- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 5, 2004


By Michael Zakim

University of Chicago Press, $30, 296 pages, illus.


This volume belongs to that quite-contemporary class of books that function inductively, utilizing seemingly trivial and commonplace things to provide a perspective into matters of far greater implication and resonance.

The symbolism of clothes has always been obvious, but in this book, Michael Zakim elaborates the role of clothing into “a social history of capitalism and of America’s ‘great transformation’ into a democracy. Such a broad view of the sartorial underlines the important place of clothing in the political imagination.”

This great stylistic shift is essentially the evolution of the homespun, with all its associations of rugged independence and honest rural toil, into the “ready-made” clothes of the cities, somewhat reflective of the demographic shift of population throughout our history.

However, many of the insights that enliven Mr. Zakim’s book are not, of course, entirely original; people have always, if not always consciously, responded to the complex associations of meaning implicit in how we cover our bodies.

For example, in the 1790s, when the Virginia legislature commissioned Jean-Antoine Houdon for a sculpture of George Washington, there was a controversy over how the father of our country should be clothed.

There was already a statue of him wearing a Roman toga, emphasizing his role as “the Cincinnatus of the West”; but Benjamin West (no relation) advised Houdon to dress his subject in contemporary clothing, no doubt signifying that he was not only a man of his time, but also the fact that this was a new country, liberated from the old confinements and prejudices of its European heritage, along with Europe’s traditional celebration of its own ancient heritage.

Mr. Zakim’s book is handsomely illustrated, which is appropriate for a book that is, after all, about appearances, even if those appearances signify far more than what is often dismissed as “superficial.” Here, as in the dance of all contradictories and contraries, there is a sort of dialectic at work, along with a celebration of the golden mean.

For example, by the 1850s, if a man were to dress too ostentatiously he was to be considered a fop; on the other hand, if he were to dress too casually or negligently, he was thought to smell of poverty and/or be stigmatized as tasteless.

Nevertheless, Lord and Taylor’s boasted that they employed no clerk “who was not a gentleman, both in education and manners.”

Its subtitle “A History of Men’s Dress” notwithstanding, “Ready-Made Democracy” is also about women’s clothing, which provides relevance for today’s preoccupation with women’s rights.

But it is the other end of the capitalist spectrum that receives emphasis, for whole populations of poor, wretched girls and women were victimized by the great shift to ready-made clothing. The seamstress, Mr. Zakim writes, “represented two principal effects of the industrial revolution, wage independence and waged exploitation.”

On the other hand, Susan B. Anthony said, “I can see no business avocation, in which woman in her present dress can possibly earn equal wages with man.” And, of course, in spite of its perhaps too-great sacrifice in dignity and living conditions, the independence of seamstresses was one faltering step in the progress of equal rights.

By the time it had all but disappeared, the homespun plain style came to represent a sentimentalized seriousness and honest industry that would have no doubt seemed odd to those who were forced to make their own homespun clothing, dress in it and take it for granted.

Still, it was perhaps inevitable that the passing of the homespun ethos should evoke nostalgia — a sentiment often and easily despised by the sophomoric as self-indulgence, whereas it can have its own validity and enrichment of one’s sense of time.

One typical nostalgic reflection was that of a contemporary theologian who argued that homespun clothes were “primitive and simple … intelligent without refinement” in contrast to “all the polite fictions and empty conventionalities of the world.”

“Ready-Made Democracy” is an interesting book, well-researched and generally well-written, in spite of suffering from a touch of academic ankylosis. Nevertheless, I found it surprising that Mr. Zakim didn’t once refer to Thomas Carlyle’s “Sartor Resartus,” a classic philosophical text on the rich symbolism of clothing.

I cite this knowing well that it might seem like a cheap shot, for it is as easy as it is unfair to criticize a book for what it is not; still, Carlyle’s old classic would have been a most appropriate resource in a book that is essentially focused upon the same thing.

Jack Matthews is Distinguished Professor of English Emeritus at Ohio University in Athens, Ohio.

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