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October 08, 2006

My Grandfather's Necktie

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

One day in 1963 my grandfather dressed himself in a dark suit with vest, striped long-sleeved shirt, gold pocket watch on a chain and a necktie held in place by a stick pin.

Two things were unusual about that day.

First, it was the day that he was going to move to a nursing home.

Second, that morning he seated himself on his rocking chair to gaze out the window.

And died.

What was usual was how he was dressed. As long as I knew him, he tended to dress for business, though he was in business only briefly when he was young. I suppose the tie came off at times, perhaps during hot Spokane summer days. And he did wear woolen Pendleton shirts more often as he aged. But he never, ever dressed very casually.


My guess is that it was a status thing.

In much of the USA -- and especially here on the West Coast -- many people dress casually all the time, even office workers. Before I retired I affected a preppy sweater-and-chinos look except when I had to appear "in public" where I donned jacket and tie. The important thing about this, so far as this essay is concerned, is that when nearly everyone dresses casually it becomes difficult to tell where they stand socially until you talk to them or get other information about them.

Even more interesting, this phenomenon is pretty much voluntary. It's not quite the same thing as mandatory wearing of jump suits or overalls in a Japanese-owned factory.

Things were different in the 1880s and 1890s, my grandfather's formative years. Back then, what we now call blue and white collar workers wore distinctive garb.

As a young man, my grandfather worked in a glamorous, high-tech industry -- railroading. At least one of his early jobs was as a crewman on freight trains. I know this because, as the result of an unfortunate interaction with a coupling, he lost his left foot; the amputation was just above the ankle.

Since you don't go gandy-dancin' on one foot, he had to change his trade. Wanting to stay in railroading, he learned Morse Code and became a telegrapher and pretty much remained one the rest of his career.

I need to mention that he had only an average education for his time, leaving school after the eighth grade. Since the telegrapher job was an office job, he was able to claim white collar status albeit on a pretty low rung of that ladder.

Okay, I never talked with him about this topic, so it's possible I got everything wrong here. But I suspect I'm essentially correct. Lord knows he kept dressing "white collar" for decades following his retirement when he had no strong objective reason for proving anything to anyone.

For what it's worth, when he was alive I never thought about him and his dress in the terms expressed above. The suit, vest, watch, tie, and yes, even the limp due to his artificial leg were simply part of the "package" that was him.

And me? Rereading what I just wrote suggests that I've taken a few too many Sociology courses.



posted by Donald at October 8, 2006


My grandfather always "dressed" too, as did his wife. I barely remember them in casual clothes at all, come to think of it. He was a trade-magazine editor, and she kept the house, and when he came home she had a real dinner ready. She was well got-up and wearing perfume and he kept his coat and tie on the whole time. It's great that they were able to do that. I could never do it myself. Buttoned-up shirts, jackets, proper pants ... All of it drives me crazy very quickly. I'm like a puppy that someone's just put its first collar on -- it drives me a little berserk. But maybe if you grow up thinking it's a big desirable deal and then spend decades actually doing it, maybe it gets to feel good. There are times when we do seem to have taken the casual thing a little too far in the other direction ...

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on October 8, 2006 10:45 PM

I believe the decline in masculine dress is technological as well as cultural. The cultural explanation (less dressing up in a society that is less tolerant of external displays of status) goes a long way to explain a lack of motivation for masculine grooming.

Motivation isn't everything. Necessity is also important.

Your grandfather didn't grow up with ubiquitous air conditioning and heating.

The vast majority of my life, excepting camping and backpacking trips where I choose otherwise, will be spent between 65 and 85 degrees. We're talking 95 percent, or something like that.

I can limit my clothing to jeans, t-shirts, jackets, sneakers, and maybe some mild, unobtrusive boot and never ever feel physically uncomfortable. Men being the apathetic creatures we are, if we're comfortable, that's about it.

Men in colder climates dress better. When I lived in London and wore jackets, sweaters, etc on a regular basis my wardrobe greatly improved. Certain sweaters went with certain jackets went with certain trousers. Each item of clothing has a distinctive cut and fabric and when you start wearing many pieces of clothing you're going to start caring.

People in Key West won't show the same effort.

