Times Past

Dan Krieger: Unconventional idea makes wearing wool suit bearable

"I couldn’t wait to get to work. My customers were my life.” Last week, Bill Cattaneo recalled the clothiers who kept men “looking sharp” in Times Past. Eighty-nine-year-old Lou Guidetti is such an active figure in our community. Although he no longer sells clothes, he still can be persuaded to assist his former clients in selecting their wardrobe.

He started at Genardini’s Men’s Wear before he graduated from San Luis High School in 1941. He joined the Army in 1942 and after the war, he worked at Wickenden’s, the Madonna Inn Men’s Shop, his own store and a store in Santa Maria.

Lou says, “I never lied to a customer. If I didn’t like something, I didn’t like it and I said so!”

His favorite story concerns “a customer in the state highway system who had to go to Sacramento for a promotion interview. ‘What can you do for me?’ he asked. ‘With four kids, I don’t have much money to spend.’ I fixed him up with a brown suit, a tan shirt and a moderately bright cheerful tie.

“About 10 days later, he, his wife and their children came into the store. Grinning from ear to ear, the man said, ‘I am now the right-of-way agent for this district,’ and had each child come over to thank me, one by one.

“I never, NEVER went to work without a tie! Then leisure suits came in, and the dress code slid.”

All the advice in the world, however, could not save a young boy from his mother’s choice of a first suit.

Bill Cattaneo’s mother picked out a brown and green weave woolen suit at Green Brothers. Bill hated the itchy suit and avoided wearing it, but one day

“My luck ran out.

“My grandfather Carlo Cattaneo had prostate problems. By the mid-1940s his condition worsened, and his local physician finally referred him to a specialist in San Francisco.

“It was decided that my father and I would accompany my grandfather to San Francisco for his appointment with the specialist.

“The plans included taking the (Southern Pacific Railroad) Daylight to San Francisco and staying with my father’s maternal uncle, Mr. William Olgiati, who at that time worked for one of the two major salami factories and lived in San Francisco.

“On the day we were to board the SP Daylight for the trip north, my mother informed me I was to wear the itchy wool suit.

“I was in a panic. I was faced with the prospect of wearing the wool suit all the way to San Francisco and back to San Luis Obispo, and who knows how long during our stay in San Francisco.

“Just hours before we left, I devised a brilliant (if somewhat unconventional) solution to my problem.

“I got into the bottom half of my soft cotton pajamas, and with safety pins, secured the bottom of the pajama legs, making them invisible once I got into the pants of the wool suit.

“We left for the depot with no one the wiser, and I can report that I made a most comfortable trip to San Francisco, wearing pajama bottoms under the wool pants.

“My carefully contrived secret unraveled once we arrived at my great-uncle’s apartment in San Francisco, and I undressed to change into a pair of blue jeans.

“My father stared in complete disbelief when he realized I was wearing pajama bottoms under my wool suit.

“On our return trip to San Luis Obispo, I once again wore the pajama bottoms under the wool suit pants.

“Not too long after that trip to the San Francisco medical specialist, my grandfather Carlo Cattaneo passed away in Mt. View Hospital of uremic poisoning.

“To this very day I cannot endure itchy wool pants.”

Liz Krieger interviewed Lou Guidetti for this article. Dan Krieger is a professor emeritus of history at Cal Poly and president of the California Mission Studies Association.