There are two ways for a man to dress with style this summer. One is to scout the attic for 1950s holdovers. The other is to check the stores for updated '50s styles.
Several distinctly '50s looks are back this year: the seersucker suit, chino, baby chord, and madras fabrics, the oxford cloth button down shirt, and even rep ties and Bermuda shorts.
Built on last fall's successful return of the classics, designers and manufacturers have agin started with safe and familiar styles. They only hope they've designed them with enough difference to lure even those who own originals into buying the spin-offs.
"When everything is making greater demands on your budget," says menswear authority and designer Robert L. Green, "that's hardly the time to risk a definite wardrobe change."
"It swings around in cycles," says Arthur Adler, whose shops here have never departed from updated, traditional clothing. "After the zoot suit, men swung back to more refined clothes. Now men are tired of wide lapels, bold patterns and a tight European fit."
According to Adler, the French and English, too, were showing essentially this look at recent international exhibitions. The Dior boutique in Paris is filled with rep ties at 130 francs (about $26) apiece, and they're selling well there.
The cost of men's clothing, though, is not headed in an encouraging direction.
Prices, Adler says, are up as much as 10 per cent over a year ago because of fabric and labor increases." I really worry about the fall," he says adding that the increases, also from labor and fabric costs, will be "frightening."
Says Jack Shultz, senior vice president at Bloomingdale's: "The flamboyant period is over."
What separates vintage from fresh styles is the shape and construction of the clothing. Neither as baggy as the '50s styles or as snug and tight as recent European cuts, the current clothing has settled on a suggestion of fit without being binding. Stiff construction and sturdy linings have given way to jackets that wear almost as easily as shirts.
Rep ties, too, are slithgly different. A smidgen narrower than the widest ties of last season, they are far wider than their '50s counterparts. Button-down oxford cloth shirts have a longer collar than 50 years ago, but not as long as last year's.
Even white bucks are back but in an updated version. It's not the original Ivy League shoe, but, also, thankfully, not the shiny white, patent leather shoe that was for years the partner of polyester knit pants. The new versions look like British officers' shoes and pair up well with light-toned clothes.
Summer suits continue to the three-piece. "We've had a tough time selling a suit without a vest," says Larry Savage at the Designers.
Designer Bill Blass picked up a two piece seersucker suit off the racks and is having a vest made to to with it. "Somehow the vest makes you feel spiffier," says Blass. "Besides, it gives you the option of wearing it with or without the vest."
Ginny Halstead, menswear coordinator at Garfinckel's, says the three-piece suit has gone beyond being fashion and is now the volume seller. She sees the double-breasted suit, always minus a vest, as the comer.
"We've had customers say that a suit isn't complete without a vest," says David Pensky, co-owner of Britches. He believes the double-breasted suit remedies that. "It's unvested and looks complete that way." He believes men also will find it cooler than three-piece styles.
One hazard of the double-breasted style is that it must be kept buttoned to look right. Fashion model George Weeks thinks it makes him look "like the side of a barn and as wide as a kite."
Just the same, the double-breasted silhouette has already caught on in blazers. Blass, who thinks the blazer "is the one thing very man must have since everyone looks better dressed in a blazer than anything else," has been selling more double-breasted styles than single-breasted ones. Navy is still the best seller, followed by camel.
Blast has pushed the grey flannel blazer for years but with little success. He likes it worn with white pants, but men apparently feel it's like wearing the top of one suit, the pants from another, says Blass. "But I don't know what's wrong with that."
The same trend that applies to men's suits holds for other clothing. Natural fabrics predominate, particularly cotton. Cotton chino is updated with pleated pants or whith L.L. Bean outdoorsman type detailing. Madras looks fresh in darker tones than the 1950s. And white ducks are back, often taking the shape of jeans.
Looseness and comfort are the rules as in women's clothing. Square-cut shirts or blouson tops pair up with straight leg pants or Bermuda shorts.
Even formal wear, which survived the flamboyant '60s, has settled into more classic styling. Leonard Maites of Royal Formal Wear thinks this toning down has boosted formal wear sales considerably.
"Tuxedos have gotten more traditional and easier to wear," says Maites, who now sells and rents mostly black tuxedos, followed by brown and then blue. "Ruffled shirts have been replaced by more classic, flat-pleated styles, and 'gingerbread' is at a minimum."
Maites believes that the only proper attire for a bridegroom at a formal wedding in a tuxedo or cutaway. But Blass disagrees. A white suit, he says, gives the groom the flexibility of being suitably dressed any time of the day except when a cutaway is called for.
"A wedding is a good time for a man to show imagination. A white suit sounds perfect to me," Blass concludes.