clothing culture

Wearing a Buster Brown outfit to his first day of school in cowboy country, earned Ralph Moody, 8, the nickname ‘Molly.’ He wanted to fight the teasers, but his mother not only insisted he wear the suit, she also forbade him to fight back. The other boy pummeled him. The end of his first say teacher wrote a note that his sister had adjusted herself very nicely and she expected Ralph to adjust. She suggested that he wear overalls like the other boys, according to Moody’s autobiography. 

His mother was insulted. She would not raise a ruffian. “Be a Christian gentleman and  turn the other cheek,” she admonished Ralph.

“And that’s exactly where he hit me first,” Ralph wrote in his book “Little Britches.” He did not fight back for a month. The day they yanked down his pants so humiliated Ralph that he decided, “I could not be a gentleman with my pants off and I didn’t want to be one anyway.” He  plowed into the other kid with a fury. 

Watching the fight from inside the school, the teacher did not ring the bell to end recess until the two quit fighting.  The teacher relayed the message, “I believe Ralph has made his adjustment now.” Ralph’s mother did not like that assessment. Nonetheless, from then on  Ralph wore overalls to school and his tormentor nicknamed him ‘Spikes.’

Although this happened prior to World War I, the point remains: every culture has an unspoken dress code. When individuals fail to comply, it influences how others perceive them. 

Sometimes those parameters change between generations. At a recent funeral the oldest generation wore black. The next wore business casual. It meant so much to the retired, out-of-town father that when he realized he had left his suit at home, he asked to borrow his son’s suit. Disregarding his son’s broader shoulders and greater height, Dad wore the only black suit in the house. His son wore a shirt and slacks. 

Without being asked, Dad explained to several why the suit did not fit him. His wife (in a black dress) shook her head in embarrassment. 

“He looks fine. It would have been fine whatever he wore. Still we do have clothing expectations, don’t we?” I commented. “Several years ago I attended a funeral where friends agreed to wear cowboy shirts with rolled up sleeves and blue jeans to honor the deceased’s daily outfit. Since I expected suits. I was surprised to see the pastor in jeans.”

People notice our clothing choices and assess us accordingly. We packed vacation clothes for a trip to visit our son. Because we travel often we have learned to carry outfits that will serve double duty. For Sunday services at our son’s church, we wore business casual. We arrived late after a long day’s drive yet woke early to attend the upper middle-class church where our son attended. He has a passion to minister to folks on the fringe of society and always encourages them to join him at church.

In the church foyer, I picked up a bulletin. Inside a notice reminded members to make visitors feel welcome. I assume that explained all the strangers who made sure to shake our hands. 

“How did you happen to come here today?” one man asked, making light conversation.

“Oh I came with …” I indicated our son. The man’s smile fell. “Oh,you are with him,” he turned away, not interested in any further conversation with a down and outer.

 Since I had not packed my best Sunday go-to-meeting clothes, I looked different than the rest of the gang and was labeled ‘Molly.’ Ralph had a chance to prove himself and get his nickname changed. If we ever return, maybe I too, will get a chance to earn a different nickname.