Comments on “How (and Why) to Dress Like a (Southern) Conservative, Part I”

I originally posted a link to the article “How (and Why) to Dress Like a (Southern) Conservative, Part I” on the now-defunct Society of Southern Gentlemen blog in 2016. I’m in the process of integrating all my posts from that site here. Normally I’m just copying them over and keeping their original timestamps, but for this article, all I had originally done was to post the URL, but with this article, I want to provide some commentary on Dr. Dan E. Phillips’ original article from the Abbeville Institute site.

Dr. Phillips began his article on the defensive explaining he is a married man with children, to which I would say there is absolutely nothing wrong with being a straight, masculine dandy. A Southern Gentleman (Dr. Phillips uses the term “traditional conservative” or “trad con” in article, but for reasons that will be come apparent shortly, I’ll make use of the term “Southern Gentleman”) does not need to rationalize nor defend his sartorial acumen. The Dr. has my full sympathy in the story he conveyed of his progeny having no clue what a “summer” shoe was. I think all of us who have taken the effort to establish a seasonal wardrobe have experienced such apathy from the lesser enlightened amongst our own families.

Dr. Phillips went on to say:

I have also, since young adulthood, identified as a paleo or traditionalist conservative, as opposed to the more common type of modern “movement” conservative. This combination of interests in traditional fashion norms and traditional conservative politics has led me to think along the lines of the title of this essay for some time now. While this set of interests strikes me as logically consistent, my experience suggests that it is not a particularly common combination.

Dr. Phillips’ statement about modern “movement” conservatism reminds me of a question I often ask myself of so-called “conservatives”: what are they trying to conserve? So far as I can tell, they don’t conserve anything, except Lincoln-era Radical Republicanism, and even then they usually roll over in the face of opposition from their political opponents, but I digress…

An article that has stuck with me for years now was published by the Mises Institute in 2009 under the title “Dress Like the Great Depression” by Mr. Jeffrey A. Tucker. Like Dr. Phillips’ article, this one is definitely worth your consideration.

© Mises Institute

Just look at this guy in this Depression-era photo. See the 1 ¾ inch cuffs on his trousers, the snappy crease in his pants, the great hat, and the woolen trousers? And the shoes: leather and laces resting on a solid foundation. If I found any of his clothes in the vintage shop, I would snap them up and be ready for today’s tight job market, which seeks serious men, not goofs in sweats and polos.

The boom times led to great shabbiness. Workers have lived in wrinkles and jeans. The guy with the shirt with buttons is derided by others — “You going to a wedding or something?” We were all encouraged to look up to the slobwear of hotshot traders and stock jobbers and the others, who revel in the fact that they look like heck all of the time. Even the billionaires have looked like hobos (who themselves looked pretty great in the 1930s).

https://mises.org/library/dress-great-depression

Since adulthood, I’ve tried to dress in a manner to give the impression that I want others to have of me. Vanity of vanities, I want others to see me as “important” and worthy of their respect. Maybe its plain arrogance, I don’t know. An article on Forbes some years back provides me the reassurance that I’m not the only person out there thinking like this:

Clinical psychologist Dr. Jennifer Baumgartner literally wrote the book on this phenomenon, which she calls the “psychology of dress.” In “You Are What You Wear: What Your Clothes Reveal About You,” she explains not only how psychology determines our clothing choices, but how to overcome key psychological issues your wardrobe might be bringing to light in your everyday life, or even at work.

Americans rely on clothing as an economic and social indicator because there aren’t official marks of rank such as a caste system or aristocracy, says Dr. Baumgartner.

