March 3, 2011

Colorful tuxedos

In groups with high levels of opportunistic violence, men (and women) dress more colorfully. This may act like the vibrant warning colors that some insects show, perhaps an example of the handicap principle -- only those who are prepared to fight are going to sport loud colors that make it impossible to hide. It may also have to do with people in these groups putting more into mating effort, where looking colorful makes you a bigger hit with the opposite sex. Whatever the reasons are, that's how it is.

In a future post, I might go into more detail cross-culturally and historically within a group to show the contrast between drabber and daper males. Briefly, though, contrast the Chinese farmer with the Mongolian pastoralist, or the Somali-Bantu farmer with the Masaai pastoralist, or King James I with David Lloyd George.

When violence rates began shooting up in Western countries around 1960, everyone began dressing more colorfully right on cue, in contrast to the sober dress of the previous three decades (the era of the Man in the Gray Flannel Suit). This included brighter and more varied colors in general during the '60s, and not just the tie-dye and paisley of subcultures. It spread further during the '70s, again not just the fruit-toned leisure suits of a marginal group. And of course it reached its zenith during the '80s, extending well beyond the neon costume of the New Wave and Danceteria scenes. As violence levels began plummeting in the early-mid 1990s, everyone burned their colorful clothing and returned to the '50s pattern of only wearing black, white, gray, and maybe navy blue (or olive, oatmeal, brown, etc.), a trend that has persisted up through the present.

Just how much of the cultural canvas did this explosion of color manage to coat? Surely some forms of dress remained beyond the sublunary forces of fluctuating tastes? No, even the most formal clothes that most American males would ever wear -- the tuxedo -- said What the hell, and joined the party.

To track the rise and fall of the colored tuxedo, I did a google image search for "prom 19xx" or similar for every decade or year since 1950, and looked at the first 10 pages of results to see roughly what fraction of men were wearing one to their high school prom. It looks like the prom was not very big during the '40s or before, so I could only get one decade of falling-crime times at the beginning, although all proms since the crime rate peaked in 1992 show up, so that's roughly another 20 years of falling-crime times. What follows is impressionistic, since any quantitative look would require a more rigorous selection method in the first place.

In the 1950s, the guy either wore a traditional black tuxedo, perhaps a navy blue one, or black pants with a white or cream jacket. The cummerbund and tie are almost always black. During the mid or late 1960s, the colored tuxedo begins to be born, although it hasn't quite gotten out all the way yet. The pants, cummerbund, and tie are still black, but some guys, like this one, have started to wear a light blue jacket (along with the still popular white jacket).

The heyday of the powder blue tuxedo (and other non-traditional colors) seems to have been the mid-'70s through the mid-'80s. Here are three guys in the same group of friends all in blue for their 1978 prom. Most people associate this look with the '70s, but it was alive and well even through most of the '80s. Here is one from 1984; also see the makeshift prom scene at the end of Footloose (also from 1984), where there are red, blue, silver, tan, and other colored tuxedos.

By the late '80s the black tux begins to come back, although on an absolute level the non-traditional one is still common enough. Here is one from 1989 (although from the looks of it, maybe his parents bought it for him back in 1977 and hoped he'd grow into it). The zeitgeist of 1990 is still part of the '80s (and '70s and '60s), and even then there were some holdouts of the non-black tuxedo, such as this one. Even those who wore black ones tended to wear very colorful tie and cummerbund pairs.

As in the culture generally, the party was basically over by 1991. I couldn't find any evidence that colored tuxedos were still in, although there's a guy here or there with a light blue tie. Same goes for 1992. After that, it's back to the black tuxedo, and it has stayed that way ever since. The only places that you saw a colored tuxedo after the peak of the crime rate were in snarky-satirical-meta-ironic movies like Dumb and Dumber or period movies like The Wedding Singer.

Celebrative clothing is supposed to look more alive and carefree, so I don't find the black-and-white look the most fitting. Again, even within European history, that overly sober costume is very new, so it's hard to champion the look based on tradition. Rather it seems that it's the dull and too-serious look that represents a radical break with our own past and with most of the rest of the world too.

To be honest, for people like me who were teenagers during falling-crime times, it's hard to look at guys in powder blue tuxedos and not split our sides laughing -- laughing at, not with. But upon reflection, that was an understandable piece of the larger pattern of having fun and not being paralyzed by self-consciousness. I'm not sure how I'd feel if light blue tuxedos come back in style when the crime rate begins to soar again, but I'd gladly trade that for a boring world with overly solemn clothing.

One of those images came from a page of old high school photos that had "Pictures of You" playing in the background. Didn't know they made a video for that one. Even the goth crowd used to have enough of a light side to just let go and get into a nice snowball fight.


  1. Congrats!

    You've finally found a benefit to living in safe times. I'll take understated elegance over colorful yet inept gaudiness any day.

    Northern Europeans and Americans look exceptionally stupid whenever they try to be extremely colorful and vibrant.
    I'd rather just go to Brazil or India if I need a fix for that sort of thing.

  2. Men became very colorful during the hippy granola 1960s. I'm not sure they were trying to scare each other off.

    Colorfulness seems like a way of rebelling. Violence and colorful clothing may just be different aspects of generally rebellious public mood.

    I think the conservative black suit looks the best. Can't go wrong with that.

  3. "I'll take understated elegance over colorful yet inept gaudiness any day."

    Well you're mistaking James Bond for the average guy from the '90s and 2000s, who looks just as inept and not at all elegant as the guy from the '60s through the '80s, only donning drabber colors. Just google image search "prom 1994" etc.

    And look at everyday clothing from the '90s and 2000s. It was not understated elegance, but rather a dull shade of black, brown, oatmeal, olive green, and other pukey colors.

    "Men became very colorful during the hippy granola 1960s. I'm not sure they were trying to scare each other off."

    However, even NFL team colors are pretty colorful. And primitive groups with lots of warfare have males that wear a wide variety of vibrant colors, like the Chambri whose face-painting males Margaret Mead mistook for cosmetics obsessed women-men. Turns out it's war paint.

    And pre-modern soldiers' uniforms were garishly colored:

  4. NFL players is an interesting point because, I'd have guessed colors in violent times might also track group identification - people band together to fight, and colors are a group symbol, thus colors. But of course, that's against the general thrust of your thought, which, if I understand it correctly is that violent times promote large scale social solidarity, rather than competitive subcultures (maybe I'm losing a nuance here).

    I think the anti-colours (at least as popularly percieved) but still relatively flamboyant wing of Goth and Metal (all monochrome and metal and maybe red lipstick!) is kind of an interesting variation as well, but still in line with the general idea.


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