There is a famous ballad that reaches back more than a century in the United States and, through its ancestors across the ocean in the British Isles, much further than that. In its American incarnations, it has carried many names — “The Dying Cowboy,” “The Streets of Laredo,” “Cowboy’s Lament.” One famous verse documents its subject’s demise this way:
‘I see by your outfit that you are a cowboy.’
These words he did say as I boldly stepped by.
‘Come sit down beside me, and hear my sad story.
Got shot in the breast, and I know I must die.’
A true test of a song’s staying power, though, is whether it becomes fodder for parody. And in the early 1960s, a pair of musical comedians named the Smothers Brothers, skewering American conformity, offered up this back-and-forth version for laughs:
‘I see by your outfit that you are a cowboy.’
‘I see by your outfit you are a cowboy, too.’
‘We see by our outfits that we are both cowboys.
If you get an outfit, you can be a cowboy, too.’
My father played that record on the family-room stereo often when I was little; I knew the Smothers’ sendup years before I heard the song itself. I thought of it again last week when a flier came home telling me that the multicultural international school my sons attend in the Thai capital was planning an “International Food Fiesta.”
It was the last sentence that grabbed me: “Also,” the flier enthused, “celebrate the event by wearing your national costumes!”
Far from home, in the baking sun and humidity of the capital of the country once known as Siam, that notion stopped me in my tracks. The national costume of America. What on Earth could that be?
To be an American living overseas is, naturally, to see one’s Americanness from a distance. It certainly opened my eyes.
When my sons asked why I was so bent on moving them to Asia, I told them that living abroad for a time as a child made me a better American. The abrupt shift in my personal lens from an extreme close-up of the United States to an establishing shot, watched from afar, had given me tools to evaluate my country more objectively and to cultivate my patriotism more mindfully. I always liked that. I wanted the same for them.
One thing that I learned: In Asia, wherever you go, the notion of “traditional culture” lurks in the background of every experience, even the most modern ones. China’s culture is at least 4,000 years old. In Thailand, where our family now lives, it’s not uncommon to encounter things through the course of our day that existed centuries before John Winthrop’s singular Puritan mind ever conceived that windmill-tilting, exceptionalist notion of a shining city upon a hill.
In the United States, anything more than a century old is generally viewed as an artifact, not the latest iteration in a long continuum. We lack millennia of shared culture upon which to draw; instead, our society has sewed itself together piecemeal over four centuries by telling, for better or worse, the chapters of a common story: Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. All men are created equal. Tame the frontier. The better angels of our nature. Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free. Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country. One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.
At this point you may be saying: What is he on about, now? His sons have a little school event and he’s quoting Lincoln and Neil Armstrong? I can get a bit grandiose, sure, but the point stands: America is a nation held together (if indeed it is still “together”) by a story rather than by the longstanding cultural connections that typically define societies. Here in Thailand, for example, ethnicity and religion cross-pollinated so many centuries ago that the culture can now boast traditional costumes from at least a half-dozen specific periods of its history.
All this context still doesn’t solve the problems at hand, though. So let’s start with the food.
You could make a fair argument that the national dish of the United States is fast food — McDonald’s, Burger King, KFC, and their slightly more hipster younger sibling, Starbucks. Yet those chains jumped borders long ago and are already so well ensconced across the world that they’ve ceased to be uniquely American. There are two Starbucks on the same block as my sons’ school, for example. So bringing a 20-piece bucket or a Double Whopper with cheese to a Thai school would be, sadly, quite redundant.
I could reasonably assert that America’s “national dish” is barbecue, but even there you’d have to choose between the regionally contentious churches of brisket, pulled pork or ribs. And the formidable vegetarian contingent, which is as American as we unrepentant carnivores are, would balk at defining the national culinary identity with slow-cooked animal flesh.
Encouraged by my eldest son, my wife decided on hot dogs, which I initially balked at but came to endorse wholeheartedly. Sure, the frankfurter was originally German, hence its name. But the hot dog, in its American incarnation, is an unlikely amalgam of things (some identifiable, others not so much) that all somehow come together into a tasty and distinctive alchemy. What’s more American than that?
There was, however, still the matter of what to wear.
The very notion of national dress is probably to some extent a fiction. In any society, it excludes as much as it includes, and it seems more suited to ethnic groups than it does to heterogeneous modern nations.
Still, let’s proceed with the exercise for argument’s sake. For the purposes of two schoolboys in 2015, freed for a day from the red shirts of their school uniforms, what might constitute America’s “national costume?”
Is it a buckled Puritan hat and matching coat? A revolutionary-era tricorn? A slave’s rags? A cowboy’s outfit straight from the American frontier, or at least from a John Ford western? A military uniform, maybe, from any one of a number of conflicts — the Civil War, World War I or II, Korea, Vietnam, the post-9/11 conflicts? Maybe it’s a business suit to represent the march of capitalism that built the nation. Or the jodhpur-style breeches worn by old-time Hollywood movie directors, symbolizing the industrial-strength storytelling that helped shape the world’s view of America—and America’s view of itself — in the 20th century.
At first, I thought sardonically that we’d have one of our boys wear the Uncle Sam outfit that you see on various men with fake white beards at various parades across the United States. It’s the closest thing we have to actually wearing the American flag, after all.
I quickly abandoned that notion. They would look ridiculous and jingoistic. And besides, where would we find an Uncle Sam costume in the middle of Bangkok, anyway?
Upon reflection, my thinking evolved. I decided that our “national costume” could well be very straightforward and basic—a cotton T-shirt from Walmart and pants from Target. They are inexpensive and casual, nondescript and unpretentious, quite possibly made abroad by anonymous workers. They are reflective of American informality, American capitalism and the increasing American propensity to outsource our necessities.
But that wasn’t quite it, either. I kept looking.
Then, the other day, I unexpectedly ran across a fellow American who offered opinions freely, as fellow Americans do, and then said of those opinions, “This is what America is.” As if all 300 million Americans think the same way, when, in fact, the diametric opposite is true.
I realized what had been dancing at the edges of my brain for days, since the school’s Food Fiesta flier arrived dog-eared from the 8-year-old’s Swiss Army backpack. The genius of America is that, at its very foundation, it both is and is not a common culture. It’s right there on the back of the dollar bill: E pluribus unum. Out of many, one.
Thus did I arrive at the perfect outfit for two American expatriate boys to wear for International Fiesta Day. The national costume of the United States is … lederhosen. Or dreadlocks. Or a neon-hued Under Armour compression shirt. Or a shalwar kameez. Or shorts and a T-shirt. Or a bolo tie. Or moccasins. Or a Baltimore Orioles jersey. Or blue jeans, perhaps the most American article of clothing there is. It doesn’t matter. It’s whatever my kids choose on that particular day.
On Friday morning, each of them will wake up and pull something out of their closets. And whatever it happens to be, it will by definition be the national costume of the United States—a nation of uncounted traditions and ideas, stitched together from the materials that happened to be at hand and stronger for it. E pluribus unum? Certainly. But also: If you get an outfit, you can be a cowboy, too.
- The battle over America’s story: How it played out in the 2012 political conventions.
- Digital Manifest Destiny: From the physical frontier of the 19th century to the virtual one of the 21st.
Ted Anthony, a Pittsburgher living in Thailand, has been dissecting and musing about American culture since Guns N’ Roses was on the charts and “Rain Man” was in the theaters. He is the author of Chasing the Rising Sun: The Journey of an American Song. He tweets here, Instagrams here and collects various fragmentary images and thoughts on Tumblr here.
©2015, Ted Anthony