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