Somewhere in Time: Conform and Function

It is said that the winners get to write the history books. One of the now-official effects of the social upheaval of the 1960s was that young people broke down the oppressive conformity of society, including rigid and unimaginative clothes. The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit (played by Gregory Peck, above, in the film of the same name) was too square, just like everyone else. While this account now dominates our understanding of that decade, we can benefit from reminding ourselves about the stories of men — especially those over 30, whom no one was supposed to trust — who found not oppression but comfort in button-down conformity.

The Masculine Mode,” a Time article from February 1964, reminds us of the man who did not know which way the wind was blowing, but who certainly had a solid overcoat in his closet.

In the early ’60s, the average American male over 30 actually preferred to dress similarly to everyone around him. “If one of his colleagues — or two of them — turns up in the same outfit he is wearing, he does not feel embarrassed, as would his wife. He feels reassured,” quotes the article. Clear-cut rules and shared expectations make it easier to know whether you are dressed appropriately or not. They can also, as the article explains, cut down on shopping time, because such a man’s “instructions to his clothier are likely to consist of asking for a suit, a shirt or a pair of shoes ‘just like what I’ve got on.’”

This is precisely the rub for retailers. Replacing clothing only as it is worn out is not a high-growth business. Change is better for sales. As Time explains nine years after the film “Rebel Without A Cause” enshrined the teenager as the predominate trend-setter, younger customers are highly desirable because “the young man is apt to be fad-prone.” The adoption of a style or a particular item of clothing by young people can cause retailers to stock such items in abundance, and “the middle-aged man may find it on his back two years later without even knowing why.”

Unfortunately, as the wheels of fashion speed forward, tried-and-true items can be crowded off the shelves by the new, and the new is not always the more aesthetically pleasing. Indeed, Time seems to predict the future, quoting an apparel industry executive who says that if only putting the label on the outside were possible, sales of more expensive items would certainly increase. The realization of this dream in our day is complete, but it is hardly progress to the discerning eye.

For traditional dressers, fashion can be a double-edged sword. When designers cycle back to the classics, store shelves can be awash with attractive options, many times in fabrics or colors that creatively update the past. But when the past is rejected in favor of the new, the different and the weird, traditional choices can be limited and shopping becomes frustrating. The best solution is to know which way the wind is blowing. When it blows your way, buy a good coat — it might not be there tomorrow. — TALIESIN

23 Comments on "Somewhere in Time: Conform and Function"

  1. Those of us who favor style over fashion have nothing whatsoever to worry about, it seems.

  2. Gregorius Mercator | December 19, 2009 at 7:27 pm |

    It certainly explains the fall in quality – one doesn’t need an article to last a lifetime if the trend won’t survive two years.

  3. Dressing may no longer be homogeneous, but people have found other ways to replicate their peers, especially along social and class lines. The right school district, the right stroller, the right workout clothes, the right grocery store are all key tenants of upper middle class life in America today. Other levels have their own signifiers too which I won’t list for fear of stereotyping.

  4. For those interested in the topic, worth a minute to read; and, reflect: https://www.independent.co.uk/news/obituaries/sloan-wilson-36599.html

  5. Charlottesville | January 22, 2019 at 3:08 pm |

    Conformity is a basic fact of the human condition. It’s still very much around, as Benjamin says, including in the clothing worn by college students, millennial professionals, middle-aged Episcopalians, rural neighbors and other groups I see regularly, each with its own variations. Even in the so-called rebellious, free-spirit era of the late 60s, my older brother noted the lock-step conformity in dress of the college protesters he went to school with in New England. I noticed much the same thing a decade later, although the particular trends may have differed.

    At least in the Ivy heyday, many of the standard clothing options looked good, and were of good quality, and I am glad that the same basics were still readily available when I began developing my own style. One of the nice things about preferring traditional style over fashion trends is the opportunity to build up a wardrobe of items that will last for decades, rather than a few months or years. Cordovan penny loafers, Shetland sweaters, khakis, grey flannels, OCBDs, and tweed sport coats from the 60s still look good today and don’t seem to raise anyone’s eyebrows in the way, say, a Nehru jacket and bell-bottoms would.

