Informality and the American Identity

9:38 PM

This afternoon I was interviewed for a segment on AirTalk about the increasing informality of dress in today's society. This is an enormous topic with many contributing factors, but one thing the host mentioned is that in America, informality in dress could be connected to the (supposed) lack of a class system. I agreed, and believe that the mythological identity of America as a place where everyone is equal has been influential on our dress. I referenced an eighteenth-century portrait where one of America's founding fathers is dressed informally. The painting I was thinking of was this portrait of Paul Revere by John Singleton Copley.

Portrait of Paul Revere by John Singleton Copley, 1768. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
To have your portrait painted was a very expensive affair, and in the days before photography a portrait was how you would be remembered for all eternity. Thus traditionally most people wore their very best clothes, wanting to show themselves in the best possible light. European portraiture of the same period often shows clothing at the height of fashion and luxurious settings. Compare Revere's portrait with this image, painted just one year earlier.

Portrait of Two Gentlemen Before the Arch of Constantine in Rome by Anton von Maron, 1767. Private collection.
In the Copley portrait, Revere is very informally dressed. He doesn't wear a coat, his waistcoat loosely hangs from his shoulders and his shirt is open at the neckline. His hair is unstyled, and pulled casually back. A silversmith by trade, Revere references his status as a tradesman by holding an unfinished silver pot while engraving tools are scattered on the table. Revere is relaxed, thoughtfully looking out to the viewer, and the background is simple and black and the table plain and unremarkable. He is saying to the world, "Yes, I am rich/important enough to have my portrait done, but really I'm just a simple silversmith, I work hard and am just like anybody else."

In the von Maron portrait, on the other hand, the two gentlemen are formally attired in fashionable clothes. Their suits are sleek in cut and fit tightly to the body, and are decorated with gold embroidery. Both gentleman are most likely wearing wigs, and their hair is in a fashionable style. The man in the blue coat has his hair powdered as well, another fashionable and expensive touch. Both casually hold long walking sticks, another fashionable accessory for the 18th century gentleman. Finally, the gentlemen are posed by an Ancient Roman arch, demonstrating that they are worldly, well-traveled, and knowledgeable about classical societies. Combined, all of these elements demonstrate wealth, refinement, and formality. The message of this portrait is quite different from that of the Paul Revere portrait.

Portrait of Johann Joachim Winkelmann by Anton von Maron, 1768. Kunstsammlungen Weimar.
Even when dressed in informal attire, European portraits still convey a different message. In the above image the subject, Johann Joachim Winkelmann, is not yet dressed for the day, wearing a robe and covering his undressed head with a turban. Yet the clothing still conveys wealth and luxury. The voluminous robe is made of a lustrous red fabric and lined with fur. Although Winkelmann does not wear a wig, his turban is an equally fashionable headdress, a product of the highly fashionable orientalist influence which swept Europe in the 18th century. Furthermore, his surroundings include a luxuriously draped swag of fabric, a marble bust of a classical figure, and a fashionable writing table. Like the other portrait by von Maron, the sitter in this portrait is broadcasting his wealth and status.

Did all wealthy Americans choose to portray themselves as Revere did? Absolutely not. But I think there is an interesting comparison to be made. Revere is a famous figure of the American Revolution, and his portrait is emblematic of the mythological American identity which still holds influence today. It is this same mythological identity that many American politicians and public figures still try to convey. During the 2008 American presidential election, Republican Vice Presidential candidate Sarah Palin built her entire image on the idea that she was (supposedly) just like the rest of us. So to return to the original topic, the increasing informality in our society is due to a number of causes and could easily be a dissertation topic. But for Americans, I think that one cause is the identity, demonstrated by Revere, which is so fundamental to the mythos and history of this country.

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