White Shoes, Straw Hats

April 13, 2010

By attorney David A. Bagwell, Esq.

Fifty years ago and more, the tradition in the Deep South was that beginning on Easter weekend – well before what people now call “Memorial Day” – it became safe to wear white pants and skirts, white shoes and spectators, and a straw hat. I lump all that white stuff together into what I call the “White Shoe Rule.”

Some Southerners today don’t buy that. They say that the White Shoe Rule doesn’t start till Memorial Day. Most of these people seem unusually certain that they know what they’re talking about.

My answer to them is that they have gradually become – apparently unkowingly, I’ll charitably grant – the pawns and tools of the general Yankee-ification of America. I full understand that this is a serious charge, but as Martin Luther said, “Here I stand; God help me, but I can do no other.” Except he said it in German.

It’s a serious fashion question, even in this time of war, and sadness, and – their first cousin – Presidential politics. Maybe it’s idle and fivolous to to speak of the rules of fashion, but even during war, life moves on… and so must we.

So, when may we properly begin – and when must we properly stop – the wearing of white? Good question.

Do you remember the book The Southern Belle Primer by the wonderful, late Marilyn Schwartz, whose subtitle was to the effect that Her Royal Highness Princess Margaret could never have gotten in to Kappa Kappa Gamma sorority because she wore white shoes in Texas at the wrong time of year? I’m convinved that a lot of people misunderstand all this white shoe stuff, and not just the late Princess Margaret. A lot of us don’t know as much about our dress code history as we should.

Oh, sure; I know that every source on fashion which might mention it, will say that you cannot wear white shoes or straw hates before Memorial Day. We’ll get to all that in a moment. But all those books are written by Yankees. What you will read in those books is just – out with it now – the Yankee rules. In the South, ours were always different, unless we are morphing into Yankees, as some of us are.

Of course, nobody should wear white all the time. In 1880, Mark Twain wrote of his character Colonel Grangerford that “every day of his life he put on a clean shirt and a full suit, made out of linen so white it hurt your eyes to look at it.” But every day? Even in winter? In deepest winter, now, you’ll obviously make a spectacle of yourself in white. On December 7, 1906 Mark Twain went to a copyright law hearing in the Capitol – December in Washington, mind you – wearing a suit of white wool flannels, not linen. But the ruckus he raised by wearing white in Washington landed him in stories in newspapers across the country. Of course, his point about copyrights was in the articles too, which just goes to show you that clothing can not only make a fashion statement, it can help you get your substantive statement published.

Twain said funereally that “when a man reaches the advanced age of 71 years, as I have, the continual sight of dark clothing is likely to have a depressing effect on him.” But if you aren’t 71 and you aren’t Mark Twain, and it isn’t 1906 – and I’m not and it isn’t – you must pay some attention to these rules, you know. Which means that you must know what the rules are.

The first thing to understand is that there are exceptions to the White Shoe Rule, no matter what the starting date is.

One exception is The Southern Resort Exception. At any Southern resort, like Boca Granda or Palm Beach, or farther off in Bermudan or Carribean resorts and all that, white clothes and straw hats are always allowed, regardless of the season. My father told me that the Yankees who went to the University of Alabama with him in the early 1930’s wore white shoes all winter, on the apparent theory that Tuscaloosa is a Southern resort, which is clearly twelve points off true north.

What’s a Southern resort anyway, outside of Boca Grande or Palm Beach? Well, probably the place where I live – Point Clear, on Mobile Bay – barely qualifies as a Southern resot, although locals don’t wear white shoes in the winter. What about Charleston and Savannah and Mobile? Well, maybe, but that’s pushing it. Here on the Gulf Coast, in the winter the “snowbirds” from Michigan and Ohio and Canada wear shorts all winter while visiting here – and shiny nylon jackets which say things like “UAW Local 312” on the back – but snowbirds are what we lawyers call a “lesser included offense.” To an Englishman, any place that’s warm and not raining at that moment is a Southern resort, which is precisely how HRH Princess Margaret got in such hot water out in Texas for wearing white shoes in Dallas before their time… whatever their time is in Dallas.

The second exception is The Yacht Exception. I am not too certain of the breadth of this exception, having never owned a yacht and all, but I think that, weather permitting, you may always wear white clothing on a yacht, at least if you don’t change your own engine oil, and no gentleman does that. This may be a sub-theorem of the Southern Resort Rule, since one always keeps her yacht in the South during winter, doesn’t she? And speaking of the late Princess Margaret, since the British royals have sent the Royal Yacht Brittania to the scrappers, I just don’t know where they wear their whites, other than in Dallas in a pinch, I guess.

