The 1930s are heralded as the modernizing decade of mens fashion (at least as far as the 20th century goes.) From the dinner jacket replacing formal tails to the lounge suit becoming business de rigueur (and let’s not forget turned up cuffs on trousers) the 30s were watershed years for how the civilized Western male costumed himself. Some of us still occasionally wear versions of resort wear perfected in that decade, even if most have discarded the linen suit for a polo/t-shirt and jeans. All this is common enough knowledge, but not everyone is aware of how much classier athletic competitors previously dressed (aside from carry-over Lacoste tennis wear) whether they were competing, accepting awards, or simply recreating off track. While I realize that contemporary athletic wear is based on science over aesthetics, function over form, I’ve always believed that perfection (and I refuse to cleave “beauty” from my definition of the word) is found in what is perceived as the equilibrium of the two. Of course, this is yet another area where I find myself out of fashion.
One can never divorce politics from the Olympics, particularly the dark shadow it cast over the ’36 games, but I am going to unapologetically ignore it for the moment. Obviously, the topic deserves more than can be given in a short blog post about the competitors clothing. At the very least I want to acknowledge the German Jewish officials who actually organized and designed much of the 1936 Olympics; in the weeks and days before the official opening, they found their names wiped from the official record, replaced with petty Nazi cronies.
As far as the outfits go, pleasantly absent are any swooshes, ponies, or additional forms of corporate blight. On the other hand, nationalistic excrescence is rampant, as is natural and expected from the games (perhaps its the only place we should forgive such indulgences.) The pictures that follow were scanned from three German souvenir photo books of the 1930s; these would all become well known images, reproduced countless times over the years. Most of them were new to me when I acquired the volumes.
Though this post is filed under the header of “the arts”, that is out of respect for its introductory subject. Kenneth Clark, the art historian, is an eminently readable critic of Renaissance painting; as a protégé of art connoisseur Bernard Berenson, Clark went on to be the youngest head of the British National Gallery. He is best known for his documentary series Civilisation, which chronicles western art.
During his tenure at the National Gallery he faced a staff crisis; some members of the old guard objected to him. In his autobiography, Another Part of the Wood, Clark recounts that during arbitration the head mutineer was asked what he objected to about Mr. Clark’s management:
The only concrete fact that my colleague could think of was that he objected to my neckties. It is true that I am fond of neckties, and when depressed will buy one to cheer myself up, just as ladies buy hats… neckties, albeit to a lesser degree than hats, are symbolic and almost the last thing that link us to the display rituals of birds…
I can relate to both buying ties as gift to oneself and to facing criticism for simply wearing them. I’ve even had former friends ask me not to wear ties around them. (Note the word “former.”) Ties are now typically associated with formality, social conservatism, and the business caste. Funny: I don’t match any of those labels, but I understand that most people are incapable of thinking beyond them. In another era a tie would quickly communicate membership in a club, college, or military unit, but it is because the tie is now such an unnecessary element to dress that it is liberated from any utility at all; it is therefore open to the whims of the wearer’s personality. I’ll confess that sometimes I’m further spurred to wear ties whenever theocratic or social fascists (like the Mullahs in Iran or the executive board of Ikea) go so far as to ban them. These days, it is the conformists who are refusing to wear ties and I find it darkly amusing that neckwear is becoming a symbol of individualist rebellion. Long live the revolution indeed.
In job title, uniform, and as defender of old master art values against 20th century high modernism, Clark appears to be a solid establishment figure. Yet the more I learn about him, the more I can appreciate his singular personality in the world of art. He held unpopular positions on numerous matters: from the defense of figurative art (and western art in general) to – in the mid 1930s era of apathy and appeasement – being loudly and virulently anti-Hitler, both positions would cost him friends and colleagues before the war put that latter opinion in vogue.
At the same time, on the other side of the cultural barricades from Mr Clark, we have pictured above a group of abstract painters know as the “irascibles” who, in the days before abstract art became dogma in university art departments, had publicly complained about the Met’s “modern” American painting show that had somehow overlooked them. With the exception of Hedda Sterne, Jimmy Ernst, and probably Pollack, these anti-art-establishment upstarts are all wearing ties. I’d like to see one our contempo graffiti artistes pull a rattle-can out of their tweed norfolk jacket and tag the side of a Gagosian art commodities office LLC. If only.
