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The Sartorial Brotherhood of New York(ers)

NYC History NYC Story

Gideon during his brief “boylesque” period

I was on my way to meeting fellow tour guide and bon vivant Matthew Baker to discuss my inclusion in the Guides Association of New York City. I was halfway down the block when I realized that I had to double back and change; see, I had bottomed off my outfit of black jeans, black commando sweater, black cotton gloves and black and gray-checkered scarf with a pair of brown loafers. Had I arrived at the meeting, Mr. Baker would have sent me home in shame to change into my black Kenneth Coles before accepting my application.

Mr. Baker, as well as my brother Matt, and good friend Jean Barberis belong to an unofficial sartorial brotherhood. Men who believe in dressing well; of continuing in the traditions of fine fashion while not shying away from bold and nuanced forays into experimentations and expressions of our own styles!

The garment industry in New York started in the mid 1800’s, hiring the poor classes of NYC to produce clothing for southern plantation slaves. During the Civil War, the industry exploded in both size and revenue by producing uniforms for the Union Army. As the 19th century came to a close, the endless supply of Central and Eastern European labor (quite skilled at the loom) turned NYC into the garment manufacturing center of the world. Or in the words of Abraham Cahan, founder of the Jewish Forward Newspaper:

Foreigners ourselves, and mostly unable to speak English, we had Americanized the system of providing clothes for the American woman of moderate or humble means. The average American woman is the best-dressed woman in the world, and the Russian Jew has had a good deal to do with making her one.

Daniel Day Lewis portraying legendary gang leader Bill the Butcher

It should come to no surprise then that the second half of the twentieth century also saw a rise in the culture of mens fashion. However, it was the bottom rung of the social ladder more responsible than the top to set these trends. In short, street gangs had as much to do with fashion as Calvin Klein and Oscar De La Renta!

On the rough & tumble streets of the Bowery and the Five Points districts, hoodlums would declare their gang affiliations by the way they dressed, not unlike the modern day Bloods and Crips with their red and blue bandanas. The Shirttails Gang wore the tails of their shirts outside their pants, which was quite uncouth for the era. The Plug Uglies were named for their big top hats that they would “plug” with rags, wool and leather and use as helmets during fights.

Bowery Boys and their “soaplocks” Picture from the Museum of the City of NY

But the most famous and stylish of all the street gangs were the Bowery Boys. Known for bright plaid pants, top hats worn at a rakish tilt, a perpetual cigar butt emitting from their lips and lots of soap—or “product”—mashed into their hair, giving them the additional moniker of “soaplocks.”

Today is the last day of New York’s Fashion Week, which has been going on since 1943. Originally titled “Press Week” by Fashion Publicist Eleanor Lambert, it was the world’s first week-long fashion event. Since journalists couldn’t travel to Paris, what with the bombings and Nazi air raids and the collapse of society, NY started its own tradition. Since New York has been the epicenter of fashion for the better part of half a century, our bi-yearly Fashion Week (held in February and September,) has always brought the newest and most daring trends to the runway for everyone to see.

For women at least. What the hell? Why is fashion week always directed more towards womens’ styles and trends then mens’? What’s a guy gotta do to get someone to rep his snazzy threads? Tear down the Astor Place Theater? Geez!

By Gideon Levy

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