American Boys' Clothing during the 1960s

The 1960s for middle class Americans were those now so innocent seeming, yet turbulent years. The decade began so optimistically with the election of President Kennedy. Yet in 1963 we were shocked by his assasination and soon found ourselves faced with the challenge of Civil Rights mired in the Viet Nam. We began the decade with our 1950s certainties and soon found events rapidly changing our values and long held assumtions. President Kennedy's assasination is most strongly etched into memory, but other snapshots of the Vietnam War; the Civil Rights movement; Dr. Martin Luther King; hippies, flower power, and the 1967 Summer of Love in 1967; as well as Woodstock and Motown. Not the least among all this ferment was changing clothing styles. All elements of American life began "heating up" in the 1960s.

Several of these events had a direct impact on American fashion. Since the early 1960s, the Civil Rights Movement had been fighting to eliminate oppresive racial segregation and the subjegation of African-Americans. An off shoot of this was an increased interest in Africa and African culture. Feminism got a new lease on life after the publication of Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique in 1963. Increasingly the role of women in modern America was question. American women increasingly looked beyond the family for "fullfilment". The impact on our society and children is yet to be fully assessed. Protests erupted against the Vietnam War in the mid-1960s. Hippies held the first "Be-in" during 1967 as they revolted against the values of what they saw as a consumer-oriented society. Some experimented with hallucinogenic drugs for escape. The impact on consumer textiles of each of these events was significant. African-inspired textiles became popular. Blue jeans were ubiquitous, worn morning, noon, and night. Young protesters and hippies adopted blue jeans and incongrously, Army fatigues, as virtual uniforms of the movement and a symbols of solidarity with working people. Psychedelic colors and patterns adorned their tie-dyed and hand-painted garments.

Many of us vividly rember the symbols of the 1960s. Barbie that impossibly long-legged (and clothes hungry) symbol of American girlhood had made her debute in 1959. The early 1960s, however, marked the arrival of her dream-boat chum, Ken. The Ford Mustang was undeniably the "in" car of the 1960s, imortalized by Wilson Pickett's song, Mustang Sally. Bumper stickers sprang up, many with powerful political and social statements, ranging from: "War is Not Healthy for Children and Other Living Things;" "Impeach Earl Warren"; and "America-- Love it or Leave it." Parents decided on all sorts of non trafitiinal names. One observer recalls the son of a friend who named her son Yossarian (after the hero in Joseph Heller's classic Catch 22. One day, at age 8, he came home from school and announced, From now on, I'm Frank. Just plain Frank.

Clothing styles developed along simpler, more youthful lines during the 1960s. Clothing began to appear in many more varried colors than ever before. Tennagers finally arrived on the fashion scene. Rising family incomes and teenage jobs foe spending money rather than to support the family meant that there was a significant and growing new market to exploit. The fashion industry lost no time in doing so. The 1960s were the first decade that had its own fashions directed specifically at teenagers. Before the Sixties, teenagers dressed like basically scaled-down versions of their parents as soon as they outgrew juvenile styles. Young adults dressed in the same styles of dresses or suits that their mothers and fathers wore. There had previously existed fashion subcultures which were more or less limited to young people, such as the Edwardians (Teddy Boys), the "Rockers", and the Beatniks. However, since these movements existed as sub-cultures among the non-conformists or the alienated youth, they were concentrated among just a portion of the entire young population. The majority of teens continued to dress like their parents.

The cult clothing styles of the non-conformist young people were basically put together by the young people themselves; there were no designers who catered specifically to their preferences. The Mod movement of the early 1960s originated as such a youth subculture. However, by the mid-1960s it had evolved into a more generalized yet at the same time more outrageous form of fashion. It led to an explosion of the youth culture which gave all teenagers a style of dress they could call their own. This style was very revolutionary but it eventually influenced the fashions of the entire decade for people of all ages, changing fashion from mass-market clothes all the way up to the haute couture industry. Parents were initially better able to decide on the clothes of their younger children. It was not long, however, before these styles were affecting even the clothes of young boys.

Designer clothes were just beginning to make their appearance. There was lost of denim which became increasingly accepted as a fashion statement as the decade progressed. One of the most important development was bell bottom trousers. For that fashion faux pas we can thank Esquire which hailed bell bottoms "as a vital addition to every modern guy's wardrobe." Then there were the "groovy" Nehru jackets which fortunately was a fad that came and quickly departed in 1967-68. T-shirts made a major metamoprphisis. They were no longer plain white creations that brought to mind Marlon Brando rolled up sleaves in A Streetcar Named Desire. You could make a personal statement with your T-shirt like "U.S. Out of Vietnam;" "Legalize marijuana." The modern often profane versions, however, had not yet appeared.

