Friday, February 24, 2006

A Curmudgeon’s Lament


A Curmudgeon?s Lament, or
Musings of an Old Ivy Leaguer

By

G. Bruce Boyer

When I was growing up back in the late 1950s, the matter of dress for young men was relatively simple. When a boy reached adolescence he would put away much of his childhood wardrobe — whatever that might have been — and begin to wear a basic outfit that would see him through the college years and beyond. It was a time before the designer revolution in menswear, before the Ralph Laurens and Versaces, the Armanis and Paul Smiths, the Dolces and the Gabannas. A simpler time.

It was a time when there were basically three types of clothing stores. There was of course the traditional store for the traditional American business look: conservatively cut suits, safe shirts (the majority of which were white, with one or two collar styles), and discreet foulard or striped neckwear. Then there was the somewhat ?sharper? store, a more courant version of the trad store, more upscale, hipper, more for the man who was known for caring about style. In the late ?50s this store took on a bit of European flair. The clothing was called ?Continental?, meaning Italian, to distinguish it from British. There had been a tradition of British clothing here, but the Italian thing was new.

Finally there was the Ivy League shop.

Called “Ivy League” or ?campus? shop because the style had originated, evolved, and took it’s strength from the prestigious Eastern Establishment universities. After World War II young men of growing middle class means attended these institutions of higher learning in droves on the G.I. Bill of economic assistance. What they found was that they could construct a basic campus wardrobe without a great deal of money and effort. There was high serviceability and low maintenance to the college wardrobe of the day.

The basic items were the oxford cloth buttondown shirt and cotton twill khaki trousers. Six shirts, three white and three blue, and two or three pair of khakis would do the job. In cooler weather, a Shetland crewneck sweater in any color was added. A pair of brown penny loafers and white tennis sneakers (possibly a pair of white or tan buckskin oxfords) constituted the acceptable range of footwear.

For outerwear, a cotton gabardine balmacaan raincoat (always tan), and a stout duffel coat (in tan or navy) were all that were needed, although many men also had a cotton gab golf jacket, also in tan. Mountain climbing parkas, safari jackets, trout fishing coats, barn coats, and equestrian slickers were all thought of as exotic sportswear.

Everyone had a tweed sports jacket (Harris or Shetland) and/or a navy single-breasted blazer for semi-dress, and a gray flannel suit for dress. Summer semi-formality was assured with a seersucker or tan poplin suit; some had madras sports jackets; for the more formal occasions a dark Grey or navy tropical worsted suit. A half-dozen ties (regimentals, foulards, or dots), and the necessary complement of underwear, socks, pajamas, and handkerchiefs filled out the basics.

Cut, fit, and quality were what was important. If it was all properly fitted, of the acceptable cut, and made well, these items would do a young man proud, no matter where he was going, or what the occasion, from a faculty tea to a classy dance.

And it wasn?t a matter of being simply less sophisticated either. There were intricacies of cut and quality to these basic garments that belied their straight-forwardness. Good jackets, for example, were always three-button and natural-shouldered, softly constructed in the chest and cut on the easy side. Lapels extended about a third of the way to the shoulder line, and aficionados were quick to note the hook vent in the rear. Trousers were also cut easy, just this side of baggy. Everything, needless to say, shouldn’t look too new. Quality used to imply longevity in those days. Raincoats, khakis, shoes, and tweeds were all expected to be slightly scuffed and rumpled. A soft patina of age was desirable, and total effect should be rather a studied nonchalance. An old money sprezzatura was the style.

Those dozen garments or so weren’t the be-all and end-all, of course. There were myriad other attractions for the dandies amongst us. Silk knit ties (plain black or navy was best, with square-cut ends) and paisley pocket squares, odd flannel trousers, broadcloth tab-collar shirts, cordovan brogues and scotchgrain wingtips, navy worsted pinstripes with vests, white duck trousers for summer, and lambswool turtlenecks for winter. The sophisticated young man may have splurged for a camelhair polo coat. Everyone seemed to have colorfully striped surcingle belts with brass horseshoe-shaped buckles. And the brightest Argyle socks.

