This is the latest in our series of reader anecdotes about the ’60s. If you’d like to participate, please use the contact button above.
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I graduated from an affluent suburban high school in the mid-Atlantic region in 1963. Although my father owned a men’s clothing store, I was not terribly interested in issues of fashion. But the approach of freshman year at college forced me to organize my wardrobe. I had a lot of chinos, and, for dressier occasions, I owned a blue flannel blazer and a Harris Tweed black and white herringbone suit that could have stopped a 22-calibre bullet.
Being as interested in academics as I was in clothing, I had not bothered to visit any actual campuses, but I felt sure that my new pair of desert boots were the type favored by all the BMOCs. I don’t remember what else I packed in the foot locker that went with me to school, but things probably looked pretty much like the clothes favored by my only real style tutors, the Kingston Trio. I thought that I was set, and I suppose that I would have been if I had been matriculating at Bucknell or Haverford or really anywhere up and down the eastern seaboard.
But I wasn’t. Instead, my parents shipped me off to a small liberal arts college in the South, 18 hours by car from my home. You will not have heard of this place, and I fondly think of it as America’s only degree-granting reform school. The students were a mixed lot, from first-college-goers-in-the-family to the offspring of industrialists. Some were academically serious, while others subscribed to the old adage that college has two lessons to teach: don’t mix stripes with checks and don’t mix beer with whiskey. Almost all were from the South.
Regardless of the differences in backgrounds and economic circumstances, most of the students wore a version of what I began to think of as The Uniform, which was very different from the boola boola stuff I had brought. Never having been in the South before, this look was new to me, but the freshmen brought it with them from their high schools. That process must have been going on for some time, since those just entering college dressed exactly as did the seniors. The Uniform was “in” and well understood. My look was not simply “out;” it was, like my Yankee accent, alien. I had a choice: I could stay as I was and never have a date, or I could go shopping.
But what were the components of the style, the Uniform, that I was going to attempt to emulate? First, it was very dressy. One needed a London Fog Baracuta-style jacket in either tan or blue, and a Fog single-breasted raincoat in the same colors. So many people owned these that monogramming was required to ensure that you got your own coat back in the dining hall. When Old Man Winter arrived, a topcoat was necessary, either of wool or tweed. In terms of shirts, Gant was the pur sang article, probably because they could be identified by certain visual characteristics, including the sewn-through label. All my classmates had stories of tittering high school girls tearing off locker loops from Gant-shirted males, in some sort of adolescent below-the-Mason-Dixon-Line mating ritual. Gant’s other edge was having the best selection of fabrics among the popular shirtmakers. Eagle and Sero were also at the top, and the single-needle sleeve attachment was the dividing line between shirts that were right and those not right. Regardless of maker, though, students sent their shirts to the laundry and, by insisting on heavy starch, ensured that they could stand up on their own.
I should mention one other interesting type of shirt. As a kid I’d worn a lot of polo shirts, but Southerners, at least at my school, had no interest in them. Rather, they preferred a type of knit shirt known colloquially as a “Ban-Lon.” In a sense, they looked more or less like polos made by Lacoste, but the knit, being synthetic, was much finer and gave the garment a much more expensive look. Everything, especially the collars, lay perfectly flat, making the Ban Lon an excellent choice for pairing with dress trousers. A lot of students owned a dozen of these shirts.
Sweaters were typically wool v-necks rather than crew, probably because they looked better with a starched shirt collar. Scottish makers such as Alan Paine or Pringle were favored. The caste mark for sweaters was the saddle shoulder. A cut-and-sewn shoulder was very much out. For warmer temperatures, the alpaca golf sweater was very desirable, particularly since the colors tended to be brighter. A lot of people I knew had a half dozen of these sweaters. But all sweaters, whether wool or alpaca, weren’t complete without a monogram on the left breast.
Other elements of The Uniform were equally formal. Cuffed dress trousers – wool in winter, a blend for warmer temperatures – were worn daily. In my Yankee chinos, I looked like the second assistant leaf raker. The only relaxation of this dress trouser rule was with white ducks and khakis. In the case of khakis, these were not like my chinos but more like military surplus, all cotton and very tan, and were a kind of party pant. These went to the laundry with explicit instructions for extra heavy starch. When they came back, one could slice cheese with the creases because the sides of each leg were, more or less, welded together by the starch and the mangling iron. The only way to get them on was to stand on a bunk, grip the waistband and throw the pants out in front of you. After that you could begin to force your foot through the leg. Anybody who has ever done this will likely always remember the unique sound that it produces.
