A Pin Too Far


You probably remember a few years ago, back when Ralph Lauren Rugby was still alive, and neo-preps were wearing collar pins with buttondown collars. The buttons were not fastened, and had sometimes been removed, but those of the old guard found the look an incorrigible affectation. I recall going into the New York J. Press store (when it was still alive) to pick up a collar pin and being admonished to never wear it with a buttondown. Thank you for the sound advice.

I also remember a conversation with Tom Davis, legendary head of Brooks Brothers’ custom shirt program who’s been with the company for half a century. Our chat invariably turned to buttondown collars, and Mr. Davis said he recalled guys wearing collar pins with fastened buttondowns. He seemed to characterize it not as gauche, but as a particularly GTH gesture by guys who knew better but did it anyway. That was the whole point.

I’d heard of the practice, but thought it just a sartorial rumor. Well here it is in all it’s gaudy glory, and on non other than legendary dresser Fred Astaire, who was fond of both collar pins and Brooks Brothers buttondowns, and in the 1935 photo above can be seen combining the two. If he looks a bit sheepish, maybe that’s because he’s wondering if perhaps he’s gone too far. A necktie worn as a belt is one thing, but this?

Astaire was a pretty uptight guy and perhaps that’s why the collar pin appealed to him. According to this 1957 profile in GQ, he’d even wear collar pins without a tie.

Lately I’ve been going through all of my style stuff — books, magazines and catalogs — trying to look at everything with a fresh eye. I’ve been refining my own tastes more assiduously than usual, and so far the one image I’ve found that best exemplifies my present preferences is this shot of Astaire. I’ve even got it propped open in a stack of books on the floor for constant reiteration.


Astaire is wearing a sportcoat in the Prince Of Wales pattern, which has become a favorite of mine (I just got my third, all three in different fabrics). He pairs it with dark trousers, white shirt and dark tie in a simple pattern. It’s a great formula, restrained but snazzy via the checked jacket, and with an even balance of light and dark. I find it far better looking than his outfits with light-colored ties.

Astaire had been a fan of Brooks Brothers’ shirts and ties since the 1920s. In the GQ interview linked above, he says, “As a kid I used to abide by the judgment of Brooks Brothers in New York. I think I’m away from that now.”

Perhaps that’s because by 1957 Ivy had simply become too popular, and Astaire was no fan. “I simply don’t understand [the Ivy League Look],” he told the magazine. “It may look well on some people, young ones, but it’s terrible on me.” — CC

14 Comments on "A Pin Too Far"

  1. Historical Note: J.Press featured their plain point collar shirt i.e. buttondown collar sans button. The two most popular versions were white and blue oxford and a majority of our customers wore them with a collar pin. Go to hell didn’t play well in the boardroom.

  2. @RVP

    I think the time Tom Davis talked about this was when you and I were chatting with him during the Christmas party a couple years ago.

  3. Joseph Murray | February 28, 2016 at 10:35 am |

    Imagine GQ running a story today about someone who dresses conservatively!

  4. When I read the first sentence I thought you were talking about Astaire!

  5. The Astaire’style is very interesting.Is an American alternative to Ivy style (that to Astaire not liked).Darted coats,single breasted two buttons an a lot of double breasted,but soft tailoring and with natural shoulders.Button down shirts,collar pins,suede shoes.I like very much the Astaire’s style.

  6. Henry Contestwinner | February 29, 2016 at 12:08 am |

    Spot on, Carmelo. For most of his life, Fred Astaire was not an Ivy League dresser: two-button coats with double vents and darts were his standard. He did like BB shirts and ties, though.

  7. I always liked Fred Astaire movies, but he was a “song and dance man” from Omaha. My guess is that he tried to look East Coast by adopting the full Brooks Brothers look. Despite the positive things Flusser wrote about him, I somehow doubt too many people saw him as their sartorial hero back in his time. Especially not in his later ascot, scarf belt, and hair piece days.

  8. Christian,

    What do you make of this? Louis Armstrong is said to have replaced the buttons with safety pins. That is supposedly what the polo players that inspired Brooks’ OCBD were wearing, so maybe that is the “most trad” collar option.