There’s no one piece or style that makes a person look successful. Dr. Baumgartner recommends the basics when trying to project a positive image: the little black dress, the blazer, the pumps. “With classics, history has done the work for you. It has lasted throughout time, so you already know it works,” she says. And what is it that makes a classic a classic? “It has multiple functions, and it’s appropriate for different age ranges and body types. It became a classic because it works no matter who you are.”

https://www.forbes.com/sites/learnvest/2012/04/03/what-your-clothes-say-about-you/#434733966992

Getting back to Dr. Phillips’ article, he goes on to say:

This lack of focus on appropriate attire within trad con circles is unfortunate, because I believe aesthetics are an important part of the whole trad con package. Upon consideration, I have concluded that there are two ways to dress that could signal to the world, so to speak, one’s conservative leanings, not including simply wearing an NRA or Hillary for Prison or whatever t-shirt. The first, the subject of this essay, would be to consciously make “dressing up” your baseline public presentation. The second will be the subject of part II. As we will see, today’s dressing up was yesterday’s routine attire. As a traditionalist conservative, I have developed something of a motto: “If you want to restore the past, you should act like you are living in it.” This manner of dressing would follow that logic.

[N.B. It appears from a search of the Abbeville Institute site that Part II of this article was never written.

I think Dr. Phillips is spot on when he says “If you want to restore the past, you should act like you are living in it.” I recognized this the first time I read The Great Gatsby. Jay Gatsby wasn’t trying to restore the past in the book, but my interest in emulating the fashion of that era was because I believed it to be a better period in American history. I’ve since learned it wasn’t the Roaring Twenties that I longed for, but the Edwardian era that preceded it. It’s just that the Twenties were a transition era in fashion that closely resemble things that we still can wear today, if only we allow ourselves to.

Dr. Phillips goes on to mention an article he’d read in 2003 that references an earlier article written by Mr. Jeffrey Tucker, the author of the aforementioned article on dressing like its the Great Depression. Dr. Phillips states:

Mr. Tucker makes an important point that most modern Americans miss since our current norms have been the standard for decades, but much of what people routinely wear today are, by historical standards, work clothes or otherwise not clothes once considered suitable for public presentation. Jeans, for example, used to be exclusively for manual labor, not a fashion statement.

I try very hard to live by this, and only very rarely wear jeans. They don’t represent the image I want to portray of myself. This causes me to stand out in my local community, and once I was mistaken for a preacher in town who shares my surname because I was “dressed up” and it wasn’t even Sunday morning. There are situations where not blending in is counterproductive, but that’s a whole other topic for another time. Dr. Phillips went on to say:

This is why cotton khakis are considered “casual,” a designation that used to confuse me. Since they are not jeans, I, like many others, believed that putting on a pair of khakis constituted dressing up, but historically, this is not the case. Khakis are rightly considered informal primarily weekend attire, particularly if your day is going to include a lot of outdoor activity. Routine attire would be a wool pant. (Since these norms were generally suited for the North, some accommodation to the reality of weather in the South is allowed.)

In the ignorance of my youth, I wore unkempt, ragged jeans because that’s all I had. We didn’t go to church, so I had no church clothes to speak of, either. When I got to high school, I saw wearing khakis as somehow demonstrating that I had stepped up somehow in social status. I wanted to be a “prep” although in sincere honesty, even those who I though were “rich” by my estimation due to their neat appearance were at best lower middle class. They dressed nice, and that’s what I aspired to.

As I entered the technology workforce, I took my new attire of khakis and polo shirts with me. It was several years later that I realized that my “fancy” clothes were now the uniform at Best Buy. I was still sartorially illiterate. I’m by no means an excellent dresser now, but I recognize how I should try to dress to emote the image I desire of myself.

Before I get back to Dr. Phillips’ article, I’d like to share something I learned from a book written as satire of the WASPy Prep culture of New England. In a chapter dedicated to “Dressing the Part”, Ms. Lisa Birnbach provides these ten fashion fundamentals (with my comments):

