There’s a street scene in Martin Scorsese’s 1993 film The Age of Innocence in which the businessmen of 19th-century Boston, hundreds of them, are walking to work in a stiff wind and every one of them has a hand up, clutching the brim of a bowler hat. It’s a powerful image, this striving mass of men holding onto their helmets of commerce, their symbol of sameness. The surrealist painter René Magritte chose the bowler as a leitmotif because it “poses no surprise.” He further explained, “It is a headdress that is not original. The man with the bowler is just middle-class man in his anonymity.” In other words, it’s an egg cozy for the brain, hatching the same thoughts over and over again.
Scorsese is making a point. The main character Newland Archer wants surprise in his life—a “new land.” But the social codes of the late 19th century, which required the right clothing head to toe—and for the first time in history insisted upon sartorial sobriety from men—locked down desire, difference.