  9. Henry Contestwinner | February 29, 2016 at 10:57 pm |

    Anonymous, you might want to consider reading G. Bruce Boyer’s book on Astaire.

    Regardless of what you might mean by “sartorial hero,” from what I have gathered, he was widely regarded as a well-dressed and stylish man throughout the 30s, 40s, and 50s. He was especially admired for looking at ease no matter what he wore. He embodied comfortable American style, in a way that someone such as the always-correct Adolphe Menjou did not. While Menjou dressed well, he was so impeccable as to be stiff, and his manner did not resonate with Americans the way that Astaire’s did.

    Back in those days, movie stars dressed well, and were often taken as sartorial guidelines. Perhaps few men walked around aping Astaire’s look, but I bet a lot of them were inspired by him.

    While Astaire was from Omaha, his family moved to New York when he was six, so saying he “tried” to look East Coast is probably inaccurate: he simply did look East Coast, by virtue of his living and working there.

  10. In the early 1970s, RL named his Polo suit & odd jackets: Polo1, Polo 3 and the later Polo 2 with side vents was named the “Astaire” and with peak lapels, the “Fairbanks”.

  11. “I always liked Fred Astaire movies, but he was a “song and dance man” from Omaha. My guess is that he tried to look East Coast by adopting the full Brooks Brothers look”.

    I don’t agree.
    Astaire can be born to Omaha,but he was in New York from the age of 6 years.
    From early 20s,he and his sister Adele were international stars,often with great success on the London theaters stage.
    In fact Fred Astaire was a inveterate Anglophile,dresseb by tailors of Saville Row (Anderson & Shepard,Gieves & Hawkes,Kilgour & French).
    More he was the inventor of a his own style that mingled the British with the American style.
    The shoulders of his double breasted (he ever loved double breasted) and two buttons single breasted were naturals and soft,the pleated trousers had the break over the shoes,his favorited shirt was a button down with generous roll or a pin collar shirt (or both).
    A style very sophisticated,the true “middle atlantic at his best.
    Astaire remained faithful to his favourite cut even when his tailor (at first due to the world war II) was in Los Angeles: Schmitt & Galluppo,very skilled to replicate cut of several European tailors (in this case Anderson & Sheppard).
    In the years in which Fred danced with Adele and then with Ginger and Rita Hayworth and Lucille Bremer,”Ivy league ( that was not called in this way but “collegiate” ) was a niche style for “College and country” (as in the editorials of Esquire magazines).
    In New York in those times Brooks Brothers sold a lot of darted double breasteds (see the advertisments).
    Simply,the late 50s Fred Astaire remained faithful to his own style; he don’t liked the bastardization of main street ivy of the time,he knew what was good for him and what not (“It may look well on some people, young ones, but it’s terrible on me”..The coat should be just long enough to cover the rear,” he states. “The way most of them are today, they nearly reach the knees…..”I always like to use the Windsor knot,” He explains his aversion for the narrow tie with a smile: “I’m narrow enough myself, too narrow.” He points out that thinness seems to destroy an essential quality of dress, its style, by misuse in ties or lapels. “Look at the thin rolled lapels with the double-breasted suits—they are atrocities.”).
    Fred Astaire was never a conformist: in 30s his trousers were never baggy,in 40s his shoulders never big and padded,in 50s and 60s he don’t wear “ivy league”.

  12. Marc Chevalier | March 1, 2016 at 4:04 pm |

    From the 1957 GENTLEMEN’S QUARTERLY article about his style:

    “Astaire often returns to his outspoken dislike of the present rage for ‘Ivy League’ tailoring. ‘The unpadded shoulders, the three-buttoned long and boxy coat, the too-short, thin pants, and the thin ties with striped buttoned shirts in dark colors—well, I suppose this may go very well with some personalities but it’s not for me. To me, all such look like TV producers. Maybe they want to.’ “

  13. If you want to see the genius of Fred Astaire’s style of dress watch the “Dancing in the Dark” number from “Band Wagon”. If you can take your eyes off Cyd Charisse for a moment you will see his style was sheer perfection. And really top drawer!

    In regards to his use of a silk tie as a belt, I recall our local Brooks Brothers store doing their windows a few years ago all in black and white and they used ties as belts. Timeless, perhaps?

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