Cover of Vogue, 1942. Source: Smithsonian Museum of American History

American Apparel

A History of Fashion

Summer vacation is drawing to a close, and for many Americans that means heading to the mall for some back-to-school shopping. What better time to revisit our show on the history of American fashion? In this episode, Peter, Ed, and Brian explore what self-presentation says about our society and culture, and how fashion has reflected moments and movements in American history. When do fashion statements become political statements? Does fashion evolve, or does it simply revolve? And does the United States have a unique style? Just some of the questions BackStory poses on its history of fashion in America…

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**This transcript comes from a previous broadcast. There may be small changes between the audio you hear above and the text.**

ED: This is BackStory, I’m Ed Ayers. Earlier this summer pop star Pharrell stirred up controversy when he wore an Indian headdress on the cover of a fashion magazine. But what strikes some as offensive today, would have been welcomed 100 years earlier, when of all people, a group of museum curators tried to define the American look.

ANN MARGUERITE TARTSINIS: They were even letting fashion designers pin the hide jackets and Siberian coats to dress forms.

ED: Today on the show, a history of fashion. From the Revolutionary War, when made in America was all the rage, to the Civil War, when a bushy beard was the key to being all you could be.

SEAN TRAINOR: You will be stronger, you will be, more virile. You can go out and do these mainly things that perhaps they’ve always wanted to do but couldn’t do, because they didn’t have facial hair.

ED: Plus, the suit that have opposite meanings on each side of the Atlantic. Fashion in America, today on BackStory.

PETER: Major funding for BackStory is provided by an anonymous donor, the University of Virginia, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation.

ED: From the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, this is BackStory, with the American Backstory hosts.

BRIAN: Welcome to the show. I’m Brian Balogh, and I’m here with Peter Onuf.

PETER: Hey there Brian.

BRIAN: Ed Ayers is with us.

ED: Hello Brian.

BRIAN: And we’re going to kick it off today in 1956, at a party in New York City. The host of this party were a couple named the Salzmans. They were Greenwich Village bohemian types, and on the night of his party, Sue Salzman was steamed. Earlier that day, she had lost out on an incredible bargain at the local Salvation Army. It was an authentic, 1920s, full length raccoon fur men’s coat.

JENNIFER LE ZOTTE: She recounted a near grappling match between herself and another Salvation Army patron over this coat, which was a relic of the furry fad from the 1920s.

PETER: This is Jennifer Le Zotte, a historian at Colby College. She says that in the Roaring ’20s, these raccoon coats had been all the rage on Ivy League campuses. But when the stock market crashed, affluence went out of style, and so did the coats. By the 1950s, they were a relic of a bygone era.

BRIAN: One of the guests at the Salzman’s party had turned out, had a relative with a warehouse full of pre-war men’s clothing. After hearing about the Salvation Army drama, the guest offered Sue a crack at any raccoon coats that might be in the warehouse. But it quickly became clear, that everybody at the party also wanted a coat. So the Salzmans decided to go into business.

PETER: In the following days they called around to secondhand stores and warehouses and bought up all the raccoon coats they could find. Which they promptly turned around and sold to their artsy downtown friends.

JENNIFER LE ZOTTE: It wasn’t very long until Glamour magazine actually published a photo of a coonskin coat and named the Salzmans as major suppliers.

BRIAN: Letters and phone calls started pouring in, including one from Gordon Taylor. Before long, the very same moth eaten coats that had spent 25 years packed away in boxes, were hanging on the racks of New York’s poshes department stores.

JENNIFER LE ZOTTE: These department stores were promising shabbily genteel coats full of lovely holes in a snobby seediness. The Salzmans fueled fur’s romantic images, by often reporting that– for example in one coat we found a revolver and a mask and in another, a list of speakeasies.

PETER: This of course was hardly the first fashion revival in American history, but the raccoon coat craze of 1956 and 1957 was something new. It was a craze not simply for the old style, but for the actual coats themselves. Which explains why the craze only lasted two years.

JENNIFER LE ZOTTE: They ran out of coats.

PETER: But short-lived as the fashion may have been, Jennifer Le Zotte says that it had huge impact on secondhand clothing culture.

JENNIFER LE ZOTTE: It really wasn’t until this raccoon coat craze, that, vintage clothing became something that was desirable, not just old, not just secondhand, not just used.

BRIAN: The raccoon coat craze was the first time clothes were marketed as vintage. It was the beginning, says Le Zotte, of what has become a very familiar phenomenon, wealthy people paying more for an item because of its aura of authenticity.

JENNIFER LE ZOTTE: Recently I’ve actually seen a 1970s mesh back trucker hat, which emblem of blue collar work, that was being sold for nearly 50 bucks.

BRIAN: Now, it’s true that there’s a tradition of wearing secondhand clothes as an anti-consumer statement, a tradition that goes back to the 1960s. But Le Zotte says that the raccoon coat story reveals a still older tradition, of spending top dollar to appear counter-cultural.

JENNIFER LE ZOTTE: It simply doesn’t avoid the system. It’s anti-consumerist, consumerism.

