Boomers Got Tattoos — Or Did They?

The history of tattooing spans countries, cultures and generations. The early days of tattoos in the U.S. echoed the new country’s military beginnings, as tattoos were predominantly inked on male soldiers and sailors, who sported patriotic themes or regimental insignia. This same practice was reawakened during the Civil War, when tattoo artists would travel, even from Union to Confederate camps, to practice their art.

The Victorian Era saw acceptance of tattoos grow from the strata of the military and lower income classes to higher echelons of society. A New York newspaper at the time reported that as many as three quarters of the women of high society were tattooed for decoration, mostly with butterflies and flowers.

Like most trends in the U.S., the popularity of tattoos started on the East and West Coasts and moved inward, but times were changing. By the 1920s, tattoos and tattoo artists were equated with the excesses of the Jazz Age, and it fell out of fashion in the general population as part of the sweep of the Prohibition Movement. Tattoos on women were thought to be a sign of promiscuity. This forced some heavily tattooed women into working circus and strip-tease acts. Nonetheless, the practice continued. When Social Security was introduced in the 1930s, a minor trend appeared of getting your newly-issued Social Security number tattooed on your body so that you would remember it!

In the 1940s, many men still sought out tattoo artists. However, as the possibility of the U.S. entering World War II loomed large, the military would not accept individuals with images of naked women or pin-ups, popular tats of the day. Consequently, there was a surge in tattoo business nationwide as men had their tattoos “dressed” with nurses’ uniforms, bikinis or even Native American garb. During the War, it was mainly sailors — like the early days of the U.S. military — who received tattoos. And like the time of the American Revolution and Civil War, their tats were most often patriotic images or regimental insignia.

By the time the War had ended and the first boomers were born, tattoos were once again losing their status in society. Prisoners gave each other tattoos, often to reflect group affiliation, and thus a person observed with a visible tattoo was thought of as either a felon or under-educated. This rebellious reputation made tattoos more attractive for motorcycle clubs and Beatniks, though their chosen imagery differed greatly. Motorcycle club members often had a club logo tattoo in the 1950s, while the Beatniks preferred imagery that suggested Eastern mysticism.

In 1961, a hepatitis outbreak in New York City was traced to a tattoo studio in Coney Island. Consequently, a New York City law banned all tattoo establishments, and most of the country followed suit. (New York City didn’t repeal the law until 1997.) More underground than it had been in decades, tattoo artists worked illicitly. As rock ‘n roll established itself as the voice of the younger generation, some rock stars sported tattoos as a sign of their rebellious nature. Members of the Grateful Dead and Janis Joplin, in particular, sported visible tattoos.

In Mister Boomer’s circle of family and friends, tattoos were a rarity. He only knew two people — both men — with tattoos. The first was his uncle, a veteran of World War II, who had his army division insignia tattooed on his arm. The other was a manager at the first retail job Mister Boomer worked. The man’s tattoo pictured snakes slithering down an anchor — he had recently left the Navy.

In Mister Boomer’s area, it was commonly said during the 1960s and ’70s that any tattoos or markings should be covered up for job interviews. It was not going to be easy to enter Corporate America if you had a visible tattoo. Thus the alienation between financial classes, heightened by level of education, could also increase over physical appearance. Many long-haired boomers will attest to this same form of discrimination. Consequently, tattooed boomers tended to work in factories, record stores or places where they would not be seen by the general public lest someone be offended.

Now it is said that the number of tattoo studios in the U.S. has doubled since the 1990s. Many corporations still frown on their workers showing tattoos, and tattoo concealer sales have grown to serve this market. At the same time, tattoo removal services have also grown exponentially. According to a 2006 study by the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology, nearly a quarter of Americans between 18 and 50 have at least one tattoo.

These days it’s hard to turn practically anywhere without seeing people of both genders sporting tattoos. Male and female stars on all types of TV shows, movie stars and sports stars proudly display their tats. More establishments are relaxing their ban on tattoos in the workplace as the popularity seems yet to have reached its peak. Who knows where this will lead? Mister Boomer can’t help but wonder if the Boomer Generation didn’t set the stage for the level of freedom this current generation has to express themselves with their bodies.

