1960s : A Formal Wear Free-For-All

“‘College-boy smooth crop hair with burned-in parting, neat white Italian rounded-collared shirt, short Roman jacket very tailored (two little vents, three buttons), no-turn-up narrow trousers with 17-inch bottoms absolute maximum, pointed-to shoes, and white mac lying folded by his side.’”

—Colin MacInnes[1]

“‘One fact to get clear is that there is nothing essentially queer about boys who display an overt, gossipy, fascinated interest in what to wear with what. Their other hobby is girls.’”

Sunday Times Magazine, September 1964[2]

It’s difficult if not impossible to describe and characterize the myriad styles and subcultures produced by and/or flourishing during the sixties. As a result, many formal wear experts view the sixties as a kind of free-for-all where nobody knew or cared about those generations-old formalwear rules. I suspect that something slightly different is the case, however: after all, the period’s cinema includes some of the most fashionable James Bond films ever produced! In addition, many subcultures of the time were at least as obsessed with what to wear—with fit, with quality fabric, with fine tailoring, and so on—as eighteenth- and nineteenth-century dandies. In the sixties, then, young people tested the rules to—and, perhaps, beyond—the breaking point. Still, their sartorial expertise should not be discounted just because they experimented with colorful button-downs and even tight denim rather than top hats and cutaway coats. (Just think about period nobles’ similar responses to Beau Brummell’s attire!) Finally, the sixties’ sartorial excesses may actually help inform the man looking to build his own personal formal style. You might want to try out similar ideas (e.g., colorful shirts or unusual fabrics)—though admittedly to a much more subdued degree for the formal events of today!

The Peacock Revolution


— Andy Warhol on “Swinging London”[3]

The phrase “Peacock Revolution” was first coined by George Frazier, former columnist for Esquire and the Boston Globe,[4] to describe part of the sixties’ fashion revolution. It’s unclear, though, whether he meant to describe the return of color—and lots of it!—to the male wardrobe, the fashion-forward young people who preened over their appearances and styles for hours at a time—just like a Regency-era dandy—or quite possibly both. In any case, he certainly characterized the “hedonism in masculine apparel”[5] that defined much of the era. [caption id="attachment_175" align="aligncenter" width="385"]Londons_Carnaby_Street,_1969 Teenager's in London's Carnaby Street[/caption] In any case, Carnaby Street was the undeniable heart of the Peacock Revolution and male youth fashion (in particular, the “Mod” subculture), as well as an accepting meeting place for London’s gay men. John Stephen, known as the “King of Carnaby Street,” was both the first entrepreneur to set up on Carnaby Street and the first to run a completely new kind of boutique that focused entirely on youth trends:

“He was able to feed mods’ insatiable consumer appetite by offering them affordable clothing that was exciting to wear. He stressed bold colors over sturdy fabrics, stylish effect over quality manufacture, frenzied acquisition of the latest gimmick over the establishment of a lasting wardrobe.”[6]

Importantly, Stephen operated his boutiques this way not to take advantage of his young customers, but to offer them what they wanted: namely, to be able to afford the hot new trend whenever it’s available. Interestingly, those youths who spent the most time concerned with appearances, shopping, tailoring, and shopping some more (e.g., the youth described in the quotation from MacInnes’s Absolute Beginners) came from working-class backgrounds. Some of them went in for new clothes every day; others collected lasting, tailored wardrobes—though not, perhaps, in the formal styles we would find acceptable today. For example, one can find photos of the Rolling Stones’ Brian Jones in a striped frock-like coat and cuff-less trouser “decadent dandy look”; mods in 1900s-style four-button jackets and period ascots; etc. Mods wore vintage styles in new colors, or new fabrics in vintage styles, or any imaginable combination of the above. No, the youth of the sixties did not follow the rules of traditional formal wear! However, based on the care with which they put together their wardrobes and the calculated risks they took with styles, colors, and patterns, I suspect that this was not for lack of knowing, or at least having a passing understanding of, those rules.[7]

Stylish Androgyny

“Is that a boy, or is it a girl?”

