Sloan Wilson named his 1955 novel “The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit” and with one look at the title, everyone knew exactly what to expect. By the mid-1950s, the gray suit had become a symbol of corporate conformity. It was less an article of clothing than a drab husk that covered the American office drone as he muddled through another 9-to-5 day, desperate to reach the next rung on the corporate ladder. For those expecting a tale of a lone man struggling against white-collar monotony, Wilson delivered. Here’s a passage of interior monologue from the novel’s hero, Tom Rath:
I will go to my new job, and I will be cheerful, and I will be industrious, and I will be matter-of-fact. I will keep my gray flannel suit spotless.
Such was American office life in the 1950s.
Although immensely popular, gray flannel wasn’t the only suit fabric on the market. In the 1956 film adaptation of Wilson’s novel, at one point Gregory Peck actually manages to wear a navy suit—although the director made sure to capture the titular garment at its homogenizing worst.
In a scene from “Revolutionary Road,” a movie that’s set during the same time period, we see Leonardo DiCaprio standing on a train platform, lost in a crowd of his fellow commuters. A few of the men have opted for suits in brown tones, while one sole style maverick wears a color that appears to be plum. Otherwise, everyone is dressed in a variation of gray. More importantly, gray or not, each man is indeed wearing a suit, along with a white button-up, necktie, and fedora. No exceptions.
When everyone wears a uniform, the slightest deviations express individuality. Sixty years ago, the male executive could convey his personality via tie bars, cufflinks, socks, a briefcase, cigarette case (for all that indoors smoking), wristwatch, or another accessory. Today, accessories have largely faded from our collective style consciousness, which is a shame. Details matter a great deal. Whereas wearing a backpack with your suit and tie—to cite one egregious example—will derail the entire outfit, a slim briefcase will complete the look nicely. It’s easy to bemoan 1950s style for its unrelenting sameness, but men of the era incorporated many finishing touches that would benefit us still today.
Of course, in the ‘50s most men would have chosen subtle accessories, the occasional pair of matador cufflinks notwithstanding. Just as gray is a blended color, the man in the gray flannel suit wanted to blend into his surroundings. In Wilson’s novel, Tom’s original career plan involved mimicking his boss in every conceivable way until the two men would actually begin thinking alike, which the author intended as commentary on corporate culture as a whole. In terms of office dress, the hive mentality was so strong that at least one menswear authority appears to have taken it for granted.
In 2012 an anthology came along called “The Gentry Man,” which covered the lifespan of Gentry magazine, a short-lived but popular men’s quarterly that published from 1951 to 1957. Despite an entire section devoted to style, the anthology contains no commentary whatsoever on work clothing. Ski sweaters, straw hats, and colonial shorts all receive thoughtful attention, but there’s nary a word on how to dress for the office. Contrast this with men’s magazines in 2015, which contain so much advice on office attire that they often seem preoccupied with the subject. It’s as if office dress in the 1950s was so straightforward, so unquestioned, that Gentry had no reason to comment.
Not even advertising agencies—known today for liberal dress codes—let up on their workers during the ‘50s. In the first episode of “Mad Men” we find Don Draper scribbling notes on a cocktail napkin while wearing—what else?—a gray suit. (It’s true the “Mad Men” timeline began in 1960, but at that point, the previous decade’s culture still held sway.) Later in the same episode, Joan gives Peggy a tour of the Sterling Cooper office and jokes that she can’t tell the difference between account executives and the creative teams. Regardless of where they worked, whether in a corner office or the mailroom (like the dubious “Mr. Cohen”)—the men of Mad Men dressed much the same, at least at the show’s onset.
As the ‘60s progressed, the uniformity of office dress would change drastically, and permanently, as we’ll see in our next installment.