  1. Conservatism. Preppies wear clothes for twenty-five years and no one can tell the difference. Hear, hear. Were it not for the fact that my waistline has increased in that period of time, I’d gladly adhere to this principle.
  2. Neatness. Preppies’ shirts stay tucked in, through all kinds of strenuous exercise. This is one attribute that has sadly not been maintained in the near forty years since Ms. Birnbach wrote her treatise. I remember this being the rule for us ne’erdowells at the McDonald’s I worked at in high school. When I go into a fast food establishment today, I see outfits slopped together about as haphazardly as the obesity bombs they pass across the counter for my glutinous consumption. There again, a true preppie would never eat at such an establishment, much less work there. There is one exception to this here in the South though: Chic-Fil-A. The Cathy family runs a tight ship, and the manners and professionalism their employees exude would rival that to be learned at any finishing school, in my humble estimation.
  3. Attention to Detail. Subtleties in cut, weave, or color distinguish the merely good from the Prep. One who is well put-together in attire, is also likely to be well put-together in intelligence and emotion.
  4. Practicality. Prep clothes are sensible… As are a Southern Gentleman’s attire.
  5. Quality. Everything in the wardrobe should be well made. It’s important here that we don’t equate expense to quality, nor brand names to quality. That bastion of Southern accoutrement, Belk, occasionally sells wares of no better quality than the French department store, Target (pronounced “tar zshay”), yet us simple country folk think it to be upscale. Likewise, not everything Mr. Lauren slaps his name on fits the bill, either. We might not want to patronize the shops of the Brothers Brooks, but, the old maxim “you get what you pay for” is often true.
  6. Natural Fibers. Wool, cotton, and the odd bits of silk and cashmere are the only acceptable materials for Prep clothes. There’s something to be said of eschewing the wear of chemical by-products. There’s also some truth in the old chestnut “cotton is rotten”. I think Ms. Birnbach’s principle here has been overcome by events due to the advances in synthetic fibers in the past several decades.
  7. Anglophilia. The British have a lot to answer for: Shetland sweaters, Harris tweeds, Burberrys, tartans, and regimental ties. The Southern Gentleman, while abhorring poor King George the Third, still admires aristocracy, and may even have a fondness in his heart for the current Royal family, although for the life of us we can’t figure out why Prince Harry didn’t learn anything about Americans from the former King Edward VIII. Speaking for myself, one of my role models is the Duke of Edinburgh. Oh, and Burberry; one word: chav.
  8. Specific Color Blindness. Primary colors and brilliant pastels are worn indiscriminately by men and women alike in preposterous combinations. I’m glad that genetic strain has somewhat been limited to the Northeast, albeit I think some of the Yankee immigrants might have introduced it down here.
  9. The Sporting Look. Even if they have never been near a duck blind or gone beagling, Preppies are dressed for it. Here is where Southern folk are getting it wrong. Mossy Oak is not proper going-to-town attire. If your Sunday best has deer antlers silk-screened on it, you are wrong. If I can see you in your camo, then you are wearing it in the wrong place.
  10. Androgyny. Men and women dress as much alike as possible and clothes for either sex should deny specifics of gender. And here is the gulf that divides the Southern Gentleman from his Yankee preppie counterpart. Here in the South, our Tradition prevents us from androgyny, and we’ll even throw a couple Bible verses at you to back up our stance.

All that being said, The Official Preppy Handbook has its place in my library and is worthy of consideration to add to yours.

Returning to Dr. Phillips’ article, he references a Mr. Stephen Carson, who he finds of a kindred sartorial spirit. Mr. Carson observes that mens fashions were stable until the “hippie counter-culture” rejected the status quo. Dr. Phillips makes a good point in it about the show Mad Men “chronicl[ing] th[e] sartorial decline”. Dr. Phillips ended his article with this paragraph:

Why would modern day trad cons want to rubber stamp a change brought about by counter-cultural forces that have also contributed to the degeneration of our traditional society in many other ways than clothing standards? Perhaps trad cons should instead counter-signal, so to speak, our prevailing cultural decline by consciously embracing a manner of dress and norms that characterized a bygone era and still characterizes the dress of certain people of a particular station? Since routinely dressing appropriately is so counter to the modern norm, it is a potentially subversive act. When people ask you why you are dressed up, tell them. This could potentially impact a lot more people than writing essays that preach to the choir, or campaigning for Republican candidate A, or whatever else it is we do to try to restore right order to our civilization in free fall.

My greatest and only disappointment with Dr. Phillips’ article is that it appears that Part II was never written. Since I can only speculate on what he might have said, I am going to use it as a springboard for a few of my views on the subject.