Sunday Times Magazine, September 1964[8]

Carnaby Street in London was the heart of design and retail of varying teenage fashions.[9] And though most boutiques on Carnaby Street were originally founded by and/or catered to London’s gay men—especially those shops selling lean, fitted, Continental-style fashions[10]—the fashionable androgyny of the time seemed to put the question of sexuality second. Some stylish young men (particularly—though not exclusively—a certain class of mods) grew their hair long and wore tight-fitting trousers and jeans, so-called ‘effeminate’ colors, tight sweaters cropped above the midriff, and other styles that would be dismissed by past ages’—or today’s—definitions of masculinity. Several boutiques were opened for the express purpose of selling androgynous clothing designed for male or female customers: for example, Savile Row’s Tommy Nutter designed and sold a unisex suit to clients including the Beatles, Twiggy, and Mick and Bianca Jagger.[11] In discussing androgyny and the idea of effeminate fashion, I do think it’s important—or, at least, interesting—to note that many past male fashions and even current formal wear standards require, by today’s standards of masculinity, “effeminate” touches: for example, modern hose and velvet, high-heeled pumps; eighteenth-century breeches so tight they required false calves; shirtfronts with corset-like lacing… and so on. In addition, the design of traditional men’s formal wear for women is growing more and more popular today—even at formal occasions! Digression aside, the playful yet calculated gender-defying fashions of the sixties have had enormous influence on later styles: the era’s “ethos of dressing up and ostentatious androgyny would continue as high camp in the shape of glam-rock stars David Bowie and Marc Bolan during the 1970s.”[12] [caption id="attachment_176" align="aligncenter" width="364"]Jimi_hendryx_experience_1968 The sometimes androgynous styles of glam rockstars.[/caption]

Film as Guide to Formal Fashion

“In a tuxedo, I’m a star. In regular clothes, I’m nobody.”

— Dean Martin[13]

Still, though youth fashion and London’s Peacock revolution are often used as evidence that crucial formal wear knowledge has been lost, we can always turn to the movies for another and equally important source of fashion knowledge and inspiration. “Film and fashion, like music and fashion, are intimately connected, never more so than in the decades after World War II. In our celebrity-driven culture, film stars act as conduits through which fashion can be disseminated.”[14] Again, it’s hard to know for sure whether film imitates fashion or fashion imitates film, but either way, the movies illustrate an era’s sartorial understanding. In the sixties, we see “the decadent glamour of Felini’s La Dolce Vita”; we can see that glamour reflected in Continental-style suits and dinner jackets of the time, and even in the look and feel of designs by Dolce & Gabbana.[15] James Bond, starting with 1962’s Dr. No, serves as the epitome of dinner-jacket perfection for many an eager formalwear enthusiast. Bond, after all,

“has perfected a classic yet contemporary style, although it has to be said that there have been periods, such as the 1970s, when Bond has been a bit too fashionable, with the consequence that the films now look dated. The same cannot be said of Sean Connery’s roles as 007—his bespoke Savile Row suits with a subtle Continental twist look as contemporary today as they did then.”[16]

[caption id="attachment_177" align="aligncenter" width="182"]Iam Fleming's cartoon of James Bond. Ian Fleming's original sketch of James Bond.[/caption] During the 1930s—allegedly the height of formal male elegance—American men had movie stars to guide them. So, then, did those men in the 1960s looking to understand the rules of the formalwear game. And again, though the Carnaby Street mods took personalization and attention to trend just a little too far, their careful selection and pairing of wardrobe items illustrates at least a basic understanding of the fundamentals. After all, this basic understanding is required if one is to attempt to break the rules successfully—and the mods didn’t just break rules, they shattered them! So, for the daring formalwear enthusiast, it might not hurt to take a lesson from the sixties—studying both cinematic classics and youth culture’s brilliantly irreverent take on the same theme. Unless you’re Mick Jagger, you probably don’t want to take your personal style as far as the mods did!—but they might, perhaps, inspire bravery when you find yourself faced with a formalwear invitation. [1] From Absolute Beginners; quoted in Chenoune 253. [2] Quoted in Chenoune, 258. [3] From Time, 1966; quoted in Blackman, 180. [4] Flusser (1985), 21. [5] Chenoune, 254. [6] Ibid., 257. [7] C.f., Boyer; Bridges; Flusser (1985, 1996, 2002) [8] Quoted in Chenoune, 254. [9] Laver, 261. [10] Ibid., 266. [11] Blackman, 180. [12] Ibid. [13] Quoted in Gross. [14] Blackman, 216. [15] Ibid. [16] Ibid.