The suit has been the standard of Western men’s fashion, with some slight alterations, since at least the late 1600s. Not only that, but since the 1970s, even women, when they need to signal their professionalism, are expected to wear a feminized version of the suit. Why has the suit become the standard for professional wear? How have suits changed over the centuries? And what do suits represent in our society – and what have they represented historically? Ready? Suit up!
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Transcript of Suit Up
Researched and written by Sarah Handley-Cousins, PhD
Produced by Sarah Handley-Cousins, PhD and Marissa Rhodes
Sarah: When you picture a powerful man in your mind’s eye, what is he wearing? I’m going to guess that he’s wearing a suit. Probably a dark color – we all remember what happened when President Obama wore that tan suit – with a fashionable, maybe even trendy tie. Maybe he’s a little old fashioned (or a hipster) and he’s wearing a vest. Maybe there are some wacky socks showing at the ankles. But whatever the individual touches are, the suit is *the* go to fashion choice for men whether they want to exude status, wealth, and power or just look professional. It seems so obvious, but when you think about it, there really aren’t too many other options for men’s professional or office wear.
Marissa: The suit has been the standard of Western men’s fashion, with some slight alterations, since at least the late 1600s. Not only that, but since the 1970s, even women, when they need to signal their professionalism, are expected to wear a feminized version of the suit. Why has the suit become the standard for professional wear? How have suits changed over the centuries? And what do suits represent in our society – and what have they represented historically? Ready? Suit up!
Sarah: That’s a How I Met Your Mother joke.
And I’m Marissa
And we are your historians for this episode of DIG
Sarah: Clothing is never just about the fabric that you use to cover yourself up. Different colors, cuts, and fabrics signify different things about you – if you dress all in black and wear a spike collar, you’re letting folks know that you’re a goth. If you wear expensive, name-brand clothing, you’re signaling your wealth. If you dress in cowboy boots, jeans, and flannel, you’re projecting messages about rural America, country living, and maybe even conservative politics. This was equally true in the 16th and 17th century. In some cases, the social meanings of clothing have been set in stone by governments. Historian David Kuchta has shown that in the 16th and 17th century, social anxiety shaped the way that people were expected to dress. People were concerned that without strict laws to control who could wear what, no one would be able to tell where anyone stood in terms of social rank. For example, this quote from a guy named Phillip Stubbes from 1583: “”There is such a confused mingle of apparel, and such preposterous excess thereof, as every one is permitted to flaunt it out, in what apparel he lust himself, or can get by any kind of means. So that it is very hard to know who is noble, who is worshipful, who is a gentleman, who is not: for you shall have those, which are neither of the nobility, gentility, nor yeomanry, no, not yet any magistrate or office in the commonwealth, go daily in silks, velvets, satins, damasks, taffetas, and such like, notwithstanding that they be both base by birth, mean by estate, and servile by calling. There is great confusion and general disorder. God be merciful on us!”
Marissa: Yeah, this seemed like a big problem. How could you tell who was actually rich and powerful if the nouveau riche could wear fancy clothes too? In order to project difference, the truly rich and powerful went for an understated look – the catchphrase David Kuchta uses is “rich, not gaudy.” This example came down all the way from King James himself. In 1599, James (who became king in 1603) wrote a letter to his son Henry, who was the presumed heir to the throne. In his letter, he outlined not only how to govern well, but how to dress well. For him, clothing was inextricable from the power of the throne. “A king is as one set on a stage, whose smallest actions and gestures, all the people gazingly do behold: and therefore although a king be never so precise in the discharging of his office, the people, who seeth but the outward part, will ever judge of the substance by the circumstances, and according to the outward appearance.” Clothing, therefore, was critical to proving that you were a good leader. A good monarch needed to balance a careful line: you had to dress well enough to live up to the “majesty” of the role, but not so ostentatiously that it would anger the people as a sign of overindulgence. This was the same balancing act adopted by other men in positions of power: dress well enough to signal your wealth, but never over the top – dressing too ostentatiously indicated that you were classless and effeminate.
