No Jacket, No Tie, No Problem: Social Deterioration At Harvard In The Late 1960s

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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.”

32 Comments on "No Jacket, No Tie, No Problem: Social Deterioration At Harvard In The Late 1960s"

  1. Sometimes there really is a slippery slope. Cultures and civilizations collapse one step at a time. In little steps that are barely noticed at the time. And the barbarians inside the walls are oblivious to what they never knew or understood in the first place.

  2. Marc Chevalier | December 2, 2016 at 1:22 pm |

    Truer words were never spoken, Mazama. I see 2016 as one of those slope slips.

  3. Just the pendulum making a correction, just like clothing of the late 70s and early 80s. 😉

    Roger Rosenblatt’s lecture is worth a watch.

  4. Nobody gets dressed up for anything anymore. Went to a play last night and some women thought it was fine to wear dirty tennis shoes, old dirty jeans and dirty, needs a wash, dye job and a cut hair. I remember wearing cocktail dresses to go out drinking! I remember – when I used to go – that when you went to church you at least combed your hair and – for women – wore a hat.

  5. Carmelo Pugliatti | December 2, 2016 at 4:55 pm |

    Send the national guard with good batons.

  6. Marc Chevalier | December 2, 2016 at 5:13 pm |

    Look at the bright side: we no longer have to come home trom restaurants, bars, airports, train stations, etc. with our nice suits and ties stinking like overused ashtrays.

  7. @Mary “…when you went to church you at least combed your hair and – for women – wore a hat.” And gloves! And stockings!

  8. The last paragraph gets it right. The abandonment of jackets and ties was a political statement. Jackets and ties were seen as the uniform of the people who had brought conformity, social repression, the violation of civil rights in the US, and the Vietnam War. Forsaking a jacket and tie was a way of showing that you weren’t on their side.

    But while it’s true that this sartorial revolution did usher in the casual age, it’s important to note that the abandonment of jackets and ties didn’t last long, for stylish people at least. By the mid-70s, getting dressed up was definitely cool again: look at David Bowie on the cover of Pin Ups, or any of Bryan Ferry’s many garbs with Roxy Music, or the incredibly stylish August Darnell of Kid Creole and the Coconuts and many other bands, or even Manhattan Transfer. Of course those artists were a bit too cool for most Ivy Leaguers, so they had more followers in the art and entertainment world than on campus. And it’s also true that they had much more influence on style in the UK than in North America. But as someone who was in high school in the early ’70s, I know that people like Bowie and Ferry made it cool to wear a tie again — even if you still hadn’t cut your mullet.

  9. Sorry, I should have referred to Bowie on the back cover of Pinups. On the front, he and Twiggy are practically naked.

  10. Marc Chevalier | December 2, 2016 at 6:46 pm |

    Spot-on, TMJM. From 1975 onward, plenty of men wore three-piece suits at discotheques. At Studio 54, those suits were often worn with ties.

  11. Why did the administration at Harvard relax the dress code?

  12. 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.”

    Well, definitely “we are against you.” These people (mostly white, 1960s college students, and not just at Harvard) were the ones who repeated such mantras as “Don’t trust anyone over 30,” and “If it feels good, do it,” and “Question authority,” and “Tune in, turn on, drop out.”

  13. Privileged revolutionaries with soft hands always dress the part of day laborers. 😉

  14. Last week, a good friend of mine gave me 7 sport coats he no longer wanted or needed. He hadn’t worn any of them since he retired in 1995. He is about the same size as me, 42-44XL. The seven, all clean and in good repair, date from the 1960’s to the 1980’s.

    1. Tan corduroy with patch pockets and elbow patches.
    2.. Tan camel blazer in new condition. He probably hardly ever wore it due to easily soiled.
    3. Black and white houndstooth, 1960’s vintage, small lapels, a Rat Pack special.
    4. A spring houndstooth, light brownish, small lapels, late 1960’s. Worn a lot, bottom hemming unraveling.
    5-6. Two non descript three button dark jackets, probably early 1980’s.
    7. Light beige winter woolen plaid, hardly worn also, small lapels.

