Boomers Ask, “What’s A Henley?”

Recently Mister Boomer had the occasion to shop for casual shirts. Browsing through the menswear section is always a reminder that fashion caters to the under 30 population — making him feel that much older and making the venture that much more irksome — in no small part due to the fact that we boomers are the ones who assisted in the expansion of the younger consumer demographic. Nonetheless, it was heartening to see that some “old friends” — staples of our fashion style from the 1960s — were still present: T-shirts and jeans, of course, but also horizontal striped pullovers and polo-style shirts, and the occasional paisley or polka-dot patterns. So it was a welcome sight when Mister B found himself in front of a display of pullover shirts, the style of which was part of his chosen mode of dress throughout his college years. He immediately recognized them as “Wallace Beery shirts.” Much to his surprise, though, the sign read “Henley.” Mister B had not heard them called that before. The style had waned in fashion circles in the ’80s and ’90s, and has since made a comeback, so Mister B wondered if it was being rebranded with this new name. His inquiring mind wanted to know more on the subject, and the results can now be revealed.

The Henley is a pullover shirt that is like a combination of a T-shirt and a polo shirt. It is collarless, like a T-shirt, but has the two- or three-button plackets exhibited on a polo shirt. Henleys are often long-sleeved. The name, like the fashion, predates the boomer era by more than a hundred years. The Henley got its name, if not its origin, from a town in southwest England called Henley-On-Thames. There, in the mid-1800s, the city had a rowing team. It is said a shirt was created for their racing team that accommodated the need for the complete movement that is necessary in the sport. That shirt was called the Henley, after the town and team.

Meanwhile, in America, when people began buying clothes in stores in the early 1800s (as opposed to making all their own), a standard rose in male undergarments called the union suit. It was, in effect, a one-piece long underwear that covered the torso from the wrists to the ankles. At the neck was the Henley-style short placket and buttons. After the Civil War, as the Industrial Revolution began, this undergarment was separated into two pieces, thus creating the American version of the Henley shirt.

The militaries of several European countries, as well as the U.S., adopted the style as standard issue from World War I through World War II. That’s where Wallace Beery (1885 – 1949) enters the picture. An actor, he successfully made the transition from the Silent Picture era to star in countless films in the 1930s and ’40s. Our parents grew up with these films, and the story goes that Wallace Beery’s characters wore Henleys in so many films that the shirt took on his name.

As boomers grew up in the 1950s and ’60s, the TV industry was thirsting for content to fill its twenty-hour-a-day broadcasting schedule. Old black & white movies that they could acquire cheaply fit the bill, so many of Wallace Beery’s films became familiar to another generation. Boomers best remember Mr. Beery from such films as Treasure Island (1934), where he portrayed Long John Silver opposite a young Jackie Cooper as Jim Hawkins, his Oscar-winning Best Actor role in The Champ (1931) and as Pancho Villa in Viva Villa! (1934). Since we heard our parents call the shirt by the actor’s name, we took that at face value.

It is Mister Boomer’s theory that, as the sixties progressed and home sentiment grew against the Vietnam War, boomers saw returning veterans protesting the war in military garb, including Henleys. As a result, many boomers adopted military styles as a form of protest. They could also buy military clothing at surplus shops very inexpensively. As the psychedelic era came into being, these shirts were customized with embroidery, tie dye and patches. By the 1970s, the style was available in stores in a wide variety of colors and fabrics, and had morphed from a purely male fashion style to both male and female. It was the beginning of the 1970s when Mister Boomer purchased Wallace Beery shirts as his uniform of choice for attending classes at the university.

Since Mr. Beery died in 1949, the vast majority of people born after the Boomer Generation would be hard-pressed to know who Wallace Beery was. The shirt style to them, then, will always be known as a Henley.

Mister B will concede the naming and henceforth call the shirt a Henley, as calling it a Wallace Beery will not only age him, but fill anyone within earshot with wonderment at what the old coot is talking about.

When did the Henley enter your personal fashion history, boomers?

Boomer Fashion: I Feel Dickey, Oh So Dickey…

In the boomer years of the 1950s through the 1970s, fashion trends came and went. One that survived those decades in various forms, though, was the dickey. Literally a false shirt front, dickeys have been around at least since the 1800s, and possibly back as far as the mid 1700s. A dickey is a meant to add a layered look or complete the look of an outfit, for either men or women.

No one knows exactly when the practice started, or why this garment accessory was called a “dickey.” In the 1800s, dickeys for men were primarily meant for tuxedo shirts. They were one of the first fashion items to be made from celluloid — the earliest form of plastic — and looked like a “bib” that was worn over the neck and under a shirt.

For men and boys in the boomer years, dickeys could be made of knit material, cotton or polyester fabric. They were primarily turtleneck or mock turtleneck styles. They could be worn under shirts or sweaters to give the appearance of another collared garment under the first. As far as Mister B knows, the only real practical reason for men to wear dickeys other than pure fashion sense was to have another layer of neckwear without the added bulk or warmth of another full garment under a shirt or sweater.

For women and girls, dickeys completed necklines in dresses, shirts and sweaters. They sometimes had embellishments like bows, buttons, lace or even complete collars. Like the male counterparts, they could be made from knitted, cotton or polyester fabrics.

Whether styled for men or women, the dickey was often a plain color or of limited patterns, used as an accent to a main garment so as not to overpower it. The main shirt, dress or sweater was usually boldly patterned or more colorful in itself.

Mister Boomer was a big wearer of dickeys in the falls and winters of the late fifties and early sixties. His parents had purchased knitted turtleneck styles for him and his brother. Mister B often wore them with V-necked shirts, and occasionally with V-necked sweaters, recalling TV and movie idols of the era. Mister B and Brother Boomer more than likely received the dickeys as Christmas gifts. At the height of his dickeys collection, Mister B had them — all knit turtleneck styles — in black, blue, brown and red. On occasion the Boomer Family males would dress wearing matching shirts and dickeys, though usually the three would each have the same style shirt in a different color.

Right up to the very early 1970s, Mister B wore the dickeys, though by the turn of the decade, he wore them almost exclusively with flannel shirts. Somewhere around the time Mister B entered college in 1971, his dickey wearing days were behind him. Fashions had changed, to be sure, but Mister B was never a slave to fashion. The dickey fell from favor by that time, so continued wearing of the accessory would — like wearing a thin tie — be thought of as a throwback to earlier days, and man, that would be a drag to us modern college art students.

Howard Wolowitz, a character on TV’s The Big Bang Theory, often sports dickeys under his fashionably sixties and seventies shirts.

Today Mister B no longer owns any dickeys, though they seem to be readily available for purchase for both men and women in more styles than ever before. They say what goes around comes around in fashion, so it appears we haven’t seen the last of the dickey … but will it ever regain its cool status that it once had in the 1950s and ’60s now that it’s been relegated to the same category as pocket protectors?

What memories of wearing dickeys can you recall, boomers?