Sarah: But although the ‘best’ men followed this general rule, others ignored it and continued to dress however they wanted. Enter sumptuary laws, which enshrined in the law what could and could not be worn by certain members of the public, ensuring that you would never mistake someone for the wrong class status. Sumptuary laws had been around since the 1300s in England, but became their most strict under Queen Elizabeth in the mid-to-late 1500s. Just to give you an example, under a 1530s sumptuary law, no one under the rank of the royal family could wear purple silk or gold tissue. No one under the rank of earl could wear “silk of cloth mixed or embroidered with gold or silver,” no one under knight, duke, marquis, earl, or baron could wear crimson velvet, imported wool, and certain kinds of black fur. It even governed how much money certain ranks of people could spend on clothing – husbandmen could only purchase “hose of cloth costing more than 2s. per yard and garments of cloth costing more than 4s. per broad yard.”
Marissa: The belief that certain clothes were strictly limited to certain classes of people was also tied to religion and economics. Imported fabrics – silk and velvet, for instance – were symbols of the flourishing English merchant economy and evidence that England was a part of a global civilizing process – as long as the right people were wearing those fabrics. So ‘conspicuous consumption’ – or purchasing items that overtly proclaimed your place in society – became a symbol of the health of the English economy. At the same time, the rise of protestant religion after the Reformation emphasized conformity. But although when we think of fashion and Protestantism in terms of the Puritans – black clothes with no frills – in mainstream English Protestantism of the 16th century, there was no specific clothing requirements. Instead, it was ruled by a desire to avoid the sin of pride. But you did not avoid pride by wearing simple clothing – instead, you only were guilty of pride if you sought clothes that were outside of your place in society. So rich people wearing rich people clothes was perfectly fine.
Sarah: Things changed in the early 17th century. Despite his warnings to his son Henry about not being overly ostentatious, James I’s and his son Charles I’s court came under fire in the early 17th century for being financially and morally corrupt. Suddenly, dressing fancy came to be seen as, in the words of John Milton, “a civil kind of idolatry.” Fashion was seen as a silly luxury, and that following slavishly the latest fashion was, in the word of historian David Kuchta, like following and submitting to a woman – definitely emasculating. Further, ostentatious clothing became associated with papism – after all, who wore the most bedazzled, bejeweled clothing but priests, bishops, and cardinals? As puritanical Protestantism grew, so did the rejection of anything considered foppish. At the same time, the rise of mercantilism – which emphasized exporting goods rather than importing them – turned imported fabrics into signs of foolish luxury. Instead, they embraced outward signs of industry in the form of plain clothing created from more simple English made cloth. This was all gendered: anti-monarchical Protestants saw a clear connection between luxurious clothing and femininity. William Petyt wrote that while Englishmen “continue rolling in foreign silks and linens … like the blind sodomites groping after our filthy pleasures, we will grow generally more vicious, soft, effeminate, debauched, dispeopled, and undisciplined than before.” Oh my. All that from clothes.
Marissa: In 1660, the monarchy was restored after the bloody English Civil War, and Charles II was anxious not to indulge in flashy fashion. Instead, he turned the criticisms of aristocratic luxury on their head by using much more simple clothing to signify his kingly power. In October 1666, Charles II announced that he would introduce a vest to court fashion – essentially inventing the three-piece suit. Apparently not everyone thought it was great – Samuel Pepys wrote in November of that year that the King of France had ordered that all his footmen wear vests, clearly a dig at what Charles II thought was appropriate royal attire. At the same time, England was still reeling from the Great Fire of London. Several sermons preached after the fire linked the tragedy with the sin of trying to follow “French pride and vanity.” A rejection of fancy dress went hand in hand, many believed, with general fashion reform in England. So when Charles II debuted his new style in mid October, it not only signaled his modesty and industry, but his English nationalism and anti-French stance. It was a hit.
