Boomers Helped Usher in the Casual Culture

It’s no secret to anyone over 40 that the daily dress code of our society has experienced a casualization trend over the past few decades. A closer examination of this timeline points to its origins in the post-War, pre-boomer era. Some say it got its ultimate boost with actor James Dean, and the movie Rebel Without a Cause (1955).

Dean was born in 1931 — the earliest boomers would have been only 9 years old when the movie was released in 1955 — but his influence on boomer youth culture is unmistakable, as it was on the rock ‘n roll musicians who followed. Compare Dean’s quintessential straight-leg jeans and fitted white t-shirt with Robert Mitchum’s backwoods character in Thunder Road (1958). Mitchum’s wardrobe more embodied the mode of dress of the day, with button shirts and dress-style pants. Contrast Mitchum’s character with the preppie shirts and khakis of Dwayne Hickman’s Dobie Gillis character (1959-63) and you can begin to see how radical a t-shirt and jeans ensemble was in the 1950s.

The parents of boomers had what we now see as rigid ideas of what type of clothing was appropriate in any given situation. While TV commercials pictured women cleaning the house in flowing dresses, the reality is, while housecleaning may not have been a dress-appropriate situation, most women wore dresses to go shopping. While middle class men may have worn overalls to a factory job, they would don a suit for family holiday dinners, restaurant visits or even appointments with banking officials to acquire a mortgage. To them, wearing “better” clothing was a sign of respect.

Yet as boomers grew, so did their desire to wear jeans and casual clothing. Many school districts battled the rising tide by banning “dungarees,” as jeans were called by the adult set. Shirts with collars and buttons were required for both boys and girls. Undaunted, boys adopted polo-style and buttonless shirts and jeans whenever they could. Girls began wearing jeans more than skirts and dresses. By the 1960s, and certainly by the Summer of Love in 1967, the transformation was complete in that boomers basically wanted to live in casual clothes. Yet society wasn’t ready for the clash.

Mister Boomer spent his early years in parochial schools in the 1960s. As such, a strict dress code forbade him and his fellow students from wearing casual clothes to school. His neighborhood friends, however, attended public schools and had no such restrictions. Both boys and girls did indeed wear jeans and pullover, collarless and buttonless shirts.

Mister B also recalls the clash between a society used to specific attire for each circumstance, one of which was attending church. Fathers of boomers wore suits to church, while mothers wore dresses or skirts and blouses. Their boomer children were dressed in miniature versions of themselves, in suits and dresses. Mister Boomer recalls getting a trench coat at an early age, to wear only to church, funerals and weddings.

It was an initial church incident that Mister B remembers that illustrates the casualization trend colliding head on with the established mores. Somewhere around the mid-1960s, not one but three kids showed up at Sunday services wearing jeans. Tongues were wagging, and even Mister B’s mom commented in the car after the service that the kids’ chosen mode of dress was inappropriate. Implicit in her voice was that she was certain her children would never dress like that for church.

A few years later most churches embraced the casualization trend as an all-encompassing kumbaya effort to keep young people in the fold. You started seeing “come as you are” posted on church signs and bulletin boards. Once churches accepted the trend, it was only a matter of time until businesses and entertainment venues followed suit. Through it all, boomers wanted to be comfortable in clothes meant for them, not their parents.

In the 1970s even business attire took a casual approach with the leisure suit and the acceptance of dress bell-bottom pants. Preferred more by the fathers of boomers than boomers themselves, the suits — in man-made fabrics and colors — became an acceptable replacement in situations that had previously dictated a man wear a suit.

By the mid-1970s the earliest boomers had college-aged children of their own, and the strangest thing happened: parents once again wore the same style of clothing that their children did, only now, most clothing was casual.

Boomers were instrumental in making jeans and t-shirts fashion staples, and it appears the casualization trend continues to this day. “Casual Friday” became popular for many businesses in the 1980s, which in turn spawned the “business casual” style, which ironically, is not far from the khakis and polos one might see in the 1950s and early ’60s.

Today, boomers — as parents and grandparents — once again lament the “sloppy” manner of dress they see exhibited by young people in public. Is it a case of “what goes around comes around,” or rather “what have we wrought?”

One thought on “Boomers Helped Usher in the Casual Culture”

  1. I posit that there are different types of business casual. For a techie, business casual is a t-shirt and jeans; while a lawyer’s business casual is a sportcoat over a Merino wool sweater with gabardine slacks and Italian loafers, Rockports or hushpupppies. Engineers tend to favor golf shirts and chinos. Then there is what is called ‘smart casual’ which is more akin to the lawyer’s business casual, albeit with somewhat of a younger flair.

    Google is of great assistance here, as what may be business casual in one’s own office, profession or town may be under-dressed or overdressed in another.

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