Back To School Memories: Style Stalinism In the 1980s

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Editor’s Note: Many thanks to contributor Scott A. Burrell for the piece you are about to read. Alas it’ll be reruns for a while after this: freelance writers don’t get vacations (though they occasionally get paid press junkets), but I’m off to Cape Cod for some golf and DCG’s wedding (in order of importance). Expect some coverage of that, as well as the Harriman Cup, as my adopted nephew Al Castiel will be crashing at my place while attending the celebrated polo match on Long Island. And if you have college memories you’d like to share, use the contact button above and I’ll get them up next week. — CC

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Coming of fashion age in the early 1980s under the penumbra of the “Preppy Handbook,” I left a decidedly un-preppy suburb for a very preppy  — at least by Midwestern standards — liberal arts college. School shopping featured some hits — Bean’s blucher mocs, khaki and lime green bermudas, a Lacoste anorak, and the still-very-practical maroon and navy repp from Jos. A. Bank in the picture below — and some wild misses, including a ventless blue blazer of indeterminate material.

I still had a lot to learn. Distilling the attitudes of a small, insular college through the Greek system in general and my fraternity in particular produced an almost Stalinist approach to fashion. Shoes were an absolute shibboleth limited essentially to five options: Bean’s bluchers, camp mocs, and Maine hunting shoes, Bass Weejuns, and tennis shoes (K-Swiss, Tretorns or Stan Smiths only). True to this Stalinist approach, we rejected our pasts. Top-Siders were for poseurs.

Shirts were another matter altogether. In 1983 it was a challenge to even find all-cotton buttondowns. I didn’t know where Brooks Brothers was (not that I could afford Brooks), and catalogue shopping wasn’t yet a thing. I struggled to figure out whether the various loops, pleats, placates and buttons were de rigueur or not. Ultimately, I lucked into a thrift-store trove of 16/34s from Ann Arbor’s Van Boven Shop that served me well for the remaining three years.

By the end of my junior year I had acquired an acceptable replacement blazer, a pair of bleeding madras patch trousers, and some Black Watch stadium pants. Add to that the gear I got after a fraternity brother and teammate convinced the tennis coach to outfit us in Boast and I was gaining confidence.

Scoring a summer internship with a Big 8 accounting firm not only provided a decent stipend, but put me downtown, where I found Brooks Brothers. I arrived back on campus with a pile of new shirts by Polo, a couple of Banks’ three-button suits, and a pair of black tassel loafers.  Exercising senior prerogative at a fall rush function, the khakis and blazer uniform was traded for a light grey suit, pink Brooks buttondown, bow tie, and tassel loafers, no socks.

I emerged from college with a style forged by these circumstances, but one that I owned and would rely on for the rest of my life. That is, except during my second year of law school, when I lost my fashion mind thanks to Pearl Jam). — SCOTT ALEXANDER BURRELL

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43 Comments on "Back To School Memories: Style Stalinism In the 1980s"

  1. This was good, and very relate-able, although by the various references it seems the author is a touch older than myself.

    A couple of specific thoughts: first, that I was hemmed in by the same rigid “shoe rules” – by the time I reached high school, Sebago Docksiders and Sperrys were clearly only for your brother still in 7th grade, replaced by bluchers and camp mocs (I’m wearing camp mocs as I write this, almost 30 years on); second, that I’m amazed whenever I see a friend from the Midwest, to learn their impression of what counts as trad; apparently anywhere west of, say, Pittsburgh khakis and a blue oxford is considered *highly* prep. Which is to say nothing of our editor’s erstwhile hunting grounds ….

  2. Sperry CVOs are still classic tennis shoes and they recently revived their classic tennis shoe. They now call it the “Cloud CVO” and it is an exact replica of their original shoe. Get it while supplies last!

  3. Also, thank you for reminding us of the days when Jos. A. Bank could be counted on for discount Ivy, although I hear that their shirts are still good.

  4. Marc Chevalier | September 13, 2016 at 12:03 pm |

    I’ve always found Sperry’s CVO soles to be too heavy. Keds (which invented the rubber-soled canvas tennis oxford) is lighter and more comfortable, I feel.

