Contributing writer Christopher Sharp has buckled-down, hit the books, and put his nose to the grindstone in an effort to suss out once and for all the origins of the mid-’50s buckle-back chino trend.
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During my formative years back in the Fifties, I was the kind of kid who was secure in the belief that God wore buttondown shirts and madras Bermuda shorts. The worst villain passed my inspection if he wore trousers with a vestigial little belt in the back or possessed the skill to tie a bow tie. Good and bad were simply a matter of tweedy and non-tweedy.
That was how Owen Edwards, in a November, 1988 GQ article, described his youth in the boom years of the Ivy style. What I find of note is how solidified in his mind some three decades latter was the signifgence of the belted back trouser to the Ivy image.
With the recent resurgence of interest in the Ivy League Look and the historical study of it components, one of the natural questions is where did the 1950s phenomenon of the belted-back trouser originate?
In our previous article on H.I.S we attributed it to Jesse Siegel. We made this claim initially based on an article entitled “Jesse Made the Pants Just Right,” which appeared in the April 15, 1966 issue of Forbes, that claimed, ”Siegel was the first to take khakis, an old-time favorite in work clothes, put a buckle on the back, aim it toward the youth market. “ A second contemporary source is a H.I.S advertisement from 1958 that makes a more detailed claim. The advertisement is for a new line of back-flapped khakis called the Post-Grads and plays one trend off another. The copy reads “H.I.S introduced the Ivy-Alls six years ago and saw them become the biggest style idea in the history of men’s slacks. We still turn them out by the thousands every week, but the future belongs to the Post-Grads.” The copy goes on to say, “the buckle-on-the-back has yielded to a pair of neat flaps.” This advertisement places the introduction of the belted back Khaki trouser to 1952.
One might wonder where Siegel got the idea for a back-belted chino. Ivy Style asked Roland L. Kimberlin, a former HIS executive, who points to an earlier time in Siegel’s life hinted at by his nickname “Yank”. “He was quite the good baseball player and had a try out with the New York Yankee’s farm team. Baseball gloves at the time had a buckle back strap which you could tighten to fit your wrist and hold it snuggly in place. It is rumored that this is were the idea came from.” Even if this explanation is apocryphal it was good for business. The rumor was never challenged, and Siegel and those associated with this project are all dead.
Ivy-Alls is an interesting bit of word play. It almost sounds like “IVY-HALLS” (and if you perform an Internet search for “Ivy-Alls,” Google suggests “Ivy halls” instead). Even the logo has what appears to be a campus building. The two words viewed independently, Ivy is firmly collegiate and “alls” seems to harken back to H.I.S workwear roots, bringing to mind overalls. The two words together form a creative name for a hybrid product.
Ivy-Alls were described in a 1955 advertisement as a “new slim silhouette” with a “low hip fit”. They measured 21 inches at the knee and 18 inches at the cuff. These measurements are echoed in other contempory trousers, like the flannel and stillwater worsted sold by Milton Julian, owner of Milton’s Clothing Cupboard of Chapel Hill. The wool version sold for $18.95 in 1954, while the cotton Ivy-Alls retailed for $5.95 in 1955.
Period Advertising demonstrates other college outfitters offered wool belted-back trousers. In 1955 Browing King & Co sold Majer slacks for $21.95; their advertising copy states the trousers were “Approved by the Ivy trade.” Another venerable Cornell outfitter, Irv Lewis, offered charcoal flannels for $15.95 the same year.
Two of the earliest proponents of the slim trouser among the famous names were Chipp and J.Press. A tipped-in Chipp mini catalog was included in the 1952 Gentry Holiday issue and featured several odd trousers with a back belt in the same dimensions mentioned above. Chipp offered three shades of grey flannel priced at $17.50, two shades of gray nine-ounce worsted at $21.50, and one shade of whipcord for $27.50. A J. Press advertisement in the same issue offers “clean hanging flat hipped and slim legged” trousers in charcoal flannel for $18.50 and two shades of worsted at $22.50. The Chipp India whipcord trouser in charcoal gray with a belted back was introduced in the fall 1953 Gentry college fashion article. The belt was still present on all trousers when Paul Winston joined Chipp in 1961, Winston told Ivy-Style.com.
A 1955 advertorial for the Pittsburgh firm Hughes & Hatcher puts the look together by defining “Ivy Style” as “British influence, characterized by natural easy fitting coats, very little shoulder padding, slimmer lapels and three or four buttons. Trousers are narrower, often unpleated, often with strap in the back. Tweeds, flannels, herringbone…” By all accounts it appears this retailer had a coherent look to sell.
To get a better sense of the period and the signifigence of the belted-back trouser, Ivy Style spoke with Stuart Lewis, who possesses the duel ability to address the subject both as college man and tradesman. He is the son of Irv Lewis and was a retailer for 38 years in Ithaca, NY. Lewis graduated high school in 1952 and was in the Bucknell University class of 1956. As a university student he was an early adopter of the “soft shoulder” style, and as a retailer promoted the look we call “Ivy.” He affirmed the importance of both the cotton odd trouser and grey flannels in the collegiate wardrobe. Gray flannels he said were of charcoal or Cambridge grey, with “heavy and lofty” English and Scottish woolens preferred. Shetland jackets were worn often with elbow patches, a casualty of resting one’s elbows on wooden desks. During those years,” You wore a jacket and a repp tie to dinner in your frat house.” On the subject of the back belt, Lewis described it in perfect mid-century terms, saying, “It was like fins on a car. It was a detail, and details are what sells fashion.”
As a retailer, he explained the way you sell a customer a pair of grey flannel trousers when he already owns a pair is to change the details. Why did students want the back belt? Simple: they wanted to be cool. This brings us back to Jesse Segel. When he was interviewed for the 1966 Forbes article, he reflected on his success with the buckle back, stating, “The stragedy was simple, We took the basic cheap garment and put a little fashion in it.’”
In the world view of college students, manufacturers and retailers of the 1950s, fashion wasn’t a dirty word. And for a time campus cool meant wearing white bucks and a belted-back trouser. Sixty years later as a few portions of the trade make another run at offering the belted-back trouser, we zoom full-speed ahead back to the future.” — CHRISTOPHER SHARP