ED: Whether or not we are particularly fashionable, the clothes we wear necessarily say things to the people around us. Sometimes those clothes say, hey we want to fit in, we want to belong. Sometimes they say, no we reject the status quo. Either way we wear layers of meaning, many of which come to us from the past.

BRIAN: Which makes the topic of fashion prime for the picking by us Backstory hosts. And so today on the show, Ed, Peter, and I are walking the runway of fashion’s history here in the United States. We’ve got the story of a group of anthropologists who tried to put their stamp on America’s early 20th century look, of spinster sisters who succeeded where those anthropologists failed, and of the sartorial lightening rod known as a zoot suit.

PETER: But first, we’re going to spend a few minutes in the colonial era. For well over a 100 years American colonists imported their textiles and their styles from mother England. But by the 1760s talk of Independence was in the air, and suddenly it mattered a lot where your clothes were made. If Americans could produce their own fabric at home, so the thinking went, then they could become that much less reliant on European imports.

ED: This new, highly politicized, style of wearing made in America clothing, became known as homespun. It was a simple, unadorned look in keeping with what many of the time considered to be the “small r” republican principles. Homespun textiles would prove that clothes could be equalizers, rather than marks of status and wealth. Who was supposed to actually make this homemade fabric? Well, that would be the job of women. Consider this quote from a Massachusetts newspaper in 1769.

MALE SPEAKER 1: It was early conceived by the most sagacious and knowing nations, that a number of females had always determine the condition of men, By means of their spinning wheels. I presume there never was a time when the spinning wheel could more influence the affairs of men, than at present.

KATE HAULMAN: I don’t want to say that it’s entirely a myth, a total fabrication, but it wasn’t as broad, or deep as we have thought.

PETER: This is Kate Haulman, a historian at American University. She points out that while the image of women at their spinning wheels was a potent symbol for advocates of independence, most of those advocates were men. And so this whole homespun thing may have been more rhetoric, than reality.

KATE HAULMAN: Certainly some women would come together in a very social fashion and have spinning bees, but if you go back to some of the earlier women’s history of the ’70s and ’80s, what you see in the evidence there is that women really couldn’t stand spinning. It’s not how they would choose to spend their time. So it was limited, and it maybe didn’t have the kind of breadth and depth that we have wanted to imagine for this period. We like to think of our founding era as kind of pure and marked by sacrifice and coming together. And the reality is much more complicated than that. People had their own positions and things that they wanted to express, and were apt to feel somewhat, perhaps coerced.

PETER: Yeah, so this homespun thing was really a pseudo-demorcatic look. It was imposed for ideological reasons on the people. It wasn’t as if it sprang naturally out of the style sense of the people or anything.

KATE HAULMAN: No, No. In fact, my findings are that it’s a very top down vision, very enforced by a certain set of– not necessarily elite men, some elite men, some middling men– but the leaders of the resistance movement, generate the homespun revolution.

PETER: Well do have evidence that patriotic women who otherwise sympathized with the revolutionary cause, resisted this particular form of patriotism? The idea that they should produce this cloth and then wear it.

KATE HAULMAN: Well I don’t have a lot of smoking gun evidence of that. I don’t have a lot of women saying, God I really just– who needs homespun, I don’t want to wear that. But what you do see is the persistence of certain styles, of imported styles and imported cloth, sometimes even in the face of non-consumption. Broad skirts, the hoops get really wide, and that’s very much about taking up space and drawing attention and displaying fabrics. And then heads get very high, so you get very high, elaborately produced hairstyle made of actual real hair and wigs and often festooned with pearls or flowers– and so women in the 1770’s, so this is right on the eve of the war for independence, and you see it in Philadelphia you see in places like Boston, and in Charleston– Women’s fashions get very big. So that if you look at practices, next to proclamations, if you will, you do see what is unspoken about adherence or lack thereof to the homespun movement.

PETER: But Kate, you’ve suggested that the homespun look was patriotic, that it would mark a commitment to the republican revolution. It was a republican aesthetic. We don’t care about luxury and all that kind of stuff. But when you take a longer look at the history of fashion, do you think a republican fashion aesthetic ever really took hold?

KATE HAULMAN: I would say that it did. By the 1790s, or maybe the first decade of the 19th century you have some reconciliation, If you will, stylistically between a look of republicanism, “small r”, and the demands of high style. And that arrives it’s a kind of French revolutionary era style. The high waisted Grecian gown, white or light colored fabrics, imported usually, right, still, but that look of the Greek statuary, right, is at that point by the 1790s, or the first decade of the 19th century, both high-style and comes under attack as such, but it also is a look of republicanism.

PETER: Yeah, so that was the en pierre look as it was known, diving bodices and all that.


PETER: And here you can combine republicanism with high style. Who would’ve ever thought that was possible?

KATE HAULMAN: Well interestingly enough most men don’t find that that’s very possible. But I think women can embrace it as both, and it seems to solve this problem, but, because it is still a high fashion, and it is an imported style, this time French, with all sorts of those associations. And then you layer onto that, all of this critique about the style being too diaphanous, revealing of the body transparent, bespeaking libertinism, then it’s really a problem.