    The suit, shirt, tie, shoes, etc. I am wearing today were made over several decades, but all work together and still look good, at least to me. My guess is that skinny jeans and crocs will look pretty dated in a decade, and the trendy will have moved on to some other disposable fashion, but I hope to look exactly the same, allowing for a few more wrinkles and a little less hair.

  6. john carlos | January 22, 2019 at 7:11 pm |

    Charlottesville, well stated as usual. I’m hoping for the same as well a decade from now. I’ll be turning 70 later this year. Same OCBD’s, khakis, cordovans, tweeds and rep ties that I’ve been wearing for lo these many years. Also, hope to still be practicing law in a decade.

  7. Carmelo Pugliatti | January 22, 2019 at 8:08 pm |

    I have a question.
    In 30s the middle class American man loved (or wished) dress similarly to everyone around him?
    In other words,the early-mid 60s man was less imaginative compared to his father?

  8. I see what you’re getting at, Carmelo. There was clearly more variety during the so-called Golden Age of Menswear of the 1930s, as evidenced by Esquire and Apparel Arts. Also Flusser in “Dressing The Man” discusses how the standards for the average man were high because the art of dressing was “in form,” to borrow a phrase from Oswald Spengler.

    Of course the Depression meant that many men devoted little attention to their attire.

    But the concept of middle-class conformity really takes off in the ’50s as the result of affluence, the growth of suburbia, and mass media in the form of television. There was also the invention of the “teenager” and an entirely new genre of pop culture catering to him. All this made for a stuffy conformity in the mind of the writers, artists, comedians and beatniks of the period. The movie “Pleasantville” attempts to satirize this world, along with many others

  9. Clothing in 2019 is an example of planned obsolence. Most menswear today is made to be disposable, lasting no longer than a few months before the next trend comes along. Technology and cheap labor have made clothes so inexpensive that it costs less to buy a new t-shirt or polo than to have it dry-cleaned.

  10. Charlottesville | January 23, 2019 at 1:22 pm |

    John Carlos – Thanks for the kind words, and congratulations on your upcoming birthday. I admire your intention to be practicing at 80. My father was still working at 80, and my doctor continues his practice at 77, but I fear I lack their (and your) commitment. My eldest brother retired at 65 and now splits his time between North Carolina and Florida, which sounds tempting to me after a few days of single-digit temperatures.

    Mitchell — Sad but true. I recently went on a campaign to find some acceptable plain, white, short-sleeved t-shirts and after nosing about the local shops looking for a bargain went back to LL Bean, which still produces cotton knits that look like they may last more than a week and are not emblazoned with logos, pictures or slogans. At $19.95, they do not strike me as cheap, but they cost less than some of the others around. Prada sells a 3-pack for $260.

  11. Terry O'Reilly | January 23, 2019 at 1:40 pm |

    @Charlottesville I’m pretty sure that a 3-pack of Brooks Brothers’ plain white cotton undershirts are around $40. Not peanuts but not Prada, either! Hope this helps.

  12. john carlos | January 23, 2019 at 2:10 pm |

    Charlottesville-I’m afraid you’re giving me too much credit for my commitment. My youngest daughter is in college and so I’m still paying tuition. Plus I was not the best saver of money in my younger years. At age 38, I married a 27 year old and started a second family at age 40. Seemed like a good idea at the time! Pretty much self inflicted. Someone recently told me my situation will “keep me young”. I hope they are right. If my situation won’t do the trick, maybe my penchant for all things madras will!

  13. Ken Pollock | January 23, 2019 at 3:25 pm |

    I,too, looked around for years for a really good t-shirt. Then I read this: https://www.wsj.com/articles/the-great-t-shirt-test-we-tried-on-50from-6-to-415-1495554711. I tried the Comfort Colors C4017 model in white and have been delighted. They cost around $6.50. A true bargain.

