It seems to me that more than the usual number of young men are appearing in upscale fashion magazines stripped to the waist. Nudity can hardly prevail in the bodily attire business but I guess it works when said young men are standing next to young women wearing the latest from Madison Avenue. But bare-chested men are not a new fashion trend. They were quite common on the farm even back in my high testosterone years. The really avant-garde thing to do then was drive a tractor shirtless in the glaring sun all day. When fields were lined with brushy fencerows giving the tractor drivers some privacy from motorists passing on the roads, some females were known to do similarly. I once asked a professor at an agricultural college how he managed to get the female students to do all tedious weeding required in test plots. He shrugged. “We allow them to go bra-less.”
Oh how carefree and sexy it seemed to make us feel. The darker the tan, the better. Who needs tanning salons. But as a result, various pre-cancer and cancerous skin blemishes are epidemic today and dermatology is a lucrative field of medicine.
Even in those days, there were plenty of warnings against overexposure to the sun. There was talk of how atmospheric changes were making the sun’s radiation stronger than in earlier times. But now, studying history, I believe that the danger was always there and older generations knew it. Old photos show that field workers of yesteryear covered themselves almost completely from head to toe. For example, the J.C. Allen photos from the mid-1900s farming scene that The Draft Horse Journal publishes every issue, show very little bare skin. Women wore bonnets as big as umbrellas and men wore wide-brimmed straw hats. Long-sleeved shirts were buttoned up to the neck. One photo in the 2014 Summer issue, of a young woman picking blackberries in Texas, is particularly striking. She is wearing a very loose-fitting blouse that rides high up almost to her ears, and slacks that fit loosely down to her shoes. It is hard to know that the figure is a woman except for the hair done up in a bun under her huge straw hat. If you have ever picked blackberries, you know the clothing is as much for protection against the thorns and chiggers as from the sun, but if only she could speak, I bet she’d say she was much cooler dressed that way than in a bikini. She reminded me of a painting that hangs in our bedroom: a group of farm workers of the Middle Ages coming home from the fields on a summer evening. Their clothes look as though they are headed for church on Sunday morning.
About forty years ago, there was an attempt to sell farmers and other outdoor workers ball caps that had a bill in back like the one in front to protect the back of the neck as well as the face and forehead from the sun. I can’t recall ever seeing a farmer wearing one of them. If clothing manufacturers were to push long-sleeved shirts for field workers today they would surely go broke. But old men who always wore long sleeved blue chambray or white linen shirts when they shocked wheat and oats in the old days told me such clothing was far more comfortable and cooler in the sun than bare skin. There’s another reason for shirts when shocking wheat. I shocked bearded wheat in Minnesota once minus a shirt and woke up in the night with a pain in my stomach. A barbed beard from a wheat head had stuck into my belly button and was systematically working its way inward.
Of course the day has passed when sun exposure is as much of a problem on the farm. Farmers in the field now bask in the shade of their air-conditioned tractor cabs. But in case you’re wondering, they still are sometimes shirtless. Have to keep up with the latest fashion styles.