A Frayed So: In Praise of Beater Clothes

Previously I’ve written about the Boston Cracked Shoe look, a term applied to certain WASP patricians who would wear items that had far outlived their presentable lifespan. Members of the press discovered the concept during the presidential campaign of Adlai Stevenson when they observed Stevenson had holes in the soles of his shoes while working the campaign trail.

Moving into the Internet world of the past decade, another term describing well worn items entered the Ivy vernacular. Somewhere on the ‘Net, certain items that appeared to have seen better days began to be referred to as a “beater,” as in beater blazer, beater shoes or beater watch. But this time the term was applied not to the Old Money set, but to a certain kind of trad everyman.

Most devotees of Ivy fully believe that certain items of clothing can still be retained well past their presentable life, to be used in situations that call for something serviceable but thoroughly worn. An old blazer might become a beater blazer to be used for occasions when a blazer is needed, but a well worn one wouldn’t be out of place.

Being neither Ivy League nor remotely patrician, I felt I could never pull off the Boston Cracked Shoe look. A suit worn with holed-out shoes would just look shabby and pretentious. But when the beater concept started being discussed online around 2004, it made perfect sense to me.

At the time I owned two old favorites that were one step away from the church rummage sale. One was an old Burberry topcoat that gave up the pretense of being waterproof sometime during the Carter administration. The other was a favorite Brooks Brothers sack blazer with frayed cuffs and shiny elbows. Instead of getting rid of them, I decided to keep both these old friends in the rotation to serve during foul weather, when riding the New Jersey Transit, and other similar situations where being reasonably presentable was called for, but the environment was not kind to better jackets and topcoats.

The beater concept also applies to wristwatches. A beater watch is one that the Ivy stylist wears when a watch is needed but style is secondary. The faithful old LL Bean field watch, or a Timex with scars from heavy use, serves well as a beater watch for softball games, etc.

And getting back to cracked shoes, the beater concept is perfectly applicable to footwear. Old Weejuns or boat shoes with scars and even holes in the soles are useful when more presentable footwear would sustain unwanted abuse. Sunday brunch at a nice restaurant, during bad weather, might be the perfect occasion for a beater blazer, watch and shoes.

In a situation such as this, frayed cuffs, an old field watch, and worn out Weejuns still let you be more properly dressed than most of the other patrons in sweatshirts, jeans and running shoes. — BILL STEPHENSON

Seventy-seven-year-old Bill Stephenson graduated from the University of Oklahoma in 1954. After serving in the Air Force, he spent 40 years in the insurance industry, including acting as executive vice president of Fidelity Union Life. He presently resides in Princeton, NJ, and frequently audits courses at the university.

23 Comments on "A Frayed So: In Praise of Beater Clothes"

  1. I love me some beater stuff. Watches are a sick habit of mine, but I learned the hard way not to wear the good ones to the bar. I now wear a 50 year old Movado on an army-green Chinese strap to the bars. It’s still darn cool, but it’ll get tossed before I repair it, as its *purchase cost* was 1/6 the repair costs of my last good-watch snafu a few years ago…

  2. What goes on at these bars you go to? Brawls?

  3. Reminds me of the saying, “Never wear your best trousers when you go out to fight for freedom and truth.”

  4. I certainly incorporate this way of thinking when I go to college parties and the like at Virginia. It makes sense: you can look smart without having to give a rat’s ass about getting drinks spilled on your clothes.

  5. When my Dad was alive, well into his eighties, I used to give him my slightly frayed shirts, khakis, and other items of clothing. We were about the same size; although I was taller, everything I gave him seemed to fit him well. I could never understand how he could look more dapper in my cast offs than I did in new stuff. He was just that kind of guy. When we went somewhere together, some people thought we were brothers, not father and son. He enjoyed that.

    Dad passed on 6 years ago, and I find more of my shirts looking like the one pictured above. Definitely more comfortable than new stuff. Dad was no dummy.

  6. Folks, one of the greatest unforseen pleasures of having children: having my 12 year old daughter sew patches onto my khakis and sweaters… I destroyed a “wrinkle resistant” (!@#@$?) bb oxford and used sqaures of it to patch clothes…. in my book, the older the better and used=loved. Tip: buy those loud plaid wool pants that don’t fit you at the church thrift and patch away…

  7. Watches? I have one the Singapore commandos used as their watch in early 1990s (it seems so long ago) and now wear my son’s scratched G-Shok with my battered metalwristband. Add either with the old unit (Joint Warfare) tie and my unfortunate gait, it adds a certain look to those who understand these things to leave this one alone. I also have a gold watch given to me as a present I wear with a gold Scrooge McDuck tie pin when I go ‘bling’. Some functions in Asia, eg Indian weddings, the gold shows status and respect for the families.