    I’m glad he asked me if I wanted them. He was going to donate them to Goodwill.

    But, where to wear them, that is the dilemma. I’ll have to do my usual holiday thing, be the only guy in coat and tie at every holiday get together I go to.

    Proper attire is the new GTH attire. Sad, but true.

  15. “Proper attire is the new GTH attire.”

    That says it all.

  16. Leftists, liberals, protestors, and revolutionaries of all types and kinds have maintained an allegiance to the necktie and suit (or sport) jacket. Fact: it makes a fellow look like a grown-up. Julian Bond comes to mind immediately, but there are plenty more–from “Brooks Brothers” bohemians like Plimpton and Warhol to revolt-promoting authors like Christ Hedges to fictional president Jed Bartlett. Al Franken and Paul Krugman dress up for work, and it’s hard to imagine Lawrence O’ Donnell in anything other than his dark navy suits.

    John Kenneth Galbraith suits and ties. So did Al Lowenstein. Archie Cox wore soft-shouldered vested suits, which made WFB Jr.’s high-shouldered, two-button numbers look either Lawrence Welk midwestern or Town & Country cosmopolitan, depending upon your perspective.

    Anti-Vietnam war sentiment was tepid until a suit-and-tied member of the media establishment named Walter Cronkite chimed in. It wasn’t until people who looked and sounded like adults began to “speak up and speak out” that things began to change. Nothing changes because bearded folk singers whine incessantly. Once the establishment said “enough, already” to LBJ and his generals (most notably, Westmoreland), that was that.

    And then there’s this: Plenty of modern-day (self professing) conservatives look like they just left a Grateful Dead concert. Jeans and flannel shirts abound. Andrew Breitbart was a case in point. He wore t-shirts. Sometimes you’d see the suit jacket, but almost never with a tie. One wonders what percentage of Trump supporters don’t own a suit.

    Lower and Mid-level management–god, they’re sartorial cesspools. Corporate plebes. You know–the people who work in cubicles. But the old, tried-and-true professions will always demand (or at least invite) the jacket and tie. Lawyers, doctors, bankers and such. Academics, clergy, and artists as they choose, since they have the freedom to look as nice as they want.

  17. Uh, “Chris” Hedges, rather. Oh the difference a “t” can make.

  18. The dissonance caused by wearing the modern uniform of tshirtandjeans or tshirtandshorts to places like the dining halls at Harvard is that the architecture of those spaces is so formal. The contrast just looks and feels very odd.

  19. @Mac

    There’s a passage in this chapter that talks about exactly that. A group of students went to meet with a labor union and wore their new Levi’s and other “workwear,” not realizing two things: that workers wear whatever’s handy, not certain brands or looks, and that, according to the author, they like to change into their fancy duds after work when they go out on the town (this was referring to the ’60s).

  20. Vern Trotter | December 3, 2016 at 12:04 pm |

    I recall Andy Warhol took his first check from selling a painting and bought 100 Brooks white OCBDs. Maybe I read that in these pages.

  21. Mitchell S. | December 3, 2016 at 1:01 pm |

    What has the world come to?!!! I live two miles from Harvard Square and the average person on the street cannot tell the difference between Harvard guy and a homeless teen. Scruffy beards, grungy clothes, and torn, saggy pants prevail for most guys. I give credit to foreign men (mostly Asian) and homosexuals for keeping the Ivy flame of proper decorum still burning.

    A lot of the change in mores arises from radical third-wave feminists and their andro-phobic agenda. Jackets and ties are the uniform of the privileged “white male oppressors” and their violent power structures.

    @ S.E. “Lower and Mid-level management–god, they’re sartorial cesspools.” Spot on! My brother is a mid-level manager and he dresses like a corporate drone. As you note, professionals and guys who are able to choose their dress-code have the best sense of style.

