Fashion and Its Social Agendas


"Why do people dress the way they do? How does clothing contribute to a person's identity as a man or woman, as a white-collar professional or blue-collar worker, as a preppie, yuppie, or nerd? How is it that dress no longer denotes social class so much as lifestyle, whatever that is?…Intelligent and informative, [this] book proposes thoughtful answers to some of these questions and helps us find our own answers to similar questions."—Library Journal

"Crane's study is so richly argued, so subtly analyzed, and so impressively documented that one would have thought she lived in the fashion world."—Mary W. Blanchard, Journal of American History

The Social Meanings
of Hats and T-shirts

Diana Crane
excerpted from
Fashion and Its Social Agendas: Class, Gender, and Identity in Clothing

Until the 1960s, the article of clothing that performed the most important role in indicating social distinctions among men was the hat. The fact that it ceased to fulfill this role in the 1960s suggests that in the nineteenth century, hats, which continued to be worn during the first half of the twentieth century, were particularly suitable for the social environment of the period. Several new types of hats appeared during the nineteenth century and were rapidly adopted at different social levels. Exactly what roles did hats perform? Because hats represented a more modest expense than jackets and coats, they provided an ideal opportunity for "blurring and transforming . . . traditional class boundaries" (Robinson 1993: 39). Men's hats were also used to claim and maintain, rather than to confuse, social status, as seen in the fact that specific types of hats became closely identified with particular social strata. Elaborate customs of "hat tipping" as a means of expressing deference to a man's superiors reflected the importance of the hat in marking class boundaries (McCannell 1973). Since men represented their families in public space, men's hats, rather than women's, were used to indicate the status of the family. Women's head coverings during this period were more varied and more individualized than men's (Wilcox 1945). Women's hats exemplified conspicuous consumption instead of relaying coded signals referring to social rank.

In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, hats were worn by members of all social classes, including the lowest strata. In a photograph taken in Paris around 1900 of a group of ragpickers, twenty out of twenty-three wear hats or caps. In the same period, photographs of workers leaving factories (Borgé and Viasnoff 1993: 113) and of workers' demonstrations in Boston (Robinson 1993: 6) show virtually everyone wearing a hat or a cap.

Head coverings were worn in situations which now seem inappropriate. Not only was it unacceptable to go into the street without a hat (La Mémoire de Paris 1993: 128; Guiral 1976: 175; Brew 1945: 507-8), regardless of one's social status, but in the nineteenth century, some form of head covering was often worn indoors. For example, Englishmen wore hats all day in their offices (Ginsburg 1990: 104). Sonenscher (1987: 14-15) argues that hats in previous centuries were worn in what we would now call the public sphere but that the public sphere was defined differently to include activities indoors as well as outdoors: "Possession of a hat was an acknowledgment of the codes that governed admission to the particular sphere of public life in question."

The social significance of men's head coverings is indicated by the fact that, since the early nineteenth century, there has been a great deal of uniformity in what American and European men put on their heads. At any one time, there were less than a dozen types of hats, each of which might be sold with slight variations in color, size, shape of brim, and material that were not sufficient to prevent its being recognized as belonging to one of the major categories (Wilcox 1945). When a new type of hat was first introduced, there was often a period when it was worn by members of different social classes, but, eventually, it found its "niche" and became the prerogative of a particular social class.

The histories of several types of hats introduced in England in the early and mid-nineteenth century and widely adopted in other countries illustrate this principle. The top hat, which appeared in England at the beginning of the nineteenth century, was worn first by the middle and upper classes. During the century, it spread downward, possibly because it was adopted by coachmen in the 1820s and for policemen's uniforms in the same period (de Marly 1986: 123, 98). In 1839, workers in London were wearing them with their Sunday clothes, and a potter from Staffordshire, the subject of a drawing in the same year, was wearing one with a smock frock (86). In the 1840s and 1850s, unskilled laborers and fishermen were photographed wearing these hats (Ginsburg 1988: 148, 152). At mid-century, they were being worn by all social classes (Ewing 1984: 112). Head coverings worn by a group of foremen, who represented the upper stratum of the working class, illustrate the use of hats to express their aspirations for social status (Ginsburg 1988: 124). In an 1861 photograph, most of the men were wearing the newly fashionable lounge jacket, and seven out of ten were wearing top hats. The older men were wearing top hats, in a slightly outdated style, but the younger ones were wearing the latest model. Only one man in the photograph was wearing a peaked cap. By the end of the century, the use of the top hat had reverted to the middle and upper classes.

