What Shall We Wear to This Party?
In 1955 Sloan Wilson captured the imagination of the middle class of the 1950’s, particularly readers of his own generation, in a novel which achieved great popularity and gave a phrase to the American language. That novel, The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, was a fictional study of men who adopted a kind of uniform, the suit of gray flannel, which identified them as belonging to the post-World War II generation of men, mostly in business careers, who were typical of the times in their outlook on life and in their goals. Sloan Wilson, himself of that group of men, has utilized his own life to interpret a half century of life for himself and for his generation.
Looking backward as he began to think and write about his life, Wilson discovered that the great event of his lifetime was World War II, in which he served as an officer in the U.S. Coast Guard for four years. He found that the war had affected his whole generation, burning itself into their memories. As he began to write his autobiography he discovered that his war experience threatened to usurp his whole remembrance. Indeed, three of the nine chapters of his autobiography are used to relate Wilson’s experience in that war, although only four of his fifty-five years were spent in the Coast Guard. At least three points emerge for Wilson about that experience. For one, he and his generation (of which more than ten million men and women served their country in uniform) were not militarists, although they accepted the war between the Axis powers and the Allied nations as a genuine moral struggle between good and evil. Second, he and others of his generation saw the war as a personal test which they had to pass in order to keep their self-respect. They had to determine whether they were competent to learn the skills for survival in war, and they believed they had to find out if they had the courage to face military action or discover their own cowardice. Third, Wilson and others of his generation tried to get ahead in the military service, as they were later to strive to get ahead in civilian life. For them earning a commission, being promoted in rank, and gaining positions of military command were important aspects of their brief military careers. Wilson shows how he was typical of those people, achieving a commission in the Coast Guard, and later rising in rank and responsibility to command ships—first a converted trawler, the Nogak, on patrol off Greenland, and later a supply ship and a gasoline tanker in the Pacific Theater of Operations.
Upon his release from the service at the end of World War II, Wilson, like so many men of his generation, returned to his interrupted college career; he went back to Harvard to complete the requirements for his baccalaureate degree. Then, having aspired to become a writer since boyhood, he began to write. Soon he had published some poetry, four prose pieces in the New Yorker, and a full-length novel, Voyage to Somewhere, all written in the coalbin of the apartment house where he lived, a coalbin he had cleaned out, whitewashed, and converted to a study by adding a table, a chair, and a light on a long extension cord. His success, plus some family connections, led to his becoming a manuscript reader for Houghton Mifflin, and from that work he moved to journalism, taking a job as a reporter for the Providence Journal. Partly he took the job to earn a living, but more importantly to learn how to write, remembering that his father, a professor of journalism who had helped start the school of journalism at New York University, had often commented before his death that anyone who aspired to be a writer should work two years for a good newspaper.
Wilson’s entry into the world of the gray flannel suit in 1947 came when he left newspaper work: he had a chance to go to work for Time in New York City. Although he disliked the magazine, the temptation of a job which paid five thousand dollars a year was enough, for by then he had a wife and two children to support. When he went to New York, he learned a lesson about clothing and also acquired, unknowingly, the title for the present volume. His wife Elise asked him, in reference to an invitation to a cocktail party to meet some of the Time staff members the evening before his interview, “What shall we wear to this party?” Within days Wilson learned that in the world of corporate life his blue serge Coast Guard officer’s uniform, devoid of its original brass buttons, was altogether inappropriate for the officers of Time. He was advised pointedly to go to Brooks Brothers to buy a gray flannel suit, with the admonition that such things were important in his new situation.
Fate and a letter of recommendation from one of his Harvard professors to Roy Larsen, president of Time, Inc., kept Wilson from a career as a writer for Time. Within two days Wilson found himself working as a reporter, writer, and public-relations man for the National Citizens Committee for Public Schools, of which Roy Larsen was a key member. In the five years he worked at this job, Wilson was to learn much about himself and the other men of his generation, especially those who...
(The entire section is 2127 words.)