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"The Rise and Fall of the Leisure Suit"

By Dee Mason

The 1970s was a decade of transition. The stiff social restrictions of the 50s
had been blown up by the free-love revolution of the 60s, and now young adults
were trying to find themselves separate from the previous twenty tumultuous
years. Soldiers had returned from war and were now trying to reintegrate into
society and the job market. Music was trying to find itself, melding the folk
and rock sounds of the 60s, with new music technologies like the synthesizer.
Television was becoming the primary conduit for finding out what was cool in
music, fashion, and social practice. The time period was ripe for the creation
of fads of any type. In the early 70s, one fad emerged as king -- the leisure
suit.

Origins

While most commonly associated with the 70s -- especially 70s-era America --
the leisure suit was actually developed 40 years before on the West Coast of
the US. Originally intended as a more lightweight, casual answer to the
Norfolk and Safari jackets worn by most upwardly mobile men, the leisure suit,
also known as the "Hollywood Suit," was popular in southern California and the
surrounding region. It caught on in Britain in the 60s, and was subsequently
adopted by the "mod-generation." However, the leisure suit did not achieve
widespread fame until polyester became a common clothing fabric. Leisure suits
spoke directly to a young male population that was invested in distancing
itself from the repressive practices of previous generations. Casual, but
still tailored enough to appear respectful, the leisure suit took the "guess
work" out of what to wear. With slacks, and a matching button down top with a
wide collar or cuffs, the leisure suit was just sophisticated enough to go
from work to play, and just casual enough to make the wearer seem like they
did not work too hard to look good. When the suits began to be manufactured in
polyester, they became instant sensations. The polyester fabrication meant
that they could be easily washed and were virtually wrinkle-free. This was a
vast improvement over the leisure suits that came before, which often required
dry-cleaning and ironing in order to look their best. By the time John
Travolta sported the famous white leisure suit in the hit film, Saturday
Night Fever in 1977, leisure suits had hit the zenith of their fame.

Decline

Unfortunately, rather than becoming a true statement of easy style and a
"devil may care" attitude, the leisure suit came to symbolize a certain level
of laziness in regards to one's own appearance and habits. Men who wore
leisure suits were immediately regarded as less intelligent and aware than
their more traditionally suited counterparts. By the early 80s, the suits had
fallen largely out of fashion, and some clubs and restaurants were actually
banning customers who wore them from entering their establishments. Lutece --
one of New York City's most famous restaurants -- had a sign posted outside the
doors that read, "Please! No leisure suits!" Though the leisure suit had been
created on the idea that business-wear could also be comfortable, the suit did
not end up making it possible to work on Wall Street all day and then come
home to flop out on the catnapper couch in the living room. More than
anything, the demise of the leisure suit represented the fact that some
cultural norms, such as formal business attire, will never truly be subverted.

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