Posted by: secret asian man on October 8, 2006 11:06 PM

You mean you can't tell the difference between a $20 and a $60 pair of jeans? Or the Cardin shirt vs. the one from Walmart? Then look at the shoes, where status is written right on the side. It just costs some people more to be comfortable these days.

Posted by: susan on October 8, 2006 11:28 PM

"Rereading what I just wrote suggests that I've taken a few too many Sociology courses."
Not at all, Donald. I've had no such training (except for the obligatory freshman "Communism 101") and I've thought of such things often. Seems like the older I get, the more such revelations I have about status and what makes people tick.

Posted by: FrankFrankly on October 8, 2006 11:31 PM

I personally view the now omnipresent casual garb as a modern evil (but then I would). It looks too boyish, especially as men grow older, as if we are all aspiring to become Kevin Smith someday. Men and women both simply look more attractive and worthy of respect when they are neatly dressed. Many people I see day-to-day I wonder if they shouldn't be given bibs and a drool cup when they sit down at a restaurant.

When I have travelled in Europe it has been in a suit and tie--might be my imagination but I sensed this made me more acceptable to Europeans than the typical fat tourist in short pants and t-shirt. Incidentally I am in the Gen-X age bracket.

Posted by: Udolpho on October 8, 2006 11:55 PM

The army had considerable influence on my former husband. "His" army was WWII and possibly the army taught a lot of men to wear boxer shorts and armless undershirts. When did they all begin to wear t-shirts as undershirts? Anyway, after some point in the late Fifties, he always wore khaki workclothes except when he was horseback.

My father, who was born shortly after the turn of the century and who generally wore a double-breasted suit to work though his job was as "field man" for an ag co-op, wore as underwear an all-in-one garment called a bvd. I used to particularly hate ironing them. They looked like giant baby clothes to me. And he wore sock garters, strange little elastic adjustables I've never seen anyplace else except on French naughty postcards.

When I was living in Portland and had a little dog, I walked late at night through the Lloyd Center, then an open-air shopping mall. I used to linger in front of one of the high-end men's clothing stores. The materials were so luxurious and the colors so subtle, the collars and detail so cleverly done -- they made me wish I were shaped like Katharine Hepburn so I could wear them. If I could afford them.

Prairie Mary

Posted by: Mary Scriver on October 8, 2006 11:59 PM

Suits? Several years ago I posted a long message on Usenet (remember that?) concerning my attitude toward suits. I stand behind everything I said:

All right ... I'll tell you why I hate men's suits. And it is *not* because of the pushy obnoxious Ronkonkoma riders who wear them. No, there are several reasons, some of them practical and others more of an opinion thing:

1) Cost. Suits are expensive. Figure that a halfway decent looking one'll set you back at least $350 to $400. You can get cheaper ones, but they make you look like a failed used car salesman. Oh, and this isn't to mention the accessories that you'll need - tie, dress shirt, dress shoes. For the cost of a decent suit, I can go to Old Navy or Target or Kohl's and get maybe four or five pairs of jeans or khakis, a like number of casual shirts, a pair of sneakers, a pair of work boots, some
socks, and probably still have some change left over.

2) Inconvenience. Just buying a suit is a major pain in the posterior, never mind the cost. Note that I mentioned Old Navy, Target and Kohl's. You won't find suits at any of those places.
Nor at Wal-Mart, K-Mart or the Gap. Specialty men's clothing stores are rapidly disappearing. So in order to buy a suit, you're limited to a few department stores or to one of the very
few remaining men's stores. Once you're there, you'll have to try on suits to see what fits. Now, with casual clothes, I know my size and never bother trying anything on. Women might like
trying things on, but few if any men do. Finally, once you've found a suit you like, you generally have to have it altered (at extra cost, of course). Not so convenient if you want to wear the suit right away.

3) Coats. Once the weather gets cold, you'll need a trench coat to wear over your suit (add another cost item). I detest wearing long coats, they're so inconvenient. Unfortunately, short
jackets or sweaters don't go with suits.

4) Cleaning. Don't expect to toss your suit in the washing machine when it needs to be cleaned. Nope, suits are dry-clean only, which means more cost and more inconvenience. In addition,
dry cleaning weakens the fabric of a suit.

