Friday, April 15, 2011

Yes, Miss, I find your shallowness most diverting.

Chapter 10
We're going to take a small detour on our travels today.  Our destination of transcendental sartorial excellence is still in sight: no need to fear that we have lost our objective. Contrariwise; looming large on the immediate horizon is Easter, the wedding of Two Very Visible People, and the tailleur train-wreck that is The Prom. In fact, the upcoming weeks will be fraught with negotiating the minefield of raiment faux pas. But before setting out across this treacherous no-man's-land, we'll take a moment here to rest and regroup, to take stock, and prepare for the battle ahead.

The job of being properly turned-out at formal and special events like the aforementioned has, for decades now, indeed been a literal "no-man's-land" for men. We have abdicated our responsibility, handed it over to women, and just worn what we were told to, assuming they, as the arbiters of fashion and good taste, would not lead us astray. The unfortunate downside is that in decades past, women were the arbiters of fashion and good taste. They were brought up in it, taught it, were steeped in it. And just about fifty years ago, they began to not be taught it. The long slow decline since then was inevitable.

Don't get me wrong -- I'm not one of those people that bemoan the passing of the Good Old Days. We have many wonderful things that weren't around in days gone by: things like penicillin, microwave ovens, and the Magic Electrick Box that you are staring at right now. Which doesn't preclude the fact that we seem to be desperately, hopelessly in need of mandatory finishing-schools.  Such things were more common in þe olde dayes, and are unfortunately seen today as a quaint anachronism at best -- a misogynistic tool at worst.

But a finishing-school was, in reality, only what the name implied: a means to put a fine, glossy polish on a lifetime of continuing social education. For the masses, social education was something that was taught in the home as a part of growing up. And for those unhappy few who were deficient in that area, the American public school system of the 1940s was glad to help, by assuming the responsibility of raising good, upstanding young citizens. With typical American ingenuity, they used media to do the job. Thanks to this, a glimpse into the minds of the era survive today, in the old prints of "health and hygiene" flicks by Coronet Instructional Films.

The logo that promised the next ten minutes would
 be spent passing notes in a dark classroom.

Often ridiculed as primitive, and unfairly labelled as propaganda or a brainwashing tool, they are an attempt, in hundreds of 10-minute reels of flickering black-and-white 16mm images, to tell the stories and pass down the social skills knowledge that had traditionally been taught at home.
Stills of Coronet's 1950 "Are You Ready For Marriage?"
(online at the Prelinger Archive)
Far from being a covert conformity conspiracy, Coronet magazine (Coronet Films' parent company) was actually owned by Esquire. Yes, that Esquire. They aren't accurate portrayals of mid-century youth -- but they were never intended to be. They go beyond mere hygiene: they're idealizations of the social norms that young people needed to emulate, to be productive members of society. And, just like today, kids were more likely to absorb what a screen told them than listen to their parents. They may have made fun of it -- but they remembered it.

Coronet's 1949 "How To Be Well-Groomed."
(You can't make this stuff up.)
So what? Dusty old reels of really bad acting and stilted dialog on a shoestring budget, expounding the benefits of having friends, brushing one's hair, and being dateable? How is this at all relevant to dressing like a grownup? Well, here's the point: Acting and dressing in a mature manner are inextricably linked. One follows the other.

By way of example: let's follow the mid-century emotional and social progression of Boy to Man, mirrored by his manner of dress.
An actual primary-school class, circa 1950.
In primary school, Mother dressed Junior in cute little outfits of shorts and striped jumpers. He may not have liked it; but there was no room for negotiation with Mother.

Actual, factual image of high school circa 1950.
By the time he hit High School, this little tyke's attire was commensurate with his growing maturity: shirts with ties, v-neck sweaters, and all the trappings that look so odd to us today when we see images of mid-century schoolboys. He may not have particularly liked it, but he became conditioned to it, the rules specified it, and although he was allowed a certain amount of latitude insofar as choice went, he was still under Mother's aegis. He was learning -- what was appropriate, what was acceptable, what was expected, in what he wore, just as much as how he acted.

Undergrads, circa 1949,
illustration from Esquire.
It was with great pride, when this young man went off to college and finally severed the apron strings, that Father would take Son to his first real tailor for his first real suit. He was on his way into the world, and he went prepared, and smartly dressed. He would push the boundaries of style and fashion on campus, keep up with the fads, and be cutting-edge current -- but always within the confines that he had learnt throughout his life.

Workaday clothes, also Esquire 1949.
When he graduated, now fully adult and brimming with knowledge, and went out into the workforce, his dress would become more proscribed, but college was the time for (sartorial) experimentation, to find the niche that best reflected his own personality.

Now today is a whole different picture. The old rules are gone, smashed by the foolish rebelliousness of 1960's anti-everything sentiment, and half-a-century on we're still reaping the results of generations that don't understand the barest shadow of our magnificent sartorial history. A boy is now sent to elementary school in tee-shirts, jeans, and sneakers, and taught by teachers in tee-shirts, jeans, and sneakers. No smart little outfits -- Mother can't be bothered -- and no authority figures in proper dress leading by example. High school, and no changes are seen: tee-shirts, jeans, sneakers. No peer pressure, no societal norms, no cheesy 16mm instructional films cranked out of whirring projectors in darkened classrooms -- is it any wonder that, when left adrift in college, the clothing modes of childhood would continue unbroken?

And is it any wonder that students have no concept of social interaction, who then grow into adults that have no concept of social interaction?

You can't do anything about the hoards of ignorant buffoons and buffoonettes surrounding you -- but you can do something about you. Start with you. Wearing the proper clothes doesn't make you (or the person you're with) any better mannered. But it's worlds easier with proper clothes, than without.

Need a more distinct direction to put a polish on your modern manners? Click here to check out Appendix 3.

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