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Christopher Buckley

Wingtips: Santa Barbara and Style in the ’60s

Style, after all, is a kind of humor,
Something truly beneath contempt . . .
Larry Levis

     “ Hey, ése, your Mama dresses you funny!” Fish Hernandez called across the schoolyard as my buddy Francis Orsua walked to his locker before first period at Bishop High. It wasn’t Orsua’s red letterman sweater buttoned only on the top button over his white T-shirt and dangling almost to his knees, nor the white Levis which were worn tight, and in the “high water” style a few inches above the ankles so his white sport socks showed. This was the regular gear. But beneath it all there was something flashy, a deep purple shine—it was the shoes.

     1963, and clothes-wise there wasn’t much, so anything outside the standard issue, got noticed. We were sophomores and wanted, as kids always have, to fit in, but compared to today, the pressure was minimal to nonexistent—no MTV, no cable, and no advertising campaigns focused on teenagers. For good reason. We had very little money, as did most of our parents, and what we did have usually went toward repairing our rust-bucket Chevys, needed to get to school, to work, and up and down State Street on Saturday night, doing nothing but seeing and being seen.

     What minimal style there was evolved from sources unknown. We did not have role models; there were not many tricks to pick up from teen movies. There were a couple biker/Hell’s Angels movies and maybe one or two seniors wore black leather motorcycle jackets with the silver chains and zippers, wore them into the parking lot then stuffed them in their lockers until school let out. Most of the time, when you saw teens and 20-somethings in films they were dressed up like our parents in the ’50s and early ’60s—bad bland suits and everyone “liked Ike.” I still remember Sandra Dee in “A Summer Place” with her blond pageboy, a string of pearls around her neck, all the makeup, and stiff dresses. The same went for Natalie Wood in “Rebel Without A Cause.” And what about the “rebel” himself? As “far-out” as James Dean got in that film was a pair of blue jeans and a crisp red windbreaker; he had a haircut and I bet his shoes were shined. Sure, there were rock and roll celebrities, but who was dressing them? Find a photo calendar of early Elvis and look at the stuff he was wearing; it was random and mismatched and looked like it came from a Tupelo Thrift Shop. And who would want to claim to be behind Fats Domino’s dark tent-like suits? Besides, the emphasis was the hair—duck tails, flat-tops, big BIG jelly rolls, but that’s another story.

     Early ’60s, the pickings were slim. Boys wore “white Levis” which were in fact beige, and which were made by Wrangler, Lee and other makers as well. Any brand was acceptable, and we could wear them to school, whereas we could definitely not wear blue jeans (motorcycle-rebel-juvenile delinquent gear). It would be decades before jeans would lose their hoodlum connotation and Calvin Klein and company would make them into a fashion statement at five times the price. In 1963, you wore white socks, and loafers predominated, any kind of loafers, black, brown cordovan, penny or otherwise—they were “sharp,” “sanitary!”

     At our school, girls had uniform checked skirts, white blouses, brown uniform sweaters or blazers and two or three acceptable styles of all white or brown and white saddle shoes. Not much strain for wardrobe selection, for competition with others, or spending money on the latest thing. But they found it boring. The only variations were the skirt lengths, which were officially set at two inches below the knee, but which some girls would adjust upwards by rolling the waist bands once out of radar range of the nuns. Once a month, or even less frequently, the girls would have a “free-dress” day and would arrive in everything from red formal dresses to regular skirts and blouses—no pants or shorts allowed.

     I transferred to Bishop Garcia Diego High School, in my hometown of Santa Barbara, California, from Villanova Preparatory School, an hour away in Ojai. There, you wore suits each night to dinner and lined up alphabetically for inspection—shoes shined, tie straight, shirt clean. A few of us there wore white jeans, but it was nowhere as universal as it was at Bishop. My first week there, I wore my white jeans and bought a new pair of black loafers at Rodenbecks and fit in. I was seen and not seen.

     The 1950s had not worn off, in mindset or in fashion, if you could call it “fashion.” As exams came around, I was amazed to see the class presidents and officers showing up to school in suits and ties, as grey or brown and nondescript as their fathers’ poplin suits from Penneys. For the students from more well-off families, a herringbone tweed jacket from The White House, maybe a camel hair jacket by Hart, Schafner and Marx from Silverwoods. The idea was that dressing up imparted a business or professional attitude toward the tests. I had just been freed from a restrictive environment (Villanova was known by one and all as the “Pink Prison”) of suits, enforced study hall times, mandatory trips to the barber et al., and was not about to get in line with that trend. Luckily, this Eisenhower/Dick Nixon/Robert Hall mentality seemed to dissipate over the summer. The next year we saw student leaders go off to conferences in suits, run for student office in suits, but that was about it. Few of us wanted to look like salesman, the old fathers of the ’50s.