  14. Charlottesville | January 23, 2019 at 3:38 pm |

    Thanks, Terry. If they are the ones I’m thinking of, the BB shirts are a bit thinner than what got from LLB. I like them as underwear, but wanted something a little heavier. However, I confess that I didn’t actually try out the current BB version, so I may well be wrong. I will give them a try next time.

    John Carlos – Unfortunately, I shared your profligate ways with money in my youth, so I may find myself in the same boat when I hit 70. That being said, I’m sure that you would not trade your kids for a bit of extra beach time in Florida, although that would certainly give you year-round opportunities for madras.

  15. Charlottesville | January 23, 2019 at 3:40 pm |

    Thanks, Ken. That sounds like a steal!

  16. john carlos | January 23, 2019 at 4:07 pm |

    Charlottesville, I’m in San Antonio so madras is appropriate, weather wise, most of the year. And you are correct about my kids, all 4 of them. Priceless!

  17. Charlottesville | January 23, 2019 at 4:41 pm |

    John Carlos – I have only visited San Antonio a couple of times, but liked it very much. Is the Little Rhine Steak House still operating on the river? I have a recollection of enjoying dinner al fresco there in the 90s. Also drinks at the Menger Bar and some very good Mexican food and a classic chicken-fried steak at places the names of which I can’t recall. I wish I were there now. We’re having a cold snap up here in Virginia.

  18. Interesting–when I wear an old, fuzzy tweed jacket, wrinkled OCBD, frayed repp tie, neglected gray flannels, and senile (repeatedly resoled) penny loafers, I feel far less “dressed up” than a lot of guys who go with a more formal, pressed version of “Casual Friday.” Schlesinger’s “Brooks Brothers Bohemian” (a reference to RFK?) comes to mind. At the risk of starting another sprezzatura-inspired discussion, there’s a shabby, ramshackle charm to this. The tattered, well-worn Plimpton/Moynihan take on the look.

    A counterpoint to disposability and trend-following. Decrepit signals a sort of permanence. Which reveals a stubborn obliviousness to the current, the fashionable, the chic.

  19. john carlos | January 23, 2019 at 5:02 pm |

    Little Rhine is still going strong as is the Menger Hotel/Bar where Teddy Roosevelt is said to have formed the Roughriders. We have an abundance of good Mexican food here. Also, several years ago, the Culinary Institute of America opened here. Just saw that our Hotel Emma was voted one of the top ten hotels in the USA. Google it. We’re having a cold spell also with a high today in the mid 50’s.

  20. whiskeydent | January 23, 2019 at 5:21 pm |

    @John Carlos
    I’m up the road in Austin and share your dressing for the heat approach. I think those up north don’t understand the concept of 5-6 months of highs in the 90’s each year. I turn more to linen than madras for help, but there’s really no escaping the flaming sun and dripping humidity.

  21. john carlos | January 23, 2019 at 5:34 pm |

    Whiskeydent, I know what you mean about our Texas heat. I’ve recently turned to linen myself, having purchased a few linen sport shirts from Brooks and two linen sport coats from Ben Silver, the sport coats being half price basically. I’ve found Ben Silver to be affordable for me when their merchandise is on sale.

  22. john carlos | January 23, 2019 at 5:37 pm |

    Whiskeydent, do you ever shop at the Texas Clothier in Austin? I haven’t in a while. I know the guy who owns it.

  23. elder prep | March 12, 2019 at 6:50 pm |

    An excellent discussion of the practical benefits of traditional American clothing. The timeless styling of trad, prep, and Ivy make them excellent bargains, almost guaranteeing years of use because of the almost permanence of its design. Recall the message from the OPH: “Elderly as a child, youthful as an adult, he is always a mixture of schoolboy and corporate president. . . there is never, ever, a new look for the man.”

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