Click on banner ad to support JWR

Jewish World Review July 13, 2001/ 22 Tamuz, 5761

Jonathan Yardley

The Fabric of Conformity -- FOR years there sat on a shelf in my parents' library a book called "Clothes Make the Man." Probably it was a gift from some prince of the textile industry whose daughter had attended the school of which my father was headmaster, and probably it remained in view against the possibility that the donor might keep an eye out for it. I never read it, but its title made a deep and lasting impression on me. Yes, I believed, clothes do make the man, and I paid them attention accordingly.

Jenna Weissman Joselit does not seem to have come across this volume in the course of her researches, but "A Perfect Fit" is about a time in American life when it was almost universally believed that clothes did indeed make the man, and of course the woman as well. Joselit is a visiting professor of American studies at Princeton University and a specialist in "cultural history," but she seems largely immune to the impenetrable jargon and ideological rectitude to which those disciplines are susceptible these days. "A Perfect Fit" generally declines to seek Meaning where it does not exist, settling instead for a genial, unassuming inquiry into a subject that has received relatively scant scholarly attention.

Her focus is on the years between 1890 and 1930, when the transition from handmade to ready-to-wear clothing had an extraordinary impact on how Americans dressed and how they viewed fashion. "Once the exclusive prerogative of the high and mighty," Joselit writes, "fashion by the 1920s had become a 'social fact' that touched the lives of average people. . . . Offering a new form of identity to millions of Americans across the country, fashion placed within reach an expanded sense of life's possibilities."


A Perfect Fit: Clothes, Character, and the Promise of America

By Jenna Weissman Joselit
Hardcover - 228 pages
Henry Holt & Company

click on title. Sales help fund JWR

It was not until many years after the period of Joselit's study that the title of Sloan Wilson's best-selling novel, "The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit," gave currency to the idea of fashion as a means of enforcing conformity, but she persuasively argues that it had become precisely that many decades earlier. Ready-to-wear clothing, manufactured by assembly line according to standardized patterns and sizes, became a uniform by which people could give visible evidence of their social position and moral virtue. "If you learned to dress correctly," Joselit writes, "to distinguish between what was appropriate and what was not, your clothes could give you a good name, not a black eye," and she quotes "A Pledge for the American Woman" that one fashion authority tried to popularize in 1918:

"As an American woman, I pledge myself to strive always to acquire and wear only such clothes as are appropriate and individually becoming; to avoid extremes in design and color; to respect my clothes enough to care for them to the best of my ability; and to select my clothes so that, in fairness to them, they may give back to me in service more than they cost me in money."

The impulse toward conformity, then as now, did constant battle against the impulse for rebellion. If the dress reformers sought to make women kowtow to conservative, prudish standards of dress, the "Flapper Janes" of the 1920s "preferred ease to containment, angularity to roundness, spiritedness to dependence." The fight against the girdle was not finally won until the 1960s, but the initial shots were fired by the Flappers, who in so doing undermined the "consensus on what it took to look and act like a woman."

Men's clothing came under comparatively mild assault: "men's clothing -- give or take a detail or two, like pockets -- had hardly changed since the invention of the suit in the 1800s. Men had long ago abandoned frills and furbelows in favor of what Anne Hollander calls 'the standard masculine civil costume,' with its strong, clean lines and absence of ornamentation." Gentlemanliness was equated with "responsibility and probity, trustworthiness and solidity," as was expressed by a gentleman's clothes. The main change was that ready-to-wear made it possible for those who aspired to gentlemanliness to look almost exactly like those who had -- or thought they had -- already achieved it.

Joselit's account of the fashion parade is detailed and witty. She writes with authority, but without academic pretension, about women's shoes and jewelry and hats, men's shirts and watches and ties. She depicts an age of conformity but declines to pass negative judgment on it. At the end, she comes to the 1960s, when "a brand-new valuation of clothing took hold of the American imagination, one whose tenets held that getting dressed was a personal rather than a social form of expression, a way of heralding the individual rather than the community." Here, too, she is content to describe and analyze rather than judge, and thus she brings this thoroughly engaging book to a refreshing conclusion.

Comment on Jonathan Yardley's column by clicking here.

07/12/01: It Takes a Village Idiot: Complicating the Simple Life
07/10/01: American Towns: An Interpretive History
07/03/01: Natasha: The Biography of Natalie Wood


© 2001, WPWG