Sarah: Charles’s suit looked exactly nothing like a modern three-piece suit. We’ll post pictures on our shownotes, but essentially, this suit still included a long, flowing topcoat, puffy undersleeves, large cravats, stockings, and short pantaloons. It did, however, include a vest. Charles II grew accustomed to power, however, and within a few years, his clothing and the clothing of those in his court got more and more fancy, drifting away from his commitment to modesty. When James II, Charles II’s heir, was deposed and replaced by King William III and his wife Mary II, it was again linked to a rejection of foppery and an embrace of thrift and industry. According to David Kuchta, “English aristocratic men felt they could maintain their political power by donning an everyday image of manly modesty and noble simplicity.” Reducing conspicuous consumption would help to tamp down political unrest by signaling that the aristocracy was not all that different. Into the 18th century, luxury became decidedly connected to femininity – although there was disagreement over which was the luxurious and feminine party. Both the English aristocracy under William and Mary, and their son William IV, believed they were the masculine ones – but Jacobites, who hoped to restore Catholic reign under James II or his son, the Bonnie Prince Charlie, also believed *they* were the most masculine and the English were the luxurious effetes.
Marissa: Into the 18th century, modest fashion, even among elites, continued to have political economic symbolism and power. Aristocratic men believed that they set the tone for the rest of the nation, and thus sought to use simple, practical clothing to help encourage industry and thrift in industrializing nation. Again according to Kuchta, “In mercantilist thought, political and economic stability depended on turning virtue into habit, inculcating the values of industry and frugality, while in turn the inculcation of those values depended on aristocracy itself.” Eighteenth century English masculinity created its own fashion in opposition to luxury and effeminacy. Now, your manners became the marker of your class status – sure, a lot of people might look similar, but true good breeding was shown through your actions. It was also during the 18th c that fashion became something that was explicitly coded female. Women still followed the old customs of projecting ones class status through clothing – and this was both explained by and helped to reinforce the belief that women were not a part of the serious, masculine affairs of politics and economics. An Englishman named Jeremy Collier criticized men who dressed in fine things, but explained that it was ok for women, saying: “Women are by custom-made incapable of those employments by which honor is usually gained. They are shut out from the pulpit and bar, from embassies, and state negotiations…therefore it is allowable for them to set a value upon their persons, for the better disposal of them. And further if they have a mind to it, they may please themselves because they are acceptable to others, which is a generous satisfaction.”
Sarah: The rejection of effeminate luxury in men’s clothing played a significant role in the ideology of the American Revolution. Men’s clothing played a part in how Brits thought about their colonial counterparts. To the British, Americans were backwoods rubes, with no chance of becoming “civilized,” even if they were wealthy. This is actually the basis of that goofy song we used to sing at Flag Day ceremonies as kids – Yankee Doodle Dandy. A “Yankee Doodle Dandy” was an American who tried to emulate British fashions by dressing up in trendy clothes. The line “Yankee Doodle went to town/riding on a pony/stuck a feather in his cap/and called it macaroni” isn’t referring to pasta, but a joke about Americans looking laughably ridiculous when they tried to dress like fashionable Brits. A ‘macaroni’ was slang for an ultra-trendy young man who went on a ‘grand tour’ of the continent and came back with a taste for fancy European fashion and food, including Italian pasta. So when Brits sang this song, they were joking that Americans think that they can be ‘macaronis’ just by sticking a feather in their crappy, cheap hat. In reality, Americans consumed tons of British-made fabric. When well-to-do colonists dressed their best, they were wearing British made fabrics. For example, the portraits of American painter John Singleton Copley show Americans like Boston merchant Nicholas Boylston and even Paul Revere replete in clouds of expensive, fine British fabrics.
Marissa: But Americans ended up turning the insult of the backwards “Yankee Doodle Dandy” into a major part of Revolutionary ideology. As part of the British empire’s mercantilist economy, the American colonists had no textile manufacturing. Because of this, Americans imported all of their fabric from England. As agitation for independence mounted, English cloth came to represent the despotic rule of the English monarchy. Benjamin Rush – who was everywhere doing everything in the years before and after the American Revolution – warned colonists that “a people who are entirely dependent upon foreigners for food or clothes must always be subject to them.” During the 1760s and 1770s, Americans began rejecting British made clothing in favor of American made fabric they dubbed “homespun.” This set Americans apart visually – homespun was usually quite plain and fairly coarse. But it also threatened the British economic regime: fabric production was really time consuming and difficult work, that required both men and women. I’m going to quote here from historian Michael Zakim: “Planting, harvesting, shearing, cleaning, drying, rippling, wetting, braking, hackling, dyeing, separating, and combing, and only then spinning for three weeks and weaving for yet another to produce the six yards of cloth necessary for a plain dress, to be made with material inferior to imported goods from England or the continent – this was the stuff of virtuous politics.” Their commitment to creating and using homespun demonstrated their commitment to independence.
