Elegance Week: Boyer On Grey Flannel

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I’ve  seen every masculine change in fashion from the “drape shape with the reet pleat” zoot suit of the WW II years  to the latest “New Bohemian” look from Dries Van Noten, and the way I dress is still imprisoned by the years of my youth. But my appreciation of style is not, so I have indeed come to appreciate a great variety of looks that I wouldn’t myself attempt. Thom Browne and Junya Watanabe are creative and important, but not for me personally.

I’m stuck in the Anglo-American years of the 1950s and early 60s. I’m not the only one who can tell this story, but I’m the only one who can say what it meant to me. When the Ivy League style grabbed me in the early 50s, I sold my prole gear and bought a Harris Tweed sports jacket. And you never forget your first one. But I soon discovered what has remained for me the epitome of elegance: the gray flannel suit.

I’d saved the money I made from a part-time job when I was a junior in high school, and commissioned a made-to-measure medium- gray flannel suit from a local shop: single-breasted, three-button rolled to two, side vents, narrow trousers. I can see it as though it were yesterday, and I’ve never been without a gray flannel suit ever since. At the moment I’ve got three: a single-breasted, three-piece Cambridge gray solid flannel, a medium gray, chalk-striped single-breasted three-piece, and a medium gray double-breasted gray flannel.

In the 50s, the medium- and charcoal-gray flannel suit were the classic uniform of the EE (Eastern Establishment), “the man in the gray flannel suit” became the American national symbol of corporate conformity and conventionality, as the Great democracy assumed a sartorial stance of exaggerated understatement. The suit – with no padding, no darts, no pleats, and a single vent and narrow lapels – represented a balance between comfort and sobriety, and was accompanied by small-brimmed fedoras, purposefully casual buttondown shirts, narrow neckwear, and slip-ons. For the British, who watched their empire disappear in the wake of the war, it was a difficult pill to swallow, as English fashion historian John Taylor makes clear:

But Americans came to power parallel with the universal acknowledgement of the tenets of democracy, and their relative riches were a perennial source of embarrassment to them. Perforce, they tried to avoid any too vulgar indication of it in front of a penurious world or, alternatively, to convince themselves and the world that the trappings of success did not really matter.

Taylor hated what he thought was the “simulated negligence” of the buttondown and the rest of the Ivy League look, but that was what believed – and still do believe – was the great strength of it. The gray flannel suit is the epitome of this approach for me precisely because it has a dehabille, a slightly rumpled nonchalance denied to crisp worsteds. It’s got an easy elegance that can’t be beaten in a tailored garment. And of course I can always wear the trousers with my Harris Tweed sports jacket. — G. BRUCE BOYER

20 Comments on "Elegance Week: Boyer On Grey Flannel"

  1. A fantastic piece. Thank you for sharing, Mr. Boyer.

  2. Bags' Groove | October 26, 2014 at 12:07 pm |

    Bruce, the flannel jacket is great, the tie is alright, even the pink shirt passable, but oh that top hanky. When i was a kid you could buy little triangles of white material like that…stuck atop a piece of card! Those were the days when we all enjoyed a good laugh.

  3. The editor chose the image. He’s happy to consider an alternative.

  4. Bags' Groove | October 26, 2014 at 12:59 pm |

    No, please keep it. I’m still laughing at the thought of all those little cards with triangles sticking out of pockets.
    How could I even have begun to think that the incomparable G the Bruce was responsible. Shame on me.

  5. James Redhouse | October 26, 2014 at 2:06 pm |

    The suit jacket is a true classic.
    I could have done without the pink shirt, the overly-large pattern of the tie, and the tie-bar, but rather liked the dated touch of the white hankie.

  6. I think that the minimalism of 1957-1967 was not closely related to Ivy league style,but was a trend of that period.
    If you look at an Brooks Brothers catalogue from 1910s to 1950 you don’t see “minimalism”.
    Nothing restricted palette,no narrow navy/black ties,no minimal lapels.
    Contrariwise you have a rich style,maybe even a bit more colored that in Europe in same years.
    The roll of lapels was mellow,the shoulders curvy but not totally inconsistents.
    The silhouete had a gently waist suppression even without darts (or with very curvy slanted darts).
    We had double breasteds too.
    So,in many cases the corporation man Ivy league suit is only an interpretation of the original thing.
    Ironically the suit that Gregory Peck wear in “The man in the gray flannel suit” (1956) is sober but not minimalist,and IS NOT A IVY SACK.
    The coat is darted,and trousers have pleats.

    Said this,the JPress flannel suit in the pictures is fantastic!
    Very 1950 in my opinion..and is a compliment.

  7. Great piece, as always. Saw Mr. Boyer as I was rushing out of Kinokuniya the other day, didn’t say hi. Blew it. Next time, Mr. B!

  8. A.E.W. Mason | October 26, 2014 at 4:35 pm |

    Beautifully written, and politely adverts to that Anglo/American rift so suffused with cultural conflict. I sometimes think the American businessman is just saying, “Look, I’ve got real work to do; I don’t want to be strung up all day in a women’s jacket with suppression and shoulders all over the place.”

  9. The funny thing is that those jacket with “suppression and shoulders”are now considered “boxy” from the young Americans that want only skinny fits.

  10. NaturalShoulder | October 26, 2014 at 8:44 pm |

    I have a fondness for grey flannel as well. I planned to have a cambridge grey flannel made by Southwick, but opted for a charcoal with a chalk stripe instead.

  11. Bet you a quarter to a dime G. Bruce not now nor ever was adorned in simulated negligence.

  12. “I don’t want to be strung up all day in a women’s jacket with suppression and shoulders all over the place.”

    Thank you, A.E.W. Mason for concisely expressing my thoughts exactly.

  13. I appreciate the sanity of the idea that one can, as Mr. Boyer puts it, “appreciate a great variety of looks that I wouldn’t attempt myself.”

  14. Fox weaves handsome lighter weight flannels. Worsted, but plenty of nap. The 8/9 oz. is just the thing for Mid Atlantic Novembers.

  15. BB has a great flannel suit right now. Loop sold out in a week. Wonderful.

  16. Too bad anything over 10 oz. wears so warm, especially in today’s (over)heated offices. Not conducive to comfort. The new Harrison’s archive flannel is the real deal, but great anguish awaits the wearer who spends most of his workday indoors.

  17. NaturalShoulder | October 27, 2014 at 9:22 pm |

    I like the heavy stuff but completely impractical in Texas, so I opted for 10oz.

  18. Is there some ugly resurgence of tie bars and tie tacks that has slipped by me? I thought we did away with these long ago. No? Well, to each his own, I suppose, but show me Grant or Kennedy with either, then I’ll think about it. Otherwise, an attractive ensemble.

  19. Vern Trotter | October 27, 2014 at 11:03 pm |

    Tie bars and such should be lower, closer to the belt, out of sight if the coat is buttoned. I prefer the thumb print that Press has always offered but they get lost so I always keep three or four on hand.

  20. JFK – and several in his inner circle – wore PT 109 tie bars but rarely seen in photographs. A badge of honor in that group.

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