WHEN a child first thinks of living to see the century turn, he always does some arithmetic to figure out how old he will be when it happens. I was in the second grade when I did my calculations: 2,000 take away 1936 equals 64.
I stared at the figure, trying to imagine myself at that age. My grandmother was about 64 at this time so I based my mental picture on her. The facial features were easy to sketch in because I already looked like her that way. Then I started on the clothes.
A jersey dress with a self-fabric belt, a lace fichu tucked under the collar and spread across the bosom like a giant snowflake, service-weight stockings, and black oxfords called ”EnnaJetticks.” Underneath were a satin slip that had to be ironed wet; something she called a ”shimmy” which was a kind of camisole undershirt; and the holy of holies, a ”foundation garment,” a cross between a girdle and a corset.
As I write this defense of traditional fashion in the shadow of the millennium, I am wearing polyester pants with a drawstring waist, a pullover, underpants, knee-highs, and Hush Puppies. When I go out I add a bra, but that’s it.
I am physically more comfortable than Granny, but I am pinched and chafed by psychosartorial conflicts she never knew. I disapprove of myself; all that is rigid in me cries out against the way I dress and the society that lets me get away with it, but Granny was in sync with her clothes and her time.
She bought her frankly fusty duds in old-lady departments called ”Stylish Stout” and ”Grande Dame.” The euphemisms fooled no one; shoppers new to a store would ask, ”Where’s the old-lady department?”
They were comfortable places to shop. The salesladies were the same age as the customers and the stock reflected a sense of historical connectedness. The racks were full of purple dresses because it had been the color of ”second mourning” for Victorian widows after an initial year spent in black. The custom died out well before Granny’s generation grew old, but by then purple was so thoroughly associated with old ladies that people referred to it as an ”old-lady color.”
Historical connectedness has turned into hysterical fritz. ”Classical is back!” means Caesar’s legions are back, every knee bared. ”Romantic is back!” means the coachman is back, three capes to the wind. ”Traditional is back!” means the bellhop is back, double rows of buttons playing Russian roulette with nipples. When they trot out something that looks like Quentin Durward in drag, it means ”Femininity is back!”
In my case, ”Pyrrhic victory is back!” If I worked in an office instead of at home I would have to buy some dressy clothes, but nothing would change. Looking undignified in a thigh-high skirt is no different from looking undignified in drawstring pants, except that I show a lot less leg. Dignity, not youthful illusion, is what I want now, but dignity is the only fashion look considered outre.
If the personal is political, the imperious is impossible when women past a certain age eagerly adopt the same fashions worn by sweet young things. It would not matter so much were it merely a matter of clothes per se, but something more important is involved.
The Roman Matron has to be serene before she can do her stuff; if she’s constantly tugging her skirt down and yanking at her neckline to cover her cleavage, it won’t be long before she ceases to be a Roman Matron.
This sort of woman, whom Americans used to call a ”dowager” and a ”rock,” or ”the duchess” and ”the old battleaxe,” has now been replaced by geriatric gamines like Helen Gurley Brown.
Throughout history, societies that honored their old battleaxes have tended to flourish, but America is fast running out of the breed. We could replenish our supply if we brought back the old-lady department, but of course we won’t. Cut-off points and lines of demarcation are conservative by definition. The enthusiastic promotion of one-age-fits-all clothing is the sartorial equivalent of the socialistic leveling we find so chic.
When people say a woman ”looks conservative” they usually mean she looks frumpy. Said of a man, it’s a backhanded compliment; it means he looks dignified, authoritative, prosperous, capable, powerful, and stern — just what men aren’t supposed to be nowadays. If clothes make the man, anyone wishing to destroy the man can simply destroy his clothes. Social historians always look to women’s fashions for their harbingers, but some of the most significant battles of the sartorial war on tradition have been fought in men’s closets. Take, for example, the number of anti-conservative metaphors based on articles of male clothing.
Basic, all-round conservatism is conveyed by ”blue suit” and ”wingtips.”
Repression and unhappiness springing from conformity and suburban life are conveyed by ”gray flannel suit.”
Paper-pushing boredom and the calcified attitudes that go with it are conveyed by ”white collar.”
Setting arbitrary standards, telling people what to do, and being judgmental are summed up by ”coat-and-tie.”
A conservative political candidate is an ”empty suit.”
In a democracy, the only men who can get away with looking conservative are liberals. When John F. Kennedy wore cutaway-and-stripes and a silk topper at his Inauguration, the media purred and the other officials on the dais, Democrats and Republicans alike, went along without a murmur. That it was the correct attire did not matter to them, only that Kennedy chose to wear it.
Yet when Ronald Reagan announced the same intention, the media was up in arms with dark murmurings about snobbery and exclusiveness, and GOP congressmen such as Sen. Howard Baker did the ”Aw, shucks, I’m just a country boy” routine. Whatever Reagan had planned originally, he ended up wearing stripes, short coat, and no hat, which made him look like a butler.
The latest victim of the sartorial levelers is Bob Dole, who probably will wear Cotton Dockers to his Inauguration if he has one.
Dole’s main purpose in going casual was to narrow the gender gap by making women feel warmed and secure in his open-collar, rump-sprung presence. But it doesn’t work that way. Another midwesterner, Sinclair Lewis, came nearer to the mark in Main Street:
She was close in her husband’s arms; she clung to him; whatever of strangeness and slowness and insularity she might find in him, none of that mattered so long as she could slip her hands beneath his coat, run her fingers over the warm smoothness of the satin back of his waistcoat, seem almost to creep into his body, find in him strength, find in the courage and kindness of her man a shelter from the perplexing world.
That traditional fashions are a boon to morality and good manners seems to me inarguable. Even Bill Clinton agrees; whether or not he meant what he said about school uniforms, he had the good sense to say it, suggesting that he knows it’s true whether he believes it or not.
I would go further and recommend knickers and long socks for pre-teen boys. I’m just old enough to remember the tag end of this fashion from my elementary-school days. Nothing else says ”boy” with such devastating effect. Knickers may be the best line of demarcation ever invented: it’s virtually impossible to smart-mouth teachers and cops while wearing them.
The button fly, still favored by Savile Row tailors, will not reduce casual sex, but it might reduce coarseness in movies and television. I am always appalled when actors casually unzip and remove their pants, or put them on and zip up, while facing the camera. They wouldn’t be able to do this with a button fly; it would take too long and waste dramatic time.
The button fly also inculcates a genteel habit, though we’re probably too far gone for it to take. The pants my father bought before World War II all had button flies, and he always turned his back on us females — even my mother — while he did them up. Once, when I asked, I was told all gentlemen did. I believe it. A zipper provides a man with a jaunty gesture, but buttons force him to keep his hands at his crotch long enough to make him feel awkward and a little foolish: most men will turn their backs.