While Mister Boomer doesn’t have any tattoos and doesn’t know tattooed boomers himself, he did run into one man in his daily work commute last summer who had a series of tattoos on both his arms and legs. The man appeared to be of boomer age and was dressed in shorts, so he may have been retired or worked as a corporate messenger since he was observed carrying large envelopes each time Mister Boomer encountered him on the train platform. The interesting thing about his tattoos to Mister Boomer, though — and what made him think the man was a boomer himself — was that virtually all of his tattoos were cartoon characters from our boomer days. The man had Mighty Mouse, Heckel and Jeckel, Huckleberry Hound, Popeye, Felix the Cat, Yogi Bear and Bullwinkle and Rocky inked on his arms and legs! While Mister Boomer isn’t of the mindset to ever get a tattoo of any type, this was one display he could appreciate. How is that for a rebellious boomer?

Did you know any fellow boomers who got tattoos back in the day, boomers? Have you jumped on the tattoo bandwagon yourself in subsequent years? Do your children have tattoos?

Boomer Boys Learned How to Dress Like Gentlemen

The cultural break between the early sixties and the latter part of the decade has been written about many times, including here at misterboomer.com. Yet Mister Boomer, as a mid-generation boomer, recalls the late 1950s and early ’60s as a time of set fashion social mores that fathers would teach sons, and mothers would teach daughters.

One of these fashion social mores — how to be a gentlemen — was, as far as Mister B was concerned, a minefield filled with potential faux pas. It was a time when there was a definite difference in the way people dressed for formal occasions and casual ones. Dress clothes for the proper gentleman meant a suit and tie, and in the early part of the Boomer Generation, a hat. Situations that called for dress clothes were weddings and funerals, to be sure, but also for weekly church attendance, going to the theater, holiday parties, and travel by train, ship or plane. Men usually dressed for any business situation, too, such as applying for a bank loan or attending a house closing.

As a boy, Mister Boomer’s clothes, like other boomers his age, were selected and purchased by his parents. Consequently, he and Brother Boomer had a set of dress clothes and casual clothes. (Mister B and his brother also had a third set that was school clothes to match the required dress code). For Mister B and Brother Boomer, it also meant a hat. Their father was part of a growing trend of post-war men who did not wear hats, yet he raised his boys with the fashion and showed them how and when to take the hat off, and how to correctly store it. In the Boomer family’s church, men took their hats off when entering, while women covered their heads at the same time. Once seated in a pew, the church had a clip installed every yard on the back of each pew that was designed to hold a man’s hat. Mister B’s father demonstrated this for his boys until they understood what the clip was for and how to use it.

There was another thing Mister B’s dad showed his boys in church: how to correctly move the pant crease from their suit pants when sitting down. A sharp-dressed man’s dress pants were pressed with a crease that ran down the front of the leg that was sharp enough to cut titanium. The only possible reason to move the crease away from the front-center of the leg that Mister Boomer can think of is, in an age before the proliferation of permanent press and no-iron fabrics, the crease might hold longer if protected when sitting down. A gentleman would need to keep his crease lest he be thought less of — a faux pas no father wanted for his boys since their appearance reflected on his status as a parent.

Mister Boomer’s father would get the attention of his two boys and, as he sat down, grabbed the front creases of both pant legs with the thumbs and index fingers of his hands. In one motion, his hands had gracefully pulled the creases to the outer side of each leg. Sometimes he demonstrated the process again, since the boys must have displayed quizzical looks. Brother Boomer caught on to this seemingly simple process fairly early on, but it flummoxed Mister Boomer into the 1960s. His father let him be as each week, Mister B grabbed the creases of his pant legs and frantically pulled them, only to end up with the creases remaining where they started. Mister Boomer waded that minefield each week, and failed. He never was able to get the creases pointing in the “correct” direction.

By the late sixties, the casualization of America had begun, and, along with the availability of permanent press and no-iron pants, made the whole process obsolete. That was not a moment too soon for Mister Boomer, who did not understand to begin with why society felt a gentleman had to do that.

Do you remember shifting your dress pant creases, boomer men? And boomer women, what fashion quirks did your mothers show you?

Boomers Loved to Tie-Dye

When people talk about the sixties these days, images of long hair, peace symbols and tie-dye shirts pictured in Summer of Love photographs run rampant through their perceptions. It’s been fifty years since the Summer of Love, that coming-of-age party for the Hippie and Psychedelic Era. Boomers know that the sixties were more than that, but the Summer of Love did play a huge role in our music and fashion in the latter half of the decade.

One area of fashion that swept through boomer youth from coast to coast was do-it-yourself tie dye. In the sixties, young people developed their own sense of style that was mostly in harmony with notions of an idealized world where people lived in peace. Part of that utopian dream was living off the land and making a lot of things yourself. Yet tie-dye fashion — in particular the homemade tie-dye t-shirt — had its roots a few thousand years before the Summer of Love.

