T-Shirt Nation

Growing up, I used to watch my dad perform his Saturday-morning ritual: shining his shoes. He would sit on a small step stool in an alcove off the kitchen and array the shoes in front of him. There were something like three pairs of wingtips, a couple of cap toes and a plain toe. The Kiwi tins would fly open and he’d go to work. He wasn’t obsessive about it, just getting himself ready for the coming work week.

Dad was an art director at Dancer, Fitzgerald & Sample on Madison Avenue, smack in the middle of menswear row. His shoes were from Lloyd & Haig, his suits and shirts and sweaters and everything else were from Brooks Brothers, Paul Stuart and occasionally Chipp and J. Press. Pretty straight Ivy League stuff. His one secret was that he got his ties at Bancroft for a dollar instead of across the street at Brooks Brothers for four dollars. He was sure no one could tell.

At the office, he would hang up his coat behind the door (this was way before Jay Chiat made everyone work in the same room). Then he would roll up his sleeves, two folds only, loosen his tie and unbutton the top button. He would sit at his drawing board, take up his Venus 3B pencil and pastels, and go to work. Boy, could that man draw.

Male attire in advertising has progressed since then (except in the case of yours truly). In the ’60s, you would always see the DDB creatives in a white or blue shirt with a solid-black tie. The Ogilvy guys, inspired by D.O.’s flamboyant red suspenders, showed more variety. You could always spot an Ogilvy writer by the tweed jacket and bow tie.

The whole thing started to unravel around the time of the Vietnam War. Creative people were always quick to protest, and at that time, one could see everything from Nehru jackets to fatigues in agencies up and down Madison Avenue. At the same time, there was a small contingent that went formal, wearing hand-made suits from Roland Meledandri.

Sometime in the mid-’70s, the creative director of Wells, Rich, Greene showed up at a P&G meeting in his everyday uniform: a Mickey Mouse T-shirt, jeans and a navy blue watch cap. The envelope had been pushed to the limit. Between that and the Maplethorpe exhibit years later, Cincinnati never quite recovered.

Then came the ’90s. So much for freedom of choice. Someday anthropologists will study this generation of male creatives and wonder why their upper-body coverings were all identical: black T-shirts. Could all these so-called creative people be so insecure that they would dare to wear only one shirt in one color? Was it a cult perhaps? Did they meet on Thursday nights, draw blood from their left index fingers and swear to stamp out all account executives? At least that would explain it. They would discover that there’s a hierarchy of black T-shirts, just as in everything else. The top guys wear Hugo Boss or Prada or Gucci, filtering down to the lowest-level Gap wearer.

I tried a black T-shirt during a heat wave last August. I was frustrated by the fact that there was no pocket, so I had to walk around carrying my glasses. Unfortunately, I didn’t come up with one breakthrough idea. I wasn’t even thinking out of the box that well. At first I thought maybe I’d gotten the wrong T-shirt, but I checked my Adweek and sure enough, it was exactly like the ones in the pictures. I guess I should be glad, though. I might have ended up shaving my head and growing facial hair if things had gone differently.

What we have in advertising is essentially two tribes: the “suits” and the “black shirts.” The suits get to play golf and live in Darien. The black shirts work out and live in Tribeca. The suits take clients and their wives to dinner. The black shirts hang with film production types. The suits get all the good Knicks tickets and U.S. Open boxes. The black shirts buy 60-inch plasma TVs to watch their commercials. The suits aspire to run agency networks. The black shirts steal the suits’ clients and open their own agencies—and eventually become suits themselves.