Childhood as a distinct social status is a modern invention unknown in traditional societies based on farming, herding or hunting and gathering. Early in life, children took on bits of adult roles as part of family life. Beyond their first few years, they dressed like smaller versions of their parents.
In the rural world of my childhood, most men wore blue denim bib overalls and tall, sturdy work shoes called brogans. Overalls are handy, plenty of pockets. Those up on the bib were good for a note pad and pencil used for all sorts of things. There was space for a can of Prince Albert tobacco, paper for rolling cigarettes and kitchen matches. Those who could afford “ready rolled” cigarettes might tuck the packs into Prince Albert cans, especially if working in wet conditions. The front and back pockets were roomy, plenty of space for pocket knives, handkerchiefs and other stuff. On fishing trips, they were used for hooks, spools of line and sinkers.
Winter brought out coats — perhaps lined denim fingertip length barn coats — to complete the farmers’ uniforms. Of course, some dressed differently. Some wore shirts and trousers, both of a weave that stood up under hard labor. One prosperous farmer went about in white or striped overalls, which indicated that he would not engage in lowly manual labor while providing room for his ample belly. Few working farmers had big bellies. Thousands of steps behind a plow melted fat better than a sauna, hearty meals three times a day notwithstanding.
For my first two years in school, I attended Marietta School, a two-room, two-teacher grammar school (grades one through three in one room and four through seven in the other. The boys dressed like their fathers in blue denim overalls and brogans. I suppose the girls dressed pretty much like their mothers, but I didn’t pay much attention to such things then. Then we moved across the Ohoopee and I attended Cobbtown School, a small town grammar school — for one and a half academic years. It was a farming community. Except for merchants, men mostly wore overalls, as did their sons. I happily continued my pattern of dress.
I liked overalls. I liked the pockets. There was room for a slingshot and plenty of rocks to use for ammunition. Except at school, I could carry my knife, usually a Barlow. There was room for marbles during marble playing time and for interesting things that a curious boy picked up. When I got a Red Ryder BB gun for Christmas, there was room for my BBs. The thing would not shoot straight, so I never killed anything, but enjoyed the freedom of fields and woods while hunting.
New denim overalls bought at the start of the school year were stiff and hot but not as bad as the brogans. The previous year’s overalls were soft and worn thin. With as few other items of clothing as Mother would permit and no shoes at all, they were perfect summer attire. In the early, still-hot days of the school year, constricting and restricting clothes and shoes sometimes made me wish for the good old days of a few weeks earlier.
In the middle of the fourth grade, January 1944, my folks bought a new farm and we moved back across the river to eastern Toombs County. This time I was enrolled in the “town” school in Lyons. It was much larger, a combined grammar and high school. There were some “farm kids” among the students, but most were from town. Their fathers did not wear overalls and most of them dressed pretty much like their fathers. That meant shirts and trousers and not hard, work-weight cloth either. In my overalls, I tried to “hang out” with other country boys during recess and the extended lunch break, but I was clearly out of uniform.
At the start of the fifth grade, I reluctantly adopted the town fashion. In addition to the fact that I liked overalls, I really disliked wearing trousers. Beanpole thin and essentially hipless, I had to cinch my belt down to keep my britches from falling down. On the positive side, switching from brogans to oxfords reduced shoe weight.
A few years later, Western-style jeans sparked the denim revolution. Most boys learned to insert themselves into tight-legged, trim-butted, waist-hugging jeans. So did many girls for casual wear. I liked the way they fit me and I liked the way girls looked when wearing them. There were drawbacks. Compared to overalls, jean pockets are small and difficult to access. But they suited me and I still have a couple of pairs. This enduring fashion remains in style for thousands of us senior citizens.
When I got to the University of Georgia, I found that most city boys disdained the denim, but jeans were completely acceptable. Moreover, I was immediately introduced to real uniforms. At the time, all able-bodied males were required to take basic Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) for the first two years. I chose Air Force and was fitted with a winter-weight blue uniform and heavy black shoes. The shirt was oxford cloth, which I liked immediately, and I have worn blue oxford cloth shirts ever since.
Roger G. Branch Sr. is professor emeritus of sociology at Georgia Southern University and is a retired pastor.