Tie-dyed fabric has been around for thousands of years in India, Japan, China, Africa and parts of South America. The techniques varied from area to area and century to century, but they all had one thing in common: it involved tying or binding areas of fabric and dyeing it. Areas tied off would not take the dye, creating patterns that were identifiable to specific regions.

Bandhani fabrics from India date back six thousand years. Their technique was meticulously tying tiny balls of fabric (often silk) with thread so that after dyeing with natural dyes, the resulting patterns would be composed of dots. The Japanese Shibori technique folded and tied fabric to create fascinating, flowing patterns, usually in indigo. So how did this ancient method find its way into sixties counterculture?

It was in 1965 that marketing executive Don Price — former brand marketing guru for Hellmann’s mayonnaise — took the challenge to reverse the downward sales trend of Rit dyes. The company had been producing dyes for the home market since 1917, but with changing times came a shift away from Rit’s powdered dye and traditional colors.

Price, tuned into the creative energy that was bursting out of Greenwich Village in New York, convinced some artists to experiment with Rit dyes. He bought several bolts of velvet and chiffon fabric and gave them to Will and Eilleen Richardson, a couple who were former window designers. Word got out as other artists experimented with Rit, and the home DIY tie-dye movement had begun. In turn, Price convinced the company to create a liquid dye that would be more controllable for creative applications.

Artists and musicians were the first to sport the designs, and, possibly because many traveled from the east coast to California, spread the DIY tie-dye bug. It is also said that even though Don Price’s marketing of Rit may have been responsible for the widespread appeal across the nation, Californians had independently started the trend after taking trips to India. Does it matter, boomers? We came, we saw, we tie-dyed!

Back in New York, the samples made by the Richardsons so impressed Price that he took them to fashion designers hoping to coax them into using the fabrics in their designs. All but one refused him. Halston liked the samples and ordered $5000 worth. From there it was only a matter of time until tie-dye graced the covers of fashion magazines like Vogue.

Meanwhile, a few music legends we identify with the sixties had embraced the DIY tie-dye look early on. Chief among them were Janis Joplin, Mama Cass and John Sebastian. It is said that Sebastian so loved the individualism of tie-dye that he dyed his own underwear. The Monterey Pop Festival of 1967, precursor to the Summer of Love, was the big introduction of the tie-dye look for a lot of boomers, reinforced by the counterculture images flashing on the evening news fifty years ago. At Woodstock in 1969, Joplin, Joe Cocker and others wore tie-dyed garments on stage, while celebrities like Ali MacGraw and Marisa Berenson had joined the revolution by wearing Halston’s tie-dye fashions on the street and on fashion magazine covers as the sixties became the seventies.

Out in boomer country, the spirit of DIY fashion, coupled with the wide availability and affordability of Rit dyes, allowed tie-dye to sweep the nation. Shortly after the Summer of Love, Mister Boomer was introduced to the technique by his brother. After watching Brother Boomer make a couple of tie-dyed t-shirts in the family’s basement, he had to try it himself. The local five and dime had a large display of Rit dyes. Mister B bought some Navy blue Rit powder dye and mixed it in a bucket, as he had seen his brother do before him. He took a white t-shirt, some string and rubber bands and set about tying parts of the shirt before dyeing. Once he dropped it into the bucket, he left it overnight. The next day he pulled it from the bucket and rinsed it multiple times — like his brother had done — before untying the bindings. He had a distinct pattern of three white circular areas of differing sizes drifting across the front of his now blue shirt, like cosmic jelly fish swimming across the Sea of the Universe. Wow, man! Mister B was pleased with the result. After an initial washing, he wore the shirt everywhere. His tie-dye lasted a decade, and he cherished it even more as the color faded.

So the Rit company — and boomers — have Don Price to thank for saving the brand and for the tie-dye movement that is still — like Rit dyes — going strong today. Tie dye is often associated with cannabis culture today, and though Mister B would hardly be called a follower of that philosophy, owns two tie-dyed shirts. One was a gift, the other he purchased. People know when you are a child of the sixties, man, so why hide it?

Did you make your own tie-dyed fashions, boomers? Do you own any tie-dye today?

Boomers Wore Nehru Jackets … Temporarily

The style that came to be known in the Western World as the Nehru jacket came to the Boomer Generation in variety of ways. The fashion item itself had its origins in Asia thousands of years ago. Most of Asian cultures had a variation on the straight, thigh-length jacket with a collarless neckline. The jacket, so called because it was worn over a shirt, was generally reserved for the noble class or used as ceremonial garb.

