You guys! We’ve never discussed the Most Important Outfit of All: Don Draper’s uniform! The gray flannel suit.
So the gray flannel suit gets a bad wrap; the single breasted, three buttoned, narrow lapelled, tapered trouser is cultural short hand for the stultifying conformity of the 1950s and early ‘60s (with the accompanying necktie serving as a metaphorical noose. ) No other dress style of the modern era elicits with such scorn as the gray suit. This is thanks in part to the 1960 book The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit and the Gregory Peck movie based on the novel . The suit in Sloan Wilson’s story is emblematic of pervasive soullessness in the mechanized world, making men numb to themselves and their families and their morals.
Yet the reason for the mass adoption of the suit was not likely due to thoughtless conformity. Before the late 1960’s men didn’t really own very many clothes! As men moved off the factory floor and into a corporate building the new standardized uniform became the gray flannel suit. From lowly office drone, to FBI spook, or IBM engineer, the men riding the train into Grand Central wore the same wore the same thing (sometimes accented with a brimmed hat, tweed overcoat, and a handy umbrella).
The gray suit was an acceptable wardrobe to wear daily that didn’t require much upkeep nor varied season to season. And while yes, the suit was a type of uniform, to make the historic verdict that men who donned the outfit did so out of unquestioned conformity is too simplistic.
According a Time magazine article “The Masculine Mode,” from 1964, the American male over 30 actually preferred to dress similarly to everyone around him. “If one of his colleagues — or two of them — turns up in the same outfit he is wearing, he does not feel embarrassed, as would his wife. He feels reassured.”
In Don’s case, as for most men in gray flannel suits, their business uniform allowed them to singal a sense privilege and status that a farm boy on Madison would not generally be able to access.
* Somewhere in Time: Conform and Function [Ivy Style]
*Man in a Gray Flannel Trap [LIFE archive 1956]
*Brooks Brothers Don Draper Edition [Colider]