“Clearly, people want things that make their lives the way they wish they were.”
I’ll wager that most of you know exactly where that line comes from. A slender, well-printed volume, filled with winsome illustrations of empty clothes that invited you to imagine yourself in them, perhaps even living out the little Hemingwayward fantasies of provenance cooked up by its copywriters. Today, when the internet has made it easy to find everything and difficult to discover anything, the J. Peterman catalog is perhaps even beneath the contempt that made it such a laughingstock on Seinfeld, but I remember a time when its monthly arrival was cause for a pause (and not solely because it tended to be perused in the bathroom).
Sartorialism wasn’t anyone’s birthright in my small midwestern hometown, particularly in the style-allergic 90s. Excesses of greed and shoulder padding over the previous decade had tempered the already waning enthusiasm for classic clothing, which in any case was now largely neutered by Business Casual or cast off entirely for more grungy alternatives -- both of which misbegotten enterprises aimed to strip clothes of pretense, romance, pomp and circumstance.
What a shame. Clothes are inherently, gloriously transformational. They have always been a means -- particularly for those without many means -- to punch above one’s weight, to jump tracks to a different life. This is of course why they’ve been so closely regulated throughout history, subject to review by ecclesiastic authorities for decency, sumptuary laws for impudence, fashion editors for taste -- all efforts to restrict the potentially dangerous power of clothes, to reserve it for elites, be they medieval royalty, industrial aristocracy, Oxbridge/Ivy undergraduates, or simply the cool kids at school.
Dress, in this sense, is analogous to that other richly nuanced and closely monitored mode of daily expression: speech. Late nineteenth-century advances in manufacturing and education made fine clothes and fine accents attainable for a much wider swath of the population, and a highly-wrought precision in both became more or less universally aspired to as indices of good upbringing, if not necessarily of good breeding. We have a tendency today to patronize such efforts as quaintly gauche, or worse: the slavish imitation of one’s supposed betters, predicated on an unhealthy regard for one’s own humbler origins. They are, however, nothing less than embodiments of Culture as originally conceived by Matthew Arnold: the cultivation of thought, habit, and art -- usually through great, even proud, effort -- toward evermore perfect ideals.
Culture so defined sought improvement, encouraged aspiration, validated dreams. Little surprise that two existentially devastating world wars pretty much knocked the stuffing out of it. Not for nothing do we tend to see the popular apogee of both eloquence and elegance in the interwar decades, when radio and cinema came into their own, carrying high diction and high style to the masses. It was a fleeting era of Hepburn and Murrow’s delightful mid-Atlantic accents, of midnight blue tuxedos tailored for trade banquets in Milwaukee and Boise, ultimately all swept away as artifacts of artifice by a disillusioned new countercultural ethos claiming to worship Authenticity, whatever that may mean.
Our is not an elegant world. It is perhaps more liberated, more inclusive, more convenient, more comfortably distracted, but we have lost much of the romance that once made it so beautiful and pleasurable. The clothes we choose to wear might not have much effect on our larger reality, but they can dramatically affect our experience of it -- a stalwart first and last line of aesthetic defense. Good ol’ J. Peterman understood this before most, and if the marketing of his merchandise is easy to mock, the sentiment behind it is familiar to anyone who loves clothes not because of how they fit our world today, but how they can defy it.
[Originally published in A Suitable Wardrobe.]