In this series I will offer a summary and analysis of a film and then highlight the clothing of a certain male character (or characters), elaborating on the cultural and historical significance of the attire while also discussing how certain styles are still relevant and/or wearable today.
The Graduate, adapted from the Charles Webb novella (1963) of the same name, is one of my favorite films and is often cited as one of the greatest American movies to come out of the tumultuous 1960s. And, like my last reviewed movie, Rosemary’s Baby, it also happens to feature some of the best menswear still relevant to the modern man. While I’ve seen it countless times, I continually find the movie so enjoyable and funny, yet also immensely contemplative, and I of course still look to it for clothing inspiration.
Directed by the late, comedian-turned-director Mike Nichols, it stars Dustin Hoffman in his breakout role as Benjamin Braddock, a recent graduate of a prestigious East Coast college who returns to his parents’ home in Pasadena, despite receiving an award that would allow him to continue his education. Ben, who just wants his future to be “different,” is disillusioned by the superficiality and meaninglessness of middle class life of his parents and their immensely shallow friends. He sees little purpose in anything, relegating himself to floating around in his pool and drinking beer, content in literally and figuratively drifting, much to the dismay of his parents. He truly is the embodiment of the existential crisis and ennui that often accompanies college graduates; the film, with Ben as the stand-in for the American counter-culture, reveals the American dream as a failed, soulless construct.
He finally breaks out of his daily routine of bumming around when Mrs. Robinson (Anne Bancroft), the wife of his father’s law partner, seduces him. They begin an affair after Ben’s initial reluctance and repeatedly frequent a hotel together; though, it’s all plainly vapid and rooted in nothing more than emotionless sex. The experimental editing and cinematography (heavily influenced by the then avant-garde French New Wave) along with the amazing soundtrack, which is from the early catalog of the folk-rock duo Simon and Garfunkel with “Mrs. Robinson” being written specifically for the film, sublimely reinforce the pervasive loneliness and alienation despite whatever connection Ben attempts to make with Mrs. Robinson.
It isn’t until Ben’s parents push him to go on a date with Elaine Robinson (Katharine Ross), Mrs. Robinson’s daughter, that he finds someone for whom he truly cares. Since Mrs. Robinson warned him earlier to not see Elaine, he attempts to sabotage their date to placate both Mrs. Robinson and his own parents; nevertheless, they quickly form an authentic bond and he chooses to pursue the relationship anyway. Mrs. Robinson angrily orders him to stop seeing Elaine, and Ben, now wracked with guilt and seeing no alternative, confesses his past to Elaine. Upset, she returns to college upon the summer’s end, but a desperate Ben drives to Berkeley and convinces her to marry him. In a farcical turn of events, Elaine’s parents force her to marry a past college sweetheart, but Ben “rescues” her during the ceremony by attacking everyone in the church and barricading those inside with a giant cross; he and Elaine then escape on a bus to who-knows-where.
The final shot frames the young love birds breathing in love’s sweet aromas, smiling and optimistic about a new future. But their smiles quickly fade and they both stare ahead, seemingly just as distraught about their future as they had always been. Are they not destined to be just like their parents from whom they’ve rebelled? For me, this ending encapsulates the film’s essence; while often considered a classic comedy, it is much more a surrealistic satire that toys with our conception of how both comedy and tragedy are intertwined. The plot and dialogue are effortless in their humor – witty and biting and delivered so subtly that if you sneeze you might miss it all – but there is a clear, poignant dissonance between this and the tragic aspects of the film in its ultimately pessimistic view on life and relationships.
THE CLOTHES: Benjamin Braddock
Regardless of his cynical disposition, Ben, on his countless dates and escapades with an older woman at an upscale hotel and then with that woman’s daughter has to dress well, doesn’t he? A graduate from a northeastern college and a product of the early 1960’s, his attire is “collegiate” in every sense of the word. If you’ve read my previous blog posts, you’ll know my love for “Ivy League” style; to drive the point home even further, Ben is the invariable epitome of that “look.” A dude like Benjamin Braddock surely needs clothes that can take him from poolside, to a swanky LA hotel, and then to a college campus, and he has it in spades.
Honestly, there isn’t a single questionable piece of apparel worn by Ben throughout the entire film and his sartorial hot streak begins when he steps off the plane at LAX. In the superb credit intro, Ben rolls along on the moving walkway as the “The Sound of Silence” (the metaphor is strong here) lofts wistfully in the air. Surely jet lagged from his cross-country flight and emotionally distressed over his impending future, he manages to look relaxed in the archetypal gray wool flannel suit, a white oxford cloth button down, navy blue silk-repp stripe tie, and black cap-toe shoes. He’s not the “Man in the Gray Flannel Suit” quite yet, if he even wants to be, but he certainly looks like it.
