Book Review: Boom! A Baby Boomer Memoir

Boom! A Baby Boomer Memoir, 1947-2022

by Ted Polhemus

Lulu.com (January 2012)


An anthropologist by degree, Ted Polhemus has written numerous books on style and/or subculture including Streetstyle (2010), Style Surfing: What to Wear in the 3rd Millennium (1996), The Body As a Medium of Expression (1975), Social Aspects of the Human Body (1978), among other gems (see Monica’s recent illuminating interview with Ted). Boom! does not fit neatly in with these works. Rather, it is a delightful romp through Polhemus’ own personal history, heavily embellished with cultural observations of how the world has changed during the Baby Boomers’ reign. He punctuates his own intellectual, stylistic, and political development with familiar contemporary TV that references those earlier decades (Mad Men, The Sopranos flashbacks, etc.) to help the reader visualize the era she might not have lived through herself, illuminating the larger socio-political implications of seemingly trivial items (“flesh” colored crayon indicative of pre-Civil Rights latent racism, for example). His is a highly readable, unaffected writing style — while peppered with world events and statistics, these are naturally integrated into the narrative without footnotes.

 

Levittown, NY, first suburb in 1948

Chapter one, “1947,” refers to the date Polhemus pinpoints as the birth year glut of the Boomers (3.9 million in 1947, a growth of 11% from 1946 and a whopping 39% more than 1945). Polhemus points out this same year—1947—is when biker gangs invaded Hollister, CA, inspiring The Wild One; when Kerouac met Neal Cassady, prompting On the Road; modern jazz reigned; Dior’s “New Look” debuted; and Levittown, Long Island marked the first suburb—in short, the dawn of a rapidly changing world. Polhemus is careful to point out that much of what is associated with Baby Boomers (and 1947) was not actually executed by Boomers who were, at best, infants, but by earlier generations. While he praises the contributions of his generation, Polhemus also rebukes achievements commonly and erroneously attributed to them: “While the Baby Boomers reconfigured the world around them (doing so not by any revolutionary act but simply by growing in mass into adolescence).”

Beats Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg in casual workwear, 1959

For example, the Beatniks of the ‘50s and early ‘60s prefigured the radical movements of the Boomer ‘60s, including as radical style trailblazers. Beatniks wore “denim jeans, work shirts, chinos, sweat shirts and sneakers which had previously been worn only for work or sport — in the process, ironically, becoming the style leaders and trendsetters of the modern age.” This was a radical transgression against the prim and proper mainstream fashions of the ‘50s (as I have mentioned in my own article on secondhand fashion of the Beats and Yippies), lead by Dior’s 1947 “New Look” in the Old World European tradition of opulence voiced through yards of expensive fabric, especially precious in the lean WWII years. Polhemus astutely asserts that Dior was critical not just in adding volume to previously war-deflated skirts, but in reasserting the cultural supremacy of Old World Europe — war-decimated Paris, especially — by reviving traditional values of luxury in fashion. It was the Beats who first questioned this enthusiasm for regressive post-war consumerist values in a sartorial manner; the Boomers merely picked up the thread, so to speak.

 

In Chapters 2 and 3, “Coming Home” and “Suburban Life” respectively, Polhemus gives his account of small-town life in Neptune, New Jersey and the subsequent move to the suburbs, indicative of the larger-scale white flight which occurred as the first “ranch” style suburbs were landscaped (again, post-1947). Enthusiasm for this horizontal expansion surfaced thematically in America’s simultaneous obsession with Westerns (limitless space! self reliance! sprawl!): Oklahoma! the musical came out in 1955, and clothing catalogs like Sears Roebuck depicted frolicking “cowboys” and “cowgirls” clad in denim (as mentioned previously, a hard-wearing material otherwise only worn by blue collar workers and ranch hands).  While this connection was a fascinating one, I was curious to read theories on why the sprawl and Western fetish occurred.

Sears cowboy outfit and accessories, 1957

The connection between the popularity of ‘50s Westerns and the desire to carve out a new life in spanking new, cookie-cutter homes with lawns large enough for the kids to play in had the consequence of straining community ties previously forged by physical proximity — expanding highway systems sliced towns and divided communities. Suburban sprawl also lead to increased gas dependency — Polhemus recounts how his family needed two cars as they were now too far from their town center (or the new climate-controlled shopping malls that replaced them) to function without one car per adult. But how was this reflected in body aesthetics?

