Whenever I make my annual pilgrimage to the Bluegrass state I play “My Old Kentucky Home” as I cross the bridge over the Ohio River from Indiana. The racialized original version, not the sanitized one played for the world to hear at Derby (locals never refer to it as “The Derby,” or even “The Kentucky Derby.” It’s just “Derby.”). I do it to remind myself of the sometimes disturbing history that all Americans look back on. It’s a pleasant song full of hope and longing. It’s uplifting in a melancholy way. Then that word creeps into the lyrics, the one omitted from the current version. Not the one you’re thinking of, but bad enough.
For at least two days out of the year Louisville becomes the undisputed epicenter of the Southern Trad way of dress. The two days encapsulating Derby and its less crowded sister The Oaks (the “the” retained in this case), see people cramming themselves with oblivious joy into a city far too small to comfortably accommodate them. The moment overtakes them, one and all, as even the most conservative businessman dons his seersucker or linen suit, probably for the only time that year.
Here’s my wife and I at Derby. Face obscured to protect the innocent:
There is, of course, much more to Kentucky’s Southern Trad roots than just Derby. The colorful Kentucky summer is enough to make any preppy apologist wish he were born a Southerner. At least this is what I thought when I attended the University of Louisville shortly after a stint overseas. Despite having since moved several hours drive away, every so often I make my way back to my alma mater for reasons both personal and academic. This particular occasion gave me the opportunity to explore far more of the state than I had before, and to take in its clothes in the sweltering heat that has defined the Southern Trad look for so many.
Louisville was home base for my operations, and my first stroll across the UofL campus was punctuated by an object, or rather the lack of an object, that I already knew was gone. A towering monument to the “Rank and File” soldiers of the Confederacy used to stand right in the middle of Third Street, it’s bronze artillerymen and infantrymen long since turned green with neglect. A monument to the Confederacy might seem odd in a state that stayed within the Union during the Civil War; indeed, much scholarly agonizing has been spent trying to explain why and how Kentucky became a Southern state after the war. A discussion for another time. More recently, controversy erupted as pressure mounted to remove the monument from so visible a place on campus, which, of course, was done. The University of Louisville Belknap campus is now pleasantly devoid of any reminders of the segregated past of both the state and itself.
Not far from where the monument once stood is Greek Row, housing fraternities and sororities in Victorian-style homes. On any given day, at any given time, Greek Row may be a colorful and casual scene of volleyball games, corn-hole tournaments (that’s “bean-bag toss” for you Northeasterners), and, yes, drinking and loud music.
Louisville’s brothers and sisters of the social club are as colorful as any, pictured here in front of the university’s rotunda and the first large scale casting of “The Thinker,” one of the few copies said to have been supervised by Rodin himself:
I didn’t belong to a social fraternity. I was invited to join Delta Tau Delta (I never did figure out what that was supposed to stand for), but by then I was a senior and far too focused on life after graduation. The Greeks I knew seemed like an alright lot. Not the stereotype of the drunken Neanderthal male nor the vapid class-obsessed female. Indeed, the social fraternities seemed to produce some of the highest academic achievers we had. This is beginning to sound like an apologia. Never mind.
I eventually left the city and made my way to the campus of hated in-state rival, the University of Kentucky, located in the city of Lexington. Hated in sports, mind you. The academic and social collaboration between these two institutions is well known and very extensive. Although I never knew any Greeks from UK, they certainly dress the part.
I say without a hint of bias that despite the traditional style of dress displayed in the above photo, the campus of the University of Kentucky is anything but traditional. You could walk onto, and off of, it without ever knowing you were in an institution of higher learning. It’s not a bad campus, it’s just fairly nondescript. It contains not the charmingly antique 19th-century brick buildings, nor the bright spacious 21st-century architecture that defines the University of Louisville. U of L was, after all, named the most beautiful campus in Kentucky, an honor immediately followed by the responses you might expect from in state rivals. Perhaps I’m guilty of a hint of bias after all.
