Slap on your breeches, spats, and pettipants for some clothing-related trivia…
• • •
1. The polo shirt dates to 1926, and was originally invented for tennis-ing, not polo-ing. Wednesday marked the 111th birthday of tennis star and polo shirt inventor Rene Lacoste, winner of 7 Grand Slam Titles. The thing about 1920s tennis is that players wore button-up collared shirts, ties, and flannel pants, as befits the sport of kings (that, and human chess):
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 the 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.
2. Clarence “Pants” Rowland, born 1879, earned his nickname as a child when he wore his father’s overalls while playing baseball. When faced with the harsh truth that a playing career was not in the cards, Pants went into managing. He started in the semi-pro Illinois-Indiana-Iowa League (the “Three-I”), 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 best, but because Pants was cheapest. In 1917 the Pants-led Sox won the World Series, whence he was promptly terminated in a Comiskey fit of pique. The Pants-less Sox famously went on to throw the 1919 World Series; it’s lucky for his reputation that Pants got out when he did (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 made president of the Pacific Coast League. With no major league teams west of Missouri, and therefore no competition, the PCL’s level of play was only barely lower than the majors. But still it was a minor league, which meant major league teams could poach players for a minimal buyout, a fact that got Pants’s knickers in a twist. He threatened to spin off the PCL into a third major league, and the PCL earned “open” status—a level above AAA, and stricter rules about player emigration to the majors.
Unfortunately this concession came right about the time that TV was beginning to air major league games, which crushed attendance in the minor leagues, as well as any hope of the PCL ending up a third pro league. Pants died in 1969, but mostly this whole story is an excuse for Pants puns and to bring up the great logos of early PCL teams, like 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.
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. Although she wasn’t the originator of the look, the puffy pants came to be called Bloomers. Much public debate (read: slippery-slope panic about gender roles) ensued about the “appropriateness” and morality of such informal attire:
An interesting thing about the “rational dress reform” movement is the goals and framing of different groups. On the one hand were reformers like Elizabeth Cady Stanton, who held that women earning the freedom to dress as they want was the necessary first step to attaining political freedom: “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.”
A second group—which included Bloomer herself—focused on the health benefits of things like not having your internal organs displaced, arguing that restrictive clothing led to: “distorted spines, compressed lungs, enlarged livers, and displacement of the whole abdominal viscera . . . a weary soul in a weary frame.” (Some doctors went on record that the damage wrought by a lifetime of overtight corsets was so severe that female cadavers were unsuitable for anatomical study).
The straight-line metaphorical link between freedom of movement to social and political freedom was hard to ignore. Sure, they were talking about clothing, but they weren’t really talking about clothing, you know? There is perhaps no better example of this than calls to replace the corset with the “emancipation waist” or “liberty bodice.”
Unfortunately the bloomer backlash was such that within a few years, some of the early adopters, like Stanton, opted to return to “normal” dress, fearing that their clothing was drawing attention away from more important political issues. Bloomer stopped wearing bloomers because she found the new crinolines more comfortable. Dress reform was still around, but waned in popularity some. It made a roaring comeback in the 1880s, though, thanks to the popularity of the bicycle—which required more practical clothing for women to ride, which is 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.” Also, I feel obligated to mention that I have probably done some great violence to history by trying to distill this down into a few hundred words. There is some good additional reading here and here and here.
4. In case you were concerned, the rational dress movement also saved men—from the tyranny of having to pull down their pants to defecate. “Surely 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. 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.”
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:
5. There’s an entire wikipedia entry on wearing socks with sandals.