Sarah: We all know that part of the initial independence movement was the boycott of English made goods, like tea and whatever. Of course, it also included pressure to refuse to purchase and use English fabrics. But historian Michael Zakim emphasizes that this wasn’t just about going without – in other words, it wasn’t just about not buying English clothes and making do with what you already had. The underlying idea was to eschew British fabric in order to stimulate production and purchase of American homespun. As colonists did so, it not only separated Britons and Americans economically, but also ideologically.
Marissa: In fact, plain dress and the use of homespun became such a critical part of proving your patriotism and virtue as an American that it became a sticking point in early American politics. George Washington was extremely particular about the suits that he wore, and believed that his image, including the fabrics his suits were constructed from, sent a message to the nation. Washington was also acutely conscious that he was setting a precedent for the administrations to follow – cue a little singing from Hamilton. When he was first inaugurated in 1789, he wore a plain brown suit made of American broadcloth. However, the suit wasn’t too simple or plain – the fabric was extremely high quality, for example. It might have been American made, but it wasn’t everyman’s homespun made on the family loom, either. The brown suit was also tastefully decorated with gold gilt buttons, and his black shoes had buckles decorated with diamonds. This was seen as the perfect compromise – a rejection of British monarchical luxury, without the look of a poor, uncultured rube.
Sarah: Others did not pay as much attention to that fine balance. William Maclay, a Pennsylvania senator who served in Congress from 1789-1791, was harshly critical of Thomas Jefferson, who he accused of not dressing in accordance with his post as Secretary of State. Jefferson cared more about telegraphing his intelligence, status, and cultivation through his words and manners rather than his clothing. Maclay was not impressed. He wrote in his diary of his time in Congress of Jefferson: “His cloaths seem too small for him, his whole figure has a loose shackling air …. & nothing of that firm collected deportment which I expected would dignify the presence of a Secretary or Minister.” Well then. Side note, Maclay’s diary about the earliest days of Congress is fabulous. So much shade!
Marissa: Homespun fabric became such a central part of the mythology of America’s founding that it entered into 19th c. historical memory about the founding generation. Spinning wheels were dragged out and placed on the stage at Fourth of July celebrations, and speeches extolled the honors of the tireless women who toiled to make all that cloth. In fact, famous minister Horace Bushnell even dubbed the Revolutionary era as “The Age of Homespun” in 1851, a title which stuck. In the midst of economic change – the growth of the market, the separation of the sexes, and the removal of most labor from the household – nineteenth century Americans became very nostalgic for household industry. Women’s labor also lay at the center of this nostalgia. The Age of Homespun came to connote a time when Americans were at their most American: dedicated to industry, thrift, self-sufficiency and independence. It also seemed to represent a time when women toiled hard to support the household – which seemed very attractive in a time when women STILL toiled hard to support the household, but in ways that were supposed to be invisible and that were assumed to be nonproductive. (Childcare, cooking, cleaning, household management, hostessing, etc.)
Sarah: The association of homespun with virtue actually had a resurgence, not in memory, but in reality, in the mid-nineteenth century, this time in the South. The differences in clothing and fashion between the North and South seemed to encapsulate and simultaneously exacerbate the sectional divide. When Frederick Law Olmsted – abolitionist and landscape architect, among other things – traveled through the American South writing about his experiences in the region, he included a quote from another Northerner describing the clothing of poor Southerners. “For the most part, the people of these regions manufacture all their every-day clothing, and their garments look as though they were made for no other purpose than to keep them warm and to cover their nakedness; beauty of colouring and propriety in fitting are little regarded.” Olmsted elaborated: “in Ohio, the spinning wheel and hand loom are curiosities, and homespun would be a conspicuous and noticeable material of clothing, half the white population of Mississippi still dress in homespun, and at every second house the wheel and loom are found in operation.” For Northerners, Southerners use of homespun fabrics was evidence of their backwards nature.