After getting them on, one avoided any further movement, especially sitting, for as long as possible since the entire garment would quickly collapse into a mass of wrinkles. But they were party pants, and as the night progressed nobody cared how they looked. Moreover, a good laundry could easily remove the PJ (a Ceremonial Beverage) stains and the whole stiffening process could be repeated until the trousers fell apart from exhaustion.
There was not a wide choice of appropriate shoes. The Weejun was the capo di tutti capi of collegiate footwear. You could choose oxblood or black, but God help you if your loafers displayed a beefroll. The saddle shoe, in oxblood with a black saddle, was another popular selection, as were plain cordovan laceups. The tassel loafer was a secure choice, often from French Shriner and in a variety of colors. I had a black pair with embossed croc design and when they wore out, I cut paisley shaped pieces of leather out of the uppers and wore them as sandals. Weejuns were also a popular target for this type of treatment. The longwing was also a good shoe choice. The pair I had, from Bostonian, looked like they had been made from recycled footballs and lasted about 20 years. Gold Cup socks were the standard, but because they usually fell down, a lot of students wore sock garters.
Other important accessories were alligator belts, along with surcingle belts and long wallets made of madras and trimmed in leather that students carried in their back pockets, which should have made college campuses a pickpocket’s dream. Canterbury seemed to have had a lock on the production of these last two items. I don’t believe that I ever saw a hat on campus except for freshman beanies and a beret worn by a batty Eastern European finance professor.
When it came to suits and sportcoats, I was fine. What I had was typical of what people at the time referred to as “traditional” clothing. Whether the coats had two or three buttons I don’t remember; what was important was buying from the right maker, with the assumption that the details would then be correct. In my case, my father sold Stanley Blacker sportcoats, and Blacker could always be counted on for high-quality clothing. The fit was terrific, but what made Blacker such a standout was the unbeatable selection of fabrics like tweeds and plaids. I think that most students wore sportcoats more than suits, and there was a yearly progression from tweed to madras and other lightweight fabrics and back again. I’m not sure that I ever owned more than that one suit, but I had many odd jackets.
As to neckwear, one had a wide choice as long as you liked repp stripes and clubs and knew how to tie a four-in-hand knot.
So that was The Uniform. Once you assembled the basics, you had an enormous variety of options. Because it was all assembled from a rather constrained style and palette, everything tended to match everything else. The Uniform served very much the same purpose as the old prep school wardrobe from which I imagine it was derived. You could stumble into your closet, dress yourself in the dark –possibly because you were still too drunk to be able to find the light switch, and emerge looking reasonably good. The slight weirdnesses that sometimes resulted, like wearing repp-striped ties with big plaid jackets, emphasized the casualness within what was a pretty refined look.
The Uniform served me well for the nearly five years (oops) of my first undergraduate effort. I left school in early 1968 to work in the store, as my father had fallen ill. Seniors were still enlisting in the military after graduation, exchanging The Uniform for a real uniform, coeds still looked fetching in Villager and Pappagallo, and the campus looked normal in the rear-view mirror. It was an illusion.
But it was no illusion that it was already a time of wild upheaval in the clothing business, as retailers and manufacturers sought to understand traditional dress within a new context of forces like the Beatles and Sammy Davis, Jr. and Carnaby Street and John Steed, along with the challenge of boutique couturiers, the breakdown of the old franchised brand system, and denim avengers like Bob Dylan. There was a lot of floundering around. I was still selling traditional Blacker jackets while custom-making English walking suits for younger customers. Alongside the regular wool trousers, I was offering a line of bell-bottom trousers that I manufactured using rolls of flowered drapery fabric bought from an upholsterer. Sero started sending me spread-collar shirts in ice cream colors. Nobody knew what the hell was going on, and I least of all.
Even Ralph Lauren, who would finally solve the problem of how to unite the traditional with the fashionable, was making ultra-wide ties, a la Mr. Fish. Fortunately I didn’t have to worry long as my father and my hardship deferment experienced a simultaneous death. Uncle Sam quickly offered me a not-to-be-refused training opportunity and an all-expenses-paid tour of Southeast Asia. The clothing business and I parted company permanently.
But one summer five years later, now with my wife, I was back on the campus of my old college, intent on finishing my degree. But, as the Chinese say, you can’t step into the same river twice, and only the architecture was unchanged.
My new uniform was white jeans and a white jean jacket, paired with side-zip Florsheim boots. I was invisible, adrift in a sea of denim. Faculty members who had sung the praises of FDR and JFK now had anti-war crap pasted all over their doors. A man whose arm I had years earlier held while he barfed his brains out at a party was now my history professor. Ten years earlier I had arrived wearing a Harris Tweed herringbone suit. The suit that I wore in August 1973 to walk across the stage and claim my degree had been made for me in Hong Kong. It was a mustard yellow three-piece number, complete with flared trousers and lapels wide enough for flight, accentuated by a yellow and brown Art Deco geometric necktie. No one laughed. It was the new collegiate look. — CW
This was well-written. And clever, not least of all in its Vietnam reference, which we haven’t yet seen in these stories. Kudos. I was left very curious about the school, however, especially given our recent posting about Hampden-Sydney.