PETER: So Kate you’re suggesting that fashion has broad ideological and political associations, It’s contested. People are concerned about fashion, and particularly the way women dress themselves.

KATE HAULMAN: Yes. I think that throughout this period women and women’s bodies become this litmus test and a site for projecting a certain vision of the nation of legitimacy, and that can run a couple of different ways. On the one hand, the women need to be displaying, a la’ homespun or something like it, republican virtue. On the other hand, for a long time in the British empire, women, not just women, men too, but women have been the symbols of and the arbiters of refinement, and gentility, and cosmopolitanism. And this is a moment of some uncertainty, this is a brand new experiment, a new nation, yes republican, “small r”, but also a nation, and how does the nation need to look? And so therein lies the tension, the conflict.

PETER: So were a lot of women seeing therapists at this time becasue of this cognitive dissonance?

KATE HAULMAN: Oh it’s that late. But men should have been, certainly.

PETER: Kate Haulman is a history professor at American University. Her book is called The Politics of Fashion in 18th Century America.

ED: It’s time for a short break, but don’t go away. When we get back, a group of anthropologists try to make their mark on the New York fashion scene.

BRIAN: You’re listening to BackStory. We’ll be right back.

PETER: We’re back with BackStory, the show that looks to the past to understand the America of today. I’m Peter Onuf.

BRIAN: I’m Brian Balough.

ED: And I’m Ed Ayers. Today on the show we’re exploring the role of fashion in American history.

PETER: As we do with each of our shows, we’ve been inviting your feedback on today’s topic on a website. A listener named Cash left us a note and we decided to give him a call. Cash welcome to the show.

CASH: Thanks. It’s great to get to talk to you guys today.

PETER: Yeah, what do have for us?

CASH: Well I was having a discussion with some folks the other day at work about fashion and we had talked about Ben Franklin’s fur hats that he wore while he was serving as an envoy to France during the American Revolution. He was painted with them and the French just really came to associate Franklin with these fur hats as a symbol of America. Were there any earlier examples of American fashion being exported back to Europe instead of us just importing everything?

PETER: No. In fact I would question that was an American fashion, because who made it fashionable? It was the French, who got all excited about this Quaker– supposed Quaker, of course he was a phony Quaker– wearing this funny hat. He found it was fashionable and then he had a lot of them made, and that was his look.

ED: Peter, Peter Peter. That’s so cynical man. So let me ask this, why would this fake Quaker show up in Paris with a beaver on his head, if he did that think that there was some purpose behind it?

PETER: Well he was Mr. Natural. And nature used to be a bad thing. That is nature’s associated with the wilderness, which is a terrible, howling, place, barbarism, savages. But there was a cult of the natural in the enlightenment and that people like Franklin could exploit it. And that is getting close to nature, being authentic, understanding nature’s laws, and being at one with nature. That was a cool thing, and that’s what Franklin knew he was exploiting. That is, the only comparative advantage you could have coming from nowhere in the new world, was that you were closer to nature.

BRIAN: Hey Peter I have a question.

PETER: Yeah.

BRIAN: It seems to me that fashion is also about difference. Right. If we all dress the same, I can’t imagine calling that fashionable.

ED: It would one giant college.

BRIAN: Exactly. Wasn’t Franklin, really a difference maker, showing up there in Paris. Might that not be the basis for a new fashion trend.

PETER: Oh Yeah. I think that’s a good point Brian. His very presence in Paris showed that the world was changing in a fundamental way. Remember the French had recently lost much of North America to the British in the Seven Years’ War. And here, all of a sudden it looks like the British empire is going to fall apart, so the monstrous empire that overthrew the French and North America was now on its back heels and these backwoods people we’re showing them a good fight in the revolution. So, I think he brought a lot of cred with him to Paris, and I think that’s right, there’s an aura about him because he is American. He didn’t have to do anything.

BRIAN: Right. Just different.

PETER: Just be different.

CASH: Yes. And also, it was really part of Franklin’s political savvy. That when he goes to France, he adopts this character. He creates this persona of the wildness of America. When the whole life of he and his contemporaries in the colonies had been to try to tame the wilderness, to try to bring their style of civilization to the new world.

BRIAN: So speaking of wearing animals on top of our heads, Ed, I want to know when people started wearing raccoons on top of their heads.

ED: Well the American Indians had done it for a long time and this is kind of parallel to the story Peter was telling. In the same way that the ultra fashionable French people were taken with wearing at least pretend beavers on their heads– the women styled their hair so it had the same kind of shape– so did the American frontiersman, the white guys, Davy Crockett, Daniel Boone, adapt from the Indians the idea of using the entire animal skin, complete with the tail, but taking Franklin one step further I think, of the raccoon. And so, much in the same way that Franklin showing up in Paris in the 18th century, these guys who, one ends up being a congressman, shows up in Washington with a raccoon on his head, and it becomes distinguishing for him for the same reason.