The garment we knew as the “Nehru jacket” was so named after India’s political activist and first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru (1889–1964). As a constant reminder of his objection to British rule, he wore a traditional coat that resembled the styles of Achkan, Sherwani or Bandhgala designs that spoke of Indian culture in the years immediately before and after India gained its independence in the 1940s.

The U.S. got its first-hand look at Nehru’s mode of dress in 1962. China had just acted aggressively by moving troops into northern India, alarming world leaders in the process. In an effort to sway Nehru into joining the fight against Communism, President Kennedy invited him to visit the White House. A pacifist at heart like his co-activist friend Gandhi, Nehru called China “India’s brother.” Shortly thereafter China withdrew its troops. Photos of the President and the First Lady with the Prime Minister and his wife fascinated fashionistas in Britain and the U.S.

One of the earliest commonly-viewed influences of the style turned up in the first James Bond movie, Dr. No (1962). The title character (played by Joseph Wiseman) wore a Mandarin collar jacket that was probably more Chinese-influenced than Indian. As the villain in the film, he was the antithesis of India’s Prime Minister.

A burgeoning counterculture fashion industry and a growing number of disaffected youth  began looking to the East for guidance, after rejecting “Western values” as they saw them. They coalesced when the Beatles began wearing collarless suits in the early 1960s; the Beatles had a huge influence on the elevation of the Nehru jacket, but not in the main form Mandarin collar we recall from the era. Rather, British designers used the style as inspiration for collarless suit jackets. Before the Beatles, it was common for rock ‘n roll band members to wear business suits and ties. The Beatles were among the first to straddle the line between respectable and irreverent by wearing collarless suit jackets.


Timothy Leary wore a collarless Asian-style garment in the days of his Hippie influence.

In 1966 the Beatles visited India to study meditation. By the time they returned to Britain, Eastern philosophy and style had permeated the counterculture, especially the Hippies. British designers, keen on expanding the new Age of Fashion, seized the moment and produced variations of their own on a jacket they now labelled as “Nehru,” both to honor the pacifist man and give a Western name to an Asian style. Nonetheless, even though there are photos of John and George wearing Indian-style Nehru jackets around the time of their India trip, it is worth noting that the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album (1967), the first released after their trip, does not depict the Fab Four wearing Nehru jackets. Rather, they are dressed in military-style band uniforms that do have a collarless neckline.

Fashion followers say the popularity of the jacket, which had been on the rise up to the Summer of Love in 1967, took a nosedive after celebrities such as Johnny Carson, Sammy Davis, Jr. and Joe Namath began wearing the style on a regular basis, often paired with a turtleneck and beads or a medallion necklace. By that point — around 1968 — jackets, vests, shirts and blouses sporting the Nehru collar were available across the consumer spectrum for men, women and children. The Nehru was doomed to be a fashion fad in the Western world, though it still turns up as hip wear for some popular musicians.

And that is where Mister Boomer’s awareness entered. On a family trip to New York City in 1967, Brother Boomer slipped into a shop in Greenwich Village and emerged with the most beautiful Nehru jacket Mister B has seen to this day. It was jet black with a gold brocade paisley design that was all at once modern and timeless, classy and fashion-forward. When the family returned home, Mister Boomer kept an eye out for a similar garment for himself. The closest he came was a short-sleeve shirt that sported a Nehru collar. It was blue with a gold paisley pattern, but paled in comparison to the masterful garment his brother had procured. Mister Boomer did not get invited to many parties, but does recall that in his earliest high school days, he wore his short-sleeve Nehru to one. Needless to say, he was the only one dressed in that style.

How about it, boomers? Did you wear Nehru-style clothing? If so, was it a fashion statement or a cultural statement?

How Boomers Kept Warm

As winter makes a comeback this week across a good portion of the country, Mister Boomer is forever amazed at how thin the outerwear appears on the young Millennials he sees darting around town. If we saw coats and jackets like these back in the early Boomer Days, we would have put them in the same category as fashion from Star Trek — the stuff of science fiction. Advances in lightweight materials and especially insulation innovations have enabled modern outerwear to be a fraction of the thickness of what we had as kids, without sacrificing warmth.