Another reason to post today: I happen to catch a snippet of Rush Limbaugh on the radio, holding forth about how the button-down shirt, specifically, is the definitive affectation of intellectualism. (God forbid any of us aspire to *that*). And he went on to cite our very own WFB, both in style and speech!
Very excellent essay! The Vietnam War killed patriotism and conservatism in the USA. I also lived in that era, served in the US Army (not in combat), and can attest to the hatred directed at the military.
I was ashamed to wear my uniform while on leave. I recall hippies yelling obscenities at us GI’s at the airports and other public places when we soldiers were in uniform.
Really sad to think about.
I fortunately “missed” Vietnam by just a few years. Was quite aware, however, of what was going on. I never felt any anger or hatred toward the soldiers serving in Viet Nam (the Guard troops at Kent State excepted). It was mainly Congress, Johnson and Nixon along with “We were wrong, terribly wrong. We owe it to future generations to explain why.” — McNamara, who were probably most responsible for killing patriotism and conservatism (along with associated dress).
Granted that begin in high school vs. college (of Draft age) at that time probably made for a huge difference in the way the war and government was perceived. I did not have to walk in these Weejuns…
Very nice essay.
I think the beginning of the end of patriotism came a little earlier than the Vietnam War. JFK’s assassination really threw the country for a loop. People (then and now) didn’t believe that little Harvey Oswald could single-handedly kill a president. Many didn’t believe the Warren Commission and government view; they preferred a conspiracy as cause. Whether there had been a conspiracy or not, the fact that many people believed that some form of conspiracy deliberately killed Kennedy cracked the foundations of government and the amount of faith we would continue to place in it. Of course, Vietnam, Watergate and other events all added to our growing distrust of government and, hence, our diminished patriotism, but I believe it all started with Kennedy’s death.
Excellent piece but why keep the school name a mystery?
“no man steps into the same river twice, for the river has changed and so has the man” – Heraclitus.
A shirt factory back home (NC) made Ban-Lon shirts. It was where I learned about marketing: on a plant tour with Mr. Bodenstein (a concentration camp survivor) I asked if the different shifts made different quality shirts, as the shipping room had boxes for various labels that I knew were widely priced. He just laughed, and told me the labels were different, but the shirts were the same. Ban-Lon had two main characteristics: heat retention and getting “picks” if you brushed against anything.
CW’s college years were my jr. high and high school ones, and I do recall all the brand consciousness. Also that khakis were what I wore wiring houses and businesses with my Dad, or bird hunting, but not to school.
@ A Bridge Too Far:
I’m with you all the way. The down hill slide began with the assassination of JFK….it shattered our innocence.
Poignant article had quite a New Journalism feel to it; I enjoyed it. Having been born and raised in the Coastal South I can attest to the nuances of Southern style. We assiduously differentiate ourselves from our Northern aggressors in bother manner and style.
“Nobody knew what the hell was going on…”
Well crafted narrative. Definitely a New Journalism vibe. The beginning of an extended memoir, perhaps.
A lot of the Heyday look was as weird as 70s style. The 80s marked a return to what I’ll call mid-century normalcy (sartorially speaking).
The notion that Vietnam and the assassination of JFK split the nation overlook the fact that the Wilson administration – the closest America has ever come to outright fascism – was an incredibly dark moment. Likewise reactionary opposition to the New Deal – Robert Taft, etc. – reminded us that were deep fissures in the US, both left v. right and also intra-left squabbles. The 1950s were a time of brief tranquility but the explosion in the 1960s was only a resurgence of what took place earlier in the century
Like that river quote.
How does one “step into a river”?
I understand stepping into a puddle or the sea/ocean, but how does one step into a river (or a lake, for that matter)?
Ancient Chinese proverb: “the journey across a river begins with a single step.”
F. Helbard –
With your feet. Sorry, couldn’t resist. We do it all the time in fly fishing, launching a canoe, and going skinny dipping. Rivers are made to be stepped in.
Does one take “a journey” across a river?
Perhaps in a boat.
In that case, are we to assume that the step is taken in boarding the boat?
This conversation has taken a turn for the *yawn*.
Spice it up!
Chili pepper, cinnamon, coriander, and nutmeg!
CW-Thank you for this piece. Honest, authentic I could really feel the time the place and even the feeling of loss.
The river quote comes from Hericlitus, I believe, the school, person, river are always changing.