Few decades experienced such major changes in clothing styles. Many boys entered the decade wearing short pants suits or penny loafers and nice sweaters and ended it wearing peace-symbol T-shirts and patched jeans. Hair styles changes even more. Most boys started the decade with short hair which in many cases was shoulder length by the end of the decade. Flat tops, jeans and penny loafers were tops with many guys. The girls favored ponytails, penny loafers and skirts. Shorts weren't generally worn to school, even by boys, although boys at some exclusive private schools still wore them. And this was an era when few schools had air conditioning and school rooms could be really hot. Pedal pushers appeared and achieved some popularity with girls. Few boys, however, would wear them. Madras shirts, belts with two buckles and Levi jeans were popular. School dress codes forbid jeans, shorts and sneakers, so slacks and button down shirts, and loafers were the ensemble of choice. Slacks for some reason often had a totally useless buckle sewed on at the back.

The unifying themes of the protest movements during the 1960s was to question authority. This filtered down to all aspects of our culture and society, not the least was fashion. The primary group participating in the movement was older teenagers and young adults. They were the fashion setters. Younger boys, however, soon followed their lead and the new fashions soon appeared even in elementary schools. Boys and girls rejected the "nice" traditional clothes desired by their parents. The "buttoned-down" look was out. Boys wanted the tie-dyed shirts, fatigues, and jeans worn by the teenagers they emulated. As part of this process, dressy short pants suits began to disapper. This was especially true in America, but the process was also notable in Europe.

The ever-hungry fashion industry constantly sought new ideas and inspirations. It was not long before these symbols of protest had been co-opted by mainstream fashion, with varying results. Blue jeans, of course, are still with us, but the polyester double-knit pantsuit left the fiber with a negative image that polyester producers are still trying to live down. Comediand still use polyester leisure suits as a source of derision. Fashionable psychedelic-printed textiles were worn by men, women, and children in garments ranging from underwear to men's shirts. Mens' and boys' clothing styles also changed radically in the 1960s. Esquire called the newly colorful men's styles "The Peacock Revolution," and men and boys of all ages felt free to grow their hair long and wear colorful prints, leisure suits, and Nehru jackets. Parents and schools at first resisted, but by the end of the decade, long hair for boys had become increasingly common.

outcome was

Almost all fabrics we know of today were available. Day dresses and suit sets were of light- to mediumweight, usually in natural or natural-look fabrics.

I. America

The sixties brought the Peacock Revolution - a phrase popularized in this country by George Frazier, a former columnist for Esquire magazine and the Boston Globe - which began on Carnaby Street in London and featured a whole array of new looks, including the Nehru jacket and the Edwardian suit. In contrast to the fifties, during which time choices were limited, a wide range of alternatives was now available as the focus moved to youth and protest. The designer Pierre Cardin even created an American version of the slim-lined European silhouette, which, along with the immense popularity of jeans, led to the acceptance of extreme fittedness in clothing - a far cry from the casual, comfortable elegance of preceding generations.

During this period, the American designer Ralph Lauren was attempting to convince the American male that there was a viable alternative to this high-style clothing. This alternative was a version of the two-button shaped suit with natural shoulders that had been introduced by Paul Stuart in 1954 and briefly popularized by John Kennedy during his presidency. Lauren updated the Stuart suit by using the kind of fabrics usually reserved for custom-made suits and dramatizing the silhouette by enlarging the lapel and giving more shape to the jacket. Laurenís following remained small, however, as most men leaned toward the jazzier Cardin-style suit.

One of the enduring American fashions from the 1960s is the "preppy" buttoned-down style. Preppy standards included blue blazers, button-down shirts, stripped ties, khaki pants, and penny loafers. The yuppies of the late 1980s got their clean-cut starts as the preppies of the early '80s. How to spot a prep in action? Look for cotton Izod shirts with the collars turned up, tassled loafers, crew neck sweaters worn over neat turtlenecks and the casual sweater slung over the shoulders with the sleeve ends cuffed over one another. The much-satorized, but enduring preppy look is an aspirational style based on the crisp sartorial codes of the Eastern White Anglo-Saxon Protestant (WASP) upper-middle class. (The term itself derives from expensive precollege "prep" or preparatory schools. This refers to American secondary-level preparatory schools.) The height of preppy era was the early '80s, when Lisa Birnbach's WASPish The Official Preppy Handbook sat astride best-seller lists and America was merry on the heady draft of Reaganism. Along with many other '80s excesses, the trend faded, but it had something of a renaissance in 1993-94. This time, preppy style was both a sardonic statement by B-Boys (Ralph Lauren, Tommy Hilfiger, ect.) and an ironic talisman for non-aspirational whites. The Beastie Boy/Sonic Youth-linked X-Girl clothing line concisely expressed this latter strain with a T-shirt bearing the words "X-Girl Prep"; inlaid into the shirt's faux-heraldic crest was the word "snooty."

