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?

Our Sunday Best for Easter

Boomers can attest to the changes that have occurred in all aspects of their lives, and certainly fashion is among them. Mister Boomer, as many of his generation, recalls that certain times of the year — especially holidays — were marked in part by new clothes: Christmas always brought underwear and socks, and sometimes pajamas; August ushered in back-to-school necessities; but it was mainly in spring — particularly Eastertime — that most people got new “dress” clothes. It was only a few decades ago that it was not only expected that one dress in their finest clothes for Easter celebrations, but preferably that those clothes be new.

The practice of donning new clothing as a sign of respect, renewal and cleanliness when engaging in spring religious ceremonies dates back thousands of years. It crossed religions and cultures through the millennia to manifest itself in various forms of official and ritual costuming, as well as acting as an annual reminder for ancient peoples — not known for their closets-full of clothing — that it was time to change things up. Some historians postulate that Emperor Constantine helped the tradition along in the fourth century. The story goes that Easter was the only holiday when he invited his entire staff and court to join in his holiday celebration and dinner. His only request was that they arrive washed and dressed in their finest clothing.

Mister Boomer worked retail in the early 1970s. At that point, the new spring/Easter tradition was still going strong. There wasn’t a man, woman or child who did not get at least one new spring article of clothing. Elaborate hats, of course, were popular with women, along with dresses, shoes and accessories in pastel colors, while coats could get downright brilliant in hue. Children received new shoes, at the very least, but the family could also take the opportunity to replenish dress clothing for growing siblings, handing down gently-used garments to the younger children.

A decade earlier, Mister Boomer’s family always participated in the annual ritual. His mother and sister would get new spring dresses, pocketbooks and shoes, while the males would get new suits and, in the early sixties, hats. Mister B doesn’t have to conjure memories of these outfits since they were documented each year. Before heading to Easter Sunday church services (or after, if they were running late), Mister B’s family would pose in front of their house, a few steps from the front porch, for a portrait with their finery. Mister B’s father was never in the shots since he was behind the lens of the Kodak box camera. The dates for Easter shift from year to year, from early March to late April. In the upper Midwest, that could mean temperatures ranging from the low 30s to the mid-70s. The photos show that sometimes the family was shivering in the cold, and patches of snow remained on the lawn. Other times the sun shone brightly to accentuate those Kodachrome colors. Inevitably, the roll of film had been sitting in the camera since Christmas, so now it could be finished and processed into prints.

These portraits illustrated the history of the dwelling — with landscape changes and front-porch renovations — as well as a growing family in the 1960s suburbs. In one photo in particular, Mister B recalls wearing a new three-piece suit. The coat was blue, in a mid-weight knobby fabric, while the pants were plain, straight-legged, and Navy in color; his vest, however, was patterned in contrast to the pleated pants and textured coat. On top of his head was a Navy blue hat, making the ensemble suitable for a Frank Sinatra album cover.

Mister Boomer’s family was not fashion-forward. They dressed in the popular clothing of the day. That began to change throughout the culture in the mid-60s as individual personalities gained a larger say in dress habits. It was probably 1967 when Mister B’s brother, a high school student at the time, suggested that the males get their Easter suits from a nearby urban source rather than the usual suburban regional chain stores.

Mister B, his father and Brother Boomer drove to the big-city establishment. Immediately on entering the store, it was obvious they weren’t in suburbia any more: BanLon shirts, pencil-thin ties, straight-legged pants and sharkskin suits packed the racks and shelves in a wide array of colors. Sharkskin suits had been around since the 1950s. Composed of two contrasting thread colors woven so as to contrast, the result was a sleek, sharkskin look. Now, with the addition of rayon, silk and acetate fabrics joining the traditional wool, 60s sharkskin often had an iridescent ripple running through the folds of fabric as light passed over it.

Mister B’s father quickly tried on a burgundy sharkskin suit and was gazing at it admiringly in the mirror. Brother B chose a sharkskin suit in dark blue that looked like it had walked straight out of a Beatles photograph. Lapels were as small as they could be, but Brother Boomer’s choice had a velvet strip running across the top of the collar, slightly framing either side of the neck. Mister Boomer was a little hesitant in his search, but did find an olive-green sharkskin suit in his size. It had a golden-colored thread woven into the fabric, so a slight gold metallic sheen gave Mister B an adult, sophisticated sartorial look well beyond his teenage years.


That Easter, the Boomer family males sported white shirts and super-thin ties in solid colors with their stylish suits. A new era was happening, and men no longer wore hats as a required accessory to top an outfit. The Boomer Three looked more like a musical group than family members heading to church, and a few heads did turn, but they didn’t mind. Mister B got another three years’ wear out of the suit before it no longer fit. There are still times Mister B dreams of that sharkskin suit. No article of clothing ever caused the physical attachment of that outfit since.

How about it boomers? Is there a memorable spring outfit in your past?