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central park

31 december 2007

A caption in John S. Berman's beautifully-illustrated history Central Park says:

Aside from differences in apparel, this nineteenth-century scene is remarkably similar to one you might see in modern times, with parents and children on park benches and horse-drawn carriages in the background. (61)
The accompanying photograph shows a group of ten, all female, sitting lined up on a Central Park bench, watching a carriage pass. There are three adults and seven girls. Two of the women raise superfluous parasols; the carriage etches shadows onto the pavement, it's true, but the women and the girls alike are dressed in voluminous toe-length dresses buttoned high up on the throat under hats the size of manhole covers. "Aside from differences in apparel," I suppose they do look like any random group of 21st-century benchsitters, but the differences in apparel are precisely what make the New York of the photograph a world apart from ours.

Nineteenth- and early-20th-century photography in Central Park shows us people who were severely overdressed in summer and a tad formal by our standards even in the snows of winter. "In the late nineteenth century," says another of Berman's captions,

Sunday band concerts at the Mall attracted thousands of working-class people, who came on their only day off to hear music and socialize. (40)
Every woman in this vast working-class concert crowd is draped in yards and yards of material, millineried to the point of heat prostration. It's summer, because the men all sport straw boaters, but beneath the boaters they wear dark suits over shirts with high starched collars. These aren't toffs, mind you; they are the most ordinary of ordinary working people. But they are dressed better than any Upper East Sider dresses nowadays. And the heat is beginning to tell on them. The few men who have caught sight of the camera frankly look fed up.

There are concerts in Central Park to this day, and the same people who attend them on summer Sundays in the 2000s are likely to be wearing T-shirts, shorts, and sandals, if not halters, thongs, or next to nothing at all. For this we can thank August Heckscher, scion of a family of patrons of Central Park, who in the 1960s "eliminated the hard-and-fast rules requiring men to wear shirts" (105).

We often think of clothes as merely indicating "fashion." Even a casual browser of old photographs can usually say when a given picture was taken, within a decade, if the picture features distinctive clothing. Such easily-remarked trends are often chalked up to nothing more than the perpetually misguided faddishness that seems to infect large crowds of people.

But fashion means more than fad. For much of American history, dress bore a dynamic relation to social class; it obviously still does today, though the dynamic continues to shift and pose uncertainties for the dresser. If you wanted to walk in Central Park during its first decades of existence, you needed to wear a shirt. But as the photos in Berman's Central Park teach us, you needed considerably more than that. You needed a suit of clothes (if male) or a dress (if female) that essentially served more as costume than clothing. Those working-class fellows suffering through summer in dark broadcloth suits weren't fooling anyone into thinking they were Astors out for a promenade. They weren't fooling, in fact; they were displaying their ability to buy, even at the cheapest of tailors, a suit that qualified them to blend in with the crowd. "Put on your Sunday clothes," Cornelius Hackl tells Barnaby in The Matchmaker. Without them, you can't go to certain parts of New York; but with them, as factitious as the costume might be, you have entrée to the same social settings as Horace Vandergelder.

Assuredly, many working-class New Yorkers missed out on a Central Park concert, years ago, because they simply didn't have the clothes. For the same reason, they might not have belonged to a church. Berman makes much of the struggle over Sabbatarianism in Central Park. In the first decades of the Park's existence, Sunday concerts and ballgames were forbidden. The Metropolitan Museum of Art was closed on Sundays. Some Sabbatarians were disinterestedly devout. But for others, Sundays were defended as days of rest from the leisure that consumed the rest of their week. A Park that shut down on Sundays was one that workers on a six-day week would never get into the habit of frequenting.

The first great democratization of the Park came via anti-Sabbatarianism, but the victory was only partial. "They" could come to the park now, technically. Another of Berman's fascinating photographs (76-77) shows a throng of "them" covering every available inch of benchrow and hillside in 1910. Though cramped and rather less than joyful, the crowd keeps strictly to its dress code. Only the most outré of the gentlemen – or perhaps we should say, temporary gentlemen – are daring enough to risk shirtsleeves, or to go boaterless. It's a crowd, not of the great unwashed, but of the great washed: of our great-grandparents who had little leisure and less disposable income, but possessed at least one cheap suit of clothes.

Nowadays, the same scene would feature a similar density of sitters, but a comparative absence of clothing. And perhaps even more remarkable, the absence of clothing would be almost entirely democratic. Half-naked kids on summer vacation from Choate might sit next to half-naked kids from Theodore Roosevelt High. The kids themselves will certainly know the difference, thanks to numerous other class markers, but to stroll into the Park shirtless and in torn cutoffs today is not in itself evocative of any particular social class at all – while in August Heckscher's day it marked one as a counterculture type, and in Robert Moses's day and before, it was grounds for arrest.

It is one of the great transformations of American society in the past 60 years. And it has taken place, necessarily, in full view, yet has rarely been remarked on: the radical deformalization of dress. We tend to think of this phenomenon, if we think of it at all, as a matter of pure functionalism. It's just more comfortable to wear almost nothing in summer and to bundle into cross-class universal tubes of down in the winter. Yet clothing has, at a deeper level, very little to do with comfort or convenience. It has to do with what we mean to one another, a meaning which has changed in ways we can measure from photos of what our ancestors wore.

Berman, John S. Central Park. New York: Barnes & Noble, 2003.