Historical Prescriptivism: The Awkward Bedfellows of Tradition and Evolution in Menswear

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historical-prescriptivism

But,
 erm,
 what
 exactly 
is 
Historical 
Prescriptivism? 
The
 term
 relates 
to 
the 
linguistic 
notion
 that, 
whilst 
language 
is 
constantly 
evolving 
and 
changing 
form, 
certain 
styles
 (often 
those 
that 
were 
popular
 in 
the 
past) 
are 
considered 
‘better’ 
language 
by 
a
 majority 
of 
speakers, 
at 
any 
given 
time. 
For 
example:
 the 
subjunctive 
in
 English 
often
 goes
 unmarked,
 these
 days, 
meaning 
that
 many
 people 
would
 say
 or 
write
 ‘If 
I
 was rich’ 
instead 
of
 ‘If I 
were rich’
 – 
just
 the 
sort
 of
 thing
 your
 secondary
 school
 English
 teacher
 would
 have
 pulled
 you
 up
on. 
Leaving 
aside
 the 
subjective
 argument
 as
 to
 which
 version
 is
 more
 pleasing 
to
 the
 eye 
or
 ear,
 it
s 
not a
 wild 
suggestion 
to
 say
 that, 
in
 the 
future, 
the 
‘If
 I
 were’
 construction 
may
 be 
completely 
obsolete, having
 been
 superseded
 by
 ‘If
 I
 was’
 which 
will
 then
 be 
considered 
standard,
 ‘correct’ 
English
 of
 the
 sort
 spoken 
by 
BBC
 presenters.

The 
point
 is 
this:
 change 
is
 natural 
and
 unstoppable 
but
 the 
majority 
will
 always
 resist
 change
 and
 look 
longingly
 to 
the 
way 
things
 were 
in 
the
 past
 as 
a 
sort 
of
 golden 
ideal.
 This 
linguistic
 example 
is
 allegorical
 for
 menswear,
 too,
 where
 innovation
 and
 evolution
 are 
often
 criticized 
for
 departing 
too
 far
 from
 the
 map
 drawn
 up 
by
 their
 historical
 forebears.

This 
issue 
came
 to
 a
head 
for 
me,
 recently,
 because
 I
 was
 asked
 by
 a 
friend 
who
 has
 her
 own
 clothing 
line
 to
 design
 some
 menswear 
for
 a
 bridal
 line 
she 
is
 working 
on
 at
 the
 moment. 

In 
the
 process
 of
 collecting 
images
 for
 the
 moodboard, 
I
 did
 some
 research
 online,
 reading
 some
 of the
 men’s
 style
 blogs
 and 
fora
 in
 order
 to
 get
 a
 sense
 of
 the 
mood
 vis‐à‐vis
 morning
 dress 
and 
what

one
 ought
 to 
wear 
to
 a wedding. 

I
 was 
struck 
by 
how
 rigid 
and 
dogmatic 
the 
majority
 of posters
 were
 with 
respect 
to 
what
 precisely 
constituted
 acceptable
 wedding 
attire!
 When 
I
 came 
to
 sketching 
the 
pieces, 
I
 found 
myself
 wanting 
to 
make
 subtle 
changes 
to 
the
 clothes 
but
 feeling
 almost
 guilty
 for
 doing
 so.

Some 
degree
 of 
change 
is 
to
 be
 expected:
 as
 we 
live 
and
 work 
in
 centrally 
heated

or
 air‐conditioned 
houses 
and 
offices 
and
 are 
thus
 less
 exposed 
to 
the 
elements 
it
 is
 only
 natural
 that 
we 
should 
change
 our
 clothes.
 As
 body
 shapes 
change 
and
 new
 textiles 
are 
developed,
 we
 should
 expect 
this,
 too, 
to
 have
 an 
impact.
 The
 real
 difficulty 
for 
us 
lies 
in 
assessing 
how
 much
 modification
 of
 existing 
styles 
is
 possible 
without
 the 
clothes
 losing 
the
 essence
 of
 what
 they
 originally
 were 
or
 appearing
 ersatz.
 For
 what 
it’s
 worth, 
I
 believe 
that 
change 
for
 the 
sake 
of
 change
 is
 pointless;
 but
 I 
am 
all
 for
 tweaking,
 personalizing,
 and
 making 
more 
relevant
 the 
classic 
items
 and
 designs
 that
 have
 served 
us
 so well
 in
 the 
past.

I’m
 curious
 to 
hear
 your
 thoughts.


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Comments

  1. Chad Edward says:

    I think your point is somewhat restricted to the occasion of a wedding where tradition is more evidently dogmatic than say what one wears to dinner on Friday night. Menswear has evolved, but at the pace of men’s buying patterns. A man buys a suit for several years, which means the style of the suit can’t be too trendy. It’s expected to be stylish for a longer time than women’s wear.

  2. Pangur says:

    I don’t think that the majority resists change. Quite the contrary: The majority does things differently, out of habit, comfort or sheer dumbness and thus what is thought of as acceptable is what the majority does. Only a minority will stick to tradition and will thus be frowned upon as old fashioned but nevertheless will keep the pace of change in a controllable way. Thus the lounge suit became acceptable buisseness attire, the word “whom” just a thing of old plays and the wearing of track suits and underwear for shopping possible.
    We live in a democracy (I#m German, so my thoughts on democracy will slightly differ from yours) and that means, at the end of it all: The majority is right!
    Even if it is a uniformed, uninterested and dwnright loony majority in the eye of the Traditionalists.

  3. Nick Bain says:

    In Menswear & especially in tailoring I believe we are about to witness a changing of the guard. Its been a long time coming but, there is now a huge difference between dads and the lads. As a general rule the old traditionalists preferring high quality garments that will last forever and not be too extreme in styling, versus the new suit wearers for whom 100% wool is not essential so long as the styling and look are right and on trend. Mens fashion is I believe speeding up. Weddings, perhaps remain on of the last bastions of the old guard, clinging rightly and wrongly to the traditional rules. If I’m honest, its this battle between old and new that draws me into menswear…how do you subvert the rules of a 100 years, but still make something wearable.

  4. David V says:

    Nick, the same was said in the 60′s.

  5. Nick Bain says:

    David – perhaps its time it happened again?

  6. Jake says:

    I don’t know if I understand what you would change in (for the sake of argument) traditional morning dress, that would not be ‘change for the sake of change’? If you are arguing for not wearing morning dress at weddings then that is fair enough and, indeed, plenty of people do not.
    How would you seek to make traditional clothes ‘more relevant’? Where does ‘relevance’ come in to it? Clothes are essentially about style, and there has been nothing practical about morning dress for hundreds of years, so any further changes seem wholly uneccesary.

    Call me rigid and dogmatic if you will, but my view is that either one wishes to dress traditionally at a wedding, or one does not. Either is fine with me, but a mix between the two, to make use of changed body shapes (really?) and new textiles seems both bizarre and tasteless.