A reader sent in the following passage on changes in dress at Harvard in the ’60s. It comes from the book “Coming Apart: A Memoir of the Harvard Wars of 1969,” by Roger Rosenblatt. Click here for a 1997 lecture on the topic by Mr. Rosenblatt.
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It is odd to remember, but the wild-in-the-streets sixties were also a time when the ideal of the Harvard gentleman was still in force. People told a story about a Harvard tutor, sometime around World War I, who had observed an undergraduate trying to pick up a girl on the train from New York to Boston. The tutor caught up with the boy at Harvard, demanded to see his bursar’s card, and recommended that he be expelled for behaving like a “masher.”
As late as 1969, students in the Houses were still required to wear ties and jackets in the dining halls at lunch and dinner — the so-called coat-and-tie-rule. “We wore gray coats and narrow little ties,” John Updike (class of 1954) recalled, “like apprentice deacons.” Many of them complied with the rule. Others who did not were spoken to. And while it was generally recognized that this formality was antiquated, its symbolism remained intact. By the end of the sixties, there were students who did not bother to wear a shirt in the dining halls. One cannot overestimate the sense of social deterioration felt by many of the older faculty members when it became clear that fair Harvard would no longer dress at Brooks Brothers.
“Within the Yard and the Houses, [said Kelleher], “costumes were, as I look back on it, the first signs of the coming storm. You’ll remember that the rules required a jacket, a shirt, and a tie in the dining hall. And indeed, up till about 1966 that was what was worn to class. Sam Morison [who wrote the definitive history of Harvard] had been accustomed to order anyone without a jacket or a tie out of his lectures, and had been obeyed. But by this time, Sam was retired. Now, young sea lawyers began to appear who wore a zipper jacket (it was after all a jacket), a t-shirt (philologically a shirt), and around the neck, a shoestring tied. It was about that time, too, that the realization spread that if any lecturer or dining-room employee or House Master tried to do anything about this, he would not be backed up by the administration. No more use demanding to see an offender’s bursar’s card. I can remember one smug character dressed in the full pain-in-the-ass costume, coming in and sitting in an aisle seat. And another touch, a more significant one, he was drinking coffee or something from a Styrofoam cup. As I was about to leave the room, I saw that in departing he had set the cup neatly on the flor. That was the first time I ever saw that done, but it has persisted ever since. As I said, ‘Do your own thing. And let somebody else clean up after you.'”
In short, the change of dress code was not only a way for students to say to their elders, “We do not look like you.” It also was a way of saying “We are not you,” and may have also meant “We are against you.”