After the suit is shown briefly in this first scene, he then displays the versatility of traditional sportswear. Ben appears to wear sack jackets throughout the film; sack jackets have an un-darted front with a straight silhouette and natural construction. While his jackets are in fact aesthetically sack-like, they are actually darted and feature 2 button fronts, but they still retain natural shoulders, flapped patch hip pockets, rear hook vents, lapped seams, and 2 button cuffs.
And boy, the jackets he has are universal staples. His first is a perfect navy blue flannel blazer which he wears while rebuffing Mrs. Robinson’s advances, followed by three timeless sport coats: one in a charcoal and gray herringbone tweed, another in a blue and white cotton seersucker, and the last a tan cotton corduroy. With these, every season is accounted for, as is any occasion. If you live in a temperate climate, these jackets will carry you throughout year – and then some.
The most functional piece of clothing any man can own is the navy blue blazer, an item Ben wears with youthful exuberance and a touch of anxiety. And it doesn’t particularly matter what the fabric make-up is, since differing climates and seasons call for differing cloths. In colder weather, you might want a wool flannel and in warmer areas you would choose a hopsack or tropical wool. With that said, there is also a clear runner-up for the award of most versatile sport coat: one made of gray herringbone wool tweed. Ben’s is a beauty, and it deserves some spotlight.
Like his other sport coats, it has all of the mid-century details. Its pattern – an impeccable herringbone of charcoal and light gray – is a weave that both anchors and elevates nearly any ensemble. It may appear somewhat busy at first glance, but it’s quite subdued and inherently insouciant as its roots are in the country. His is assuredly made of a Shetland wool tweed, which gives it perfect texture; additionally, every seam is thickly lapped, further emphasizing its hardiness and casual appeal.
I’d of course be remiss if I forgot the accompaniments of his sport coats! On the front of shirts, pants, ties, and shoes, Ben has very little variety, but through this he shows that it isn’t required. While a vast array of pieces can provide a multitude of choices, sometimes there is much more to be found in bare simplicity. Oxford button downs (white, pale yellow, or light blue), a black knit or silk-repp striped tie (in chronological order they are navy blue/white, gold/navy/silver, and red/blue), gray wool flannel trousers, and brown leather penny loafers (most likely Weejuns)… Ben wears these with every single sport coat and it works with each one. Paired with the jackets or on their own, they are the exemplification of utility and tradition. All of his sportswear is interchangeable, and that’s key to living the bohemian life like Ben.
Although it all looks great, Ben essentially ditches his sportswear except for his cord jacket as things go awry in his personal life. In his quest for Elaine’s love, he chooses to go the casual route since running and driving around California seem to be inherently easier in white chinos and a polo. But before Ben ever leaves to win back Elaine, he perfectly pulls off an interpretation of Steve McQueen, sports car (an Alfa Romeo Spider if you were interested) and all. In these specific scenes, there aren’t any shots of what he’s wearing on his legs and feet, but we can assume it’s off-white (also known as wheat) 5-pocket pants and canvas sneakers. What we can view and admire are his sand-colored Baracuta jacket – a piece virtually any style icon of the day wore – and a navy blue La Paz jacket, which are both worn with a white OCBD.
Adding to his McQueen-esque vibe, Ben’s lounging-around-the-house gear is also pretty sweet. There is nothing veritably exceptional about the cotton crewneck t-shirts and sweatshirts, but these exemplify how much cooler ultra-casual clothing was in the Sixties when paralleled with the graphic tees and gym shorts of today.
When Ben does finally go to Berkeley, he perfectly blends in with the rest of the male students on campus, all of which look like they’ve stepped directly out of a photo in a ’60s college yearbook. There he wears his trusty cord jacket, his even more trustworthy yellow oxford, and off-white 5 pocket pants. Again, he has leather penny-loafers on his feet because if you’re on a college campus during the cultural revolution, what else are you gonna wear?
My favorite outfit of the film is worn in the film’s final sequence, and it comprises Ben’s oft seen cotton pants, a black pique polo, a stone cotton parka, and white canvas sneakers. To me, this look is the perfect abbreviation of practicality and sensibility. In this same outfit he drives across the state, sneaks into the Robinson’s house and then runs from the police, and at last fights a mass of people while crashing a wedding – there simply isn’t a more ubiquitous and durable getup. Not to mention, it looks terrific.
As you can see: if you’re a recent college graduate like Benjamin Braddock, or even far older, there are few better styles to emulate than that of this titular character. Some may think it better suits a younger clientele, but that doesn’t mean someone should shy away from drawing inspiration from these highlighted looks. After all, if you wear what Ben wears, you’d have the garb to get you through any situation, even if that means stealing a bride on an emotional whim.
*Poor Carl Smith, Elaine’s doomed fiance… at least he has the look down.