Success Through Good Grooming: Bert Bacharach’s Right Dress, 1955


After a spell of breaking-news interruptions, we’re finally returning to the topic of rules when it comes to dressing. It all started, you may recall, with a Japanese graphic that included the word “rules” along with “snob.” This got me free-associating about a certain type of fusty clotheshorse who takes pride not in anything original or unique about the way he dresses, but in his ability to follow rules with scrupulous assiduity.

I may have been overreacting. Like many who weren’t raised in a sartorially advanced household or community, I learned a lot from Alan Flusser’s books, first getting “Clothes And The Man” when I was about 19. There’s much wisdom in what it teaches, and the old cliché about needing to know the rules before you can break them became a hackneyed old phrase for a reason: it’s pretty damn true.

Before Flusser there were plenty of other style writers eager to help men dress better. One of them was syndicated men’s fashion writer Bert Bacharach, who in 1955 published “Right Dress.” As you’d expect from a book aimed at the mass market, it presents pragmatic reasons for dressing better, such as having a better chance of winning love and money, the two most important things in life. Bacharach isn’t exactly interested in encouraging personal style as an existential statement. It’s practical advice for the practical, and the book’s subtitle is “Success Through Better Grooming.”

Most of the book’s advice is either common sense, banal, or simply archaic. But “Right Dress” provided some period insight for our “rise and fall” essay, and it’s worth repeating those passages here, as well as some others that pertain to the Ivy League Look, which was just entering the national spotlight at the time of the book’s publication.

As you can see, the alpha wooer in the above image is wearing a three-button suit, buttondown shirt and rep tie. But don’t be fooled that Bacharach is recommending the Ivy League Look to his Main Street reader. In fact, he thinks natural-shouldered jackets make you look like a wimp. Bacharach writes:

The well-dressed man avoids extremes in clothing models. He passes up the so-called Ivy League type which makes him look emaciated and underfed. He shuns the overly padded and overly squared shoulders which make him look like a muscle-bound wrestler. He picks, instead, a model that is midway between the two, with body lines and slight shoulder padding which flatters the figure.

It’s been suggested that the reason the Eastern Establishment embraced the natural shoulder was because sport was such a part of their culture that men didn’t need any artificial shoulder padding, having plenty of muscle there from rowing, football, squash and tennis. My opinion is that is has more to do with the WASP ethos than corpore sano: natural-shouldered jackets are honest and unadorned, befitting a group of people who reviled falsity and overstatement.

In his rundown of collar options, Bacharach has this to say about buttondowns:

This style is a favorite of both college men and postgraduates. It has a casual appearance because of its slight roll.

He also has an entire section called “Clothes For The Campus,” from which comes this extended excerpt:

Before World War II, many experts considered the college students of this country the best-dressed men to be found anywhere. Fashion scouts at first concentrated their attention on the Big Three — Yale, Princeton and Harvard. Then other Ivy League colleges came to the fore sartorially, and eventually schools and universities all over the country became as prominent in the fashion picture as the big Eastern schools. The colleges gave rise to many important fashions, among them the gray flannel suit, the camel’s-hair overcoat, the button-down collar-attached shirt, the narrow-brimmed hat and the white buckskin shoe.

But World War II changed all this. During the war, and in the years immediately following it, the majority of students were attending school on the GI Bill, and apparel became unimportant. The average student then wore his old Army field jacket, suntan pants or “pinks” or anything else he owned. These fellows were there for serious study, making up the time they’d lost while in the service, and nothing else mattered.

As the years passed, this mode of dressing had is effect. When Army clothes wore out, or when the men tired of them, they adopted extremely casual clothes. T-shirts, sweatshirts and sweaters were worn with denims and Levi’s. This vogue for extremely casual attire, which approached sloppiness, lasted for about four years, and, although many college men still dress this way, the trend of late has been toward better grooming. And once again, certain colleges are serving as fashion sources for the nation.

The passage on the GI Bill is especially interesting. Conventional wisdom has it that the GI Bill helped spread the Ivy League Look. I think it most surely did, but Bacharach suggests that it may also have undermined campus dress as well. In fact, the influx of merit-based students on the GI Bill so infuriated certain Yale faculty members that they felt it necessary to instill a dress code, something that previously social custom took care of. We haven’t yet explored Yale’s post-GI Bill dress code, but will in a future post.

Some of Bacharach’s admonitions are just plain amusing. Imagine the gall of those successful suburban country club types who insist on wearing their rumpled pipe-smoke-reeking tweed to the Saturday dance!


In closing, there is much sensible advice in the book, as there is in every other “dress for success” offering. Then there’s the evil flipside of sensible advice, such as pronouncements like this:

There can be no correct substitute for a white shirt for any occasion when the clock shows that it is after 6 pm.

Most of us are happy to leave the office and head out to dinner in the same blue, pink, striped and tattersall shirt we put on in the morning. However, even in 2013 there are still men cursed with an orthodox temperament, who feel a sense of moral superiority for having changed into a white shirt — which may or may not complement what they’re wearing — when leaving the office for an evening engagement.