 

Polhemus successfully communicates how outre modern — that is, mid-century modern — clothes were, something that is often omitted or poorly conveyed in more formal history reviews (a one-button suit is “outrageous” with its obscene “jacket cleavage”). Polhemus writes,

“For my father’s generation — after, as before World War II — a good, desirable suit used a surplus of fabric and lots of gratuitous buttons to signal luxury and success: extra wide lapels, big shoulders, baggy trousers, double-breasted. But in the ‘50s (influenced by ‘Cool Jazz’ and the new styles of Italian menswear) an opposite, ‘modern’ look began to emerge: trim, pared-down, minimal. By the early ‘60s, even in Neptune [NJ], it was impossible for a guy to look hip without a single-breasted suit with narrow lapels, tight trousers, an ‘Ivy League’ button-down collar shirt, a straight, pencil-thin tie (cut square at the bottom rather than, heaven forbid, pointed), a plain, silver tie pin (exactly the same width as the tie and worn no more than 3 inches up from the belt) and a pair of loafers (optionally ornamented with a shiny dime lodged in the strap over the arch).”

 

Generational style differences became apparent to wee little Ted when he went suit shopping with his hopelessly old-fashioned father, the frustration and humiliation of which he recounts in amusing detail: “…focusing on the tight cut of the trousers at the crotch he [Polhemus’ father] loudly commented, ‘Everyone can see everything you’ve got.’” This was not just a crotchety father (ha!). Sex was to become a visible subject for discussion in the ‘60s with an interesting contradiction between the sanitized separate beds of TV couples versus the erupting breasts of Marilyn Monroe and Jayne Mansfield depicted in magazines.

separate beds in I Love Lucy, 1950s

Sophia Loren and Jayne Mansfield, 1957

 

Polhemus somewhat sheepishly admits that sexual contradictions existed within himself, too: while he came to embrace the hippy lifestyle as a young man (rejecting the “modern” suit his younger self was so excited to procure), he was often more turned on by the fake, plastic Playboy Playmates than he was by the unshowered, hairy hippy chicks. (Exceptions were made, of course, when these au natural hippy chicks made erotic overtures. Our anti-hero is not made of stone.) This continues to be a relevant topic in body studies and personal experiences: while many strong, intelligent, feminist women may believe it’s hypocritical and unnatural for women to spend so much time and money on hair removal, they may also simply not feel attractive if they don’t. (Taking a hint from Polhemus, perhaps we should stop shaving but be more sexually aggressive!)

Using fashion as a form of mise-en-scene to explore the duality of the ‘60s and his own shifting taste, Polhemus writes, “… in my sharp suit, button-down Ivy League shirt, thin as a line in a Mondrian tie, black loafers and carefully waxed flat-top, grooving to the beat of Modern Jazz, my allegiance throughout the first half of the ‘60s was to modernism and progress rather than, as later in the decade, any form of counter-cultural political radicalism.” In the late ‘60s and ‘70s more than ever before, the socio-political rift between the generations could be distilled into fashion signifiers, as young, disaffected people chose to advertise their beliefs and alternative lifestyles on their bodies. While watching TV during his college break Polhemus recalls, “Yippies and Hippies who with their long hair and frayed, patched hipster jeans might be me — are being assaulted with batons, fists, rifle butts and tear-gas.” As the hippies were being physically assaulted, so were the sensibilities of Polhemus’ father for whom “the only valid interpretation of what is appearing on the (now colour) screen is that these no good, Commie, dope-smoking, fornicating Hippies — crazy kids, like his own eldest son — are destroying America.” Just as Yippie frontman Jerry Rubin wrote of the kinship he felt with other “longhairs” — even strangers on the street could be cataloged by this particular physical attribute — so Polhemus Jr. and Sr. accurately interpreted the socio-political values of those longhairs on TV, albeit with opposite reactions.

This marked a threat from within America — America’s own teenagers — as opposed to WWII which had a definite external (and adult) Bad Guy. Looking back, Polhemus admits that hippies like him were probably offensive to the actual black hipsters, Native Americans, and impoverished / working class people they aped with their clothes, even as they’d sought to ally themselves with such groups: “…unlike the students in Paris (‘69 worker’s riots), in focusing our would-be revolution on sex, drugs and Rock ‘n’ Roll — the long hair, the scruffy clothes, the bouncy bra-less breasts, the lazing about contemplating one’s navel — we made it virtually impossible to do that which had happened in Paris and bring the workers onto our side.”

longhair Yippie Jerry Rubin during Chicago Eight Trial, 1968

 

