“Scrubbed and spruce in their slouch hats, blue-flannel shirts, brown trousers, leggings, and boots, and sporting loosely knotted neckerchiefs – already the Rough Rider emblem – they looked, in Roosevelt’s fond opinion, ‘exactly as a body of cowboy cavalry should look.’” – The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt, Edmund Morris
Whether it be the famed Rough Riders destined for Cuba, Sailors of the salty sea, or Cowboys astride their horses on the vast American plains, we know them by their hardiness and pluck, but we also know them by their style. What boy who dreamed of being a cowboy, didn’t have his hat, chaps, boots, and spurs? Dressing the part was a means of identifying with something more manly than himself; something he hoped to become, and a prairie he hope to one day stride across in quick flight upon his sure-footed steed. However, what to the boy, and many observers, is simply an external appearance is to the cowboy, sailor, or worker of any type, form-fitting and functional. The clothing is an expression of his work and his life. In fact, it is that tie back to life and a man’s work that makes it so attractive or “fashionable.” Flannel, for example, gives us the immediate impression of woodsmen and hunters. Waxed Canvas, the sailors of old, constantly battered by the unrelenting sea. Leather? Cowboys, bikers, and warriors.
In the next few articles we’ll take a look at these three manly fabrics and the history of each: Flannel, Waxed Canvas, and Leather. As a primer, let’s have a look at the essential traits every manly fabric must have to stand the test of time.
Men are workers. It is what we do. So it’s no surprise to see that the fabrics we are drawn to have a long history of holding up to the toughest of jobs. If a piece of clothing isn’t practical and useful, it doesn’t stick around very long. What seems to be simple style, to many, is in most cases practical.
Take for example, a sailor’s pea coat. They look sharp but they are designed for a particular purpose. The middle is slightly tapered while they flare out at the bottom. The purpose? Sailors, particularly those of old, handled a lot of heavy ropes, often passing them around their midsection as a form of leverage. The tapered waist ensures it does not get bundled in the rope or hands with the quick work. They also carried a number of tools (and sidearms) on their belts or in their pockets, so the pea coat is wider at the bottom to keep it from getting caught on latches or tools as well as to make access to them much easier.
A couple of sailors having a good time! Notice how the pea coat is slightly tapered in the midsection and flares out a bit at the bottom. Functional and handsome.
Before the advent of the modern Kevlar jacket, motorcyclist took a page from the sailors of yorn to protect them from the elements. Here we see Steve McQueen and other men decked out in their waxed cotton jackets.
The farther from nature a fabric gets, the less it is heralded by men. That’s not to say modern fabrics do not have their place, they most certainly do. Men like things they know. Taking something from the field to the loom or tannery is pretty straightforward, but in producing thread from some chemical mixture something is lost. Perhaps it is so many generations of reliance upon nature, imbibed in this old blood of ours, which tells us to trust in that which nature produces and to be skeptical of the fragility of man’s inventions. Or, perhaps it is simpler than that. Maybe we just like the way natural goods feel on our skin and look on our boots. The coolness of a leather jacket – the temperature, not just the aesthetics – cannot be replicated in a plastic substitute.
“Forty is the old age of youth; fifty the youth of old age.” – Victor Hugo
When things get better with age, it means a number of things to a man. One, that we have made a good investment. An old 68’ Camaro looked good when it came off the line, but boy does it look sharp now, especially compared to the square, practical, urbanite cars of today! That leather jacket that you’ve held onto all of these years is still keeping you warm, and cool (if you know what I mean).
Secondly, it means history. Contrary to what may be a popular belief about the stoic-man, men are actually quite nostalgic, especially when it comes to clothes. However, our nostalgia comes through an earned trust. An old house which has sheltered your family for many years; a pair of boots which has walked with you many-a-mile; a t-shirt, long past its prime, which has accompanied you in the most ordinary of life’s events. They did what they were supposed to do, and that history matters.
Just like a leather jacket or duffle bag, we hope to get better with age. A good man wants to make something out of himself, his children, and his life. It makes sense to be well outfitted for the journey.
Stay tuned as we introduce a few more articles on manly fabrics. There is a rugged history behind the raiment we admire that you don’t want to miss!