For most, the subtleties of double-breasted jackets and grenadine neckwear, of suede town shoes, enameled cuff links, covert cloth chesterfields, and cashmere cabled hosiery were not imaginable. But then neither were exterior logos, Italian designers, or microfibers.

There also didn?t seem to be the questions of what to wear when. We certainly knew when the occasion called for a tie, and gym clothes were confined to the gym.

It was, as I say, a simpler time.

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18 comments

  1. Otto

    February 24, 2006 at 8:44 pm

    Tell it Mr. Boyer!

    You’ve seen the look a million times, but you notice when it’s very well done.

    Big nostalgia.

    There was no shortage of rubbish sold and worn back then, and even the rubbish cost much more than today’s rubbish.

    Today’s best cashmere and marino fabrics are wonderful; and for a price unthinkable in the 50′s. Color and texture palate are far better too.

    Tie silks are far better today.

    Sadly, fur felt hats are mostly gone and ball caps epidemic.

    Appreciation of fit is mostly gone.
    Good tailors are becoming rare.

    Good men’s shoes are mostly better than “in the day”, and no more costly…$500 and up.

    Thanks for the post & photo.

    Otto

  2. Mimi

    February 24, 2006 at 9:42 pm

    i love ur pictures

  3. Anonymous

    February 24, 2006 at 9:44 pm

    Great piece. Love the contributions by Bruce Boyer, perhaps the best writer on the subject of menswear working today.

  4. Anonymous

    February 24, 2006 at 11:53 pm

    What a fabulous article by Mr. Boyer! I hope he continues to contribute to this site.

  5. Anonymous

    February 25, 2006 at 1:02 pm

    Oh my. You’ve just described my father’s wardrobe. He went to an Ivy League college from a lower-class background, learned how to dress ‘properly’ there, and stuck to that the rest of his life. I hadn’t realized it was such a narrow type, though!
    -KL

  6. LA Guy

    February 25, 2006 at 4:22 pm

    Love this blog; and I think Bruce Boyer is one of the few “traditionalists” with their integrity completely intact after so many years.

    But I agree with most of what otto posted. I am not of that “simpler”generation, but I think I understand what Mr. Boyer laments, and that is “simplicity”. I’m not sure that that is something worth his lamenting.

    In real dollar terms, the price of clothing of the same quality clothing as offered fifty years ago has actually gone down, and if you want the same quality of goods as available then, there are plenty of shops that offer them at very reasonable prices. I am far from rich, but I could assemble Mr. Boyer’s capsule wardrobe very easily, in under a day, if need be.

    What is really different now is that there is a lot more choice. There are not just one or two style tribes, but a multitude, often espousing conflicting aesthetics. It increasingly difficult to separate the good from the bad, especially when trying to evaluate what is good in a style subculture alien to own’s own. I mean, I couldn’t tell you what consitutes a really good penis gourd, could you?

  7. Anonymous

    February 26, 2006 at 9:51 am

    This man looks great now, bet he did back then too. Thanks for the history, much appreciated.

  8. Bertie

    February 27, 2006 at 10:21 pm

    What Mr. Boyer says is true. He’s a wise old egg and I’m happy to count him among my friends. Menswear today is a vast wasteland that runs from garish to goonish with only the occasional pearl to mark an otherwise bleak landscape. Mr. Boyer’s tastes are definitely American, but decidedly sound. (This is a huge subject to try and tackle here so I’ll just say this.) I admit that the styles Mr. Boyer and I love are anachronisms; from a time and place long gone. In the past there would have been a new and perhaps equally valid style that would replace the old, but that old system has broken down entirely. The principles of aesthetics have been forgotten and where they once proudly reigned we now have a mire of meaningless rubbish.

    In response to Herr Otto-the tie silks today are not better. They are generally bland or grotesque and are all too often as heavy as polyester apolstery. The nice knot is no more. That is except for Ralph Lauren!

    In response to la guy- You nor anyone short of the Almighty and the entire staff of Apparel Arts could put together Mr. Boyer’s wardrobe in a day or even a year. And by the by, old boy, you couldn’t find those pieces today if you tried; many of them could be made, but many of them are dead and gone never to return.

