The 1963 March on Washington Dress Code

Martin Luther King, Jr. addressing the crowd on the Mall in Washington, DC on August 28, 1963.

Martin Luther King, Jr. addressing the crowd on the Mall in Washington, DC on August 28, 1963.

When you look at photos of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom on August 28th, 1963, notice the men. Among the 250,000 people who came to the capitol from all over the country, a huge percentage of the men were in suit and tie. Though personal accounts of the weather that day recall unbearably hot temperatures in the 90s, the National Weather Service reported a high of 83° that day. One can imagine, though, the excitement of it all making the day feel like no other.

mow-tnRegardless of the temperature, the men – both black and white – showed up in suit and tie. In sharp contrast to our modern day mode of “mental patient casual” (rubber shoes, elastic waistbands, etc.), men in those years had a markedly sharper sense of occasion, as demonstrated most recently on Mad Men. Beyond the sense of occasion (suit and tie was regular gear for many of these men), there was an unprecedented importance to this day. These men had ulterior motives for suiting up.

March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom: Martin Luther King, Jr. and Joachim Prinz.

March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom: Martin Luther King, Jr. and Joachim Prinz.

On a recent story on NPR’s Morning Edition, Jack Hansan recalled his experience as a demonstrator at the march. A white husband and father of young sons, he was one of 500 Cincinnati business men and civic activists who took a special two-night train to Washington, DC with a mission. In the NPR interview, Hansan said of the time:

“We had to get rid of this — I don’t know how you would say it — this discrimination that was so prevalent in communities like our education system, our churches… So participating in the march was like climbing a mountain, and for us, we wanted to be on the top.”

About the dress code, Hansan recalled how all the men dressed, not just at the march, but on the train there and back: “We were all dressed politely, like we were going to an office. Shirts and ties.” In fact, marchers were encouraged by local organizing committees to look clean and sharp, dressed as if they were in DC to “close a deal.” And that they did, looking like men of respect and dignity, men who demanded to be taken seriously, men with whom to be reckoned.

Civil rights activists Julian Bond (middle-C) in white shirt and Andrew J. Young (C) in dark suit, holding hands during a civil rights rally in front of the Washington Monument.  (Photo by Francis Miller//Time Life Pictures/Getty Images)

Civil rights activists Julian Bond (middle-C) in white shirt and Andrew J. Young (C) in dark suit, holding hands during a civil rights rally in front of the Washington Monument. (Photo by Francis Miller//Time Life Pictures/Getty Images)

Looking back at the historic event with deep emotion, Hansan concluded with this: “You know, it’s not been done. And the March on Washington was just one of the starting events, but it’s still not complete.”

Thank you, Mr. Hansan, for your participation in the making of history and for setting a brilliant example by suiting up and showing up. I suspect that many special-interest groups today looking for recognition and respect, demanding to be taken seriously and seeking to “close a deal” would do well to borrow from your manual.

Listen to the August 5th interview with Jack Hansan and his wife Ethel on NPR’s Morning Edition.

2 thoughts on “The 1963 March on Washington Dress Code”

  1. Great post, George. I wasn’t aware of the conscious effort behind this event for a dress code, and this only makes sense. Incredible how well orchestrated the whole march was–shows the obvious devotion to the cause.

    I agree that there is less sense of occasion today, especially among men. At the same time, as m as I like the coat-and-tie look, and use when it’s appropriate, I often find that it feels a touch formal for my day-to-day world. However, I find that one can dress casually and still look well put together and good.

    Especially in the summer in Iowa–wow, the heat and the humidity. I dress very casually in the summer, even though I work in an office. The weather is too hot for a tailored jacket or even a shirt button all the way to the collar and adorned with a necktie. But I keep it neat and good-looking (or try, at least) with polo shirts that are clean and that fit well (trim), lightweight button-up shirts, and a range of lighter chinos as well as lightweight white jeans.

    I get back into the jackets and suits around December 15! ;)

    1. Thanks, Gary! I have no doubt that you’re carrying the torch well in the hot Iowan summers! Linen, cotton or whatever… hot is hot. There is no such thing as an air-conditioned suit. The only real trick to staying cool in the heat – especially for men who do have suit & tie gigs – is to keep time between air-conditioned buildings to a minimum. And in that time between cool spaces, move at an easy pace. When I’m in a suit in the heat in my bike, I leave early so I can go nice and slow with a breeze blowing through my open jacket. But, yes, when suit & tie is not your norm, keep it handsome (which it sounds like you’re doing). These guys in 1963 had a an exceptionally grand and important purpose, and they looked handsome and appropriately serious carrying that purpose out.

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