October 22, 2008

Class and coat length -- an amusing exception

You've probably sensed this at some point, but the upper-middle and upper classes wear longer winter coats than the lower-middle or lower classes. See for yourself by browsing the men's outerwear at the websites for Kmart, Sears, and Wal-Mart, vs. Bergdorf Goodman, Brooks Brothers, and Bloomingdales. Or watch people coming out of those stores in real life. *

However, there's a twist -- it depends on the coat's material. The stereotype is true for coats made of cotton, wool, cashmere, etc. But not if it's leather. These are the only longish coats available on the Sears and Kmart websites, and there are plenty of them, whereas there are almost no long leather coats on the affluent websites -- there, the leather outerwear is jackets, or car coats at the longest.

Who, outside of New Jersey, would have guessed it? But apparently nothing says low-class like a long leather coat. And hey, why hog all the attention to yourself there, big guy? Be a man and spread some style around to the wife and kids. This ad appears on both the Sears and Kmart websites:



Like an expert birdwatcher, you can use subtle differences like this to tell apart two otherwise similar species, such as goth people -- who are more likely to live in "neglected" areas -- and emo / scene kids -- who are more likely to be cute middle-class brats.

* This is probably part of the decline in formality that started in the 1920s, longer coats being more formal. (Indeed, even the well-to-do don't wear particularly long coats like they used to.) Still, the affluent feel they have to maintain some level of formality, while the working class guy would rather freeze than wear a long coat like some prick lawyer.

7 comments:

  1. Us working class folk don't wear long coats mostly for a much simpler reason - because they're no good for doing any kind of work outdoors - even simple household tasks like digging and chopping wood. We don't want to spend more money on a coat so it's longer and can't be worn in many situations. The ultimate working-class "overcoat" 'round here is a canvas vest with an insulated lining and lots of pockets. I have a proper military-style trenchcoat (no, not leather - long leather coats are only worn by metalheads and middle-aged women here) but haven't worn it in almost two years.

    I don't think lawyers have that much to do with it. Many of us are from small towns and have never even seen a lawyer except on TV. But a lot of your classy clothes say "I don't do manual labor" - long overcoats, suits made from very thin wool, calfskin shoes etc. - and that is something we have no use for and are not comfortable communicating.

    As an aside, aren't oilskin dusters another exception to this rule?

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  2. My favorite posts of yours are those on fashion.

    I think you got rid of the ones with your pictures though? Too bad, they were really interesting posts.

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  3. Seconding Martin, full-length coats are like silk gloves--they're pragmatically useless. They're little more than an identifier of class. I can't do anything outside in them except for walk, and they don't provide that much warmth. Carhartt duck coveralls are warmer, cheaper, more durable, and provide for greater mobility. I can do anything in them--hike, sled, play backyard football, etc.

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  4. Oh c'mon people, think it through: if there were never any functional reason for wearing longish coats -- like ones that hit the knee or lower -- then when fashion changed, it would change everywhere outside the upper classes.

    But you can think of one large group of people who still wear longish coats when it's cold: any military. They *do* provide extra warmth, but you have to own and wear one for an entire winter to notice the difference. Either that, or it doesn't get cold where you all live!

    Working-class people used to wear long coats too -- look at old photos of speeches or presidential inaugurations. Everyone has a long coat and a hat up until the 1930s, then hats disappear and coats become more optional.

    So now working people are forced to freeze more than they'd like, just to fit in with their peers.

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  5. Sure there's a functional reason, but depending on your circumstances it might be overridden by other functional reasons. Long coats are practical if you live in the city (or have a gardener), have an indoor job, don't hunt etc. I work on a road construction crew and have a small orchard. That's a very different set of practical considerations.

    Notice that the coats you classy people wear when you do more than walking outdoors - hunting coats or those fancy modern parkas for whiterpeople sports - are never long. Arctic and Alpine military units don't wear long coats in the field, either, only as part of their traditional dress uniforms.

    I tried digging up old photos of my peasant ancestors from the early 1900s to see what they wore but none were taken in winter.

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  6. No branch of the US military wears long coats in extreme weather conditions, and certainly not during combat operations (at least not that I'm aware of). Here is a useful visual of some of the various kinds of cold-weather attire the US military uses.

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  7. Dude, you know what I mean -- the military wore longish coats before all the new thinsulate, polartec, etc. was standardized in the 1980s. Even now, that stuff is meant to be worn in many layers.

    The ECWCS has always had at least three layers from top to bottom (see the Wikipedia entry), and the newest version that you linked to has 7.

    So, if the ordinary working class guy is already wearing three layers of military-grade material, then he can get away with a coat / parka that only goes down to the butt.

    But he isn't -- he's wearing blue-jeans or pants, rarely with a second layer like long-johns, and maybe a long-sleeved t-shirt with a fleece jacket -- and no parka on top!

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