The bowler was invented in England in 1850 as an occupational hat for gamekeepers and hunters but was rapidly adopted by the upper class for sports (Robinson 1993: 14, 18). Within a decade it had spread to the city, where it was widely adopted by the middle and lower-middle classes (Lister 1972: 163) and by members of the working class, particularly in cities. According to Robinson (1993: 46), "They were worn by men doing road repairs, newshawkers, milkmen, knife grinders, rabbit sellers, and sherbet and water vendors—all manner of working folk who seemed to wear their bowlers as badges of the city street."

The working-class man's attempt to blur class boundaries by wearing the bowler was satirized in the early films of Charlie Chaplin. Eventually, the bowler became an icon of the bourgeoisie, as immortalized in Magritte's famous painting of a middle-class man wearing a bowler (Robinson 1993: 166) and, after the Second World War, was worn mainly by middle-class businessmen.

The cap with visor, which, like the top hat, appeared at the beginning of the nineteenth century, was first worn by military officers (Wilcox 1945: 212). By mid-century, the peaked cap was identified with the working class; it was "the most usual head covering for the working man" (Ginsburg 1988: 124). At the beginning of the twentieth century, cloth caps, without visors, were mainly worn by the working class and particularly by younger workers (de Marly 1986: 130), while members of the middle and upper classes wore peaked or cloth caps only for sports or in the countryside (Wilcox 1945: 212). When worn by politicians, cloth caps were thought to indicate "radical tendencies" (Ginsburg 1988: 138).

The straw boater had a different history. Straw hats had been widely worn by working-class men during the nineteenth century, but following the invention in 1870 of a machine for sewing straw, a new form of straw hat, the boater, became extremely popular with all social classes for about five decades (Wilcox 1945: 245; Berendt 1988: 24; Cunnington and Cunnington 1959: 341). Afterward the boater ceased to be worn except as a form of costume for musical entertainment.

The patterns of diffusion of these types of hats were different in France and the United States. In France, each social class used hats differently. In mid-century, the upper and middle classes wore top hats; in the last quarter of the century, they wore the top hat for formal occasions and the bowler for business and less formal occasions. By the end of the century, they were still wearing the top hat and the bowler, along with felt hats and, in summer, straw hats, straw boaters, and panamas (Delpierre 1990).

In the different American sartorial worlds of city and countryside, wearing a hat was equally important (Brew 1945: 507). According to Severa (1995: 210), "A hatless man was an anomaly" in the 1860s; in the 1890s, the hat was described as being "almost always in place, even when the coat and necktie have been laid aside because of the heat." Brew (1945: 508, 511) estimates that, in the 1880s, the average American bought a hat every year or two and, in the first decade of this century, probably owned two hats.

As in France, there were both regional and class differences in the types of hats men selected. In the middle decades of the nineteenth century, top hats were required in cities and were sometimes worn by workers with their work clothes (Severa 1995: 106, 225). During this period, the "wide-awake" (a black hat with a broad, stiff brim) was very popular in the western states (106). By the 1870s, top hats made of silk were worn in cities by prosperous businessmen but were not worn in the countryside (Brew 1945: 291), where the soft felt hat was popular with railroad workers and farmers (Severa 1995: 210, 472). Straw hats were worn in the fields by farmers (Brew 1945: 507). Bowlers (derbies) were worn by businessmen, particularly when they visited the countryside, and by some workmen in the cities, although caps were more "typical of the laborer" (Brew 1945: 506).

By the early 1900s, the middle class was using silk top hats in the cities mainly for formal occasions, such as weddings and church services. Straw boaters were being widely worn by both the middle and the working class in the summer months. Broad-brimmed felt hats remained popular among ranchers and farmers (Brew 1945: 311). Bowlers were being widely worn by both the middle and the working class (Brew 1945: 311, 506-7, 510), although peaked caps were generally worn in the workplace by workers.

Two photographs of workers at work and leisure illustrate the use of the bowler to blur status boundaries. A photograph of workers at leisure, an "iron-mongers' picnic" in 1890, shows most of the workers wearing bowlers, but a photograph of workers in 1892 (at the San Francisco Stove Works) shows most of them wearing peaked caps or felt caps. Only two workers, and the owner of the business, wear bowlers.

The use of hats to blur class boundaries appears to have occurred most frequently in England, to a lesser extent in the United States (particularly outside the workplace), and least in France. However, this type of use generally occurred during the early stages in the history of a particular style of hat. A more common practice in all three countries was the use of particular styles of hats to indicate social class status as well as affiliation with a specific region, either city or countryside.

"Closed" texts, garments with fixed meanings, were typical of class societies. "Open" texts, garments that continually acquire new meanings, are more likely to appear in fragmented societies, because different social groups wish to express different meanings using the same type of garment. Jeans have continually acquired new meanings during the twentieth century as they have been appropriated by different social groups and worn in different social contexts.