I suppose one could argue that subversives have long made effective use of wearing the enemy’s uniform. To that end, artists (and maybe all of us) only wear nicer clothes out of social and ceremonial pressures, desperate to be accepted by the group and thinking the right clown suit will help get us into to the circus. Panem et circenses, so then join the circus and earn your bread.
Here is a wonderful unlined specimen from Ralph Lauren. I’m often a fan of Polo’s 1920s inspired ties. Retro in design and materials, thinner and shorter than the average businessman’s bib, and completed by a slightly cryptic motif. It offers a nice contrast to those bulky swathes of loud bunting which the cable channel sportscasters wear around their necks. I mean the ones among them who have necks.
“When you get to be 50 you find yourself talking and thinking as much about death and money as you used to about sex.”
-Jeffrey Bernard, Lowlife
While I haven’t yet alighted on Mr. Bernard’s perch of 50 at the time of the above quote, I have, as far back as I can remember, reflected on death and money (or at least the wages of sin.) Typically, when considering death and money in the same thought, I’m usually thinking of whose death might bring me money… but so far no one has left a cent. My approach towards both death and taxes is similar — namely, that I have a habit of being late on one account, and plan on being even later to the other. So far one (positive?) thing about how aged I’ve become is that I’m beginning to look like I belong in all those grandpa duds I’ve been sporting for years. One of my lingering problems is that I still look like a lot of things I’m not; bourgeois, solvent, well adjusted, or gay. Though I am none of the above, few can accept it.
Regardless of appearances, one club I may actually belong to is what Paul Fussell describes as the “floating class,” a.k.a the bohemian class, a phenomena which exists outside our western caste system because it is unassociated with income. Bohemians are a tricky bunch; wearing uniforms outside our station (check), ignoring local morality (check), famously consorting with the disreputable (check), and being notoriously (if often entertainingly) eccentric/difficult/unreliable companions (yeah, probably). All very amusing until it isn’t: some aging bohos are a tragic lot as Mr Bernard and his milieu demonstrated to the scandalized respectable classes (who followed his musings with the same excitement and horror as one watches cars crash.) His column was astutely described as a “suicide note in weekly installments.” I’m hoping this blog is slightly more upbeat. Only slightly.
Among of the paradoxes of aging (beyond the truth that youth really is wasted on the young) is that every new moment you are the oldest you’ve ever been, so the current “you” always feel old in comparison to yesterday’s you even if, in context of your family/community, you’re not. This might be why I always wake up feeling old.
This photo is the view looking back down Columbus to where the Montgomery Block used to be (built 1853, demolished 1959,) or “monkey block” for short, where the pyramid now stands. The Montgomery Block, a 4 storey monolith of a building, had survived the cataclysm of ’06 and was home to Pisco Punch, which was invented on the ground floor at the Bank Exchange Saloon during the barbary days, later perfected by the saloon’s last owner Duncan Nicol, who reportedly took the recipe to grave in 1926; the upper floors served as working space to many artists and writers, including Bierce and Twain.
This long time neighborhood institution was down the street from our watering hole. A worker owned co-op since 2003. Now that’s my kind of socialism.
Dewar’s scotch bar mascot c. 1960s
A dress MacLeod tartan unlined cotton tie, presumably the same David & John Anderson of 19th century Glasgow, still extant.
And finally 2 forms of smokey goodness. Please forgive that only one of them is from Scotland, and to even compete with the peat of Islay the Cubans will have to be alight.
The game of bowls (and specifically lawn bowling) has a medieval history which seems to have been, if not originated in Britain, certainly perfected there. While it’s now played worldwide, the Scots seem to have taken it as their own, with their oldest club going back 1740.
In fact: it was the local chapter of the Scottish fraternal order, the Saint Andrew’s Society, who started San Francisco’s lawn bowling club in 1901. They were given a section of Golden Gate park in which to bowl by park superintendent John McLaren (a native Scot, and the club’s 1st vice-president). Originally known as the San Francisco Scottish Bowling Club, in 1931 the name was changed to the San Francisco Lawn Bowling Club.
I believe this is Bill Campbell, who, if it is him, has been with the club since 1964. I cribbed the above photo from Telstar Logistics’s Flickr stream, who also has him pictured in another excellent sweater vest. Check it out here.
Lots of old photos (and a few new ones) including a few inside of their clubhouse; click inside…