The 1950s were a time of conformity in the United States and in American fashion. Middle-and upper-class families by the thousands moved out of the nation's cities and resettled in suburban, or residential, communities. Husbands commuted into the cities to work, while their wives raised the children and maintained the home. At the office, casual attire was forbidden. Office workers at all levels were required to dress formally. The outfit of preference for the up-and-coming corporate executive of the 1950s was the gray flannel suit: a single-breasted, three-buttoned outfit featuring narrow lapels and shoulders and tapered trousers that lacked pleats. Rounding out the look was a pale blue or white button-down collar shirt, cuff links, a conservative striped tie, and shiny black or brown leather wing-tipped shoes. A single-breasted tweed overcoat and a brimmed hat were added during colder weather and a drip-dry raincoat was worn during stormy weather.
Gray flannel suits were strictly for office workers; they were impractical for factory workers or day laborers. Because men generally are less style-conscious than women, the look of the gray flannel suit did not vary from season to season. It remained the standard businessman's uniform even after synthetic materials that were lighter and easier to launder appeared on the fashion scene in the mid-1950s.
The man in the gray flannel suit is one of the enduring images of the 1950s. Such a man is conservative and loyal to the organization for which he works. He grasps his black or brown leather briefcase and nervously glances at his wristwatch as he stands on a commuter train platform. This gray-flannel-suit state of mind was explored in The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, a best-selling novel (1955) by Sloan Wilson (1920–) that was adapted into a Hollywood movie in 1956 starring Gregory Peck (1916–2003). It is the story of a New York advertising executive, trapped in the fast-paced, competitive corporate world, who undergoes a crisis of values.
Batterberry, Michael, and Ariane Batterberry. Fashion: A Mirror of History. New York: Greenwich House, 1977.