  8. This reminds me of Mugatu’s “Derelicte” fashion line from the movie “Zoolander”…

    I’d have to agree with this comment though:
    “…still let you be more properly dressed than most of the other patrons in sweatshirts, jeans and running shoes”

  9. I completely agree with the watches; wear a 20 year-old Citizen everywere I go. Shoes too, as I have numerous pair of Sperrys and Weejuns that are past their prime. Watches and shoes are fine when they are old, but I’m not too sure about shirts or pants…maybe I just can’t pull them off.

  10. “…when I ride NJ transit…” Do you put on the good stuff after crossing the river and getting on the MTA?

  11. NaturalShoulder | April 21, 2011 at 12:18 pm |

    Nothing is more comfortable than an old oxford cloth shirt or pair of khakis. I have two shirts that are starting to fray at the collar, but not to the extent of the picture. I will keep wearing them with pride.

  12. The shirt in the photo is property of the webmaster. Or rather was. I decided it had lived a good, long life.

  13. Adam, I’m glad to see that this is an acceptable practice in college. Seems like a good way to dress up for a college party without looking too pretentious I’ll be a Freshman next year, and although Virginia is probably much more preppy in general than where I’m going, it’s encouraging nonetheless. Hell, I’m being criticised for wearing a cardigan… Oh, public high schools… I got my first pair of boat shoes a year ago, and they’re starting to get worn out, but I love the way it looks. Just acquired my first navy blue blazer too, and I’m excited to break it out!

  14. @Brain: If they critisise you for wearing a cardigan, see what happen if you wear “high water” chinos, their heads will explode lol

  15. Wallace Hainault | April 21, 2011 at 4:28 pm |


    Great comment to Tad, Niles and Adam nicely amplify the idea. At home, around the neighborhood, and out fighting for truth and justice are the right places to wear the clothes one has grown to love through the years. I suspect I’m not the only one here who gets sentimentally attached to what I wear.

    I still feel sad when I think about the Barron-Anderson Chesterfield I bought at Dunham’s in Waterville, Maine and wore through my college years. It was about 2002 when I finally retired a three-button Brooks 346 jacket in a fabric I have longed for ever since. I wanted to cry when I burned my last tattered Hathaway shirt, because it was the end of its tribe forever.

    On the other hand, I still wear my cracked Allen Edmonds shoes because they and all other shoe-making bastards no longer make anything in a 7B. That my misfortune might coincide with a non-fashion fashion statement is a situation of which I reluctantly try to make the best.

  16. At a conference in Singapore we were talking about recycling and everyone was in very expensive suits, many bespoke. I asked the attendees how many wore hand me down or recycled clothing. I pointed out my very nice H Freeman suit was second hand from eBay. Only two people put their hands up and they were European. One guy lived in Paris and spent the weekends combing the flea markets. The three of us had a great discussion about rummaging through thrift stores and flea markets and our favourite buys. It is very much cultural as to what people ‘wear to destruction’.

  17. Several of my favorite shirts in that I have in heavy rotation are castoffs/hand-me-downs from my dad and uncle. Mostly they’re frayed at the collar and at the elbows (not much of a problem here in Florida, where long sleeves are rolled up 11 months out of the year) but a little bit of stitching and Fray Check does ’em just fine. As per Adam and Brian, they serve me well at college, in class or at parties.

  18. I agree willissA…I’m a junior in high school and get criticized daily for what I wear. haha

  19. HRH The Duke of Windsor | April 25, 2011 at 8:17 pm |

    I have a few frayed shirts and they’re more valuable to me than the newest and pricey shirts I own. They know stories about me that few people have been privy too — one can hardly just rid of friends like that.

  20. Mitch McDonald | July 2, 2012 at 8:47 pm |

    I purposefully go to thrift stores seeking out the most worn Ralph Lauren polos and button downs I can find. I much prefer them over a new shirt any day.

  21. In the “better late than never” category, to Mr. Wallace Hainault:

    Many Allen Edmonds shoes are recraftable: for a fee, they will refurbish an old pair of shoes. I believe they put on a new sole, and work other magic. I hear nothing but good things about the service.

    Alden also offers such a service.

  22. Jonathan Sanders | December 22, 2016 at 12:38 pm |

    I’m more of a fan of what I think is the english approach to this, embodied by Prince Charles. Take something of quality, wear it, enjoy it, understand you’ll be with it for the long haul, and then take care of it. Shoes are probably the best example of just making sure they are cared for. Not so they look new, but so they age gracefully.

  23. So very good to her from Mr. Stephenson on this well-beaten topic.

    I show some favoritism toward certain “beater” jackets, pants, and accessories. This noted, I would suggest that context is everything. What passes for charming in certain circles can be easily misinterpreted in others. Example: Adlai’s hole-in-the-sole thing can be exegeted as either Old Money charm, or a downward spiral into the slipshod. Just plain shabbiness. Wonder what sort of verdict the fastidious Dean Acheson rendered after seeing that picture of Adlai.

    The line is incredibly fine. I know lots of people who are neither Old Money nor (in any way) charming who remain very much in the habit of wearing ramshackle clothing. Somehow–and this is tragic–it adds to their layabout persona. Context.

Comments are closed.