The Shirts Off Our Backs: Boomer Boys Catch the Fashion Bug

It has been widely reported that the period from the late 1950s to the early 1960s marked the beginning of Youth Culture marketing. Nowhere was this more evident than in young men’s and ladies’ fashions. Up until that point, as evidenced by family photo albums from the parents of boomers, children wore costumey “kid uniforms” such as shorts, suits and kid-only hats, or else a reduced-size version of what their parents wore. In the 1950s, popular fashion began separating generations with styles specific to teenagers, in particular.

Then, as now, parents were responsible for the outfits of their young children. To growing boys like Mister Boomer, though, “fashion” was a non-sequitur. Rather, to him, it was just a “shirt” and “pants.” To be sure, there was a difference between casual and dress, but it just was what it was. From past photographic evidence, however, it appears that Mister Boomer’s parents — as many other boomers can attest —  were au courant since he and his siblings were dressed in the popular fashions of the day. The question is, was this merely a reflection of what was available in Montgomery Ward, Sears Roebuck and Speigel’s, or a conscious selection by our parents to see that their children embraced the new, symbolically pointing them to the brighter future they and their parents had envisioned?

By the time many of us reached our early teens, we had become more vocal about what we wanted to wear. Personality differences, peer pressure and mass marketing was having an effect on the teens who, a generation earlier, would have had very little say in what they could wear.

One of the fad fashions for male teens of the late fifties and early sixties was the Madras shirt. Originating in India, it could be made from cotton, silk or a blend of threads. Generally, Madras shirts were patterned with either plaids or checks. The one very distinctive feature of the Madras shirt was that it bled in the wash. The dyes were not colorfast, and were intended to change — that is, fade — over time with repeated washings. Preppie teens nationwide wholeheartedly embraced the style, and paired them with khaki pants.

Mister Boomer’s teenaged brother hopped on the Madras bandwagon in the mid-60s, coming home from a shopping trip one day with a genuine Madras shirt. It was short-sleeved with a button-down collar, and had a plaid pattern in dark blues and reds. Mister B’s mother didn’t have much to say about Brother Boomer’s new acquisition, until it came time to wash it for the first time. As promised, the colors bled into the wash, tinting everything in the machine’s load. His mom was not amused. Brother Boomer’s shirt had to be washed separately from then on, and there was no second Madras shirt in the house.

The typical style of button-down shirt was one with which Mister Boomer was familiar. Often there was a third button in the back of the collar, and a small loop of fabric in the middle of the shirt, just below the yoke. This same style appeared for years, in solids, stripes, checks and plaids. For Mister Boomer’s mom, synthetic blends that advertised “permanent press” was all she needed to abandon one hundred percent cotton for the new Space-Age fabrics.

As pictured in the TV show, The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis (starring Dwayne Hickman), young men wore plaids, checks and striped shirts in the late fifties and early sixties, and paired them with khaki pants. Note the differences between Dobie’s style of dress and the older people in the clip, as well as the other end of his contemporary spectrum, the very beatnik Maynard G. Krebbs (Bob Denver).

In Mister Boomer’s school, the small fabric loop on the back of the shirt was called a “fruit loop.” As students changed classrooms in the middle of the day, bullies would, when the urge arose and the nuns’ attention was called elsewhere, grab a loop and tug, like a magician pulling a tablecloth out from under the place settings. When the maneuver worked, they held the decapitated loop like a trophy, but when the shirt’s stitching resisted such encroachments, a gaping tear would appear down the back of the unsuspecting victim. The offense was short-lived, as parents could agree that damaged clothing was not what they wanted to see when their sons returned home. The nun crackdown was immediate and effective, with suspensions threatened and home discipline sure to follow.

Historically, the fabric loop was called a locker loop. In the 1950s, it was intended for the preppie styles that were the particular choice of Ivy League college boys. The loop was intended to be used to hang a shirt in a locker, thereby reducing the possibility of wrinkling. In some colleges, it was girls who tried to remove the loops. They would approach a young man they thought was “cute” and collect their loop as a sign of affection. The loops made it into the fashion mainstream and continued to be seen on shirtbacks until the 1980s.

Mister Boomer has since looked back the clothing of those early days with great nostalgia. On a shopping excursion at the height of summer clearance sales last season, Mister B came across a short-sleeved shirt with a dark blue and red plaid pattern. The faux-Madras look was irresistible, and at a price not far from the early sixties, no less. Mister B is looking forward to the warmer days ahead, when he can don his neo-non-bleeding faux Madras shirt, khaki pants and loafers for his own real-life TV episode.

How about it, boomers? Was there a shirt or article of clothing in your pre-bell bottom days that rings your nostalgic bell?

One thought on “The Shirts Off Our Backs: Boomer Boys Catch the Fashion Bug”

  1. I purchased my first and only madras shirt in September 1965 from Sims. This was the big and tall shop. Being it was football season the salesman told me that earlier in the day Nick Pietrosante of the Detroit Lions had done some clothes shopping there.

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