I’m reminded of the wise words of a dear friend, who once noted that such men know everything about clothes except how to enjoy them. — CHRISTIAN CHENSVOLD

17 Comments on "Success Through Good Grooming: Bert Bacharach’s Right Dress, 1955"

  1. Y L Hollander | September 11, 2013 at 5:08 pm |

    “The well-groomed man gets the girl.”

    Leave it to a guy named Bert Bacharach to know a thing or two about The Look of Love.

  2. Interesting that Burt went very much the other way regarding dress. After his stint with Dietrich where he was tuxedo-ed up, and the Brill Building years when he most closely aligned with the Ivy look, he very comfortably slipped into the role of ambassador for casual – tennis shirt, sweaters over the shoulder, deck shoes etc.
    He writes a bit about his dad, Bert, in the the recent ‘Anyone Who Had A Heart’ autobiography. Quite a typical showbiz tome but also very frank. Enjoyable.

  3. Looks like a two piece suit on the Alpha wooer. He’s got the cigarette going as well. That explains the girl. She is having major nicotine withdrawals and he has the goods. It’s not the suit!

  4. I’ve never met the “most of us” you refer to – the “most of us” that I’m familiar with believe that a collared shirt constitutes formalwear sufficient for almost any occasion or venue! Also, while I’m no fan of orthodoxy I believe that white shirt will look better for dinner than a tattersall, at least in the city, just as a blue suit will look better in the evening than a tweed jacket. It makes me think that the Ivy uniform is essentially semi-rural garb.

    Also, there’s an assumption (of which I’m guilty) that men dress to express themselves. I’d like that to be true but I’d honestly guess about 95% of guys have no greater ambition for their dress than to fit in, which is why most men love rules just as much as we aesthetes revile them.

    It’s temping to believe that people who dress more formally than we do are joyless, rule-obsessed throwbacks, while those who dress less formally are slobs. It’s a narrow line we walk!

  5. «natural-shouldered jackets are honest and unadorned, befitting a group of people who reviled falsity and overstatement.»

    Precisely why some of us wouldn’t be caught dead in GTH clothing.

  6. A Keydet. Interesting.

    Christian, this intrigues:

    “My opinion is that is has more to do with the WASP ethos than corpore sano: natural-shouldered jackets are honest and unadorned, befitting a group of people who reviled falsity and overstatement…”

    Two observations. First, I think there’s a lot of truth to this. Reverence for the old WASP culture, which was largely inspired by a certain kind of Anglophila, has waned. Nearly disappeared. There are pockets of it in the South, and I guess maybe New England a bit. I mean, a little bit. But my experience is that New Englanders, as a lot, either don’t care about style (understated is not synonymous with frumpy) or, like so many who have some $ to spend, just buy a lot of Polo and J. Crew.

    Second: not so much. I mean, really. Can we honestly say the excesses that have been correlated with WASP style (GTH, Lilly Pulitzer, madras, seersucker, pastel striped bowties, Gucci loafers) a grounded in anti-“falsity” and systematic opposition to “overstatement”?

    I can’t complain about the waning interest in and appreciation of a the old, Anglophile WASP culture and style. It’s rare and therefore unique. And living and breathing in Far Hills, Middleburg, and Aiken.

  7. SE:

    First off, thank you for the thoughtful comment. Jumping into it, I must admit that I find it strange that your first point is drawn on contemporary observation, whereas the preference for the natural shoulder among the Eastern Establishment goes back at least a century.

    For the second part, I’d say that every culture has its contradictions, and WASPs (or more generall, the Eastern Establishment, including the Catholics and Jews that worked with them when the Protestant Establishment was the primary power group in the US), have plenty. One of their most curious contradictions is their taste for bland food and yet garish sportswear.

    It’s supercilious to support an argument by appeals to my own writing, but let’s be real. After five years of this, it’s hard not to. I’ve addressed the GTH spirit at length in the “Damned Dapper” link accessible in the right column. To look at such clothing from a 2013, possibly outsider’s point of view can be helpful, but you should also try to get into the minds of the tribe at the time these items were developed. The point was that even though the fabrics were garish, the cut was correct. There was a certain way of wearing them, explored in the Rake article. These were tribal colors brought out in specific social circumstances, just like banners and scarves and (male) cheerleaders’s outfits for the football game.

    So-called go-to-hell clothing is loud, but its loud in a way that is socially accepted by the tribe, and is worn in ways and situations where it is acceptable. That’s a far cry from the kind of ostentatious overstatement that the caste, well, castigated.

  8. “Tribal” is the perfect word to describe and explain a lot about how we dress, behave, believe, etc.

  9. Whatever natural shoulder clothing was, and however it was interpreted and marketed, I think Mr. Press is right when he asserts that it’s basically “an American version of English clothing that had a certain snob appeal.”

