Bernstein's Folly

For Leonard Bernstein, the conductor and music director of the New York Philharmonic from 1958 to 1969, every Thursday of the 1958-59 season felt like a sort of purgatory. Too polished to be called a rehearsal, these performances still lacked for Bernstein the sparkly finish of a Friday or Saturday night.

And so, stopping short of making his orchestra haul their tailcoats to such a strange unplaceable event, Bernstein devised a new uniform. A few shades lighter than pure black and with a blazer that buttoned all the way up to a band collar, this outfit was Bernstein’s way of nodding to a lineage of music directors like Arturo Toscanini and Otto Klemperer who also preferred to hug their necks with tightly woven wool. 

But introducing a band collar jacket to a room full of Americans is a gamble. The band collar in the US is like a Thursday concert in 1958. A hummingbird without direction, it hovers between meanings, unsure of which one to slurp up next. 

On October 8, 1958, New York Times reporter Harold Schonberg captured the orchestra’s reactions as they tried on their uniforms:

“You look like a bellhop at the Astor.”

“Like a bandmaster.”

“Like a field marshal.”

“Like Father O’Malley.”

“Like a space cadet.”

“Like Chiang Kai-shek.”

The confusion spread beyond the orchestra. Guest conductors Herbert von Karajan and John Barbirolli refused to wear the uniform. And out of all the feedback that made its way back to Bernstein, the conductor told the New York Times the following January, only half was positive. 

Continuing the long tradition of men standing their ground in the face of overwhelming criticism, Bernstein dropped the whole idea. The uniform, Bernstein announced before January’s final Thursday concert began, would go down in history as “Bernstein’s Folly.” 

But as the country’s clothing tastes would later suggest, Bernstein’s real mistake was introducing the uniform a decade early. 

Americans in the 60s endured a decade-long session of band collar exposure therapy. Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru’s meetings with John F. Kennedy beamed the prime minister’s band collar jacket across American television screens until the jacket was no longer separable from his name. In 1962’s “Dr. No,” the jacket appeared on both James Bond and the titular villain. And in 1965, the Beatles in their Nehru jackets performed at Shea Stadium in front of 55,600 fans. 

And whereas for Bernstein the jacket functioned as a paper cup phone to the past, in the 60s it absorbed the opposite meaning, satisfying the futurist yearnings of an increasingly fashion conscious crowd. The same jacket whose Indian and Chinese roots gave men with Orientalist appetites a whiff of spirituality was sleek enough to speak to their Space Age techno-optimism. 

In 1968, the Nehru jacket’s popularity reached a boiling point. The Washington Post declared on February 10 that “1968 may be the year of the stand-up collar.” And indeed, as mall stores raced to stock the jacket, wearable utopia was one trip to Macy’s away. 

Now, long after the trend’s collapse at the end of the 60s, the band collar once again hovers between meanings. When Jack Dorsey wore a shirt with a towering version to his congressional hearing last June, the internet transformed into the digital equivalent of Bernstein’s incredulous orchestra. Quartz compared him to a priest, Esquire to an evil space wizard

A man from 1968 would be horrified. His favorite collar and visions of a techno utopia, all reduced to the same pile of ashes.  

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