Teddy Roosevelt: The End of The Gilded Age and the Beginning of The Gelded Age?

Theodore Roosevelt, the twentieth-sixth President of the United States, is perhaps best remembered these days for the establishment of the National Park system, for his ‘trust-busting’ (taking on monopolistic business practices), and for being an avid hunter and outdoorsman.

 

Yet one of his most significant influences was on fashion.

 

TR may seem like an odd choice for a fashion plate. He was a burly, blocky fellow—5’ 10” tall on a good day, but always carrying at least a two hundred solid pounds, packaged up in a sort of oblong body that conveyed the impression of great physical strength. Add Teddy’s outsized personality and booming voice, and you have a living, breathing avatar of machismo.

And to such a degree that by 1898—when Roosevelt became the hero of the Battle of San Juan Hill, an important engagement in the short Spanish-American War—TR had become the beau idéal of masculinity. He was the man every man wanted to be, whether he admitted it or not: blue-blood aristocrat, war hero, cowboy, adventurer: check, check, check, and check.

At this particular time, the notion of masculinity in America was considered to be under threat. Huh? We think of the Gilded Age as a ‘man’s world’, and in many ways it was, but one thing that has never gone out of fashion is male insecurity. And in 1898, the Gilded Age was on its last legs, and many men of the day feared that what was lurching toward them was they might have called The Gelded Age. (If they had thought of that very clever term before I did.)

Why would men think such a thing, in a time when women couldn’t even vote and were excluded from most professions? They had their reasons: women’s suffrage was no longer a question of whether, but when; the ‘New Woman’ movement was overturning ideas of what a ‘proper’ woman ought to be; and—not to be underestimated—the United States was fast becoming an urban, corporatized state. Accordingly, more and more men were leaving farming and artisanal crafts to work for the emerging corporations, which provided steady income but correspondingly little autonomy and independence.

And among American men, autonomy and independence—from the Boston Tea Party to ‘Take this Job and Shove It’—have always been solid-gold hallmarks of masculinity.

Enter Theodore Roosevelt. Remember, TR was an aristocrat, a cowboy, a war hero, and—to top it all off—in 1901, became the President of the United States. Here, men thought, was a real man—and they wanted desperately to act like him, be like him, and at the very least—look like him.

This presented a problem. Recall Teddy’s body—built like a cinderblock, with broad shoulders and fewer curves than a shipping crate. Considering that the average man circa 1901 was about 5’ 8” tall and weighed perhaps 150 slender pounds, most regular guys could not hope to look like their hero. Just in time, the ready-to-wear men’s clothing industry dreamed up the sack suit.

The sack suit, as the name implies, is a shapeless garment with broad, padded shoulders, a voluminous chest, and no discernable waistline (a good sack suit didn’t even possess a waist seam). In a proper sack suit, even the weediest corporate cog could look like . . . Theodore Roosevelt.

​Everyone bought them; they became the male uniform for more than two decades, worn by all but those few who still preferred to show off a trim waist—but those oddballs were quickly cast as effeminate ‘dandies’ or ‘swells’ who could be safely laughed off by the sack-suited legions of terra-cotta warriors. Thanks to the sack suit, the Rooseveltian ideal of masculinity could, at least, be imitated—in wool, linen, or cotton. Clothes, they say, make the man.

​But no matter how much a fellow wanted to conceal himself in a worsted sack suit of armor, change was in the air. And so, when I return next time, I will examine the female equivalent of the sack suit—the corset.

A good book on the subject of ready-to-wear clothing (there aren’t many) is Rob Schorman’s Selling Style: Clothing and Social Change at the Turn of the Century. While you’ll have to muddle through a fair share of academic ‘in-crowd’ talk, the book has some very perceptive observations—including about Mr. Roosevelt and the sack suit.