5) Wear. Suits are made of rather fragile fabric - compare them to jeans, made of nearly indestructible denim. It's not so much that they wear out quickly, though that can be true with the lesser prices ones, but that they wear out unevenly. What invariably happens is that the pants wear out much more quickly than the jackets, the area between the thighs being a weak spot,
meaning you're going to be left with "orphaned" jackets, in good shape but unwearable.

6) Style. Suit styles change fairly quickly. Twenty years ago, three-piece suits were all the rage, today they're hopelessly out of style. Then it was the two-button model, which in turn has
been supplanted by the three-button.

7) The gender factor. Suits are one thing that most definitely separate men from women. Yes, there are women's suits, but they're quite different indeed. Don't get me wrong, I'm not
saying that men and women should dress exactly the same, _vive la difference_ and all that, but only that suits are divisive, for lack of a better terms, by highlighting the gender differences.

8) The toupee factor. One so-called advantage of suits is that they make imperfect body types look better. The right suit will make a shorter man look taller, a portly man look trimmer and
more athletic, even an older man look younger. But is that really good? I dislike the way so many people are dissatisfied with their appearances and try, usually vainly, to look better.
Way I see things, you are the way you are, and should be proud of that. Wearing a suit in certain circumstances is therefore akin to wearing a toupee.

Posted by: Peter on October 9, 2006 12:37 AM

"I dislike the way so many people are dissatisfied with their appearances and try, usually vainly, to look better."

Yes, I HATE that too. Let's have more sweatsuit-wearing slobs who have simply given up.

Dresses and skirts highlight sex differences as well, I assume you take a stand against those? And do you find breasts divisive for their untoward indications of sexual characteristics? Well, these days, many men could do with a good B-cup (at least), so I guess that's a non-factor.

I know nothing makes people happier than their wear-until-death unisex 50% polyester off-the-rack leisure costumes. Now with expandable waists so there's no reason to hold back stuffing more food into your hole.


Posted by: Udolpho on October 9, 2006 2:27 AM

I heard from my great-grandfather (or was it my great-great-grandfater) that dressing "well" used to be a status symbol; must have been before my time. Nowadays, in engineering at least, it seems to be the opposite. During one interview, I got the comment “nice outfit; I hope you have the skills to back it up”, referring to my shredded jeans and orange hair, the implication being if I cared that little about how I looked, I’d better be good.

Once upon a time this was counter-signaling, but now it’s becoming so common that soon it will just be signaling ( I wonder if I could counter-signal by wearing a suit to interviews.


When I see someone in a suit, I always wonder why they don’t have a mullet and bell bottoms, or maybe a monocle and a powdered wig. If you’re going to wear something just because some people in the past decided it was a status symbol, why a suit? It’s totally arbitrary.

Posted by: dan on October 9, 2006 3:01 AM

dan: "If you’re going to wear something just because some people in the past decided it was a status symbol, why a suit?"

Prolly 'cause it looks hell of fine.

Posted by: Brian on October 9, 2006 5:47 AM

Hmm, I'm wearing suits for the simple reason they can be worn under any circumstance in any social setting, apart from the gym and such. It might make a difference to interview a cabinet minister the one day, to lecture a class of freshmen the next, and to negotiate business on another; I will always dress the same.

Mind you, I never wear ties.

And the suit jacket has still never been surpassed as a clever storage place for anything a man might need on a day.

Apart from that, American brands of blue jeans are far more expensive in the shops over here than my tailor made trousers.

Posted by: ijsbrand on October 9, 2006 8:49 AM

One of my favorite possessions is a black and white photo of my maternal grandparents at Yellowstone in 1958. Both are dressed to the nines--suit and tie for him; high heels, hose, jacket and skirt for her. Both are wearing hats.

I suspect the cultural shift toward slovenliness also has to do with the eternal childhood now so common. The men of your grandfather's generation had been to war. They married young and supported families. Men and women knew what it meant to be grown up. Today, we refer to college-age adults as "kids," and think of people in their 30s as still finding their way in the world.

Posted by: beloml on October 9, 2006 9:22 AM

Hey, Dan, I will put up a post about this that answers your really intelligent question. Check my weblog because there are going to be way too many insults in it to put here. But also many insights for you to profit from.

Posted by: Udolpho on October 9, 2006 10:27 AM

Donald, my greatfather waws a railway man, too. In Stalin times.
Died from a 3rd heart attack in his early 60's.

