Slap on your breeches, spats, and pettipants for some clothing-related trivia…
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1.Wednesday marked the 111th birthday of tennis star Rene Lacoste, winner of 7 Grand Slam Titles. He’s also the inventor of the polo shirt, which was originally invented for tennis-ing and not polo-ing. The thing about tennis in the 1920s is that, like human chess, the sport was the province of gentlemen. Players wore button-up collared shirts, ties, and flannel pants; they looked like something out of a Wes Anderson movie:
That’s Lacoste, and while he does look astonishingly dapper, one imagines the accoutrements are rather ill-suited for an activity that largely entails running around for a few hours. Lacoste unveiled his 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 owed to 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 certainly a less fun 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, somewhat strangely, 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 stuck with baseball, but wasn’t good enough to make it as a player and transitioned to managing in the semi-pro Illinois-Indiana-Iowa (“Three-I”) League, where 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—not because Pants was the best, but because Pants was the cheapest. In 1917 the Pants-led Sox won the World Series, whence he was promptly terminated in one of Comiskey’s utterly common fits of pique. Now Pants-less, the Sox went on to throw the 1919 World Series.(A mythbusting side note: the “Black Sox” nickname didn’t refer to 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 western players. Consequently, the PCL’s level of play was only barely less than the major leagues. But it was still a minor league, which meant that pro teams could poach players for a minimal buyout, and they did, which got Pants’s knickers in a twist. He threatened to spin off the PCL into its own major league system—which 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. TV crushed minor league attendance, and the PCL with it. Pants died in 1969, and essentially this story is an excuse for me to bring up some of the great 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. And here’s something I did not 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 petticoats…and petticoats … and petticoats … just keep putting on petticoats, you’re almost there.
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.
Bloomer ran a feminist gazette called The Lily. In 1851, she published an essay in support of “dress reform,” calling for women to dress in a manner that suited their needs and desires, rather than the painful and restrictive dictates of decorum, citing the puffy pants as an example. And although she hadn’t originated the look, they came to be called Bloomers. Much public debate—by which I mean slippery-slope moral panics about undifferentiated gender roles—ensued, questioning the “appropriateness” and morality of such informal attire. First bloomers, then women proposing to men; where will the madness cease?
One interesting thing about the “rational dress reform” movement are the goals and framing of different factions. Reformers like Elizabeth Cady Stanton argued that women earning freedom of dress was a necessary initial step to attaining full political and personal freedom, that, literally, women could 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.” Indeed, the metaphorical link between freedom of movement and social and political freedom could be seen even in nomenclature: alternatives to the corset included the “emancipation waist” or “liberty bodice.”
A second group—which included Bloomer herself—were more directly focused on health benefits. They noted that it was probably good to not have your internal organs displaced, and 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. To some doctors, the damage wrought by a lifetime of overtight corsets was so severe that female cadavers were unsuitable for medical study.
Unfortunately the bloomer backlash was strong enough that some early adopters, like Stanton, opted to return to “normal” dress, thinking that their clothing was drawing attention away from other political issues. Bloomer stopped wearing bloomers because crinolines were more comfortable. Dress reform mostly died 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, and they too traded on the idea of apparel-based self-determination, originally being called “emancipation union under flannel.” “An ass-flap is a more rational contrivance for the elimination of waste than the inefficient unclasping of sundry belts and buckles and fasteners!” said someone, somewhere, I hope.
A 1920 newspaper ad for the Piqua Hosiery Company declares that “this little Ohio community is now recognized the world over as “The Quality Union Suit City.” That may have been true: Piqua was home to no fewer than 14 underwear companies to that point, and for a brief period in the 1990s held the annual “Great Outdoor Underwear Festival,” until, Wikipedia tells me, certain untoward underwear elements got the whole thing away from the desired “family atmosphere” and they shut it down. Probably because of the pony in a union suit:
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5. There’s an entire wikipedia entry on wearing socks with sandals.