    If this is true, and, again, I think it is, then then it serves to illuminate my point: it was the (Protestant) Establishment that created the market for a certain kind of clothing. The response, by Brooks and then later Rosenberg and J. Press and so on, has been chronicled. The tweeds, the moleskin, the flannel, the worsted suitings, the English silk repp and wool challis and Scottish tartans, the veddy English accessories–all demanded by Elites who took their cues from English aristocrats. “Snob appeal”? You bet. And I’m all for it.

    The reason I can’t complain about the waning interest in this tradition, which includes clothing yet trancends it, is that it’s what I grew up seeing and still favor. The Barbour jacket and Hunter Wellies

    Madras, I get and like. Tartan-inspired. And I can’t make myself dislike seersucker, as thoroughly ridiculous as it looks as a suit. (and it just does).

    But, with due respect paid to your defense, you wrote what you wrote–that WASPs reviled “overstatement.” You want to qualify that claim with the asterisk okay-well-maybe-not-all-the-time.

    To declare GTH clothing a key facet of the “tribal” (???) dress does indeed feel like an outsider move. The sort of blanketesque generalization the distant observer makes about the “tribe”–way over there. You know, in Stamford.

    It’s just too easy. And easy’s first cousin is clumsy.

  10. What, by the way, do you have in mind as you speak of the “ostentatious overstatement that the caste, well, castigated”?

  11. SE, I’m afraid I had trouble following you. I don’t see the point about the English origin of much of the ingredients of the Ivy League Look.

    Also, I think you’re hung up on my use of “overstatement,” so we may be arguing about semantics.

    GTH clothing looks like “overstatement” to you, but not to the tribe. For them, it’s correct, festive attire. There are cultures around the world that put enormous sticks in their lower lips and huge plates in their earlobes. We may find it ugly, but they find it beautiful.

    I just finished rereading Geoffrey Wolff’s “The Final Club,” and the narrator paints his hero as looking dashing for a summer party wearing a white linen jacket, madras tie and whimsical embroidered belt (the other items — buttondown shirt, charcoal tropical worsteds, and Weejuns — are all standard kit, which is part of the social custom of how GTH items are worn). However, another character is taken to task for “foppery” for wearing his father’s Savile Row jacket, which is nipped at the waist (and presumably has structured shoulders).

    So among the WASP tribe, shoulder pads would come down to false and unacceptable overstatement, but pink pants with green frogs would not.

  12. Okay, yes, I suspect I know what you mean by the “tribe,” but I dare to guess it’s an oversimplification. Limited in scope. WASPs lived and worked in places other than eastern Connecticut and the Upper East Side. Really. And young men were wearing natural shoulder clothing before before 1902.

    It’s sort of like saying “The Punks–yes, they all wore combat boots and leather jackets.” This is the problem with amateur sociological analysis of a so-called “tribe”: it misses the exceptions. Is my colleague, a graduate of Mccallie and Princeton and Harvard, disqualified because he thinks Pink pants look awful? Who’ll tell him he missed the memo to embrace everything the mythology says he should?

    Are we talking Heyday? Come on. How many undergrads wore lime green whale motif pants in 1963? Or patch anything? It’s a safe guess 9.9 out of ten Heyday undergrads didn’t have access to Chipp’s tongue-in-cheek (and admittedly well tailored) outrageousness.

    I can point you in the direction of more than a few older folks (whom I suspect, in terms of education, manners, and tastes, qualify as members of what you deem “the tribe”) who wouldn’t be caught dead wearing critter motif pants.

    I’ll grant there’s some duplicity. For ties, a repeating motif somehow passes muster. Especiallh if the silk ground is navy. Don’t ask me why. Still.

    This is going nowhere (mea culpa, mea culpa) so I’ll just confess that I’ve suffered the terrible fate (*sarcasm*) of growing up and living and studying and playing with the blander, much less interesting remnant of the so-called “tribe.” A solid bunch, on the whole, but staid maybe stuffy and and defintitel suspicious of all shades of green that aren’t bottle, forest, or olive. Unless it’s the lime their squeezing over into their gin.

  13. Rather, “they’re” squeezing. (why no edit button, CC?)

  14. Quote: “Is my colleague, a graduate of Mccallie and Princeton and Harvard, disqualified because he thinks Pink pants look awful? Who’ll tell him he missed the memo to embrace everything the mythology says he should?”

    You’re now talking about the personal taste of certain individuals. I agree this is going nowhere.

  15. If we’re talking primarily about the construction of the jacket (particularly the shoulder), then I tend to agree with your opinion. I do think the preference had much to do with values including modesty and and understatement. After all, the roots are in country wear and sport. Casual. Relaxed.

    I’ll stand by a working hypothesis that no more than a quarter of Heyday era Tri-State WASPs relinquished those values for the sake of indulgence in garish sportswear. Okay, more of a guess.

  16. He’s got the cigarette going as well.Quite a typical showbiz tome but also very frank.

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