In 1954, culture critic Russell Lynes published “The Tastemakers: The Shaping of American Popular Taste,” a lengthy meditation on the nature of taste, which Lynes believed had supplanted class as the new social hierarchy. Taste, Lynes argues, can be broken into three categories: Highbrow, Middlebrow and Lowbrow. Naturally the theory applies to clothing. A supplementary chart in “The Tastemakers” includes the following sartorial hierarchy:
Highbrow: Fuzzy Harris Tweed suit in town, same in country.
Upper Middlebrow: Brooks Brothers suit and rep tie in town, tweed jacket and knit tie in country.
Lower Middlebrow: Double-breasted suit and “splashy” tie in city, sport shirt and colored slacks in country.
Lowbrow: “Loafer” jacket and woven shoes in town, old army clothes in country.
In a 1983 interview in American Heritage, Lynes updated his opinion. Tweed was no longer highbrow. That’s understandable. What’s odd is that madras had fallen all the way to lower middlebrow. Where are these bowling teams in matching madras jackets?
Q: For highbrow clothes, you had fuzzy tweeds and no hat. What now?
A: The tweed thing I will change. Turtlenecks and jeans now; jeans, or Levi’s corduroys, like the ones I have on this moment. Terribly comfortable, and they last forever.
Q: Apparently exposing you as a highbrow in the matter of pants. Now, what about clothing for the upper middlebrow?
A: I think blazer and gray flannels. Or plain jacket and loud pants.
Q: Lower-middlebrow clothes?
A: What would you say to a Madras jacket?
For a complementary (and more contemporary) study of the nature of taste, check out Stephen Bayley’s 1992 book “Taste: The Secret Meaning of Things.” Perplexing at times, raising as many questions as it answers, it’s still an insightful exploration of the sociology of taste.
Lynes is pictured above and below in 1959. Images three and four are from 1952 and 1949. — CC