BRIAN: So could we tease out a theme here? Because, honestly when I think about the 20th century, I think about blue jeans, which come out of the West. I think about cowboy boots. These are all things in America exported to the world. Is that what America has to add to fashion for at least 200 or 300 years? Our kind of frontier stylings.

PETER: Yeah, I think that’s right Brian. Think of the ways in which American vernacular music, jazz, blues, what we now call folk, all this stuff represents the opposite of high culture.

ED: That’s right and if you think about the other fashions we’ve exported, even after blue jeans and black leather jackets, it became sports wear. Right. I remember when I first went to Europe and people were friendly to me and said Ed, we can always tell Americans because they’re wearing athletic shoes all the time. So America really has nothing other than informality to sell.

PETER: Hey thanks for calling Cash.

CASH: Absolutely. It was great getting to talk with you guys.

ED: Thanks very much Cash. Bye.

[MUSIC PLAYING] I know that I’m looking fine now in my beaver hat. That’s cause Damon shaped those beaver–

BRIAN: Ben Franklin, may have succeeded in influencing French trends in hat wear, but as late as the 20th century, Americans continued looking to Europe, and especially France for their fashion guidance. When war broke out across the continent in 1914, the European clothing industry switched gears and devoted itself instead to serving military needs. And this created a bit of a crisis among fashion minded Americans.

ANN MARGUERITE TARTSINIS: Periodicals, in New York especially, were kind of decrying the situation, saying that there’s no real American design, and there’s no direction coming from Europe now.

BRIAN: This is Ann Marguerite Tartsinis, a curator at the Bard Graduate Center in New York City. She says that where some saw crisis, others in New York’s art and museum circle, saw an opportunity. Like Arthur Wesley Dow, an influential professor of art education at Columbia University.

MALE SPEAKER: It is time we throw off these shackles and endeavor to express ourselves in our own way. Our design should be distinctively American. We ought to create a new period style for our own needs. We Americans can make an art use with the naivete’s of the mountain builders cliff dwellers, Pueblo tribes, Alaskans, Mayans, and Peruvians.

ANN MARGUERITE TARTSINIS: So he’s conflating all these different communities. He’s lumpy and all of this indigenous material together and seeing it as a way to really throttle American design into the forefront.

BRIAN: If you’re in New York City and you want to infuse some pre-Colombian flavor into the local fashion scene, where do you go for inspiration? How about the American Museum of Natural History? A small group of anthropologists there were convinced that they held the key to unlocking the future of American design.

ANN MARGUERITE TARTSINIS: Curators felt that objects in the collections could be seen as examples to inspire and educate designers. To create something new and create something that was wholly separate from Europe.

BRIAN: In 1915, these curators opened up their specimen storage rooms, and they invited influential New York designers behind the scenes to see what real American design was all about.

ANN MARGUERITE TARTSINIS: They were even letting fashion designers pin hide jackets and Siberian coats to dress forms so they could model their contemporary designs after these more historical and indigenous designs. They also started a very ambitious design contest series which started in 1916 and ran until 1922. And the mission of these contests was to get these designs being made by the designers, who were interested and ambitious enough to use the collections at the museum as inspiration for their own work, to get those designs out into manufacture.

BRIAN: And believe it or not, some of these designs made their way to market. In 1917 the John Wanamaker department store unveiled a showroom called Modern Maya Made. It contained dresses, coats, and hats, that integrated native textiles into contemporary fashion design. Now, looking to the past for inspiration was not a new idea in fashion design. In fact European designers had also drawn on various folk customs. But back in Europe, this chain of influence was a little less complicated. The designers, or at least the people buying their clothes, could in many cases claim a direct family line to the people whose styles they were appropriating. A group of white guys in New York, on the other hand, how could they possibly lay claim to native cultures, Stretching from Alaska to the Amazon.

ANN MARGUERITE TARTSINIS: The curator saw the indigenous communities that they were appropriating as inherently American, arguing that it was in the soil. That it was about the land they were inhabiting, and even though Euro-American culture could lay no claim to the cultures of the indigenous Americas, they made this conceptual leap by thinking about the territory as American.

BRIAN: A 100 years later, this kind of thinking may seem naive, at best. But remember, at the time, ideas about eugenics and the inferiority of non-white races, were very widespread. In this context these anthropologists believe they were taking a powerfully, progressive stand.

ED: In the end, the Modern Myan Made look didn’t exactly catch on, nor for that matter, did any of the other mash ups of native cultures that the anthropologists were trying to promote. But there’s a coda to this story. In the 1970s, American fashion designers again turned to the now controversial practice of indigenous appropriation. But this time, says Tartsinis, American consumers were buying.

