Treasures: Leisure suits find a new fan base

Helaine Fendelman and Joe Rosson

Dear Helaine and Joe:

My husband found this suit in a vintage store and paid $8 for it. It has a McGregor label on the inside pocket. I think he is crazy to have bought such a hideous thing! Your thoughts?

Thank you,

H.W., New York

Dear H.W.:

We both lived through the leisure-suit craze of yore.

At the time, Joe managed a fashion department store and had to wear one on the job. He reports they were more comfortable than a conventional business suit and had a kind of sporty feeling that was nice for on-the-job wear.

When they went out of fashion (along with disco), they gradually acquired a "geeky" image that has persisted until very recent times. So yes, the wild, bright red-and-white exotic plaid pattern might turn H.W. off, but reports are that the leisure suit is coming back into fashion with a certain set and H.W.'s husband's purchase may have been a good one -- from a collector's point of view.

Polyester has gotten a bad reputation among those interested in fashion. We have friends who would not dream of having a polyester or poly-blend garment in their closet, and they even shun stores that sell items made from this versatile, wrinkle-resistant, easy-care fabric.

The genesis of polyester began in the 1930s with Wallace Hume Carothers, who while working at DuPont discovered that when alcohols and carboxyl acids were combined, fibers could be created. Carothers' work was expanded upon by English scientists John Whinfield and James Dickson, and in 1941 the cheap and easy fabric named polyester was born.

Polyester was used in every imaginable variation and combination and helped to hasten the burgeoning interest in leisure clothing that occurred after the end of World War II. David D. Doniger founded McGregor-Doniger in 1921 and the label was first used in 1923 for men's and boys' midrange sportswear.

In 1956, McGregor was hailed as the leading American men's-sportswear manufacturer for knitwear, sports shirts and coats. Hollywood, cowboys and increased travel to Hawaii, Florida, California and other sunny climates gave rise to more casual wear for men and women with nontraditional designs.

In addition, the British "Mod" movement and American disco inspired a more relaxed attitude toward clothing. All this gave rise in the mid-1970s to the casual jacket-and-pant set being retailed as the "leisure suit" that could be worn in some venues (certainly not on Wall Street) as business attire.

Today, the leisure suit is becoming an emblem of American midcentury kitsch, and the younger generation that did not live in the 1970s finds it all very retro. In larger cities where this interest in retro fashion is strongest, this suit can be purchased in the $150-to-$250 range.

In middle America, where the midcentury charms of this type of garment have not yet been rediscovered, the price is much, much less.

Helaine Fendelman and Joe Rosson are the authors of "Price It Yourself" (HarperResource, $19.95). Contact them at Treasures in Your Attic, P.O. Box 18350, Knoxville, TN 37928. Email them at