After Lexington I ventured not too far away to the charming little town of Midway, home to a Kentucky institution, Crittenden Clothes. I had long been aware of “Critt” from friends in Kentucky and features like that found on Ivy-Style.com. I was looking forward to this visit most of all. Since moving to Kentucky, I had become something of a Bluegrass-o-phile. I even did my senior thesis on hemp production in Antebellum Kentucky. Forget the hemp, I went to Crittenden in search of linen.
The remnants of this summer’s offerings, discounted to make room for the fast approaching fall collection:
The store was small, intimate, and everything you’d expect from an old-school men’s shop. The staff was attentive, but not bothersome, and very happy to talk about the products. A few words about Crittenden Clothes: Crittenden Rawlings, the owner, designs all the jacket and trouser fabrics himself. Most (perhaps all) of the jackets have unpadded shoulders and working cuff buttons. Critt doesn’t do odd sizes (41s, 43s, etc.), but every jacket has two inches of extra fabric in the important areas, so jackets can be easily expanded or taken in as needed. The house construction is French-faced and half-canvased. My favorite part? Decent buttons. I saw nothing made of plastic, but rather, rows of beautiful smoked mother-of-pearl.
My trip drawing to a close, I circled back to Louisville. By then I finally had time to explore a few Louisville shops and take in the discounted sunshine that would quickly make way for full-retail fall. First stop was a longstanding Westport Village shop called Shirts Ties N Links, an African American-owned-and-operated store. The African American version of Southern Trad is close to its caucasian counterpart, men of all hues shop at STNL, after all. Here, however, the vibrancy is taken a step further, the playfulness neither moderated nor hidden.
Yes, this is a three-piece suit. Not for the faint of heart:
Brooks Brothers can hardly be called a Kentucky classic. This Northern legacy is a well known worldwide brand. However, even at Brooks a little Southern flair is in order south of the Ohio River. This display was spied at the St. Matthews mall location in Louisville. Derby had long since passed, but the persistence of this look, prominently displayed in the summer suits area, speaks to the appeal of light suits to Kentuckians. Kudos to the store manager for putting men’s and women’s clothing together to paint a picture of a fantasy life available to all who can afford BB clothes:
The end of my trip was cause for some reflection on my part. Thoughts of my college years mixed with the unbridled joy of being home in the United States after years in sometimes strange and distressing foreign lands. I thought of “My Old Kentucky Home” and asked myself if I was being honest about the reasons I listen to it every time I cross the Ohio River. Somewhere in a dim and neglected corner of my brain, perhaps I, myself, was living the sentimental melancholy leaking like a slow drip from that song. The word that is, today, omitted from “My Old Kentucky Home,” is “darkie.” It’s easy to see why. The sight of tens of thousands of people singing, “’Tis summer, the darkies are gay,” at Derby would be a rightfully disturbing sight. In my own way, perhaps I was rewriting the lyrics to my past as well. My sentimental attachment to my alma mater, and the city of Louisville, is not unique. However, it does belie a place without pain or strife. This, of course, is not the reality of life for many who live there. And like that vanished monument to the soldiers of the Confederacy, perhaps I too had erased from my mind certain realities about the University of Louisville, a grand institution that had nonetheless been rocked by corruption and financial irresponsibility in recent years.
Something that is very often forgotten about “My Old Kentucky Home,” if it was ever known to begin with, is that, despite its use of what we today would consider a racial slur, it was an anti-slavery song. Indeed, Frederick Douglas said about it that it “awakens sympathies for the slave, in which antislavery principles take root, grow, and flourish.” Kentucky, too, isn’t exactly the kind of place that this story might make it seem. Southern Trad exists, but most of the people walking the streets of any given Kentucky town look just like they do in Chicago or Los Angeles. A celebration of our differences often, it seems to me, brings us around to a recognition of our similarities. In recognition, then, of all the crumbling Kentucky homes, erased Confederate monuments, and rosy college photos, let us raise a glass of bourbon to surprising pasts, disturbing histories, and nostalgic memories. Recognizing the whole while that the collegiate and the cringeworthy, the noble and the awful, all make up the weave and the weft of our lives. — PANI M.