When it comes to starting fashion trends, there’s Princeton and then there’s every other school. From the three-button suit to its namesake haircut, Princeton has popularized such menswear staples as Norfolk jackets, raccoon coats, tweed sport coats, rep ties, spectator shoes, khaki pants and Shetland sweaters.
Princeton’s sartorial influence has been dulled by time, but for much of the 20th century it was well acknowledged by both a watchful fashion industry and rival schools.
LIFE magazine’s 1938 article, “Princeton Boys Dress in a Uniform,” confirms that “tailors and haberdashers watch Princeton students closely,” while students at Harvard and Yale call Princetonians “the prototype of Hollywood’s conception of how the well-dressed college boy should look.”
So how did Princeton men become such recognized style leaders?
Like most clotheshorses, they had money and a penchant for both quality and quantity. As one student wrote in a 1931 campus publication, “As every Princeton father knows, his son’s clothes are expensive.” Yearbooks, newspapers and athletic programs were filled with advertisements for Brooks Brothers and Franks Brothers, a top-tier shoe company.
Not only did Princeton men spend big bucks on their own apparel, but their stamp of approval helped manufacturers court other collegiates. The school’s name attached to a garment conferred integrity. EE Taylor Corporation’s “Princetonian” shoe was advertised as direct “from the campus of the country’s collegiate fashion center,” and was one of the company’s best selling models of 1934.
Secondly, Princetonians lived in a self-regulated environment with a well defined social pecking order. Sure, Harvard and Yale had their share of insularity and rich white kids, but they also pioneered financial aid and scholarships, which fostered a more diverse student body than Princeton. In rural New Jersey with little meddling from administrators, Princeton men created a homogenous campus culture that prioritized fitting in.
In “This Side of Paradise,” F. Scott Fitzgerald, describing his protagonist’s first day at Princeton, wrote, “Amory felt unnecessarily stiff and awkward among these white-flannelled, bare-headed youths who must be juniors and seniors, judging by the savoir-faire with which they strolled,” and he “wondered vaguely if there was something the matter with his clothes.”
For the first half of the century, Princeton freshmen and sophomores were banned by tradition from wearing particular garments, such as white flannel pants or striped ties. One had to earn the right to dress like a Princeton man.
While an ample bank account and the need to dress the part allowed Princeton students to assemble a well honed wardrobe, the leisure-based lifestyle of their campus inspired the actual trends. Athletics dominated Priceton’s student culture. Sportswear was worn around the clock. Earlier trends, such as tweed golfing suits or flannel blazers, had an air of formality. Those that came later in the century couldn’t have been more casual, and included sweatshirts, sneakers and t-shirts. Despite such differences, the collective contribution of Princeton students to the modern American wardrobe is undeniable. Whether you’re wearing khakis and a sport coat or jeans and a cardigan, chances are your clothes were first popularized at Princeton. — DEIRDRE CLEMENTE
Deirdre Clemente is a cultural historian who was denied admission to Princeton three times. She is a former fashion writer and currently a Ph.D. candidate at Carnegie Mellon, where her dissertation dissects the influence of college students on the casualization of the American wardrobe in the first half of the 20th century. Her work has appeared in the Journal of Social History, The New England Quarterly, and Labor Studies Journal.
Historically, Ivy style has always championed durability and functionality. Nowhere is this truer than in the realm of outerwear, where such weathered classics as the toggle coat and balmacaan remain viable and timeless.
However, at certain vivacious moments in the style’s history, discerning collegiate sartorialists have exchanged the reliable for the resplendent, the austere for the ostentatious.
One such moment occurred in the 1920s, when young men threw off their tweedy raglans in favor of a far more flamboyant material: raccoon fur. University of Illinois football star Red Grange (1903-1991) and radio crooner Rudy Vallee are credited with popularizing the wide-collared, ankle-length raccoon coat, a fad which spread quickly across the campuses of the Northeast. The coats were particularly popular among young male jazz enthusiasts who garnered the nickname “collegiates” or Joe College.
The first wave of the fad ended with the dawn of The Great Depression, but the coat saw a brief revival in 1956. This second coming of the coonskin coat saw voracious demand for secondhand furs in, as the Lord and Taylor College Shop proudly announced at the time, “a state of magnificent disrepair.” An article in the New Yorker from August 17th, 1957 traces the origins of the revival back to a group of three young New Yorkers and a presumably jazz and smoke-filled party at their Greenwich Village apartment.
As legend has it, Sue Salzman was about to buy a used raccoon coat on a whim when it was snatched up by another customer. Bemoaning her loss at a party hosted by herself and her husband Stanley, she was approached by an acquaintence whose relatives were in the boys’ clothing business and just happened to have a warehouse full of old raccoon coats. This crop of furs was leftover from the wave of Davy Crockett Mania, during which time they were chopped and used to make coonskin caps. “Feeling manic” from their good fortune, the Salzmans purchased coats for themselves and for every person who attended their party.
After they began receiving inquiries about the coats, the Salzmans and their friend Benjy Bejan decided to go into business and let the fur fly. When Glamour magazine published a photo of a raccoon coat and credited them as the supplier, the trio received over 300 letters, phone calls and an urgent inquiry from Lord and Taylor. The department store was a collegiate style heavyweight at the time, and, as Mr. Salzman admits, “anything that Lord and Taylor does in college fashions is copied.” Once Lord and Taylor became involved, demand outweighed supply, and a trend was born.
It is no coincidence that the craze for fur coats arose during periods of unprecedented prosperity in which youths actively sought to redefine their own morality. In this age of traditionalism imbued with conservative nostalgia it is sometimes all too easy to forget that collegiate style once represented liberation from the dress of prior generations, a way to dress freely for those who lived freely.
Below are images from 1928, 1959, and from the Fall ’09 collection by Brooks Brothers (courtesy of Mister Mort), suggesting another raccoon coat revival might be just around the corner. Of course, that would negate the prosperity theory. — ZACHARY DELUCA (Continue)
On newsstands now is one of those book-like magazines LIFE puts out when someone important dies — in this case, Edward Kennedy. “The Kennedys: End of a Dynasty” provides plenty of photos and family history for those who don’t want to wade through a full biography. I especially liked this photo of JFK from 1946. — CC
Varsity-inspired items from RL’s Rugby line fit in well at last Sunday’s 25th annual Gatsby Summer Afternoon. Of all the vintage events wacky Californians put on, this one is by far the most spectacular.
Held at the Dunsmuir House, an estate in the Oakland Hills, the event features music and dancing, vintage cars, and a contest to see who can create the most opulent picnic spread (this year’s winners practically recreated their entire living room).
This collegiate layout got an honorable mention. Its creators actually erected bleachers draped with raccoon coats and a goal post for kicking field goals: (Continue)
Above: University of Pennsylvania, 1949. Below: MIT, 1956 (click images for hi-res version): (Continue)