Marissa: But just like the colonists did with British fabrics, some Southerners turned that on its head. Homespun became a way to demonstrate Southern virtue and independence from the textile manufacturers of the North. An example here from historian Michael Zakim: the graduates of a girls school in 1861 all wore homespun dresses, singing a song that went like this “Hurrah, Hurrah! For Southern girls, hurrah! Hurrah, for the homespun dresses that the Southern ladies wear!”
Sarah: Anyway, back to suits. By the mid-nineteenth century, men’s wear was decidedly uniform: the dark colored suit, usually made from wool. But the uniformity was also the problem – all suits were all dark and fairly plain. How could the upper classes distinguish themselves from the lower? It all came down to fit. A suit needed to fit impeccably, but also be versatile and flexible. Working men did all sorts of things during their day – stand, sit, move about to adjust machinery or whatever – so suits needed to look good both still and in motion. A men’s style magazine stated in the mid 19th c. that a properly fitted garment “discloses the shape of the figure, and yields to the conveniences of locomation without restraint to limb, muscle, or joint, and yet without the inconvenience of carrying a surplus of cloth.” But this was the beginning of the ready-made suit industry. Most people no longer went to a tailor to get a bespoke suit. Busy working men couldn’t stand for repeated measuring sessions, and it was difficult for people living outside the cities to get in for measurements. And in order to keep ready-made suits both affordable and profitable, menswear shops had to use cheaper fabrics. They also had to pay their suit makers less, which meant they couldn’t hire high quality sewers and cutters.
Marissa: One response to this was to create new patterning and drafting techniques that would allow tailors, even ones with less talent and experience, to cut more suits faster. The result was a new uniformity. Tailors bought pre-drafted patterns that fit the latest styles, which were easy to sell en masse, but took something of the art out of the tailor’s craft. For the patterns to work, though, tailors had to agree to units of measure. Previously, an experienced tailor relied on his own instinct and personal style when cutting a suit, and didn’t measure in inches or centimeters or whatever, but in strips of paper or fabric that he would mark with a pencil. That worked just fine when individual tailors maintained individual shops and had a stable of customers that they made suits for years and years. But now, in an age when suits needed to be mass produced, tailors in larger clothing shops needed some standardization of measurement. So clothing manufacture started to mimic other realms of American manufacture: by the use of interchangeable parts.
Sarah: Obviously there are no widgets or gizmos to interchange in a suit – instead, the interchangeable parts became parts of human bodies. Now, tailors used a standardized systems of measure, specifically the inch measure tape. Drafting systems were sold with lists of standard proportionality – if you only took two or three quick measures from your client, you could quickly look up a list of the other measurements based on standard proportions. The male body, then, was broken down into standardized parts: the typical arm was this long; the typical leg was that long. When I’m teaching the market revolution to my students, I always use the example of shoemakers. Before the market revolution, shoemakers made shoes from start to finish. But after it, as shoemaking went from the individual craftsman’s shop to the factory, it was broken down into simplified, standardized tasks: one person cut out soles, another one poked the holes for laces, another sewed it together. This is sort of what happens to the male body during the mid-nineteenth century: it became a series of standardized parts, rather than one integrated whole.
I just want to offer a quick aside here. There’s sort of a dark side to this kind of “standard” measurement. For instance, during WWI, there was a scientific craze in anthropometry, where scientists and doctors took careful measurements of men to try to find the perfect “normal.” But the reality was, in taking all those *many* measurements, they created a fictional, averaged “normal” and declared that the best, most American, most masculine body. They literally manufactured models of this perfect male body, named Norman, and marketed them to doctors offices, and his fake measurements influenced the standardized sizes on things like military uniforms and lab goggles. But this idea of “normal” meant that everyone who didn’t fit was abnormal – being fat, or short, or having a smaller penis, or whatever, wasn’t just human variety, but abnormality. Of course, it also helped to further pathologize disability – how do you know what is abnormal without setting a standard for normality?
