“You’ve got a clean shirt and you bathe everyday. That’s all there is to it.” This is one of the first lines spoken in the 1956 film The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, during a scene between Tom Rath (played by Gregory Peck) and his friend Bill Hawthorne, as Hawthorne casually offers Rath a job during their nightly commute from Manhattan back to Connecticut. Hawthorne says the line as he mentions a public relations job that he thinks Rath might be good at, but it’s really a reference to the movie as a whole. The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit is about the facade of middle class life in the 1950’s with it’s daily struggles that fester on commuter rail rides, arriving in oversized modern offices big enough to contain a lifetime of dreams deferred, or buried nightly in neatly manicured grass patches on postage stamp lawns, all bundled up in identical gray flannel. Whether or not this is actually how life in the fifties was, I can’t say because this movie (and the book it’s based on by Sloan Wilson) are nearly twice my age, but what I can say though is that for as much as I enjoy this movie, I’ve always had a problem with the title.
The reference to gray flannel, which was intended to represent Rath’s loss of identity amongst the workaday clones of New York City, feels like a misdirected jab. Maybe I have a problem with it because it seems to have switched these days, as that gray flannel suit that was once a sign of uniformity for the city’s nine-to-fivers, has all but disappeared. What followed in the post-midcentury struggle to discover ourselves was the discarding of these gray flannel suits, as men vilified their business attire, opting instead for the faux unique attitude of casual Friday (which soon turned into casual monday, tuesday, etc.)
Men were conned into believing that these suits were somehow squandering their personality, but it was all really just a farce, it’s not as if the outfits I see today on the backs of this city’s commuters are anymore creative or tell anymore about a person than a gray flannel suit, they’re just sloppier. The loose ties (or no ties at all) and wrinkled generic dress shirts that men wear to work nowadays show just how dull we have all become. Which is why I ultimately love this film, because despite it’s name, it’s not as if Tom Rath sheds his gray flannel suit and then he magically finds himself. Instead, he continues to don his signature suit while changing his demeanor, providing a commentary not on the clothes we wear, but how we carry ourselves within those clothes. For Peck’s character, to blame his fabric would have been ridiculous, but to find himself was a necessity, it was never an option for him to sacrifice his consistently immaculate attire for the sake of a misguided quest to become an individual.
Tom Rath proves that a gray flannel suit is not the prison garb of the white-collar worker trapped in an unsatisfactory life, it is the attire of a man ready to take on the world and all it throws at him. While the title is off, the fabric still endures, and during this time of year especially, gray flannel is one of my favorites. It has character, it can take a beating, but mainly it’s just a classic. I favor gray flannel because it harkens back to the days of The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, a time when men did have massive offices filled with Eames era trinkets, and they did question their lives and their work, but most of all they dressed for the occasion of daily life, because there was always something to be prepared for.