The Outstater: Of Arnold Toynbee and Flannel Shirts

September 4, 2017

by Craig Ladwig

Men’s fashion is unconcerned with appearance so much as the projection of accomplishment — sports and warfare being the historic drivers with employment status a distant third.

Everyone knows that the brass buttons on a blazer were designed to keep a Napoleonic soldier from wiping his nose on his uniform sleeve. And the buttons on your shirt collars are there to keep them from flapping in your face during a spirited chukka of polo. Your khaki pants? The British army, caught in the crossfire of skirmishes during the Abyssinian campaign, found khaki a much more practical uniform color than scarlet.

More subtly, if you were an old salt in the pre-1970 U.S. Navy you rolled back the cuffs of your dress blues not only to reveal your tattoo but the distinctive silk lining showing you had been stationed overseas with access to a Hong Kong tailor.

Which brings us, please follow, to flannel. Some of us are of the age that dismisses cotton flannel shirts as cheap simulations of woven wool plaid — J.C. Penny, not Pendleton. But the economy being what it is, flannel is predominant, and a good number of young men you see today look like $150-a-week backwoods guides back from a month in the back woods.

Incidentally, what’s this business with a three-day-old growth of beard? Is it a repeat of the 1980s men’s pony tails, implying that one is independently wealthy or at least doesn’t need to look presentable for any silly job interview? Further off topic, I once lived in a town where men wore plastic hair nets when they went out on the town to confirm or at least suggest that they were gainfully employed at the local packing house.

Back to the cheap flannels. A flannel-shirted model in this month’s high-end, preppy Eddie Bauer Internet catalogue is in fact a Maine guide looking like he just stepped out of the woods. This breaks new ground. The men who model shirts for Brooks Brothers haven’t climbed down from a sweaty polo pony. Nor have those in khakis on the cover of Orvis survived a bloody colonial war on the subcontinent. And nobody can picture a mannequin posed wiping its nose on the sleeve of a blazer.

No, what we have here is something serious. It is the “prole model” described by Charles Murray many years ago in a prescient article for the Wall Street Journal.

Murray, revisiting Arnold Toynbee’s “A Study of History,” noted that a symptom of social disintegration is that the elites (preppy customers of high-end clothing catalogues) begin to imitate those at the bottom of their particular social order (backwoods guides). Murray framed Toynbee’s argument like this:

“The growth phase of a civilization is led by a creative minority with a strong, self-confident sense of style, virtue and purpose. The uncreative majority follows along through mimesis, Toynbee’s ‘a mechanical and superficial imitation of the great and inspired originals.’ In a disintegrating civilization, the creative minority has degenerated into elites that are no longer confident, no longer setting the example. Among other reactions are a rejection, in effect, of the obligations of citizenship (‘a lapse into truancy’) and a vulgarizations of manners, the arts, and language that ‘are apt to appear first in the ranks of the proletariat and to spread from there to the ranks of the dominant minority, which usually succumbs to the sickness of ‘proletarianization.'”

Murray says that the survival of American society depends on somehow curing this sickness. I say that you will know we’re getting well when you see less flannel.

Craig Ladwig, who owns one flannel shirt that he wears fly fishing at the association pond, is editor of the quarterly Indiana Policy Review.


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