     For all of high school, low-cut, black Converse tennis shoes were popular. They were cheap and made for a quick transition from class to the basketball court. I never wore them, just didn’t like how they looked—too much like the black tennies I wore as a kid. The other choice, after the loafer fad faded away, was deck shoes, a blue canvas, low-cut shoe that surfers wore. Sperry made the best shoe with the thickest skid-resistant sole (originally made for yachters and sea-wet surfaces), arch supports and thicker blue canvas. Keds made a cheaper, thinner version of the blue deck shoe for about nine dollars, whereas the Sperry’s were $14.95. A not insignificant difference in l964.

     Because this was southern California, and because it was something new, the “surf” look came on fast. White jeans were still the thing, but it soon became standard issue to wear a wool Pendleton over your white T-shirt. These long-sleeve shirts had two chest pockets, and there were only a dozen different designs it seemed, and most of us had one or two and recognized which ones the others wore—blue with black weave, dark brown with gold, a tan with brown lines. There were other makes of Pendleton-like shirts, but we knew the real things, the heavy cloth and fine stitching, and you could always check for the blue and gold label. A real Pendleton was close to fifteen dollars, pricey in those days, but most of us, especially those who were surfing, forked over the extra money and smugly congratulated ourselves on our conformity. This and a couple brands of tennis shoes were as close as our generation ever came to $159 Nike Air Jordans. Recently, going through a thrift shop thirty-five years after the fact, I found almost a dozen perfectly good Pendletons on the rack long abandoned there at $3.95.

     I’d been surfing since I was thirteen and had no problem adapting to the surfer look, though I did find it amazing when, one weekend night, I went to the Santa Barbara high school auditorium for a screening of Bruce Brown’s classic surf film, “Endless Summer,” and there were about 400 of us all in white jeans, T-shirts and Pendletons, and blue deck shoes. Had we all been ordered to dress that way by some authority, it never would have happened. As it was, we must have felt what any members of some large group feel when they are all together for the same reason, looking the same—safe, accepted, a self-congratulatory glow. What did we mean? What could you mean at fifteen or sixteen? It was social. It was unplanned peer pressure, but no one was killed for their shoes—almost everyone could afford the few modest choices of what then was seen as “boss.”

     On the outside we were all more or less proclaiming some fellowship of surfing, some shared social status or level or class. However, when you arrived at your favorite surf spot, you knew who were locals, and which guys were from out of town. All you had then was your board—twenty-five different makes—and your surf trunks; most were nondescript, canvas or nylon, dark colors or bright patches, but no one really cared. There was a rage for a while for “Rice Paddies,” trunks that looked like they were made from the 50- or 100-pound burlap sacks that held rice—white or cream-colored with blue and red lettering and symbols. I had a pair and thought they were the best, wore them until they shredded from use and salt. I still have a mental picture of myself in my tan, sixteen-year-old body, in my rice paddy trunks, slowly walking the nose of my board on a nice four-foot curl at Hope Ranch Beach. For that moment, in my very with-it surf trunks, in good position on a crisp wave, moving through the water and air, I was someone in the world, “stoked” and in style.

     As my junior year started, there seemed little room to make a fashion statement; white jeans carried over with nothing new on the scene, which was diluted with vestigial loafers, the old black low-cut Converse, some blue deck shoes, and as always the few nerds and math whizzes with their brown, nondescript, sensible leather shoes. That was the day Orsua showed up in his huge pair of Cordovan Florsheim Imperial Wingtips. Those shoes had to weigh ten pounds. As Fish razzed Orsua that morning from down by the vending machines, I immediately recognized what he was giving him gas about: my father—who was a real clothes horse—bought his sport jackets and slacks at Silverwoods and Tweeds & Weeds, his shoes always Florsheim—had three or four pairs of them. These shoes had half-inch leather soles and almost inch-thick heels; they had a thin leather overlay with small holes punched out in a decorative pattern covering the toe and extending low along the sides, with a jagged top edge, a trailing ribbon of the design winding around to meet in back of the heel—the “wings” in wingtip. They laced up with those hard, thin, waxed round laces; they clanked and clopped on walkways and asphalt—no one at school had them, and in every way they were “bad.”