While increasingly rare, a few boys were nicekly dressed in the 1960s. British fashions still influenced American mothers, a least wealty or well to do families. The Kennedy's had a great impact on American fashion. Jacki's impact on womens' fashions was legendary. The Kennedy children impacted children's fashions. The most famous Kennedy boy, of course, was John John. His wearng of a short pants suit, with rather short shorts, in the middle of the winter was noted by many mothers. His shortalls and red strap closed-toe sandals also impressed fashion concious mothers. Even after going to New York he was often seen in shorts, knee socks, and "t" bar sandals until he was about 10. These outfits probably did't indear John to his friends. (Incidentally John didn't like to be called John-John, his famous kickname appears to have been a press creation.) The children were always emaculately attired. Jacki's choices in clothes for both John and Carolyn, however, were more English than American. While noticed, few American mothers could even hope to keep their boys in shorts passed the shortalls/Eton suit phase. Perhaps more influential was John John's bangs. Ethel Kennedy kept her younger boys in black short pants suits and knee socks. But these were the last few times that such fashionable clothes would be seen on American children.

Movies and Televison: Interesting details on boys' clothing styles can often be seen in old movies and television shows or shows with period settings. As in the later 1950s, the boys pictured on American television never wore short pants. Certainly not for dressy occasions, but not even for play.

Congress passed the Textile Fiber Products Identification Act (TFPIA) in 1960. The proliferation of manufactured fibers proved confusing. When only natural fibers and rayon were in use, it was relatively easy to tell one type of fabric from another. With manufactured fibers, and especially with blends, it was virtually impossible to know just which fibers one was dealing with. TFPIA simplified matters by requiring that apparel be labeled as to fiber content.

A. Dress clothes

Boys in America increasinly reserved their suit for very special occasions. Even church did not merit a suit. Boys' suits were mostly single breasted with narrow ties and lapels. There were also some new fabrics such as searsucker. Some boys wore searsucker or Madras jackers with contrasting shorts. Cord suits were also available. Boys mostly dressed up in long pants suits. Short pants suits were never as common in America as in Europe. As the decade progressed fewer and fewer boys dressed up in shorts. Some little boys wore shortalls , a new style intoduced at the beginning of the decade. Jackie Kennedy and the way she dressed John John had the impact of promting this style. Slightly older little boys might wear Eton suits. At about 7 or 8 they might get regular short pants suits which they would wear for a few years, but rarely beyond 10 or 11. By the end of the decade, however, even this was declined greatly. For most American mothers it was a s truggle beginning at about 7 years to keep boys in short pants suits. Most of the parents that did were wealthy and sent their children to private schools which had short pants as a uniform. Knee socks were not as common as in Europe, but were worn by well dressed boys for special occasions.

As the population moved to the more informal suburbs, boys dressed up less and less. Suits and even blazers were less commonly worn. Even occasions formerly requiring suits and ties such as church and parties increasingly were more casual events for boys. As a result, dress occasions like church or dance classes were often meant a mix of clothing. Some parents holding to the old conventions. At the beginning of the decade there would still be some boys up to about 12 in short pants suits. By the end of the decade, however, only younger boys of 7 or 8 years might be seen in dressy shorts, and even this was increasingly rare.

B. Casual/play clothes

Shorts were becoming increasi ngly popular among boys as casual play wear. They certainly appealed to hard pressed moms because of the ease of washing them. Manufacturers had found consumers receptive to clothing that did not require ironing but that also had the look and feel of cotton. Clothing was given wrinkle-resistant finishes (these had first appeared in 1929). Resin-finished cotton or cotton and polyester garments were marketed as "wash-and-wear" or "easy care."

A new style was inroduced, "camp shorts" with larger pockets. Toward the end of the decade "cut offs" became popular. They emphasized that they were casual, not dress wear. The idea being that one did not purchase a proper pair of shorts, but rather salvaged an old pair of worn out log pants bt cutting off the legs. Some younger boys began wearing these casual styles to school. Older boys could now be seen wear Bermuda shorts" or "Bermies" for casual wear, always with white athletic socks and tennis shoes. While dress shorts were becoming less common, play shorts were becoming more popul attire.

Christopher Wagner

Related Pages in the Boys' Historical Web Site
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Created: July 4, 1998
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