Coalition of the Differing

It took Margaret Mead to understand the two nations separated by a common language

Margaret Mead
Margaret Mead Wikimedia Commons

Recent events aside, the Americans and the British have not always seen eye to eye—neither in war nor wardrobe. In fact, during World War II the U.S. and British commands had such a terrible time communicating with one another that in 1943 they commissioned anthropologist Margaret Mead to determine why. The Americans complained that the British were secretive and unfriendly; the British insisted that the Americans were simpleminded and boastful. The allies argued about everything.

Mead discovered that the two cultures possessed fundamentally different world views. One simple way to demonstrate this was to ask an Englishman and an American a single question: What’s your favorite color? American servicemen quickly came up with a color, but the British asked, "Favorite color for what? A flower? A necktie?"

Mead concluded that Americans, raised in a melting pot, learned to seek a simple common denominator. To the British, this came across as unsophisticated. Conversely, the class-conscious British insisted on complex categories, each with its own set of values. Americans interpreted this tendency to subdivide as furtiveness. (After all, a person who can’t name a favorite color must be hiding something.) "The British show an unwillingness to make comparisons," Mead wrote. "Each object is thought of as having a most complex set of qualities, and color is merely a quality of an object."

The allies eventually overcame their differences and rallied to defeat Hitler, but for decades afterward you could see Mead’s revelations reflected in the men’s fashions of Britain and America. For Yanks what mattered was an overall "look." An American boy learned from his father, his schoolmates and ads for Hickey Freeman suits that the goal was to combine elements that complemented one another: the tie goes with the jacket, the shoes go with the belt. To the British, on the other hand, what mattered more than the whole was its parts. Where a postwar American male might have been neatly described as "the man in the gray flannel suit," an Englishman of the same era was "the man in the gray flannel suit—also wearing plaid socks, a striped shirt, paisley tie and checked jacket with a floral handkerchief in the pocket."

Note the famous 1967 Patrick Lichfield photograph of the Duke of Windsor in which the abdicated king appears in almost precisely this outfit. To the duke, each piece of clothing no doubt had, as Mead observed, its own "complex set of qualities" having nothing to do with the others. And yet, was there another gentleman of this era who more exemplified British sartorial style? (He even gave his name to the Windsor knot.)

It is impossible to say just when these national dress codes began eroding, but by the turn of the millennium they were gone. One night in London not long ago, I was walking back to my hotel (near Savile Row) when I saw framed through a pub window a group of lads standing together at the bar. They might as well have been college kids in Atlanta, or Barcelona, or Moscow; there was not a single sartorial clue that identified them as English. They projected what might be called an "urban" look, the bland, shapeless offering from brands such as Banana Republic and J. Crew. To wit, an untucked shirt, a one-size-fits-all sport coat and baggy trousers rolled up above black, square-toed shoes as big as the boxes they came in. What would dear Margaret Mead have made of this snapshot? Probably, that much of the men’s world has a new style, one that reflects not tribal differences but global similarities.

But let us not despair. After all, men’s fashion history does have a way of turning out surprises. Take, for example, this past January’s menswear shows in Milan. One of the most startling moments came when designer Miuccia Prada launched a male model down the runway wearing a loud print shirt, striped pants and a wild patterned tie, all topped off with a checkerboard 1970s Bear Bryant hat. It was a rig that would have made the Duke of Windsor proud.

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