The picture on my wall of Commodore Vanderbilt on his yacht – and before the “Late Unpleasantness” his was the biggest in the world – shows him in black wool with fur trim, so obviously it is not de rigeur – as we say down home – that you wear whites on your yacht in the winter. What’s a yacht? Well, to paraphrase J.P. Morgan, “If you have to ask…” I do know that none of my little canoes and duckskiffs and kayaks and motorboats and rowboats is a “yacht,” and so I mostly just wear khaki shorts.

Ok, exceptions aside, what exactly is the rule?

Well, everybody agrees on the ending date of the White Shoe Rule, namely that after Labor Day you cannot wear white shoes or suits or pants unless you meet one of the exceptions. It’s just the beginning date of the White Shoe Rule that causes the problem.

To Yankees, the rule was always – at least after Memorial Day was declared, after the Civil War – that you cannot wear white shoes or pants or skirts until what Yankess call Memorial Day, which is of course the last Monday in May.

But then, that’s Yankees. My research confirms that in general, over the South, Easter weekend – and not Memorial Day – was the beginning of the White Shoe Rule. Remember that Easter was the day that boys got new white linen coats, if their parents could afford it, and white shoes? They didn’t wait till Memorial Day.

That Easter, rather than Memorial Day, was the starting date of the White Shoe Rule is not surprising for two reasons. One, the South obviously gets hotter earlier than the North does. Second, what we now call Memorial Day was set up after the end of the Civil War to as a memorial to Union soldiers, and where I grew up it was called Yankee Memorial Day. Here in Alabama, the Federal workers got a holiday on Yankee Memorial Day, while the State workers got a holiday on Confederate Memorial Day, which was April 26th. (The rest of us in the private world always worked on both Yankee Memorial Day and Confederate Memorial Day.) Nobody in the Deep South would have dated a fashion requirement, or anything else, from Yankee Memorial Day. I mean, lese majesty and all that! So, Easter it was.

Now admittedly, this fashion stuff was mostly higher-income people in the first place, and whether or not the date was observed by the man plowing the mule I just cannot say for sure. [Editor’s Note: Any man “plowing” a mule was likely strangely looked upon for reasons more serious than the timing of his fashion.] But I can say for sure tha a man who wore white shoes on Yankee Memorial Day looked pretty strange on a Southern street. Or, a man who even recognized Yankee Memorial Day, for that matter.

Well, I don’t have a yacht, and I’m not too sure this is a Southern resort, but for my money white clothes are OK from Easter till Labor Day, on clear days anyway, and being reasonable about it (like, “OK at garden parties but not at funerals”). Suit yourself, but if you don’t agree, you may well be a Yankee.

David Bagwell lives and practices law in Point Clear, Alabama and has his own “white shoe” law firm in Point Hope. In almost six decades he has never lived outside the South, although he once spent most of a year travelling around the world on a Fellowship to study international business, during which time he almost always wore a suit.

Happy Anniversary

April 9, 2010

Tomorrow marks the anniversary of General Robert E. Lee’s surrender to General Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox, which ended the American Civil War. The day is set to be marked with controversial celebrations in the American South, notably Virginia. It has also been the punching bag du jour of misguided pundits who believe the Southern rebellion, and any remembrance of it (save for history book vilification), is unpatriotic.

Of course, any such pundit perusing any such history book would quickly learn the opposite. The Confederacy’s insurrection was a violent example of some of the most sacred American principles, the bedrock on which a good deal of our country is built.

To be clear, the Confederate States of America needs to be separated from slavery. The Southern states’ stated ideals are what we’re concerned with, and not the culture with which they coexisted. Slavery was a great evil and will forever be an indelible stain on our country. But it was the country’s evil, not just the South’s: the North was complicit in the crime by its inaction, and even those politicians who spoke against the “peculiar institution” weren’t innocent; most were motivated by the money that slave labor brought into Southern coffers and the political power it bought. They championed abolition on behalf of their careers, not their morals. Abraham Lincoln himself favored accommodating slavery, and only reluctantly freed American slaves when the country was deep in war and compromise was hopeless.

Though slavery was certainly part of the mix, widening economic and political disparities between Southern and Northern states contributed at least equally to the war, especially as industry became concentrated in the Northeast. As any high school student knows, the fighting was over states’ rights, not slavery. In that way, the Confederates weren’t much different from their ancestors. The American Revolution was fought against a paternalistic, overwhelming centralized government which the Founders felt had grown out of touch with their needs and wishes, taxing them without providing for them. In a fit of rebellious independence, the wealthy Southern planter class threw off strict rule in favor of being able to decide their own fate. George Washington, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson were not much different in that violent desire for self-determination than Robert E. Lee. Southern farmers have never dealt well with authority.

Having secured their freedom, our Founders set about making sure that no central government would ever again threaten the freedom of the people to chart their own course. To this end, they established three branches of government, to prevent any one from becoming too powerful, and adopted the Bill of Rights to protect the freedoms of individuals from state action. Washington himself chose not to serve a third term as President, for fear of establishing a new monarchy. 

