Wednesday, June 12, 2013

WKRP 'Dungarees Vs. Suits' Speech & the 1970's

(Originally published for Vintage Fashion at The Examiner.)

'WRKP in Cincinnati' (MTM Enterprises) is a TV series that ran from 1978 until 1982 centering around a stuffy, old Ohio radio station as it transitions into a more marketable rock and roll station. Meanwhile, social mores in the late 1970's were being adjusted as mindsets were changing in terms of race, gender, class, etc.

The 1970's era was a period of disenchantment, distrust, and frustration for many who felt forced into realigning their own standards of living within an evolving society. In 'WKRP in Cincinnati', the end of this transformative decade is depicted through the ideals and antics of devoted employees at one increasingly laid-back radio station.
In the first season of 'WKRP', there is an episode called 'The Contest Nobody Could Win' in which the concept of 'dungarees vs. suits' is presented by Herb Tarlek, the station's advertising account executive. 
The character of Herb is known for his questionable behavior and wardrobe choices. He wears loud, patchy, bizarre and borderline offensive suits. That Herb's suits are considered unattractive during the height of an era with some of the most unattractive suits is telling.
At WKRP, Herb Tarlek represents those with more conservative values who were harboring some very specific worries prevalent in the period between 1970 until 1980. After the many heated value struggles in the late 1960's, American society had to regroup and re-establish in many ways. Herb is deeply troubled by this transition and he worries that people are even wearing jeans at work -- which is what he equates with revolt.

It's also telling that Herb uses the word 'dungarees' instead of jeans; it's as if he's yet to grasp this fairly foreign concept of wearing denim at home or at the office. People working in typical office environments did not wear jeans at the time -- and WKRP, being a rock and roll radio station, was an exception. In today's office environment (even in more corporate ones) executives often wear jeans and dress casually every day of the week. The wearing of suits has become a far more unexpected wardrobe choice for average office workers than their wearing jeans.
Men's fashion choices in the 1970's reflected their ideological positions more definitively than they do today. Men who felt more comfortable with preceding eras even wore suits on the weekends -- albeit a more casual suit. A suit, even for leisure time? (Where did you think the term 'leisure suit' comes from?)
Herb worries that not only disobedient sons (youth culture) are wearing 'dungarees', but their fathers are even starting to wear them. He worries that the dungarees are crowding in on the suits, gaining power. He exclaims in frustration that 'even the mothers' are wearing them. His sympathetic cohort Les Nessman references 'Invasion of the Body Snatchers', which ties very well with Herb's distress. Herb fears that, with the world around him rapidly changing (and subsequently, his own conservative values), he might also turn into a dungaree-wearing pod person. And Herb would rather not wear dungarees; he loves wearing his signature suits.
Here is an excerpt from Herb' Tarlek's dungarees vs. suits speech (and watch the video of the scene.)

Herb: It's the dungarees versus the suits, Les. The whole world is in two armed camps. Over here we have the dungarees, and over here the suits. Remember the riots in the 60's? It was the dungarees vs. the suits. And Watergate. Those guys arrested were wearing dungarees and who suffered for it?
Les: The suits!
Herb: Exactly.
Les: But there were issues, Herb.
Herb: The issues, the issues, Les, were a smoke screen. Now listen. When a son disobeys his father, what's he wearing?
Les: The son...? [thinks] Dungarees!
Herb: And what's the father got on?
Les: Probably a suit.
Herb: Do you see what I mean, Les?
Les: Yeah!
The episode 'The Contest Nobody Could Win' provides an interesting time capsule from the 1970's. Herb Tarlek's 'the dungarees vs. the suits' speech encompasses and captures a great deal in just a few words.
In an interesting twist, there is a subsequent episode in the first season of 'WKRP' called 'Hoodlum Rock' in which a punk band named Scum Of The Earth makes an appearance. The band's gimmick is to dress in very tailored and conservative suits; this initially appeals to 'the suits' at WKRP -- until they realize the band is displaying anti-establishment values with their choice of name, style and behavior.

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