ANN MARGUERITE TARTSINIS: There’s an explosion of design that looks to particularly the indigenous American material. You see it in fringed garments and hide jackets. It’s this vision of iconic American Indian with the headrest as being this kind of definitive American vision. And you see designers like Giorgio Sant’Angelo, and Ralph Lauren, kind of looking to the American West as a source for design. And you see it again even recently, in recent years Donna Karan, her runway was filled with fringe garments. Right. So it’s this kind of a Western ideal of the American landscape and the people who inhabit It. And that finds its way into the clothing. And then eventually is distilled into kind of every day dress,

BRIAN: That’s Ann Marguerite Tartsinis. Her book and exhibition about the fashions inspired by museum artifacts, is called An American Style: Global Sources for New York Textile and Fashion Design, 1915-1928. You could look at some photos from her exhibit at


PETER: One fashion that you may have noticed has been on the rebound lately, is the beard. Earlier this year, the New York Times remarked on the trend with an article slugged, The Brooklyn Beard Goes Mainstream.

ED: Now when, you may be wondering, did the beard trend first hit the American mainstream. Well we’re going to take the story back to the late 1830s. Now by this point, members of the more refined urban professional classes have been wearing facial hair for a few years. They call that look, whiskers, by which they could mean a carefully trimmed beard, lengthy sideburns, or even a wax mustaches.

PETER: What they would have called a beard was different. Beards where wild, unkempt, and often came down to the chest. And in the late 1830s they became the subject of newspaper controversy, for and against. Historian Sean Trainor has collected some of these debates. Those against, he says, argued that beards were indecent and uncultured, but proponents insisted that they saved time and money, or that they were biblical and therefore virtuous, or even that they had health benefits.

SEAN TRAINOR: There are folks who claim that the beard is sort of a natural respirator. That you can avoid throat infections if you wear a beard. The beards and mustaches will filter out the particulate matter in the air, and perhaps men with beards will be less likely to be afflicted with tuberculosis.

ED: But Trainor says that in the 1830s, there was yet another, more important, connotation of beards.

MALE SPEAKER 2: The habit of wearing a beard, is a manly and noble one. Its abandonment is commonly been accompanied not only by a period of general effeminacy, but even by the decline and fall of the states.

SEAN TRAINOR: There’s a sense that wearing a beard is not merely reflective of a sort of strength and virility, but is perhaps even productive of it. That by growing a beard, that you will be stronger, you will be more robust, more virile, that you can go out and do these manly things that perhaps they’ve always wanted to do but couldn’t, do because they didn’t have facial hair.

ED: Considering all this you might expect the beard to be found on the American frontier, but Trainor says it was just the opposite. This is a period when Americans were flocking to cities for jobs behind desks as clerks or salesman. And it was these guys who wore and argued for the biggest beards.

SEAN TRAINOR: Many of these folks are actually coming from the same sort of professional, urban circles, as the clerks sort of who are wearing whiskers. But it is an idea that they’re aspiring to and that they think the beard is suggestive of. But the thing that’s actually really interesting is that you do you find a handful of critics, especially among Western men, and really kind of object to this idea of the beard as a style of the frontier, a style of rugged masculinity.

ED: That is very intersitng. You certainly don’t think of cowboys as having beards, do you.

SEAN TRAINOR: Right, you don’t. In fact an interesting example, there’s a famous mural in the capitol rotunda, entitled Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way, features some rather rugged looking Western men with facial hair. But at least one commentator objected to this particular way of depicting Western men and said, that you know well while Western men sort of use a modern term like get scruffy every once in awhile, out doing there sort of frontierzee business.

ED: Right.

SEAN TRAINOR: That whenever they got a chance, they found some warm water, they found some soap, and they found a razor, and they shaved themselves. So I mean there is the sense at least coming from a few sources, the idea of beard wearing is kind of a Western affectation, that’s just as is incorrect.

ED: So what is it that American men in the 1840s would be reacting against? Why are they so eager to prove themselves manly?

SEAN TRAINOR: Well the beard, and facial hair, more broadly, the response to a number of factors. The first perhaps is the burgeoning of women’s activism, women’s rights movement, and the fear among some men that their prerogative is being challenged, and the beard becomes a way to sort of reinforce the distinction between men and women that they feel is being lost.

BRIAN: Even the ladies who in years past so lovingly admired these noble badges of men’s dignity, now demand their curtailment if not utter extermination. They wish to make a “clean shave”, of all badges of manly superiority. They seem determined to have an equality between the sexes anyhow. If they can’t elevate themselves up, they are determined to elevate the men down.

SEAN TRAINOR: But also this is the great period of manifest destiny. You see these folks talking about the bearded races are the conquering races.

MALE SPEAKER 3: In the world’s history, the bearded races have at all times been the most important actors. And there’s no part of the body, which on the whole, they’ve shown more readiness to honor.

MALE SPEAKER 4: It cannot be denied that a certain superiority has always been conveyed by the presence of the beard.

SEAN TRAINOR: If you want to make your presence felt throughout the world as a person of sort of imperial power, that the beard is an emblem for that.

ED: Now, I know that in the 1850s there was a kind of palpable excitement in the air about the impending war. And do you think it’s possible that some American men sort of donned beards as a way to show themselves as men worthy of this moment?