Polhemus moved to England in 1969 to study archaeology after being visually seduced by Antonioni’s Blow-Up, which gave a delectable glimpse of English birds in their pop art miniskirts, geometric haircuts, fake eyelashes and plastic fetish boots — embracing artifice and abandoning the natural look and lifestyle of American hippies: “Once known throughout the world for its particularly drab, bowler-hatted, body concealing image of masculinity, from the ‘60s onwards Britain would increasingly be known for its outlandish gender-bending androgyny.” He discusses the advent of the boutique scene and the “mind-boggling extraterrestrial possibilities of Glam, Punk and Goth” that followed, siting Baby Boomer David Bowie as a leader in daring, extreme stylistic changes, from mod to hippy to psychedelic, etc., through the ‘60s and ’70s. Once again, Polhemus’ own style morphed; around 1972,

“I traded my battered sneakers for (excruciatingly uncomfortable, but who cared) patent gold platform boots. My ancient threadbare jeans with their statigraphy of layer upon layer of patches I switched for skin-tight, figure-hugging trousers (tights really) made of some alien, shiny, stretchy, show off/freeze your bum fabric. I got rid of my old trusty, hand-woven native-American headband and let my long golden locks waft about like those of a popstar. And, finally, I ditched the huge, over-sized, hand-woven jumper/wrap-around jacket I’d bought in a peasant market in Mexico on my trip there in 1967, and replaced it with a skimpy little jacket made of black velvet and edged all over with a metallic, gold, red, silver and blue trim which sparkled and radiated dazzling light….”

 

Pretty as it was, Glam was the cynical yet realistic assertion that the idealistic dreams of the ‘60s hippies had failed, embracing alien artifice. This projected pessimism segued into bleak predictions for the future, culminating in what Polhemus is perhaps best known for, his relationship to the punk movement, and the Sex Pistols in particular.

 

punk Johnny Rotten

In his disaffected teenage years — during the oil crisis and Wall Street’s crash around 1973 — John Lydon, a.k.a. Johnny Rotten, experimented by sampling bizarre collections of “garments/rubbish” into a startling delinquent fashion style which is now familiar to us as punk. “Snipping off nipple-exposing holes in his jumpers and, when presented with a fancy dress suit by his hopeful parents, ripping the thing to shreds and then cobbling it back together with safety pins, the young Lydon established the process of what would come to be called ‘deconstruction’.” Lydon loved disturbing conservative, wealthy sensibilities with his dystopian look. Polhemus shares some thoroughly entertaining stories of his personal dealings with Malcolm McLaren, Vivienne Westwood, and the Sex Pistols where he leveraged their request for him to appear as a court witness stating the artistic merit of the pornographic t-shirts sold in their shop SEX, in exchange for their participation in a panel on art and fashion at the prestigious Institute of Contemporary Arts.

Malcolm McLaren in front of SEX shop wearing fetish gimp t-shirt

In his last chapter, Polhemus stresses the difficulty (or even potential impossibility) of visually distinguishing generations and style tribes so clearly in the future, and predicts a downturn of youth-led culture (I myself don’t see this happening any time soon; the cult of youth — especially as style leaders — is strong yet). This speculation notwithstanding, Boom! was most entertaining and informative, as I wish more social history narratives were. Polhemus seamlessly weaves his ongoing reading (Camus, Tom Wolfe, Pyncheon, Playboy, Collin MacInnes, Jonathan Franzen); watching (Easy Rider, The Graduate, American Graffiti, Blow Up, Rocky Horror, Jubilee); and listening lists (Beatles, Stones, Yardbirds, Kinks, David Bowie, Sex Pistols) into his personal chronicle for effective immersive context. These are helpfully listed by category in an appendix of “Sources and Inspirations,” sorted by release year. Additionally, there is a timeline of world and cultural events for political orientation.

 

In short, Polhemus’ informal, conversational tone and casual, irreverent voice is a pleasure to read and almost disguises the extent of his research in seamlessly weaving together changes in the politics, wars, economics, housing, music and fashion of half a century. Though the lack of footnotes may frustrate some academics, the accomplishment here is in demonstrating the inseparability between fashion and culture, pop-culture and world events — and that these weighty, complex structures can be presented in an entertaining, engaging, populist way. Though he devotes almost no time to simultaneous movements and subcultures he didn’t personally participate in (disco, hip hop, etc.), this is not only forgivable, it makes sense given the personal framing of the book. I do wish photos were peppered throughout, though there is a separate accompanying downloadable eBook of these), but this was actually not as devastating a handicap as in other fashion histories I’ve come across (and you can visit Ted’s site with awesome photos of Ted in his various style phases). Polhemus ominously predicts that after 2020 the inevitable boom in funerals will be the Boomers’ last economic contribution; but we can assume Polhemus will continue to illuminate and validate the analysis of pop-culture until that inevitability.

 

FURTHER READING

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