Slap on your breeches, spats, and pettipants for some clothing-related trivia…
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1. Rene Lacoste, winner of 7 Grand Slam titles, turned 111 on Wednesday. Or would have, were he alive. He’s the inventor of the inaptly-named polo shirt, which is called a polo shirt despite being invented for tennis. In Lacoste’s time, tennis was the province of gentleman. A game for the refined, the distinct, the spiffy. Players wore button-up collared shirts, ties, and flannel pants while playing, and generally looked like something out of a Wes Anderson movie.
While he does look undeniably dapper, one imagines the accoutrements are rather ill-suited for three hours of high-intensity outdoor cardio. Lacoste unveiled his sartorial solution at the 1926 US Open: a short-sleeved, partial-button cotton pullover. In 1927, he added a crocodile emblem and in 1933 founded his shirt company. The look was adopted by polo players—similarly plagued by decorum outweighing comfort—and for some reason it ended up being called a polo shirt.
Side note #1: Lacoste’s icon came from his nickname: The Crocodile. The sobriquet was said to derive either from his on-court tenacity, or as the result of a lost wager with a friend over a piece of croc-skin luggage. In any case, it was a worse nickname than his rival Jean Borotra, known as The Bounding Basque.
Side note #2: E. Digby Baltzell was an academic who coined the term WASP and wrote six books on aristocracy, class, and religion in America. His last book was a history of tennis called Sporting Gentlemen; he cited 1927 as the finest year in tennis history.
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2. Clarence “Pants” Rowland, born 1879, earned his nickname as a child when he wore his father’s overalls while playing baseball. He dropped the overalls, but stuck with baseball, transitioning from a failed playing career to managing Illinois-Indiana-Iowa (“Three-I”) League. There, he helmed the Dubuque Miners and a pre-prohibition Peoria Distillers.
Prior to the 1915 season, Chicago White Sox owner and notorious skinflint Charles Comiskey hired Pants to manage the team. This was not because Pants was the best man for the job, but because Pants was the cheapest man for the job (thus adhering to that old maxim, be wary of expensive pants). Still, Pants succeeded: in 1917, the Pants-led Sox won the World Series, whence Pants was promptly terminated in an utterly typical Comiskey fit of pique. The Pants-less Sox then threw the 1919 World Series. (Mythbusting side note: the “Black Sox” nickname was not because of their tarnishing of the game by gambling, but because Comiskey was too cheap to properly launder their uniforms)
In 1944, Pants was named president of the Pacific Coast League. Though nominally a minor league, there were no pro teams west of St. Louis and thus little competition for players on that end of the country. The level of play was high, but as a minor league, players could still be poached by the pros for only a minimal buyout. Pants got his knickers in a twist about losing players, and threatened to turn the PCL into a rival major league. It was a good enough threat that the PCL earned “open” status, which included stricter rules about player emigration to the big leagues.
Unfortunately for Pants, this concession happened right about the time that TV began airing major league games, crushing minor league attendance and the PCL with it. Pants died in 1969. Really this story is an excuse for Pants puns and for me to discuss some great old PCL logos, such as the Oakland Oaks, San Francisco Seals, Hollywood Stars, and Sacramento Solons:
Side note: other great Three-I League team names: Clinton Infants, Davenport Prodigals, Springfield Watchmakers, Hannibal Mules, Moline Plowboys. At least one season confusingly featured both the Davenport River Rats and the Evansville River Rats. I’m even more confused by the Terre Haute Hottentots; besides being derogatory even then, how on earth did they end up with that name in Terre Haute? The Cairo (Illinois) Egyptians at least made a certain kind of sense. More PCL info here and here.
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3. Here’s another Three-I team: the Bloomington Bloomers. Here’s something I did not fully appreciate: the deep politics of the bloomer, a response to Victorian era women’s dress, a torture that would make the Torquemada blanch. Whalebone-reinforced corsets, and bustles and bindings and prongs, and petticoats…and petticoats … and petticoats…just keep putting on petticoats, someone will let you know when to stop.
In 1850 or so, a woman named Elizabeth Miller deigned to wear “Turkish style” puffy pants under a calf-length skirt, which she demonstrated to her cousin Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and her friend Amelia Bloomer, who ran a feminist gazette called The Lily. In 1851, she published an essay in support of “dress reform,” calling for women to dress to suit their needs and desires for comfort and style, rather than the painful and restrictive demands of decorum. She cited the puffy pants as an example, and though she hadn’t originated the look, they came to be called Bloomers. Much public debate—by which I mean slippery-slope moral panic about undifferentiated gender roles—ensued. Bloomers as clothing and “Bloomerism” as ideology were inappropriate and immoral, they said—what’s next, women proposing to men? Where will this madness cease?
One interesting thing about the “rational dress reform” movement are the divergent goals and framing of different groups. Reformers like Elizabeth Cady Stanton believed that freedom of dress was a necessary first step to full political and personal freedom; that, quite literally, women could not be politically unfettered until they were unfettered in dress: “Woman will never hold her true position, until, by a firm muscle and a steady nerve, she can maintain the RIGHTS she claims . . . but she cannot make the first move . . . until she casts away her swaddling clothes.” The metaphorical link between freedom of movement and social/political freedom was visible even in nomenclature: alternatives to the corset included the “emancipation waist” and “liberty bodice.”
A second group, including Bloomer herself, focused more directly on health benefits. They noted that it was probably unhealthy to have your internal organs consistently displaced by overtight corsets, noting that such restrictive clothing led to “…distorted spines, compressed lungs, enlarged livers, and displacement of the whole abdominal viscera . . . a weary soul in a weary frame.” They were not exaggerating: some doctors considered female cadavers unsuitable for medical study due to damage wrought by a lifetime of corset-wearing.
The bloomer backlash was strong enough that some early adopters, like Stanton, opted to return to “normal” dress, believing their clothing drew attention from other political issues. Bloomer stopped wearing bloomers because she found crinolines more comfortable. Dress reform quieted down, until making a roaring comeback in the 1880s thanks to the popularity of the bicycle—which required more practical clothing for women to ride (an entire story all on its own).
Side note: The bicycle was also the origin of the jockstrap, which was then called a “modesty girdle.”
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4. The rational dress movement also saved men—from the tyranny of having to drop their pants to defecate. Union suits were patented in 1868, when they were called “emancipation union under flannel,” trading on the idea of apparel-based self-determination or possibly the civil war, I’m not sure which. “An ass-flap is surely a more rational contrivance for waste elimination than the unclasping of sundry buckles and fasteners! No man can live free, beholden to the movement of his bowels!” said someone, somewhere, I hope.
A 1920 newspaper ad for the Piqua Hosiery Company declares “this little Ohio community is now recognized the world over as ‘The Quality Union Suit City.'” It was true: Piqua was home to at least 14 underwear companies at that point, and for a brief period in the 1990s held an annual “Great Outdoor Underwear Festival.” It was shut down, Wikipedia tells me, when certain untoward underwear elements upset the desired “family atmosphere,” by which they were probably just referring to the perversion of nature of this pony in a union suit:
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5. There’s an entire wikipedia entry on wearing socks with sandals.