SEAN TRAINOR: I think that as the sectional crisis deepens, as the likelihood of some sort of conflict, whether it’s violent or whether it’s political deepens. I think the beard is part of a wave that men kind of prepare themselves mentally, or socially, or culturally. This is the way that men thought they should or needed to look when facing a crisis, or when facing something that they thought would test their masculinity.

ED: So as you pointed out, men’s imagine wearing a beard the years before the Civil War as a kind of preparation for the crisis. But as you know they still wear beards for decades after the Civil War. Does the beard then have a different meaning?

SEAN TRAINOR: Well, I think that wearing the beard was part of sort of marking one’s status as a veteran. And I mean veteran expansively here, not just as a veteran of the Union or Confederate army but, as a veteran of the experience of the war. And I do think that it continues to carry that meaning throughout the end of the century, in that perhaps one of the reasons why the style sort of falls into disrepair, as it were, is that people are beginning to try to put the war behind them. And I think the beard is part of that or rather getting rid of the beard, moving beyond a style of men’s grooming in which beard wearing and facial hair is kind of the dominant mode of comportment.

[MUSIC PLAYING] I, I like, I like, beards I like–

ED: Sean Trainor teaches history and women’s studies at Penn State University. If you go to our website, you can read a link to an article he wrote for The Atlantic, about the complicated racial history of facial hair.

BRIAN: It’s time for another short break. When we get back the story of the only fashion trend with a riot named after it.

PETER: You’re listening to BackStory. We’ll be back in a minute.

[MUSIC PLAYING] I like, beards.

PETER: This is BackStory. I’m Peter Onuf.

BRIAN: I’m Brian Balogh.

ED: And I’m Ed Ayers. Today in the show, the statements Americans have made with their fashions over the years. We’re going to spend a few minutes now with a fashion trend whose meaning underwent a remarkable number of transformations over a relatively short period of time. And that would be the zoot suit.

[MUSIC – Kay Kyser & His Orchestra, “A Zoot Suit (For My Sunday Gal)”] I want a zoot suit, with the reet pleat, with the drape shape and a stuff cuff–

ED: This was a look invented in the late 1930s by young African American men in Harlem, and it was a lot like a regular men’s suit, only more so. More in the sleeves, which reach down to the fingertips. More in the pants, which ballooned. More vibrant, red, blue, bright green, and mustard yellow fabrics.

KATHY PEISS: I think that it is a playing with the fashions that are already there for men, but just bringing it to a higher level.

ED: Kathy Peiss is a historian at the University of Pennsylvania, and she’s traced the changing meaning of the zoot suit. The first jump she’s found was from Harlem to Los Angeles, where the style was adopted by Mexican Americans. And there, in June of 1943 it took center stage in a violent episode involving American military men. An episode that came to be known as the Zoot Suit Riots.

KATHY PEISS: Servicemen pick out zoot suited Mexican-American youth as targets. And when they’re on leave, they go into the city, and they go into the movie houses, restaurants, dance halls, and all over the streets, looking for men wearing zoot suits, and beating them up and tearing the suit’s off their backs.

ED: So calling it a Zoot Suit Riot is kind of a misnomer in a way. It’s not that the zoot suitors were actually starting any kind of conflict, right?

KATHY PEISS: That’s correct. It should have been called the Servicemen’s Riot. And by calling at the Zoot Suit Riot, it was a way to reduce the racial identification of this conflict. So they’re going after these young men in these outlandish outfits, who are not responsible people.

ED: If you’re wondering why the outlandishness of an outfit would be associated with irresponsibility, consider the context. This was 1943 after all, smack in the middle of World War II.

KATHY PEISS: With the arrival of World War II, with the need to conserve fabric, these suits become targets of concern both on the part of the government and on the part of ordinary citizens who see them as unpatriotic.

ED: And unpatriotic because they’re consuming material that could otherwise be used for uniforms and other war material, right?

KATHY PEISS: Yes they’re seen as unpatriotic because they use so much material, but also they become associated with racial and ethnic minorities. And there’s so much racial tension in this era, that the suit also is unfairly seen as a sign of a draft-dodger or someone who’s shirking his patriotic duty.

ED: Peiss puts most of the blame for the zoot suits increasingly negative connotations at the feet of newspapers in LA. In the early 1940s competition among those papers was fierce, and they tried to outdo each other with breathless accounts of local crime.

KATHY PEISS: They really target Mexican-American youth as criminal, as juvenile delinquent. And the federal government asks them not to identify these young people as Mexican-American, because it is offending our allies, the Mexicans, and the good neighbor policy. And so they begin to use this term “zoot suitor” to describe Mexican-Americans. And there’s a series of violent incidents that brings the zoot suit into public light in a very glaring and negative way. And that contributes to this idea that it is the zoot suit that is the cause of the riot. But somehow this item of fashion can be a sinister force in and of itself.

ED: In subsequent years the zoot suit would become the preferred look for the bad guys in Disney cartoons. But at the same time, Peiss says the zoot suit was taking on an entirely different meaning overseas. American jazz musicians, and movies, had carried the look to countries like France, and Germany, and even the Soviet Union. Black South Africans even in the midst of apartheid started donning it. And in these places, the zoot suit came to stand in for ideals of freedom and useful independence.

