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)
In celebration of Spring Break, I wrote a shortie on the origins of the Great Escape for the blog at Ralph Lauren’s Rugby.com.
Seems the tradition of students going somewhere tropical over Easter began in 1935 when The Bermuda Athletic Association invited some Ivy League rugby teams down for a friendly tournament. By the ’50s Rugby Week became known as College Week, and then Spring Break.
Life Magazine chronicled the hijinx for a 1948 cover story; the photos are included in the post. There’s a great shot of a Yalie in white bucks and rep tie. That he’s hanging upside-down from a tree is almost as amusing as my being referred to as “the preppiest guy in town.”
While researching, I found this summary of the fall of Bermuda’s College Week scene at the hands of impertinent interlopers. The following is an excerpt from “The Right People: A Portrait of the American Social Establishment,” a 1958 book by Stephen Birmingham. — CC
Another social sport that, like crew, has suffered recently from overcrowding is Rugby. For a number of years, Rugby failed to get an official athletic department recognition at major colleges, which gave its partisans — like the select few who make up college polo teams — the pleasant feeling of being insiders by virtue of being outsiders.
Also, on most campuses, Rugby players were not really required to know how to play Rugby; the major talent for Rugby was the ability to muster round-trip plane fare to Bermuda for Rugby Week, the sport’s annual rite of spring. Rugby Week or College Week was once cozy and gay and giggly and distinctly upper class, and mothers had no qualms about allowing their daughters to go, in groups, to attend the event. But slowly, the tiny Atlantic archipelago began noticing annual increases in the numbers of Rugby and non-Rugby playing guests at Easter time.
Soon College Week was more crowded than the Yale Harvard Regatta, more wild-eyed than Derby Day, Yale’s famous (and now defunct) romp. College Week sat in the middle of Bermuda’s sunny season like a drunk at a tea party.
“I’ve gone to my last College Week,” said a Princeton sophomore a few years ago. “You can’t believe what it’s like. The hotels are all filled, so guys sleep under rocks on the beach. If you’re lucky enough to have a room, you’re expected to share it with twenty other guys. The bar at the Elbow-Beach Club is packed three people deep and filled with armed Security Guards trying to keep order. And the girls! My blind date one night was a CPA from Chicago. For my money, the whole Rugby thing has gone way, way down.”
It was to go even further. Bermuda, displeased with the behavior of its visitors, made them increasingly unwelcome, and soon the young, and the ensuing disturbances, turned to the beaches of Florida, to Fort Lauderdale and then, a ‘ few years later, to Daytona Beach. All pretense at any connection with the sport of Rugby was abandoned, and College Week no longer has any Society overtones at all. Today, the holidaying college crowd tends to favor Puerto Rico and upperclass mothers keep their daughters home — remembering, though, when it was all sweet innocence in Bermuda, with all those nice young Rugby players from the Ivy League. And where are the nice young men today if they are not playing Rugby? On the nearest ski slopes they can find.