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?

Female Boomers and Their Hair Apparent

Beauty products, and in particular hair care products for women, started to come into a class all their own in the 1950s. Prior to then, there were some traditional brands that the average woman used that were both domestic and imported, but in the first of the boomer decades, new companies cropped up and aggressive marketing campaigns were initiated to capture the attention of young boomers and their mothers. Most importantly, these products were priced for affordability and were readily available in drug and discount stores.

In Mister Boomer’s experience with these products — through use by his mother, aunts and younger boomer sister — these beauty products fell mainly into two categories: hair products and perfume and cologne (which will be covered in the future).

Hair Care
In Mister Boomer’s household, his mother dictated the shampoo choice in his early years. Like other women of her day, she preferred Breck or Prell shampoo. A bottle of Breck or the glass bottle of Prell, then later the plastic tube when it became available, was ever-present at the edge of the bathroom tub. Mister Boomer recalls the Breck commercial and how it came in three formulas based on normal, dry or oily hair. The ornate Olde English letter “O” on the bottle indicated Mister B’s mom had purchased the oily hair formula.

Breck had actually been one of the early brands that the grandmothers of boomers would recognize. Appearing in 1908, it was one of the first shampoos manufactured in the U.S. Breck Girls ads started appearing around 1936; the artist, Charles Sheldon, preferred to draw “real” women rather than models. In 1957, Robert Williams Williams took over for Mr. Sheldon. It was his pastel drawings that so impressed a young Mister Boomer, a budding young artist himself. He would gaze at the Breck Girls on the backs of the family magazines like Look, Life and Good Housekeeping. Not only were the idealized women beautiful — and with exquisite hair — but the pastel drawings exhibited artistic technique which was something to aspire to. In 1963, the company was sold to American Cyanamid, but the Breck Girls campaign continued until the death of Mr. Williams in 1976. By the mid-60s, Mr. Williams was drawing models rather than “real” women, though he attempted to add a bit of their individual personalities into each drawing as befitted the age.

The family all used one bottle of shampoo until it was gone. Mister B recalls not liking Breck very much at all, so it was a welcome change when Prell appeared. He recalls that it had a funny smell, but could lather like there was no tomorrow. It also left a slightly floral smell in his hair that lingered for a little while; that was not a particularly favorite trait for a product a boy wanted to sport.

The Aberto Culver Company was one of those formed in the first boomer decade. Leonard Lavin borrowed $400,000 to buy a hair conditioning formula invented by a scientist named Alberto, and built his company around his flagship product — Alberto VO5 — in Chicago in 1955. He immediately embarked on an aggressive television campaign, a risky move for many reasons in the early days of TV. The campaign worked, and by 1958, it was the number one product in its niche.

Mister Boomer recalls his mother using the product on occasion, which meant there were some elementary school days when Mister B had VO5 slicking his hair rather than Brylcreem. Mister B doesn’t recall his sister ever using the product, but both his grandmother and aunt always had a tube visible in their bathrooms. Consequently, in his mind, this product was intended more for older women than growing female boomers.

Hair always reflects the styles of the era, and certainly the boomer decades of the 1950s and 60s were no exception. Perhaps no female hair product can better represent the 50s than hair spray. High on the charts of top-selling hair sprays was Aqua Net. A true product of the boomer age, Aqua Net was an American product that was first released in the early 1950s. Right from the start it was an ideal fit to hold the popular bouffant and beehive styles of the day. The women in Mister B’s life used it, especially his mother. But from a young guy’s perspective, it didn’t make any sense to shellac hair to a shell-like consistency. A couple of decades later, Mister B was taught to use the stuff as a spray fixative for charcoal drawings. At less than two dollars a can, it was much cheaper than art fixatives.

Finally, in one of those strange categories of products that men rarely understand, there was Dippity-do. This gooey stuff was sold in a squat, clear jar, presumably so you could see the bubbles inside the gel. For a while, a jar took up residency on top of the toilet tank in the Mister Boomer household. He thinks his mother used it more than his sister, but there it sat. To a young boomer boy it was a mysterious thing that looked more like a science experiment than a hair care product. The TV ads seem to have been constantly playing, and it was evident the company was trying to appeal to a younger audience with their young models and groovy type used for the product packaging.

To a growing boomer boy, female hair products were a strange, off-putting world. Older neighborhood boomer girls would act as babysitters for Mister B and his siblings every now and then, wearing huge curlers and high hair drenched with products. His mother, being from an earlier generation, dabbled in the new products, but when push came to shove, she remained a woman of her own era. Mister B’s sister was a couple of years younger, so by the time she reached her teenage years, softer hair was coming in and there was less reliance on hair products to complete one’s style. She was more the Gee Your Hair Smells Terrific age than the Aqua Net age.

What about your experiences, boomer ladies? What female hair products did you or your siblings use?