  9. bliushift

    February 28, 2006 at 3:13 am

    If only the current college wardrobe had as much style and class – my classmates usually show up to class with hoodies and jeans. On university campuses, wearing a collared shirt is considered well-dressed and wearing a casual blazer borders on being overdressed. The emergence of college students as a large consumer group has caused clothing manufacturers capitalize on ugly track jackets, horrible sweatshirts, and tasteless t-shirts. I believe this is due to some marketing tactic which requires us to completely throw away our wardrobes when we graduate and start working which we will trade for the Express for Men, H&M and cheap, trendy suits which, in a few years, we will not be able to pull off. It’s depressing how vast the array of designer clothes, yet the tastelessness of the college-attending social norm. I believe the simplicity has been preserved on a certain level – but at the expense of class and style.

  10. Anonymous

    February 28, 2006 at 6:06 am

    Where did Boyer go to college?

    Congratulations on another story by a heavy hitter!

  11. walden

    July 25, 2008 at 6:41 pm

    When I was in my late teens and early twenties (late70′s, early 80′s) I would buy GQ, my favourite columnist was Richard Merkin. He was always entertaining and enlightening and regularly wrote about Mr Boyer’s kind of style. What an inspiration for a kid growing up in New Zealand.

  12. W. Laughlin

    August 6, 2008 at 11:03 pm

    I realize I’m reading this post more than two years later, but I have to admit, being both a seller of menswear and a painter in art school, that I wholeheartedly agree with this lamentation.

    I’ve stumbled across photos of artists in their studios or teaching, and they are dressed well, in chinos, shirt, and jacket. The students in those shots look slightly more rumpled than their Ivy League counterparts, slaving hours away in studio looking totally presentable, since you would never know who might drop in for critque.

    When I come to class even in jeans, an oxford, and a merino cardigan, I am asked why I’ve “dressed up.” I don’t really know how to respond, as I know that look falls slightly out of bounds of traditional casual.

    I am glad to see this blog maintain a visual history of menswear, in the hope of keeping it relevant in times when cheapened ready-to-wear is standard.

  13. Anonymous

    April 30, 2011 at 10:10 am

    The last paragraph says it all. Well said.

  14. Ben

    November 30, 2011 at 3:35 am

    Hi Scott,
    Followed your site for several years, and read this a while ago, but only now realized how it applied to me.
    It’s my first year in law school, and often the faculty and professors mistake me for a visiting professor. I’ve capitalized on this by sneaking into the teachers lounge for the free coffee; only to be discovered and chastised by the dean.
    A pair of jeans, cordovan wingtips, a button down shirt (top button undone) and a sports blazer seems like my regular staple. Mondays are for suits…
    Everyone is always commenting on overdressed I am…
    But the irony is that it seems easier to throw together a casual look, than the mental anguish associated with wearing a t-shirt and sweats in front of tenured professors. How my peers achieve this in grad school, still eludes me!

    Keep up the great work,
    Ben

  15. James Harris

    January 2, 2012 at 2:54 am

    Great article! Can someone tell me what type/style topcoat Mr. Boyer is wearing for this article and where I might possibly find it? I’ve been looking for this more “traditionalist” topcoat style, quite unsuccessfully, for some time now. Any thoughts would be helpful.

    Thanks…

    • ken michel

      February 26, 2014 at 1:05 am

      The topcoat Mr. Boyer is wearing is called a Balmacan.

  16. jdit

    August 26, 2012 at 4:33 pm

    Geez – sounds like the old Preppy Hand Book – Ironic huh? Nothing untoward intended but I think that it is more-so now that the clothing of those times – expressed in the article – are actually affordable for most…considering the knock-off versions available at the bevy pf H&Ms, Old Navys and Gaps and the lot…just saying…
    That said – I love the look and gravitate to it whenever in doubt about something a little off the ‘t’rack’…

  17. Alice

    December 14, 2012 at 10:47 pm

    I’ve returned to this article several times now (this time because I was searching “penny loafers” on your site), and I love it! Could you have more interviews like this?

    P.S. what is with the lack of penny loafer love on this site? Why only wingtips and monk straps? I would like more pleeeeease! (Or is this a sign that my shoe choices are hopelessly out of date?)

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