Confederate leaders hardly broke this mold; in fact, they fit very well inside of it. They were Southern farmers who chafed against a strong government which neither understood them nor cared to accommodate them, yet still taxed them and demanded obedience. They took up arms against what they believed to be an unjust establishment and tried to free themselves from it, for the sake of their individual autonomy.

Author Jeff Schweitzer writes, via The Huffington Post, that this whole business was un-American and that “the cause championed by the South should cover every American with shame.” But what cause was that, of which to be so ashamed? The freedom of American states to govern themselves? The freedom of citizens to protest a government which didn’t consider their welfare, but rather governed by edict? The ability of maligned Americans to protest a ruling class which had grown distant and disinterested? These causes are anything but shameful; they’re the ideals around which our country was constructed.

Of course, Mr. Schweitzer may not trust high school history books. It’s true, few of them have won Pulitzers and they’ve certainly been mistaken in the past. Maybe he’d be more interested in reading a recognized authority on the subject. Thomas Jefferson, for instance, in our Declaration of Independence:  

“When, in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another… Whenever any form of government becomes destructive to these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new government.”

Mr. Schweitzer believes that “Southerners who claim a deep national pride celebrate their ancestors’ efforts to dissolve the very union of states whose flag they now so proudly fly,” but this is wide of the mark. The remembrance isn’t of an effort to dissolve our country; it’s of a historical realization in practice of those very ideals and abilities which make our country great.

Civil Service

September 17, 2009

The House of Representatives passed a resolution Tuesday of this week by a roll call vote of 240 – 179 to formally disapprove of Representative Joe Wilson (R, South Carolina) for yelling “You lie!” during President Obama’s address to a joint session of Congress.

This web log is generally supportive of Republican politics, as they exist classically; that is, a limited Federal government, low taxes, a strong military, and an emphasis on personal responsibility in designing social policies. These politics concern themselves more with economics and the philosophy of government, and less with ambiguous morality. This is not to say this antiquated philosophy is completely without an agenda of social issues to push; quite the opposite. The classical Republican’s values are decorum, decency, a deep respect for tradition, the observance of occasion and solemnity, formality (when due), and chivalry.

William F. Buckley, Jr., the father of modern conservatism, would never have interrupted the President of the United States. He especially would not have during such a rare occasion as a joint session of Congress. A quick perusal of Buckley’s 30-plus years hosting Firing Line, compared to equal perusal of Rush Limbaugh, Bill O’Reilly, and Glenn Beck, reveal a Republican pundit with an overabundance of three qualities those more contemporary hosts apparently make do without: intellect, charm, and manners.

William F. Buckley, Jr., at work.

William F. Buckley, Jr.: intellect, charm, & manners.

Buckley was foremost a gentleman; it was in his blood. He was a Yale man and a yachtsman, an author, columnist, CIA agent, speaker, lecturer, and bon vivant of the highest degree. He was charming and gracious to guests on his show, many sworn liberals through and through, and he skewered them politely with wit and insight. He did not raise his voice. He did not insult his guests when they made points contrary to his own. He just quirked an eyebrow, bit the tip of his pencil, and softly said, “Ah yes, that is interesting, but isn’t it actually the case that… .” 

It is worth noting that Buckley, who passed away recently, accomplished decidedly more for the cause of conservative politics than any syndicated bully today could hope to. He wrote over 50 books and more than 4,000 newspaper columns, hosted Firing Line for over 30 years, and founded National Review. The last is credited with the advent of modern conservatism, which Buckley all but invented single-handedly.

Buckley, if he still concerns himself with these things, is likely rolling in his grave at Representative Wilson’s atrocious breach of etiquette. The life blood of democracy is debate, President Dwight D. Eisenhower wrote once, and the most productive debates are civil. Good ideas are drowned out by shouting.

Republicans like Rush Limbaugh accuse more centrist colleagues of deserting the party’s values for not taking an equally hard line as he does. He would do well to remember that those values should rightfully include courtesy, honor, gentlemanly conduct, decorum, and decency, and to read General Horace Porter’s 1865 account of Robert E. Lee’s surrender to Ulysses S. Grant, a man of as opposite a political stripe to Lee as could be imagined:

“All appreciated the sadness that overwhelmed [Lee], and he had the personal sympathy of every one who beheld him at this supreme moment of trial. General Grant now stepped down from the porch, and, moving toward him, saluted him by raising his hat. He was followed in this act of courtesy by all our officers present; Lee raised his hat respectfully, and rode off to break the sad news to the brave fellows whom he had so long commanded.”

If Robert E. Lee and Ulysses S. Grant could manage this degree of civility toward one another after the bloodiest conflict in the history of our nation till then, surely Congressmen and radio hosts can too.