If you were a kid in the late fifties and early sixties, your choices for winter warmth weren’t that much different than what your parents wore in the 1920s and ’30s. Wool and heavyweight cotton coats, hats, scarves and pants were the order of the day. While younger children had snow suits (as portrayed in the movie, A Christmas Story), older kids had snow pants that had buttons in the waistband to attach suspenders while teens tended to wear long johns under their regular winter-weight pants. Gloves and mittens were also wool or cotton, though lined leather gloves made it into Mister Boomer’s wardrobe for dress occasions such as Sunday church, family weddings and funerals.

As a youngster, Mister Boomer remembers wearing snow pants over his school pants, held up by suspenders. When he got a little older, he wore long johns under corduroy pants to school. The trade off was that warmth on the way to school gave way to potential overheating in the classroom. Jackets and coats were usually wool or had a wool lining, but as the mid-sixties introduced synthetics into the marketplace, acrylic pile linings were replacing the wool. For the most part, boys and girls wore the same type of garments, though in Mister B’s experience, girls tended to choose mittens and boys had gloves.

Most boomers will tell you they played outdoors every day. When kids expected to be outside for a few hours, they often doubled up on their layers. Two pairs of socks inside their boots, two pairs of gloves, a t-shirt, shirt and a sweater, and as previously mentioned, pants and snow pants or long johns and pants. Only the coldest of days would have much of an effect short-term, except when the fabric got wet from snowball fights, making snow forts, snowmen and snow angels. Mister Boomer and his siblings, when cold and wet, would enter the house through the back door and replace the wet garments with dry ones, hanging the wet ones on the clotheslines in the basement. We’d plan ahead leaving extra gloves, socks and pants for themselves since we didn’t want to cut into outdoor play time by having to remove our boots to walk through the house.

During the early years Mister Boomer remembers having black wool pants that had flecks of color threads in them. His parents often bought Mister B the same styles they got for his older brother. So the brothers had these pants and later in the sixties, matching brown suede pants, too. The wool pants were warm, though a little scratchy. In retrospect Mister B thinks the fabric must have been a quarter-inch thick. He wore them for several years, until he grew out of them. The suede pants were equally groovy, though not as warm.

As the sixties marched on and jeans became an everyday fashion, heavyweight or lined jeans were added into the mix for a lot of boomers. They were available for years, but in many areas jeans were not allowed in school, at least until the late sixties and early seventies. Too cool for black rubber galoshes, teens began wearing suede half boots that had a fleece lining. By then turtleneck and v-neck knit sweaters were popular for both boys and girls, and jackets were the choice more than three-quarter length coats.

Like everything we knew as kids, outerwear has evolved. While maintaining a fashionable silhouette indoors and out may have been top-of-mind for celebrities and wealthy folks, for the rest of us, form followed function. We needed warmth, and that meant bulk. Today’s kids have many more choices. Now if we could only convince them that “outside” isn’t a bad thing.

Do you have any fond memories of bulky outerwear, boomers?

Some of Mister Boomer’s Favorites of 2016

It’s the New Year, traditionally a time to look back in reflection and ahead with hope. In that spirit, please enjoy some of Mister B’s hand-picked favorites from 2016.

Boomers and Torn Jeans: The Evolution from Time-to-Replace to High Fashion
Our mothers fretted over our torn “dungarees” only to find a decade later that torn jeans were part of the fashion scene.

Boomers Twisted the Night Away
Mister Boomer explored the origin of the Twist.

Boomers Loved Gene Pitney Songs
Early to mid-boomers probably count Gene Pitney among their favorite singers of the ’60s.

Boomers Heard the Quotes of Their History
We were there, man!

Boomers Benefited from Space Products
Are you aware of space technology in your everyday lives?

Boomers Will Recall 1966
Fifty years ago from the year that just passed, the times they were a’-changin’.

Boomer Comparison: Drug Stores Then and Now
The local pharmacy sure has changed since we were boomer kids. Here is a comparison.

Boomers and Bikinis Just Went Together
The role of the bikini in boomer-era movies is iconic and undeniably modern for the time.

Boomers Have Lived Through Many Eves of Destruction
The song reverberates even today.

Boomers Gladly Went Where No One Had Gone Before
2016 marked the fiftieth anniversary of the original Star Trek on TV.

Boomers’ Diets Have Changed Over 50 Years
Boomers watched the era of convenience foods enter the picture, and the American diet.

Boomers Saw Their Lives in “The Flintstones”
The technology employed in The Flintstones mimicked the space-age devices that were common in boomer households. The major difference was instead of electrically-powered devices, the action of the devices was powered by animals.

Here’s to another great year, and hoping your 2017 is boomer-ific!