Street Style From The Past: Workwear and the Lomaxes

Alan, John Avery, and Mary Terrill Lomax embarked on numerous tours of the American south and the Bahamas between 1934 and 1950 ostensibly to record the homegrown folk music that was even then on the wane with the growth of suburbs and a mass exodus from areas of the rural southeast. Not only did they compile one of the most fascinating, sonically diverse and uniquely American bodies of music with their collection of recordings for The Library of Congress they also gave us a fascinating visual record of life on the dirt roads and backwoods clearings of the Jim Crow south with their snapshots of the performers, their families, and the communities they lived in. On a purely superficial level what’s also worth noting is both how well everyday men’s wear staples like cardigans, workshirts, and double breasted blazers have held up over the decades and the confidence and flair with which these gentlemen put them all together.

John Bray, Mr. Bornu, and Uncle Billy McCrea photographed by Alan Lomax

John Bray in Louisiana looking bad as hell as he brushes his shoulders off; Mr. Bornu demonstrating how to make a work shirt toil for you; and Uncle Billy McCrea looking crisp while he takes a load off in Jasper, TX in a cardigan, felt hat, and air tie.

The first thing that strikes me about the clothing and attitudes of the subjects is that much like the songs they performed their dress is familiar and well-worn to the point that heavy work shirts, canvas pants, and felt hats were literally the fabric of their daily life. In this way garments were another tool chosen for their practicality and versatility and it shows in the way they hang easily and naturally on these musicians who stand somewhat defiantly in front of the Lomaxes’ lens.

Stavin' Chain, Rev. Haynes, and Fields Ward photographed by Alan Lomax

Stavin’ Chain in Lafayette, LA with a bow tie and rumpled dress shirt that would fit right in at Pitti Oumo; Rev. Haynes making me a believer in Eatonville, FL wearing a DB suit, soft collar shirt, and printed tie; and Fields Ward of the Bog Trotters Band in Galax, VA with a 3 piece suit, collar pin, and distinctly Brooklyn, haircut.

On the flip side when they decided to really get dressed they knew how to turn it out as evidenced by the vests, double breasted jackets and flamboyant neckwear that accompanied their organized performances. Unpressed shirts, slightly off kilter ties, and a frayed cuff or 4 just show that unlike today formalwear was lived in with just as an important place in the rhythms of life as workwear.

Huddy "Leadbelly" Ledbetter and Mrs. Ledbetter photographed by Alan Lomax

Leadbelly with Mrs. Leadbelly in Wilton, CT looking like he should fit right in at the Greenwich Rotary Club with a glencheck DB suit, and repp stripe bow tie

My favorite anecdote about the Lomaxes concerns Huddy “Leadbelly” Ledbetter’s wardrobe when he accompanied Alan on a northern lecture circuit. Shortly after he had been “discovered” by the Lomaxes in prison in Louisiana he had been filmed by Time wearing prison stripes in an attempt to play up his reputation as a convicted murderer who had sung his way to a pardon. For the tour Ledbelly was asked to again wear stripes to properly titillate the mostly white audiences, but he refused and instead insisted on appearing in several fine new suits that he had recently purchased, proving that no one should ever let The Man hold true style down.

Evan Widhu is a Men’s Wear Buyer in New York. He would like the name of Leadbelly’s tailor.