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Open Diff: What to wear?

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Though my garb here is a little out of sync with the early-Fifties-era Hudson Hornet-powered rail my club ran at this year’s Race of Gentlemen, it’s period-plausible for my early Thirties Ford speedster and many of the other vehicles participating in the event.

A few weekends ago, when I got suited up to help campaign my club’s car on the beach at The Race of Gentlemen in Wildwood, New Jersey, I pulled on a vintage-style knit racing jersey; baggy pants; tall, lace-up leather boots of the kind worn in World War I by motorcyclists and aviators; and classic driving goggles.

On the beach, people kept coming up to ask me where I had gotten this or that item… The jersey was handmade by Jill Smith of Hometown Jersey of Joshua Tree, California; the boots, by Tom Mattimore of Mattimore Harness in Laramie, Wyoming; and not to sound too much like a red-carpet fashion plate, my goggles were made by the historic French eyewear manufacturer Jeantet.

Founded in 1880 in Morez, France, Jeantet began specializing in goggles for “Automobilistes, Cyclistes et Aviateurs” in 1929 and continue to manufacture them to this day. Mine feature tinted, impact-resistant prescription lenses and an adjustable bridge.

For those of you not familiar with it, The Race of Gentlemen (TROG) is a vintage automobile and motorcycle event that has been taking place since 2012 on New Jersey beaches—the very same stretches of sand where cars were tested for speed during the early days of the last century, when man-made flat and straight driving surfaces of any length were nonexistent.

As with any automotive race or show, TROG has a formula. Broadly speaking, cars must be pre-1935 American makes, with no parts newer than 1953; and motorcycles must be 1947 vintage or older, with period transmissions and shifters. All entries must be modified to go fast in period-plausible ways. Drivers are urged to wear gear suitable to the era.

What’s with all this “costume” stuff, you may ask? Should serious automotive enthusiasts actually coordinate their outfits with the era of the vehicles they are driving?

My thinking is, yes. Here’s why…

Very few things could detract from this scene of Jennifer Thompson Sheets smiling on her 1947 FL Harley-Davidson Knucklehead before she races down the beach at TROG 2015… except, perhaps, modern clothing.

Wearing attire that appears to match the vintage of the vehicle you are piloting is not “playing dress-up,” as some of TROG’s critics have put it. It’s ensuring that nothing detracts from your ride. Few things look more incongruous than a dude or dudette in a brightly colored nylon windbreaker and ball cap behind the wheel of a Model T, Roadmaster, Corvette, or astride an old H-D.

Besides, automotive enthusiasts are typically interested in other elements of the eras from whence the cars they are fond of come, which is why so many of the cruise-ins we are used to are held at diners and feature the music of the Fifties and Sixties playing in the background. Clothing is just another element that can be added to the mix to contribute to the nostalgia and interest.

Wearing vintage-style jerseys not only contributes to the period-look of the environment at TROG, it’s an enjoyable way for both racers and non-racers to actively participate, as the McElwee (left) and Hammelbacher (right) families demonstrated in 2015.

Finally, period-plausible clothing is a way for non-car-owners—family members, youngsters, people who don’t have the means to own a collector vehicle, and folks with budding automotive interests—to actively engage in the hobby. It’s like wearing your favorite sport’s team’s jersey.

But it’s even richer than that. Wearing dress from the era of your vehicle brings you closer to the experience of what it was actually like to operate it when it was new. Particular fabrics feel a certain way on particular upholsteries; certain kinds of period outer garments will offer better protection and comfort; and the person looking back at you in the rearview mirror will look as right as white walls on a ’57 Chevy.

This is not a new idea. The Model A Ford Club of America (MAFCA) has long since included “Era Fashions” as part of its activities, going so far as to produce reference materials and host judged events. “The growth of this segment of our hobby,” MAFCA’s website states, “has been phenomenal and tends to get the whole family involved in Model A’ing.”

So, what do you think about this trend toward enthusiasts wearing clothes to match the era of their vehicles?