  22. Eddie Burke | December 3, 2016 at 2:21 pm |

    It’s all what you make it. When I go out for dinner, play or concert, I wear a jacket and tie, or at least a pair of dress pants, OCBD and sweater. Most of my friends are also well-attired. Sure, I see people attending a concert or play looking like they are in bad need of a sartorial consultant, but what do I care? It doesn’t bother me what other people wear. Their poor dress is a reflection of them, not me. I have better things to focus my attention on.

    Have to agree with S.E. about liberals and the Blue Left Hand maintaining allegiance to neckties, suits, and sport jackets. The only trad dresser in the prez election was the ultra progressive Bernie Sanders. This crowd may not have noticed, but the left-leaning media outlets like MSNBC are a wellspring of ivy-style dressers. Chris Mathews comes readily to mind as always sporting an OCBD, trad tie and trad jacket or suit, as does Lawrence O’Donnell. Many of the program guests dress in a similar fashion.

    So, moral of the story: If you are disgusted with the way people dress in your usual haunts, stop complaining and start watching the liberal TV programs! It will make you feel right at home. 🙂

  23. Arthur McIlwaine | December 3, 2016 at 3:38 pm |

    I find many people around my age (21) dressing in what I call “costume prep”. They don the tartan scarves and LL Bean Duck Boots, the button downs (not even old ones!), loafers and repp ties, but none of it is “real”. Many of these perpetrators (should I call them prep-etrators?) dress in this ‘costume’ of sorts, bringing all of us old-preps down with them on the social scale. After all, we’re the ones who survived boarding school!

  24. Eddie Burke | December 3, 2016 at 7:27 pm |

    @Arthur –
    “I find many people around my age (21) … bringing all of us old-preps down with them …” Sorry, Babe, twenty-one ain’t even close to being old.

  25. S.E. said: “Lower and Mid-level management–god, they’re sartorial cesspools. Corporate plebes. You know–the people who work in cubicles. But the old, tried-and-true professions will always demand (or at least invite) the jacket and tie.”

    Ouch. Can’t the “corporate plebes” ever catch a break? They get sh*t on by “artists” and they get sh*t on by trads. It seems that rednecks and cubicle workers are the favorite scapegoats of the enlightened.

  26. P Rainscott | December 4, 2016 at 5:53 am |

    @Mitchell S.

    ” I give credit to foreign men (mostly Asian) and homosexuals for keeping the Ivy flame of proper decorum still burning.”

    One problem is that many people think one is a homosexual if one dresses properly.

  27. My entire life I attended private schools and colleges with dress codes and codes of conduct. The slippery slope concept was preached daily while econiums were given on the virtues of decorum, modesty and gender specificity. I can say that while attire may not be the apex of societal sustainability it certainly lends itself to a interconnected cornucopia of virtues that do dictate whether or not we’ll have a society in 2 generations. Students always looked to abrogate these atavistic standards yet to no avail; and thank God for that.

  28. Social sustainability and society in general aren’t at all thrilling concepts, just depleted bromides to force conformity to the useless. And you think they have not been scrubbed? Ha.

    “Everyone has an obligation to himself and himself, alone. Too many people in society conform to what the government says is right and moral, when the true meaning of right or moral comes from what each individual holds to be what is right. To become a true individual is to make every decision based upon your own personal belief of its morality, no matter what society says, and to act upon your belief accordingly.” H.D. Thoreau

    “To believe your own thought, to believe that what is true for you in your private heart is true for all men, — that is genius.” R.W. Emerson

  29. @”WFBjr” are you talking about your actual life or the life of the dead man who you claim to be?

  30. @ E. Burke: With what you quoted Thoreau and Emerson sound like fortune cookies. Sorry, but I’m not entirely moved.

  31. @ WFBjr:Ironic you mention one’s dress and societal sustainability given the current climate on college campuses today across the States. All of a sudden E.Burke’s “Social sustainability and society in general aren’t at all thrilling concepts” are made, at the very least, interesting since the future generation gives little hints that they are capable of such sustainability.

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