  5. They do have thick soles but they’re classic so I can’t complain.

  6. I grew up on the Texas coast and, gasp!, wore Sperry Topsiders for their intended nautical and angling uses. At one of my first fraternity mixers, a city boy looked down at my beat-up deck shoes and asked, “What’s that ugly stain?”

    “Fish blood,” I replied.

  7. @whiskeydent did you have the white CVOs? I’m sure they looked great after years of proper use.

  8. Michael Brady | September 13, 2016 at 3:17 pm |

    Whose four eyelet cam moc is pictured at the top of the page?

  9. @Michael Brady L.L. Bean’s, the original.

  10. Michael Brady | September 13, 2016 at 3:19 pm |

    That’s “camp” moc and I discovered its by L.L. Bean.

  11. And it’s a blucher moc.

  12. Jojoandthecats | September 13, 2016 at 3:28 pm |

    Yes, this did take me back. I was there in the heyday of the OPH, though I think a bit earlier because Topsiders were still de rigeur.

  13. I’ve continued to wear deck shoes throughout my life, but I no longer wear Sperry’s. I wear the Dunham Windward now because it’s easier to find a pair that fit my stupid 14B feet.

  14. Oh I see, I have a pair of made in Maine Sperrys but they don’t get too much use on boats just a general summer shoe for me. You’re not missing much from Sperry nowadays, the quality is long gone.

  15. @whiskeydent: on actual boat decks these days I wear Sperry Sea Kites; lawn-mowing is done in ancient Sebago Clovehitches whose bottoms have hardened and no longer grip anyway; 99% percent of the remaining time it’s Bean’s camp mocs.

    Has anybody tried Quoddy’s hand-sewn versions of the blucher or camp moc? Can they possible be worth the price?

  16. The Quoddy are a little overpriced. I’ve owned two. They use a nice soft leather but their lasts never fit my feet well, too narrow. For their price point, I think their soles are outdated and not that comfortable. I prefer Rancourt.

  17. @whiskeydent

    I’m trying to picture 14B feet and my brain and feet are hurting.

  18. Trade the Big 8 accounting internship for one at State Farm and this could by my story. Great nostalgia.

  19. @Paul I have Quoddy boat shoes and Rancourt ranger and camp mocs. Both are very well made and fit perfectly.

  20. @John Carlos I currently have Bean’s Camp Mocs but eventually I want to switch to Rancourt they look like classic Bean’s and I hear that they can be re-soled. Can’t beat made in Maine quality footwear.

  21. @GS I’ve had many of the Bean Camp Mocs over the years but no comparison in quality to Rancourt. I agree regarding Maine footwear. I have several pair of Alden also. Been wearing Alden since the 1970’s. Two pair of shell cordovan are at least 25 years old. Re-soled multiple times. Still look great and I bought them at a time when they didn’t cost a fortune.

  22. @John Carlos lucky you, I want a pair of cordovan tassel loafers some day. Hope the price isn’t up to 1000$ by then!

  23. @GS I know what you mean. I have three pair of shell cordovans purchased when I think they sold for about $295 each if my memory is correct. One of the benefits of being a geezer.

  24. @John Carlos how true, enjoy them while they last. Although, those shoes were so well made they’ll probably out last you.

  25. @GS Good observation. What size are you?

  26. @John Carlos I’m an 11 in most dress shoes.

  27. @Paul:

    “…I’m amazed whenever I see a friend from the Midwest, to learn their impression of what counts as trad; apparently anywhere west of, say, Pittsburgh khakis and a blue oxford is considered *highly* prep.”

    I live in the Great Lakes region and is not even remotely true. Khakis and blue oxfords are standard business casual fare and wouldn’t even register on most people’s prep radar around here. Nor would blue blazers, weejuns, Shetlands, or club ties, all of which are simply considered conservative/boring options for old men and unimaginative younger guys. I suppose wearing all these things at once in the mode of the estimable Mr. Oxford Cloth Button Down might remind certain Midwesterners of “Dead Poets Society,” but that’s about as far as I’d go with it.

    It’s odd to me how people conjure up these nonexistent regional distinctions to reinforce their perception of themselves as cultural insiders.

  28. ALC
    Personally I think “Dead Poets Society” sucked ass and I don’t like the way I’ve dressed for over fifty years referred to as “preppy”, but do tell how imaginative younger men dress like in the Great North?