First, it is possible to dress well as an act of defiance. When I think of this, there are a two groups of men who come to mind. The first I’d like to mention are Les Sapeurs, who show that extreme poverty is no excuse not to dress well. I first heard of them in an article in The Chap in 2017. From the article:

The sapeur style and relationship to clothes is unique – a throwback to a lost world of pre-colonial elegance and decadence and at the same time it is futuristic. Members have their own code of honour, codes of professional conduct and strict notions of morality.

©NetflixUK&Ireland

Second, are the Peaky Blinders. I know, they were a street gang from the post WWI era who have been glamorized by the eponymous TV Show. Similar to Les Sappers, the Peaky Blinders defied their poor living conditions to dress nice. The Chap provides a great guide on where (in the UK) to buy clothes to emulate the style from the show. Granted, clothing suited for Birmingham, England, is a bit too warm for Birmingham, Alabama in all but the coldest of Winter.

So, getting back to the premise of Dr. Phillips’ original article, how do we develop a fashion that identifies us as a Southern Gentleman? The answer is right in front of us: go back through the vast archive of the Internet and rediscover how a Southern Gentleman dressed.

Now, it takes more than fabric draped over the body to “wear” a style. You have to be comfortable in it, or it just becomes a costume you’ve put on. For example, I’ve acquired a certain penchant for flat caps over the past several years, although I am still refining that style. I’ve moved on from the narrower variety co-opted by hipsters to the wider, “newsboy style”, as worn by the cast of Peaker Blinders (above). Mr. Sven Raphael Schneider has an excellent guide to the differences on his website. Wearing this style of head gear in a sea of baseball caps is quite scandalous is some small towns. People may not know me by name in my town, but they know me by my flat caps.

© Los Angeles Times

That being said, there is a wrong way to wear this cap if you’re trying to exude Gentlemanliness. I very much doubt anyone would confuse these blokes with Southern Gentlemen, although to be fair, their homeland is much further south than my beloved Dixie. They’re also getting on up there in years, so that Highway to Hell might be a little shorter than it was when Mr. Young first put on that schoolboy uniform.

Staying on the thought avoiding a costume appearance, It has to fit in with the points Ms. Birnbach made in her seminal work. It has to look like you’ve always dressed this way. Again, be psychologically comfortable in what you are wearing. That goes way beyond the fit of the clothes.

© Bloomburg LP

Now, I’m going to speak heresy for a moment: a MAGA hat does not a Gentleman make. It’s one thing to wear a lapel pin, campaign button, or other small object of affiliation, but a true Southern Gentleman does not adorn himself like a political NASCAR.

© Wild turkey Bourbon

A true Southern Gentleman is not a walking billboard for his political affiliations, sports teams, or favorite adult beverages. Such attire informs those in proximity of such persons that they suffer from the malady of consumerism. Such behavior indicates they are mindless servants to their marketing overlords. Matthew McConaughey may be sipping Wild Turkey while driving his Lincoln Navigator (or was it a Continental?), but I gar-on-tee he ain’t wearing no logo t-shirt when he gets out at Wal-Mart to pick up a new bottle of Stetson. Be reactionary, do not pay money to advertise for the products that you pay to consume.

While I’m stepping on toes, a true Southern Gentleman doesn’t show up at his hipster church in blue jeans and a t-shirt sipping his overpriced latte, because in post-modern churchianity, we all just come as we are. The Apostle Paul, in his letter to the Christians in Corinth (Greece, not Mississippi), said “When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I gave up childish ways.” (1 Corinthians 13:11, ESV). We have to do the same. The Southern Gentleman goes to church to worship God and dresses appropriately to be in the presence of the Almighty Creator of the universe. Talk about a reactionary stance!

I hope I’ve been able to do justice to Dr. Phllips’ original intent while infusing some of my own views on the topic. If I were to summarize my ramblings, is suppose it would be these major points:

  • Sometimes the path forward is to retrace steps already trodden.
  • Stand out. Be the man you want to be while your peers are still acting like boys.
  • Don’t be a consumer sheep awaiting your slaughter.
  • Save the blue jeans and t-shirts for their proper place: yard work.