KATHY PEISS: Elements of it are used by young people in part to convey a certain kind of Americanness. Which is interesting, because in the United States it’s seen as being perhaps not American. So in France, for example, and even in Nazi Germany, there were young people who wore some zooted styling. In the case of the swing youth in Germany, as a way to kind of push back against Nazi regimentation.

ED: The suits had a second act in America too. In the 1960s, zoot suits began appearing as the outfits not of criminals, but rather of heroes, in magazines, plays, and novels, coming out of the Chicano pride movement.

KATHY PEISS: There is a search for usable myths, usable heroic figures. And some of that goes back to ancient Aztec, mythological figures. But there’s also a recovery of the zoot suit as actually a sign of assertion, of Mexican-American pride, kind of redefining what it means for a new age.

ED: And yet, despite all this, despite the highly politicized meanings of the zoot suit, Kathy Peiss says we shouldn’t reduce its story only to politics. Over the years, she says, people have had all kinds of reasons for wearing the outfit.

KATHY PEISS: I guess what I would like people to think about is the way that fashion works in complicated ways and then its meanings are not easily reduced to politics. So there are moments when the zoot suit is intensely political, but there also are moments when it really is about pleasure, it’s about aesthetics, and it’s about an identity that’s not simple a political identity.

ED: That’s Kathy Peiss. She is a professor of history at the University of Pennsylvania and author of Zoot Suit: The Enigmatic Career of an Extreme Style.

[MUSIC – Kay Kyser & His Orchestra, “A Zoot Suit (For My Sunday Gal)”] Zoot.

ED: We’re going to dial the clock back now a few decades, to earlier in the 20th century, to 1918. When a dress, design, and sewing prodigy named Mary Brooks Pickens was approached by a female physicians.

LINDA PRZYBYSZEWSKI: Who came to her and said, I do not understand clothes, I never will but I know I have a problem.

ED: This is historian Linda Przybyszewski. She says that the physician that approached Mary Brooks Picken had a professional wardrobe issue. Her peers and clients didn’t take her seriously, because of what she wore, and so she asked Mary.

LINDA PRZYBYSZEWSKI: Would you look over my wardrobe and give me a diagnose and prescribe me a new wardrobe? And Picken did that, and the doctor reported that people who had never bothered to consult with her, now did. That the other doctors she worked with, treated her with more respect and so did the nurses who worked with her, and she was cured. So that’s where I get the idea, the term the dress doctors.

ED: The women Linda refers to as the dress doctors taught home economics, retail, an art at land-grant universities in the early decades of the 20th century. And central to their teaching about wardrobe were rules about harmony, that govern what shapes, and textures, and colors a woman could wear. There were also rules about rhythm, balance, proportion, and emphasis, Big hats, for example we’re good, because they emphasized the face, and that encourage people to pay attention to what women had to say. Loud patterns, on the other hand, were a problem, because, they could be distracting in what they called unbalanced. And the dress doctors waged a decades long war against high heels, because shoes that constricted feet made a fluid, natural walking rhythm, nearly impossible. A lot of these rules originated with a pair of sisters who taught at the University of Minnesota, Harriet and Vetta Goldstein. I sat down with Przybyszewski to talk about the principles embedded in the Goldstein sisters enormously influential textbook, Art In Everyday Life.

LINDA PRZYBYSZEWSKI: The idea was that art is something spiritual, it’s something uplifting, it’s an expression of God’s creation, and it shouldn’t just be for rich people.

ED: Right.

LINDA PRZYBYSZEWSKI: It should be for everyone, and one of the ways you can bring it into your life is through how you decorate your home, how you lay out your garden, and what you wear.

ED: How would they embody the lessons they were trying to convey?

LINDA PRZYBYSZEWSKI: Well, there are descriptions of what they wore. One of them always we’re navy, the other one always wore maroon. They wore sensible Oxford shoes. Usually they had a little pin at the throat, and they wore big black hats that were too big for them. So I don’t think you would have thought of them as fashion plates at all, but obviously each had chose navy or maroon because they thought that one played the best off their complexions.

ED: So i have to admit that sounds as if the navy and maroon and the big black hats might not have been that inspiring, but it’s my understanding that they Goldstein sisters were actually influential even beyond the University of Minnesota.

LINDA PRZYBYSZEWSKI: Oh yes. The first edition of their book, Art in Everyday Life came out in 1925, it would have four more editions. And you can see their ideas in every single dress textbook written after their book comes out.

ED: Wow.

LINDA PRZYBYSZEWSKI: And they managed to spread their story and their principles literally to millions of girls and women because, these lessons were taught in home economics courses for girls a junior high school. And by the 1930s 90% of girls in junior high school were required to take home economics courses. So it’s literally generations of girls who are being taught these principles over time. Which is why you can see them in action in most of the dress design you see in the early 20th century.

ED: Were they arguing against any prevailing styles? Were they trying to reform what people were turning to as fashion?

LINDA PRZYBYSZEWSKI: I think the dress doctors were always acting as a kind of counterweight against fads– which stands for “for a day”.