Marissa: Ready-to wear suits were the standard by the mid-to-late 19th c. in the US. Clothing stores lined the streets of New York City. Brooks Brothers built a new store on Broadway that filled four floors and 20,000 square feet with 200 employees and entire departments dedicated to parts of men’s suits: one for vests, one for pants, one for shirts. These stores were often quite luxurious, lined with mirrors and gas lamps and full of ornate pillars and decorations. These large clothing stores offered a respectable experience for shoppers, which was incompatible with old fashioned shopping techniques – specifically, haggling. Instead, clothes were individually tagged with standardized prices. When you talked with a clerk in the store, they might help you pick out an item or find a good fit, but there was no discussion of price until you went to the check out counter.
Sarah: Clothing was so widely available that it became unfashionable to wear old or worn clothes. This was a change – for quite a long time, people wore their clothing to death. When an article of clothing became shabby, they would simply wear that coat or shirt during the day or to do household chores. Now, the standard was to look sharp all the time. Part of this was a change in the nature of labor. More men were doing white collar work, which required a constant presentation of respectability. And the term ‘white collar’ was quite literal. In order to cut down on laundry and make their shirts last longer, mens shirts came without collars. Instead, you purchased your collar separately, so you could just detach it, wash and starch that, and your shirt would look just as new. This was especially important in the summer, when you were expected to wear just as much clothing as during cooler months. When you got sweaty and gross, you just pop off your collar and switch it out to keep you looking fresh and clean!
Marissa: Just like in decades before, men’s clothing had powerful class meanings. Now that suits were standardized, conformity became really critical. Men had to look well put together, with none of their clothing worn or tired looking, and they had to match the current styles, and they had to follow the ‘rules’ of the day. For instance, a well-dressed man had to know when to wear a dress coat as opposed to a riding coat, and when to wear a tie and when to wear a cravat, or how to dress for breakfast and how to dress for dinner, and how to dress for a formal dinner. But it was also critical that they not stand out. The idea was to be well dressed in such a way that no one would actually notice that you were well dressed. According to Michael Zakim, “fashionable attire avoided calling undue attention to itself by corresponding seamlessly to the standard.”
Sarah: The thing to avoid was going to an extreme, whether the very well dressed extreme, or the extremely under dressed extreme. On the very well dressed end of the spectrum was the dandy, who dressed in overtly fashionable ways – tight vests, small coats, trendy colored or patterned pants, sometimes even corsets to create the silhouette of a large, barrel chest and a wasp waist. On the other hand, a bowery b’hoy was the exact opposite. B’hoys didn’t give a shit about what was acceptable or trendy. They wore whatever color they liked best, didn’t try to match anything, wore things that were terribly out of date or garish or tacky. It wasn’t just that these two different sides of the spectrum were tacky, but that they broke the standard. Their major sin was that they asserted individuality. Mid nineteenth century ‘suiting up’ was about conforming, not standing out.
Marissa: Both dandies and bowery b’hoys made it obvious that they spent time and energy thinking about what to wear and how to present themselves. In other words, they were like women. Women were the ones who were concerned with fashion, not men. Now, what’s ironic about this is that men did have to be concerned with fashion – it’s just that they had to make it seem like they weren’t. The goal was to cultivate a look that was perfect, but that didn’t stand out from the norm and that suggested complete disinterest.
Sarah: By the mid 19th c. the three-piece suit became the men’s clothing style. It had been more or less the standard in Europe and North America for white people for centuries – of course with some changes from the 18th c. style of breeches and hose to the 19th c. version of long pants, vests, and top coats. It wasn’t the standard in places like the middle east and Asia. Western style clothing (read: suits) became the way to indicate civilization. It also became the clothing of choice for imperialism and “civilizing missions.” But in 1746, following the Jacobite Rising in Scotland, which was led by the highland clans in an attempt to restore the Catholic James II or his heirs to the throne, the British parliament passed the Dress Act , which made it illegal to wear the traditional Scottish kilts. Instead, Scottish men had little choice but to wear British style suits. In other countries, leaders wanted to use dress to indicate that they were just as civilized as mighty European empires. For example, in the 1860s, the Meiji Restoration in Japan came with clothing reform, designed to bring the Japanese empire into accordance with Western empires, specifically the British. Similarly, in the 1920s, Ataturk, the young leader of Turkey, passed a series of dress reform laws designed to get Turkish people to stop dressing in ways dictated by Islam and start dressing like Westerners.
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