     Orsua caddied at The Valley Club golf course in Montecito, for folks like Bing Crosby and others less famous, and more wealthy. He saw his first pair there. A couple afternoons later, he tuned in the Lloyd Thaxton dance show from L.A. on TV and saw the cutting-edge L.A. surfers wearing white jeans, shirts and ties, cardigan sweaters and WINGTIPS—doing the Surfer Stomp, The Bristol Stomp, The Locomotion, tossing great shaggy masses of blond hair about as their wingtips proclaimed their imminent expensive weight across the floor. As soon as he’d saved up the $39.95 plus tax from his caddying job, Orsua went directly to Rodenbecks and told an astonished salesman that he wanted to try on a pair of wingtips, the Florsheim Imperials in Cordovan, the top of the line. Before he turned to go to the back and check for his size, before he asked Francis to sit down, take off his shoes and fit his foot into that silver measuring stick with the sliding bit on the side, he said, “You do know these are $39.95, right?” Francis was the first kid on his block . . . the only one at Bishop High, but not for long. They were three or four times as expensive as any other shoe. I was working at Jordanos grocery and could save up to buy a pair in three or four weeks, providing I cut back on most everything else. Eventually, I went to Silverwoods and bought a pair of Cordovan Imperials just like Francis’ from Sal Bonilla, the salesman my father always went to. We often wore them to school, not saving them for special occasions. We, in our crazy blood and impressionable heads, were the occasion.

     Soon we bought a second pair. One of our group, Turbo Kuehl, had purchased some tan/calf-tone wingtips and we backed up our Cordovans with a pair of those—Florsheim and as well made, but with not quite the heft and gloss of the Imperials. We eschewed the black wingtips as they looked too much like priest shoes, and wingtips made by lesser brands often showed up in black. Our pals Steve and George sported some dark brown wingtips from Tom McCann, and although they were OK, they were not Florsheim Imperials. We wore them often, and we wore them down and had them resoled. They were clunky on our feet, but we were going nowhere fast; we wanted to give the admiring public a chance to check them out. Extravagant as they were, they made a statement about quality, individual style; they peeled a layer off the standard of uniformity and were worth it. Wingtips raised us up in the world of our own imaginations; they improved the unimaginative world of the early  ’60s and gave us a good groundless sense of our own importance. They had us feeling swell (as we soon stopped saying) as we floated down the sidewalks in the small glittering bubble of air that surrounded us for that moment. Retro. Wearing such gleaming purple accoutrements for the feet—at once, outrageous and old-school—elevated us in the air of our own estimations. We were retro decades before anyone would ever think to use the word.

     Wingtips were our badges, our code, and the fact that next to no one cared didn’t bother us a bit. However, as time went on, we made further moves in the direction of sartorial splendor. It was 1964 or 65 and we were getting ready for one of the yearly big dances at school, probably the Mission Dance, which was held every year with pageant, the meaning behind which none of us ever knew. What we did know was that for boys it meant dress shirts, thin ties, slacks and sport coats, shined shoes. It meant you saved up a couple weeks’ wages to take your date out to dinner at the Harbor Restaurant on Stern’s Wharf, the Green Gables, or the Talk of the Town. The Girls had their hair whipped, ratted and twittered up into beehive/bouffants, had high-heeled shoes dyed to match their dresses, which were stiff and often sewn by their mothers. Some even wore white gloves—that long ago … For this dance, my girlfriend, Kathy Quigley, was going with some one else as her parents, as they often did, applied one of their rules about how many dates she could have with the same boy in a row. Orsua suggested I take Chris Espinosa, younger sister of our friend Billy, a girl who was a good dancer, and so I did. Francis, Billy and I had actually been practicing a few new moves for the dances—variations on steps we’d made up, borrowed, or were common dance lingo then, such as the Slauson with its kick and double clutch.

     Months before the dance, we had decided to dress alike, establish some style. In truth, we were probably Dave Clark Five, or Gerry and the Pacemakers wannabes, before, of course, there was such a thing. We decided on the usual thin black ties with tab collars, red vests, blue blazers and grey slacks with shoes we called “Italian Fence Climbers”—they were great for dancing, with thin soles, thin black leather and a calf-high boot-like heels and pointed toes. We were in the middle of the British rock and roll invasion and this was how the bands looked, and these especially were the shoes they wore. We looked pretty conservative, could have walked right into a Rotary Club meeting, except for the shoes, but they disappeared of course, in the dark of the dance floor. The 1960s were only “radical” at the very end as they moved into the ’70s. Check the photos and film of the Beatles first landing in America for the Ed Sullivan show in 1964, standing on the top of the ramp pushed up to the Pan Am jet—coats and skinny ties, pointy boots, and hair that, while very risky in length then, looks very moderate by any standard after that time. Orsua and I had been letting our hair grow, a bit over the collar, longer bangs—the basic Beatle style—and were told one Friday by the school disciplinarian, Fr. Bernard, to see a barber or don’t bother coming to school Monday. Nothing more than fashion, and soon the fashion for hair would be very long. Fr. Bernard never commented on our wingtips.

