Clothes Make the Man — Sad to Say
I USED TO FOLLOW men’s fashions. I had learned to trust it as a barometer of the male zeitgeist and an indication of the national direction. Men’s fashion moved more slowly than women’s and was therefore the more predicting. This was a time, please know, when men still mattered — somewhat and sort of.
What kind of information did men’s fashions carry? Well, you are probably aware that the heavy brass buttons on men’s blazers originated with an order by the great Napoleon Bonaparte. It was to keep his troops from wiping snot on their sleeves.
And you may know that the creases ironed into men’s pants are an attempt to duplicate the creases occurring in clothing packed for shipment overseas from Savile Row in London.
Or that button-down shirts were the innovation of British polo players to keep their collars from flapping about. And that Playtex made the spacesuits for Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin when they went to the moon.
During the 1950s, Madison Avenue types took special care of their footwear for fear of being judged “down at the heel.” Finally (we hope), hippies liked to pin to their clothing the odd item picked up during a psychedelic trip, including cigarette buts and dried dog poop.
A few weeks ago I used birthday money to buy an authentic Indian Madras shirt. I wear Madras as a symbol of overseas military service, a fashion that began with officers of the British East India Company. The tradition can be observed today in the jumble of colors tumbling down the gangplank as petty officers are whistled off a U.S. Navy ship for shore leave.
Madras also was the fashion among teenage boys in the 1960s, at least in certain parts of the country. As close as can be determined, they saw it as a status symbol, perhaps because Madras in those days bled horribly and could ruin everything else in the wash, meaning only those boys with particularly loving and attentive mothers could manage the style preference. (In a conflicting message, Levi 501 jeans that mothers had accidentally bleached in splotches — or had been commanded to do so — were the rage.)
This all may be overthought. Whatever, as a result of my shirt order, the Amazon algorithm mistakenly pegged me for a wild, devil-may-care fellow. I began getting messages from something called the Manly Clothing Company.
Right here, if this were an interactive medium, I would ask your reaction to the catalogue poses above. The models are wearing the “men’s casual-check loose-knit” and the “men’s retro-checkered” outfits. The Manly Clothing Company says they are among its most popular.
My own reaction is confused. Even as a veteran fashion-watcher I’m having trouble unraveling what it is they are trying to tell me. Do you get a hint, if only the faintest whiff, of “a destitute migrant rummaging in dumpsters on his way to a job interview”?
About this same time, I received an email from a friend alerting me to a policy statement by the owners of the men’s clothing store in my city that happens to carry the Manly brand. It reads in full: “This store sits on Kiikaapoi (Kickapoo), Peoria, Bodéwadmiakiwen (Potawatomi) and Miami land.”
Does this mean that those native-American tribes owned the land jointly? Unlikely, since they did not have a written language with which to draw up the necessaey LLP paperwork. Rather, it must mean they owned it in succession, one hunter-gatherer group taking possession after another, in which case my pioneer forefathers deserve to be listed as well — last man standing and all that.
Taking another look at the Manly Clothing Company models, however, I have decided not to press that point with the management. The store headquarters sits on land in California, which, along with nine other states, was claimed by Mexico until “stolen” in 1848 by the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo.
Clothes can tell you a lot about a man — and, sadly, about our national destiny. — tcl