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A Look At: Style In "The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit"

The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit is both a novel, and a film - released in 1955 & 1956 respectively. The film has intense, interweaving tones of mental health (a groundbreaking topic for the time), and focuses heavily on the meaning and symbolism of specific styles. 

About The Story

The film, and the novel that it's based on, follows Tom Rath. Tom is a World War II veteran, having barely made it home alive after being a Captain in the Army. He returns to his family, a wife and their three children in the Connecticut suburbs. It becomes clear early on that, not only is he struggling financially, his mental health has been greatly impacted by his time overseas. 

Encouraged by his wife to find a job that would make it easier to support their family, he secures a position as a public relations professional at a local news station. This job, of course, comes with its own ups and downs including an overly-critical office politician (Bill Ogden) who doesn't approve the speech that Tom wrote regarding a mental health initiative that their boss, Ralph Hopkins, wants to start up. 

Knowing that he has firsthand knowledge of just how important mental health is (as evidenced by the consistent flashback shots to his time in the war), he goes straight to Hopkins, who loves his idea, and offers him a higher-paid position in the company. Having seen the toll this stressful life has taken on Hopkins (most specifically having become estranged from his daughter), Tom opts out, explaining he'd prefer a 9 to 5 and the chance to continue spending time with his family. 

Mental Health Messaging

As a movie in the 1950's, mental health was a pretty cutting-edge topic. Post traumatic stress disorder was still believed to only impact veterans and was known only as "shell shock" or "battle fatigue syndrome" at the time. Of course, these days we know that's a wildly simplified way of looking at the complexities of PTSD, but it's still shown in a way that's sympathetic, eye-opening, and overall just enough of Tom's character to be touched on the way it should be while also not taking over his entire identity. 

On top of the topic of post-traumatic stress disorder, we see the important topic of mental health - to be discussed in Hopkins' speech - being "sugarcoated" by Ogden to make it a more palatable conversation. This is something we still see happening today, but mental health isn't meant to be palatable, or to sound pretty. After all, the people who experience mental illnesses are well aware of all of the ugly parts of it. 

What Lies Behind the Style

The style in this film is full of meaning. The eponymous suit, Tom's gray flannel suit, symbolizes much more than a well-made twill suit. Instead, the suit is a metaphor for the American Dream. No - really, it meant a whole lot more than just the color that looked best on film. In fact, at the time, a man in a gray suit was the epitome of the working middle class. Just successful enough to afford a nice piece of men's clothing, he probably drives an alright car, and keeps his family comfortable.

But the disdain for the conformity that comes along with that lifestyle became a movement of his own. The gray flannel suit is a monotonous reminder that Tom's life has become much less colorful than it was in the past. With his flashbacks showing harrowing missions, a passionate affair with a woman in Italy, and the death of his best friend, we're introduced to an intense, lively reality that cuts into the life in which he dons his gray flannel suit, goes to work, and comes home. 

Hopkins, on the other hand, is dressed extravagantly - matching his lifestyle of mansions, martinis and money - which is undercut by the hollowness that he feels in his life. The success came with sacrifice, and that sacrifice was his family.  

Overall, the symbolism, styling and design of the clothing in this movie and its novel were calculated decisions, made to provide its own message with every piece of clothing seen on screen. What messages do you send with the pieces you put on every day?

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