Mothers Buy Clothes; Boys Make Costumes

Playboy magazine once smugly described its readership as "young urban males who have it made." The phrase surfaces as I remember lurking around schoolyards and soccer fields covertly observing my own young urban male and his peers. Boys at play, they may not yet have it made, but they do seem constantly to be on the make. Their clothes-typically grubby, slavishly conformist or eccentric at different stages-are more important to them than popular mythology admits. They learn all too early that clothes are a climber's short cut to lofty social position, a route that is easier on the digestion than eating spiders and more diplomatic than tripping the teacher.

At the beginning, a mother is briefly but totally in charge, and a boy's infant wardrobe necessarily reflects what she construes as her own social identity. My son was born in 1960 within few hours of John-John Kennedy. Nannyless in Camelot, I struggled with the boucle suits with tasteful appliques (hand wash in mild soap), the classic broadcloth shirts (use a hot iron) and the all-wool English sailor suits (dry-clean only) that Jackie and I favored. My amiable child couldn't have cared less what I did to him or to myself as long as he wasn't switched onto Ready and Holding, that tight-lipped quarter hour of suspended animation before any dress-up event.

His faith in a benevolent despotism was shaken when I perpetrated a pair of lederhosen just like those his father had been photographed in when he too was curly-headed and 3. We discovered together that those his father had been photographed in when he too was curly headed and 3. We discovered together that those gemmütliche buttons attached by leather thongs balk in a split second emergency, and that after the deluge Leder transmutes into soggy bacon rind. Further attempts on my part to inflict the lederhosen found us eyeballing, as Ronald Reagan is wont to say.

A certain adversary relationship had been established and was to continue. But as long as I could still cajole him into clothes that weren't actively uncomfortable, he'd indulge my penchant for socks that matched and shoes that were tied (with massive double knots like twin bumblebees). As one veteran mother and teacher commented to me, "Small boys like clothes all right, but they don't like to think about them. Once they're on in the morning, that's it."

I recently invaded the privacy of a mother studying beside me while we both waited for a school pageant to begin. She, a third-year law student, was deep in some Blackstonian tome when I asked her what her 4-year-old wore to school. "Anything he wants as long as it's clean," she replied tersely, and turned back to her book.

Preoccupied student mothers, working women on tight schedules, old campaigners shell-shocked into acquiescence--we all these days sooner or later (these days, sooner) stop trying so hard to impose our taste on squirmy, obstinate subjects. Usually we save face by retaining the veto and by never surrendering totally. "Absolutely no!" alternates with "O.K., go ahead and wear it, but you'll have to take a sweater."

So we all settle down to the hamburgers on the clothing menu: the inexpensive, all-American, wholesome jeans, corduroy Levi's, striped long- sleeved jerseys, T-shirts, snorkel jackets, rubberized canvas raincoats and camping shorts (with the required zipperism and pocketry). I may be a simple dupe, but it seems to me that American mass marketing has done as well with boys' ordinary clothes as it has with housewives' small electric appliances. Like irons and toasters (unlike cars and washers), boys' basics usually require few repairs and last long enough. I once bought a pair of size-8 blue jeans from a Roman pushcart, which should have been as romantic as going to a trattoria instead of McDonald's. The grim fact was that the jeans were expensive; whenever washed they emitted ink like a squid; and the chain stitch holding them together unraveled, seam by seam, with striptease efficiency. Pass the hamburgers, please.

Since a small boy's everyday wardrobe is so standardized, a young individualist often begins to assert himself by donning an unforgettable hat, a trademark of his own. Heaven for that kind of exhibitionist is displaying what no one else has. In years of surveillance, I've seen them come and I've seen them go, the great and the near-great: the Australian bush hat, the silk topper, the deerstalker, the pith helmet, the Southwestern sombrero, Dan'l Boone raccoon and one bizarre gondolalike number, said to have come from the University of Padua. The right hat transforms the boy, he thinks, as dramatically as a crown elevates the Prince of Wales.

There was a time when small guests appeared at birthday parties resplendent in Eton suits, miniature tweeds, Or tiny blazers, kneesocks and proper oxfords. In tasteful (and well-heeled) New York drawing rooms, they may still, but in doggedly unpretentious Cambridge, Mass., almost anything goes.

I recently attended an 8-year-old nephew's birthday party and came away with the following general observations: (1) When any small boy leans over, he exposes an ellipse of bare back identical to any other small boy's; (2) no belt ever comes with enough holes and unless customized will stand out from the body like a hula hoop supported by trouser loops; (3) hips are an acquired characteristic.

The guests wore school clothes (the better kind, without knee patches) but featured one festive accessory each. For example, a touching little fellow, the youngest of three brothers, wore a hand-me-down clip-on bow tie with one defective clip. The tie clung on for dear life at a rakish angle, for all the world like Harold Lloyd hanging by one hand from a flagpole over Fifth Avenue. Happily, no one was self-conscious, no one was critical.

The first tearful evidence of peer pressure came in my son's kindergarten April. We set out cheerfully enough to perform that traditional rite of spring, buying new sneakers, only to find that the "in" footgear worn by the Big Boys in his class simply wasn't manufactured in his small size. That year's high fashion was macho black basketball sneakers, the high kind with white rubber moons on the ankle bones which chimpanzees always wear in research projects that raise them as children.

The third- or fourth-grader has a most pragmatic and easygoing attitude toward his clothes. He wants to be comfortable and he'll choose the garment that will be (A) warm or (2) cool. He'll wear the same threadbare plaid shirt five days a week if it's still able to perform its basic thermal function. In orangish hiking boots, jeans and parka, his winter look is unpretentious lumberjack; and in summer he's a smallish Huck Finn.

When a boy is around 10, a new awareness of quality and style arises. An early symptom is the scorning of supermarket Hong-Kongers (or even of respectable Keds) in favor of the ultra sneakers, the royal blue suede or white kid sport shoes that cost six times as much and are apparently equipped with specialized treads for every human activity. A salesman recently cautioned me against one ultra sneaker model because it was 'I??.
Jane Davison writes from experience,

Christopher Wagner

Related Pages in the Boys' Historical Web Site
[Return to The main 1960s page]
[United States] [Short pants suits] [Long pants suits] [Jacket and trousers]
[Eton suits] [Shortalls] [Jeans] [T-shirts] [Socks]

Created: April 9, 1998