  29. SCOTT
    Thanks for sharing. The four eyelet mocs bring back memories of two freshmen pledges from Conn. and Mass. wearing the mocs to a rush party in 1971 at a small midwest university. I had never seen those mocs before, I’d always wore the basic brown Sperrys, still do. Great guys, we made fun of how they spoke, no safe spaces in Kansas. We had no shoe rules in our frat, we had hippies, cowboys and guys like me.

    Original Stan Smith leathers and Jack Purcells for canvas for sneakers.

  30. Wore Topsiders for 30+ years to teach school. Nothing was more comfortable to wear discussing electoral college in front of 30 18 year old high school seniors.

  31. I’ve got the Bean and Eastland camp mocs. I wish the Beans had the sole and toe of the Eastlands. Both work though and they’ve held up well with daily wear.

  32. @ AJC: my friends from Cleveland and St. Clair Shores will be highly disappointed to learn that their impressions are “non-existent”.

  33. @Christian And I’m flat-footed. I’ve accepted AE as my personal savior.

  34. Marty, you like Eastland shoes? Bean does not offer women’s Blucher mocs anymore and I was wondering about the Eastland company for a replacement pair.

  35. A Bridge Too Far | September 14, 2016 at 3:49 pm |

    Quoddy makes excellent boat shoes, though are expensive. I have a pair I have been wearing almost four years almost daily–from sailing to snow–and still going strong. That being said, I think when they finally wear out, I will return to Sperry A/O Gold Cups, which I don’t think anyone has mentioned. I had a few pairs of these before the Quoddys. The Quoddys might be a higher quality shoe, but it is hard for me to tell the difference.

    FWIT: I find that the fit and comfort of boat shoes are enhanced with an insole/orthotic like the Superfeet inserts. Otherwise, the arches are just too flat for my feet and they become uncomfortable to wear for any length of time.

  36. MAC MCCONNELL | September 14, 2016 at 4:12 pm |

    The Sperry A/O Gold Cups are nicer that the origins I wear. Somewhere I’ve got two pair of similar Sperrys with thicker soles from the 80s. One we use to refer to as salt waters, they have an dark brown oiled upper and are very hot in the summer. The other has a white suede upper, both look better with pants and are easier for walking distances, but not great on decks.

  37. Have pairs of the Quoddy bluchers, canoe (camp) mocs and boat shoes (as well as a pair of their venetians from Leffot) and they are well worth the extra expense. In fact, I believe Quoddy’s blucher is about as close as you can get to the original, made in USA ones from Bean as you can get – maybe just slightly nicer leather. I have worn the bluchers almost exclusively as my go-to warm weather shorts/jeans shoes for 3-4 years and, while they desperately need a resole and will be heading back to Quoddy soon, the uppers and stitching are still perfectly intact. The last pair I obtained from Bean (like the ones in the photo above and made overseas) arrived with stiff, cheap-looking leather and started coming apart after about six months.

  38. Sperry canvas boat shoes in blue all through college. Picked up two pairs of 75th anniversary Sperry canvas in blue five years ago. The first pair are going strong with plenty of salt water baths in the Chesapeake bay. I’ll break out the reserve pair in another five years or so. The 75th anniversary shoes are just like the ones I wore in the ’80s. Get them if you can find them.

    Will

  39. @sacksuit the new-old Sperry Cloud CVOs are even better than the 75th anniversary edition CVOs. They are exact (I checked online listings of the original shoes and old ads) replicas of Sperry’s original CVO with the exception of a tag sewn onto the top of the tongue. It can be easily removed and is pretty well hidden with the shoes are laced up. I bought one pair in white and one in blue. I want to stock up more now while they’re on sale because I’m afraid that such a shoe won’t be offered for much longer.

  40. @sacksuit They’re even offered in Sperry’s original (going by info provided by an old ad) colors of white, blue and Breton red.

  41. @AJC,
    It’s thanks to us conservative, boring, unimaginative old men that Ivy style is still around.

  42. After my sophomore year at prep school I learned that the best way to stock up with truly authentic prep-wear was to purchase clothing from the graduating class: Brooks Brothers shirts and blazers, tan wide wale corduroy pants, an occasional tie and the well worn penny loafers. Cheap and with a respectful worn hue.

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