How changes in social structures have affected the presentation of social identity is seen in the shift from the hat, a closed text, as an obligatory item of male attire to the widespread use of the T-shirt, an open text. Until the 1960s, a man's hat, as the most immediately visible part of his costume, was a major signal of social identity and social class. Specific styles of hats were associated with different class strata. In the late twentieth century, men's hats have become a relic of a class society based on face-to-face relationships in public spaces that has largely disappeared.

In contemporary societies, the sartorial equivalent of the hat is the T-shirt, which expresses social identity in many different ways, ranging from identity politics to lifestyle.

The T-shirt has been used to convey both rebellion and conformity, depending upon the context and the types of messages that may be inscribed on the front or back. Unlike the blue jean, the T-shirt decorated with lettering or a design appeared in the 1940s (Nelton 1991) and now epitomizes postmodern media culture. Printing on shirts as a means of identifying the wearer with an organization, such as a sports team, appeared in the middle of the nineteenth century and was being used by universities in the 1930s (Giovannini 1984: 16-17). The use of a specific type of clothing—the T-shirt—to communicate other types of information began in the late 1940s, when faces and political slogans appeared on T-shirts and, in the 1960s, with commercial logos and other designs. Technical developments in the 1950s and 1960s, such as plastic inks, plastic transfers, and spray paint, led to the use of colored designs and increased the possibilities of the T-shirt as a means of communication. Approximately one billion T-shirts are purchased annually in the United States (McGraw 1996).

The T-shirt performs a function formerly associated with the hat, that of identifying an individual's social location instantly. Unlike the hat in the nineteenth century, which signaled (or concealed) social class status, the T-shirt speaks to issues related to ideology, difference, and myth: politics, race, gender, and leisure. The variety of slogans and logos that appear on T-shirts is enormous. Much of the time, people consent to being coopted for "unpaid advertising" for global corporations selling clothes, music, sports, and entertainment in exchange for the social cachet of being associated with certain products (McGraw 1996). Some of the time, people use T-shirts to indicate their support for social and political causes, groups, or organizations to which they have made a commitment. Occasionally, the T-shirt becomes a medium for grass-roots resistance. Bootlegged T-shirts representing characters on the television show The Simpsons appeared in response to T-shirts marketed by the network that produced the show (Parisi 1993). The bootlegged T-shirts represented the Simpson family as African Americans. Bart Simpson was shown as Rastabart, with dreadlocks and a red, green, and gold headband, as Rasta-dude Bart Marley, and as Black Bart, paired with Nelson Mandela. Using clothing behavior as a means of making a statement, the T-shirts appeared to be intended as an affirmation of African Americans as an ethnic group and as a commentary on the narrow range of roles for black characters in the show. Victims of gender-related violence, such as rape, incest, battering, and sexual harassment, have used T-shirts as venues for statements about their experiences that are exhibited in clotheslines in public plazas (Ostrowski 1996). By contrast, some young men use T-shirts to express hostile, aggressive, or obscene sentiments denigrating women or to display pictures of guns and pistols (Cose 1993; Time 1992). Teens of both sexes use them as a means of expressing their cynicism about the dominant culture, particularly global advertising (Sepulchre 1994b).

The significance of the T-shirt in Western culture, as a means of social and political expression, is seen by comparing its roles in Western countries with the response to it in a nondemocratic country, the People's Republic of China (Barmé 1993). In 1991, a young Chinese artist created T-shirts bearing humorous statements, some of which could be interpreted as having mild political implications. The T-shirts were enormously successful with the public but were perceived as "a serious political incident" by the Chinese authorities. The artist was arrested and interrogated, and the T-shirts were officially banned. Thousands of them were confiscated and destroyed, although many Chinese continued to wear them.

Unlike hats, whose meanings were universally understood, T-shirts speak to like-minded people; a particular T-shirt may not be meaningful to those with different views and affiliations. This reflects the fragmentation of leisure cultures into lifestyles and subcultures and other groupings whose members respond to the enormous cultural complexity of their surroundings by orienting themselves toward those who are like rather than those who are unlike themselves.


Copyright notice: Excerpt from pages pages 82-87, 176-178, and 243 of Fashion and Its Social Agendas: Class, Gender, and Identity in Clothing by Diana Crane, published by the University of Chicago Press. ©2000 by the University of Chicago. All rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of U.S. copyright law, and it may be archived and redistributed in electronic form, provided that this entire notice, including copyright information, is carried and provided that the University of Chicago Press is notified and no fee is charged for access. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the consent of the University of Chicago Press.

Diana Crane
Fashion and Its Social Agendas: Class, Gender, and Identity in Clothing
©2000, 320 pages, 55 halftones
Paper $23.00 ISBN: 978-0-226-11799-7

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