ED: Oh really.

LINDA PRZYBYSZEWSKI: Yeah. If you follow these principles, they argued, you will possess something beautiful, that you will want to wear not just for a day, but for a long time. Until you just wear it out.

ED: So I’m hearing mixed signals here. On one handed, they sound very instrumental, very utilitarian. On the other hand they’re celebrating these values of art. How would they have reconciled those?

LINDA PRZYBYSZEWSKI: Well, if you think of them as drawing upon the arts and crafts movement, those two things are not at odds. Those two things were actually, within the arts and crafts movement, completely integrated.

ED: Right.

LINDA PRZYBYSZEWSKI: Something cannot be beautiful if it’s not useful.

ED: Form and function.

LINDA PRZYBYSZEWSKI: Right. Form and function. They have to work together. They have to support one another. So I like to say if a vase has a hole in the bottom you can’t really put flowers in it, because you can’t put water in it. Well shoes that keep a woman from walking naturally, and gracefully, with strength, those are bad shoes. They maybe as decorated as you like, they may have a fabulously interesting looked to them, but if she can’t walk in them, they were by definition, not beautiful.

ED: As I look at the illustrations in your book, and I think about the movies I’ve seen from the ’30s and ’40s and ’50s, it seems that there is a kind of style that adheres to the principles of these women. That they do really care about sort of form in harmony and proportion all this. And then having lived through it, I happen to know, that this kind of unravels in the 1960s. How would you explain that and what we make of that?

LINDA PRZYBYSZEWSKI: Well it does unravel and for a couple of reasons and you can see the logic of it. In the 1960s, we have several social movements that are questioning some really fundamental ways in which American society was organized. The civil rights movement, and then the women’s movement, right. There used to be a lot of rules about how blacks should behave, how women should behave.

ED: Right.

LINDA PRZYBYSZEWSKI: So a lot of rules then got questioned, including rules about dress, and were really seen as oppressive. Now, I don’t think all of them were, but there was this period in the early ’70s, it’s really clear when, feminist groups, women’s liberation groups, were approached and sort of asked, can we interview you about fashion. And there would have been a lot to say, right. Getting rid of the girdle the miniskirt being so undignified, the choice of pants for women, which used to be only for informal or sportswear, and then became part of mainstream fashion. And they didn’t want to talk about it, but actually they would have had a lot of ideas in a lot of things to think and talk about. And I think, unfortunately, we got this sort of message, that it doesn’t matter, or it shouldn’t matter, but obviously it does, I mean we’re not blind. We see what people look like, we get impressions from what they’re wearing, and it can have an effect on your life, on your career. So is there a smart way to think about it? And I do think the dress doctors laid out a lot of important information that is still useful.

ED: Linda Przybszewski is a professor of history at Notre Dame. You can read more about the Goldstein sisters in her new book The Lost Art of Dress.

[MUSIC – The Kinks, “Dedicated Follower of Fashion”] His clothes are loud, but never square. It will make or break him so he’s got to buy the best cause he’s a dedicated follower of fashion–

BRIAN: That’s going to do it for today. But we’re eager to hear your thoughts, let us know at We’ve got more information on all of today’s guests there, as well as a special web exclusive about the zippers long- and I do mean long– journey onto American fly’s. And while you’re there, take a moment to weigh in on our upcoming show topics. Whatever you do, don’t be a stranger.

ED: Today’s episode of BackStory was produced by Tony Field, Nina Earnest, Andrew Parsons, Kelly Jones, Emily Gadek, Jamal Millner, and Bruce Wallace. And by Emily Channock, who we are very sorry to say goodbye to this week. For the past year and a half, Emily has not only been in charge of interacting with our listeners, but she’s also pitched and produce some of our very best stories.

BRIAN: We’re not just losing a talented, radio, colleague, we’re also saying goodbye to a very talented scholar. Emily completed a terrific dissertation on American political history recently, and we’re thrilled that she has accepted a position at the University of Cambridge in her native England.

PETER: Hey Emily, we’re going to miss you, and thanks for everything. And special thanks this week also to [? Mary Kaple ?] and [? Robert Phidell ?]. Our voice actors where Matthew Gibson, Peter Headland, James Scales, [? Rob Vaughn ?], [? Brendon Wolf, ?] and our intern, Sam Ulmschneider. BackStory’s executive producer is Andrew Wyndham. Major support for BackStory is provided by an anonymous donor, the University of Virginia, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation. Additional funding is provided by Weinstein Properties, by the Tomato Fund, cultivating fresh ideas in the arts, the humanities, and the environment, and by History Channel, history made every day.

FEMALE SPEAKER: Brian Balogh is professor of history at the University of Virginia. Peter Onuf is professor of history emeritus at UVA and senior research fellow at Monticello. Ed Ayers is president and professor of history at the University of Richmond. BackStory was created by Andrew Wyndham for the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities.

[MUSIC – The Kinks, “Dedicated Follower of Fashion”] He’s a dedicated follower of fashion.