Posted by: Tat on October 9, 2006 11:35 AM

Men always look better in a suit. Or a sportcoat and tie; it doesn't have to be a suit.

BTW, I'm not so sure that your grandfather was asserting his status by wearing a suit. It was what people wore. I always marvel at the old pictures of sporting events like the world series. All the men in the stands are wearing a coat and tie. These days, a large percentage of them wouldn't even be wearing a shirt, having painted themselves in the team colors.

Posted by: Rachel on October 9, 2006 6:09 PM

Seems to me I read a book a few years ago that covered some of this. (Checks on Amazon.) Ah, here we go: BOBOs IN PARADISE: The New Upper Class and How They Got There by David Brooks (2000). As I recall, it was a book with one good or basic insight worth probably a long magazine article but inflated to book-length.

Things I remember from it include...

The "Bobos" of the title are "Bohemian Bourgeoisie." Economically upper-class or at least upper-middle class people who as a result of going to college in the '60s and later affect a faux-proletarian or lower class public display instead of flaunting their actual wealth. Yet their desire to identify with the poor and oppressed of the world is amusingly contradictory as they end up paying luxury-class prices for organic foods or supposed peasant clothing or other downlevel material goods. One of Brooks' best lines that I recall was that circa 1900 banker and robber baron J.P. Morgan was more honest about who he was when he put on his top hat than today's executives who affect casual clothes. There was also a comparison with Marie Antoinette and her ladies in waiting dressing up as milkmaids at Versailles, and a comment that the upper class dressing for casual wouldn't be caught dead actually dressing like the real proletariat seen shopping at Wal-Mart.

Myself, what amazes me when I watch old movies is the ubiquity of men's hats. Men wore hats outdoors for decades -- an 1840s woodcut I've seen showing workmen in a New York City street has them heaving pickaxes while wearing hats -- but gave it up almost overnight in the '60s. (You can track it by watching the iris opening of James Bond movies. In the first few he was wearing a hat, but stopped as of -- I think --Thunderball around 1964.) My mother bought me a little men's fedora-like hat when I was seven (1959) to wear with my suit when I went to church, which I hated and absolutely refused to wear, and I've never owned another hat of that sort since. Something men had been doing for decades simply stopped, and I don't remember even much comment about it at the time. (Surely somebody noticed: "Hey, it's official! We don't have to wear hats any more! Yay!") Clothing stores and hat manufacturers had to have noticed, after all. But how could something like that happen so fast and with hardly a murmur?

Posted by: Dwight Decker on October 9, 2006 6:26 PM

Supposedly JFK put men's hats forever out of fashion when he failed to wear one at his inauguration. See also Clark Gable, undershirts and "It Happened One Night."

Posted by: Rachel on October 9, 2006 7:04 PM

Rachel -
The JFK/hats-out-of-fashion connection has been debunked. Hat wearing was already well in decline by the time Kennedy went bare-headed. In addition, if I'm not mistaken the type of hat he would have worn was a top hat, which even then was scarcely a part of everyday wear.

I can remember my grandfather (b. 1900) regularly wearing a fedora when I was a child. Even then it seemed like an old-man thing to do. That must've been in the late 1960's, so he was already past retirement age if not actually old.

Posted by: Peter on October 9, 2006 9:38 PM

Ah well, too goog to check.

Posted by: Rachel on October 9, 2006 10:26 PM

If you get back into the 19th century out here in the West when things were tough, including men's suits -- big thick tweed unfitted "sack" suit jackets -- one can find photos of poor children wearing men's suit jackets for coats and plenty of photos of Indians who had been pressed to don "citizen's clothing" by which were meant this kind of suit. Some managed to mix a suit top with a breechclout. Few had matched suit outfits except for merchants or gov'ment men. Cowboys actually wore men's white shirts with suit vests and whatever tough (canvas?) pants they could find.

When we had a bad flood here in 1964, the mothy old used wool suits came surging in from sympathetic people wanting to render aid. The old Blackfeet women loved them and cut them into 6 inch squares, which they then stitched into quilts. Tied with red yarn, they were both useful and festive. Of course, making skirts and vests from abandoned silk ties is always fun.

Sounds like a good "history of the suit" might be a book!

Prairie Mary

Posted by: Mary Scriver on October 10, 2006 12:32 AM

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