     This was for fun, all of it. We used to shine up our Imperials and walk downtown in the afternoons on weekends just to see how everyone looked. There were the usual suspects in jeans and Converse tennis shoes, the surfers, the rich kids out shopping with their parents, decked out in light blue oxford cloth shirts and polished cotton slacks, wearing penny loafers the color of oxblood, a Montecito staple. But further down State Street the show improved. There was Southwick’s and Dunnal’s where you could pick up work clothes and boots, Army and Navy surplus where a number of kids bought fatigue jackets and Navy P coats that were in for a while.

     For the more classic Western and Mexican styles, there was El Patio Men’s Wear. There was also always a small group or parade of “pachucos”—slick-dressing Mexican kids from the east side of town mostly, who went to Santa Barbara Public high school. For them, Pomade was still very much in use, and hairstyles were pasted back with shine, or large jelly roll fronts. In those days pachucos wore Chinos, a kind of polished cotton pant but a bit more baggy and sturdy, and Friscos, a black shiny jean which was worn with a cuff. Often they wore those pants high-waisted and had a beige or cream-yellow or white rayon shirt buttoned to the top button around the neck. Their standard coat was a cashmere Suburban jacket which was half wool. For shoes, a high-gloss spit-shined French toe was the thing, a square toe with one line of stitching across it, and usually in black. Everything shined, was slicked back and “spiffy”—this was for pride as well. This, for most of these kids, was all you had. Also up and down State Street were the car guys who had a bit of a uniform but who almost didn’t care—the cars were the thing for them. Usually, car guys like Joe Andrach or Chuy Blanco just had blue jeans and white T-shirts, often rolled at the sleeves, and rough black work boots, and sometimes an unbuttoned new shiny blue short-sleeved shirt over the T-shirt, especially if it was Saturday Night cruising. Little differences, all affordable, a limited selection for each group with which to please themselves cruising in old cars or walking in style along the wide sidewalks of the past.

     We didn’t start a new fad with our wingtips, still we wore them daily and on most occasions through to graduation in 1965. And I wore what was left of my wingtips to my first year in college. The Cordovans had disintegrated by that point, having taken on numerous re-heelings and re-solings, but the calf-tones survived, and I had one good pair of shoes to wear. It very soon didn’t matter what you wore as this was 1966 and ’67 and the real ’60s were starting to kick in. I attended St. Mary’s College in Moraga, just over the hill from Berkeley. All of our official dances were held in old hotels in San Francisco and for them the usual gear was in order—shirt and tie, sport jacket and slacks. In four years, I noticed no real fashion statement beyond the blue work shirt and the tie-dyed psychedelic T-shirts and glowing, flowing garments worn by the hippies, by Janis Joplin, Hendrix, Grace Slick and the group. We weren’t thinking much of clothes anymore. Orsua and our friend Steve Schiefen didn’t have to think as they had theirs issued by the Marines and the Army; they had one pair of boots, functional. What a luxury to worry about your clothes, how you looked, who you were likely to impress or not, when so many were worrying about living through another afternoon in Indochina.

     I was too busy trying to figure out what I cared enough about to follow through with for the rest of my life. I knew that four years in college might well be it for fun, for freedom, for intellectual luxury; a life of work was staring me in the face right after that, or the draft. I think it was summer, home in Santa Barbara between my sophomore and junior years, working grocery again, when I realized my last pair of wingtips were done for, holes starting again in the soles, breaking down at the sides. I may also have realized that I was the only guy at the time still wearing them, and at some point, somewhere—at a dance, a kegger or wedding—among people I knew or did not know, it must have registered that I looked a little ridiculous. After a summer of working, wearing out cheap shoes bought for the job, I had enough money to buy some decent new shoes for my next year in college, and truth be told, I now have no idea what I bought or wore. I was pretty sure that Orsua had his Imperial wingtips finely polished and stored away in tissue paper and a box at his parent’s home, saving them for his return from the war. If they still fit, he’d be plenty happy to wear them regardless of what anyone else was wearing or thinking then.

     I remember taking my wingtips along with a few other odds and ends from my aunt’s house, down to the Salvation Army on lower State Street. In those days, no one but the truly needy shopped a thrift store. Although they were worn, I hoped some poor soul might pass by the window and see them there, alongside some beaten brown and white spectators from the ’40s perhaps, and recognize the wingtips’ superior style and brand. I hoped they’d catch his eye and he’d go in and run the sleeve of his raincoat across the toes until they almost shone, and wear them out into the world, his spirits lifted, and for a few minutes, feel like someone in the world.

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