Jennings Bryan was wearing a wifebeater!"

Go get 'em, H. L. M.!


Uncle Rameau said...

Coincidental to my seeing your post extolling the obvious virtues of the straw boater, I was reading through an essay about the London Tecumsehs and Tecumseh (now Labatt) Park. In celebration of the sesquicentennial of the civic incorporation if London, ON, we will be recreating the Tecumsehs this weekend and wearing, not baseball caps (even forward) but straw boaters!

and I realize that I keep coming back to you to escape the sturm und drang of the political blogopsony...

I thought you would like this from

"If ballparks were merely a place of commerce for a few hours of idle amusement they would inspire no memories or interest in their preservation... They are supremely public places in which a community shares a common experience in ways innocent of violence and surrounded by celebration and good feeling."

Anonymous said...

Somehwere, Ned, I do have a boater, but that's not why I'm stopping by. I'm doing so to point out that some of the other photos in the very same treasure trove show that Scopes and his chum Rappleyea, are, how can I put it, wearing their hats in a less than elegant manner, at least to my eyes.

For what it's worth, I'd far prefer to model my own style on that of the Revd. Howard Gale Byrd, if only it weren't so darned hot here.

Kevin W. Baker said...

Oh my God, you're a SNOB, Neddie! I LOVE IT! Unfortunately, like most of my fellow south Texans, I'm pretty agressively casual. Not much else is practical in the kind of heat our summers bring. San Antonio, in fact, was the home of the world's first air conditioned office building. If you a) know what august is like here, and b) see what men wore to work in the '20s, it's pretty easy to see why.

Anonymous said...

I'm so happy you've posted something about this-- I'll have to check out your post over at the Street to read more. I read about this and saw some of the pictures yesterday. How funny to think that the trial of the century only has a handful of pictures left for posterity. Think of the hours and hours of film and millions of pictures that are probably on file around the country about the OJ Simpson trial, or the Jackson trial.

Thanks for the post!

Anonymous said...

Ned, I agree but I think it would be possible as well to overdo it. For instance, in my neck of the Bostonian woods I would run into a guy on the subway dressed in full 1940s outfit - and I don't mean some kind of retro-swing hip cat neo-whatever; I mean to me it looked like the real thing. But he still looked overstuffed.

On the other hand, also while on public transport, I did once see a guy in a straw boater and - man - it did look sharp.

If I could get a good hat blocked, and a nice simple suit maybe I'd go for it.

Neddie said...

Too hot? TOO HOT?!?!?

Il faut soufrir pour etre beau, mes confreres.

They make suits of breathable cotton and cool natural fibers. Seersucker. Linen. I'd even let you go tieless on the hottest days.

And a brimmed hat keeps the sun off the delicate metrosexual features far better than a miserable baseball cap, which, even when worn correctly like a ballplayer, only protects the face and leaves the neck and ears open to the ravages of Father Sun.

I recoil, Res, at the sound of that "aggressively casual." I fear cargo shorts, flip-flops, sleeveless t-shirts in colors not found between tan and black, and logos, logos, logos.... Never thought the day would come when I agreed with anything that came out of the current White House, but flp-flops are NOT appropriate attire except at the beach, and then only if worn with a modest brown or black three-piece suit.

By the way: You're talking to someone who, in the Year of Our Claude 1989, INVENTED business casual dress by simply not wearing a tie to work one day and noticing that the Republic continued to stand.

XTCfan said...

I gotcher broad-brimmed hat right here, Neddie.

Now that's good dressin'!

Anonymous said...

One effect of the Civil Rights Movement was that people stopped dressing up for demonstrations.

The idea had been that passers-by and the media would judge your cause by, among other things, your own appearence and you therefore wanted to represent it well by sprucing up. I think the CR movement wanted to point up (a) that it represented a lot of people who were really on their uppers, and (b) that they represented a lot of people period, and therefore didn't want to discourage anyone from coming along who might think he wasn't dressed right.

Anyway, if you look at protests from the last 40 years, they are generally huge but dressed like slobs. If you look at photos of protests before that time, participants tend to be sparse (relatively) but sharp-looking.

--Molly, NYC

Neddie said...

>> The idea had been that passers-by and the media would judge your cause by, among other things, your own appearence and you therefore wanted to represent it well by sprucing up.<<

Yes, I think you've put your finger on it, Molly -- the idea that one should aspire *upward* in one's dress was lost in the Great Leveling of the last 40 years -- the idea that if one isn't on Easy Street at the moment, one should at least try to *look* the part. This was, no doubt the source of the shame that kept people dressing well: the desire not to look like -- and therefore be treated like -- a bum.

I sympathize with the egalitarian sentiment that led to the Leveling -- but Christ how degraded our dress is compared to our ancestors'!

XTCfan said...

I blame Jack Kennedy.

Uncle Rameau said...


Apropos of my previous comment, please visit

and tell me if you don't think a straw bowler is every bit as natty a hat as that on the young rake, John Scopes.

grishaxxx said...

Lance, back from vacation, sent me.

I love clothes, I love to dress, but I learned in a move from Chicago to Los Angeles that tectonic shifts can happen on your back as well as under your feet.
Went for an interview with a picture PR guy - I in Brooks Bros, he in Fred Segal. He was very kind, and very smart, and told me, gently, that, among other things, I needed to study how the people I hoped to work with dressed. Also that you put your education at the end of your CV - potential bosses might not like to be reminded that you went to a better school than they did.
I didn't get that job, but I got some referrals, and the more powerful the guy I talked to, the more casual his threads - I really tried, but I never quite matched. Such a dunce - I should have shown up naked.

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