Time to Give Sneakers the Boot!

We’ve got our sense of style inside out

By: Ned Crabb

With various horrors of modern life popping up all around us like card-board monsters at a fun house, it may seem to some that it’s a bit off the mark to worry about hats. Nevertheless, I am going to worry about them, for the simple reason that the not wearing of hats, a phenomenon that has grown ever more prevalent in our careless society, is an indicator of something gone seriously wrong, much as the disappearance of insect-eating birds ay signal a crisis in the environment.

When I was a boy (henceforth WIWAB), a youngster began the slow metamorphosis from childhood to manhood when, during such quaint activities as going to dinner with his family or attending a semi-formal dance, he hung up his baseball cap and sported a fedora, a smaller version of the one Dad wore.

steppingout (92K)

Similarly, girls put aside their Girl Scout berets and stocking caps and began imitating their mothers’ more dignified millinery. The point is not that I am an old crank who longs for a return to a better time (actually I am an old crank) but that’s a separate issue for another time) . The point is that hats were once prominent among those garments that symbolized a transition from looking like a child to looking like an adult. A complete ensemble of such adult clothing gave the wearer an appearance and sense of dignity.

Along the tortuous, tedious social path these last 30 to 40 years, we have lost much of the personal and beautiful dignity once inherent in our clothes, especially our casual clothes, and I do believe it began with hats. More and more adults are now daily dressing more like children, as “dress down Fridays” and other excuses for “fun” clothes intrude upon offices everywhere.

And what are we wearing these days instead of fedoras or even news-boy-style caps for men and cloche or wide-brimmed black horsehair hats for women? We are wearing a baseball cap, once a thing of manly distinction but now made ridiculous because it is almost universally worn reversed, and because it has an open semi-circle in what once was the hack of the cap and an inelegant little plastic, adjustable strap. WIWAB, caps were made in sizes varying by eighths, according to an arcane mathematical formula, and only baseball catchers and movie cameramen wore their caps backward.

No man, and certainly no woman, looks good or sporty or “cool” in a reversed baseball cap. (Quite the opposite!) They look, if you’ll pardon the vernacular, like big dorks. Grandfathers and fathers, once figures of veneration in tweed coats and cardigan sweaters, and grandmothers and mothers, once figures of respect iii dresses or tailored slacks and starched blouses, are now seen disporting themselves in public in sweat pants. These are among the ugliest clothing ever conceived, looking, even when laundered, like toddlers’ dirty pajamas. They never should have left the locker room.

Now, three generations of an American family—children, parents and grandparents can promenade the avenues of the world’s great cities or spas similarly haberdash-ed and coutured; baggy shorts; T- shirts or sweat shirts with cartoons of woodpeckers or wart hogs or other images of popular-culture icons or asinine one-sentence philosophies; enormous ugly sneakers garishly decorated with various colors and stripes, zigzagged leather strips and mesh fabrics, looking like Buck Rogers spaceships straining to zoom away with the wearers’ feet; ridiculous little “fanny packs” around their waists; and inevitably those ghastly caps. a WIWAB, grown men and women had too much respect for themselves and their families to dress like circus clowns. And this has nothing whatever to do with class or wealth or race. Once, and not so terribly long ago, (WIWAB) adults of every class, race and income level conformed, within a wide enough range to permit many different expressions of individuality and regionality, to a generally accepted idea of what men and women should look like. Of course, money, or the lack of it, contributed to considerable variation in the quality, cut and durability of their clothes, but at least even the poorest Americans did not look like something that popped out of a jack-in-the-box. In a number of American social history hooks, there are stark photos of rural and small-town Americans living on the hard boundaries of life during the Great Depression in such states as Oklahoma and Texas and Kansas, or in the midst of bitter labor strikes in the Deep South or in Northern industrial towns. Many of them are wearing hats—the men in fedoras, wide-brimmed farm hats, Stetsons, straw field hats or newsboy caps; the women in bonnets or low- - crowned hats of felt or straw with wide, floppy brims. You can almost read the peoples’ lives in those hat battered but somehow proud hats.

Suffering is written on the faces of these men and women and their children, but when we look at them 60 years- later, they still bear a fierce dignity, standing there , their thread-bare clothes. At least, when the camera captured their images and exposed their suffering for others to gape at and wonder, they weren’t wearing fanny packs or backward base ball caps or T-shirts reading “Beam me up, Scotty.”




Copyright @ June 25, 1999 by: Dow Jones & Co,.

200 Liberty Street, New York, N.Y. 10281

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