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.
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
As the editor of Tradsville’s news gazette for the past three years, I’ve been obliged to work my beat with at least some attempt at assiduity. That includes keeping an unjaundiced eye on the discourse at Talk Ivy, a discussion forum hosted at filmnoirbuff.com whose members are mostly from the UK and Continental Europe.
From their discourse I’ve received the general impression that English Ivy fans are a kind of retro style-tribe subculture with a fanaticism for the music and clothing from 1955-1965. This fuels them with a tireless drive to dig up forgotten historical documents such as photos, films, record albums and advertisements. When it comes to putting these things into historical and social context, however, the English are severely hampered by two things: the need to see history in a way that fits their subculture’s sensibility, and the fact that they don’t live in America.
Their “talk,” then, is primarily fandom threads about favorite clothing items, records and movies, while their analysis of the Ivy heyday is speculative and interpreted rather than fact-based and reported.
I’ve previously written about the English following the publication of “The Ivy Look” by Graham Marsh and JP Gaul, a book almost baffling in its inability to articulate — a couple of sentences would have sufficed — where the Ivy League Look comes from, how it got its name, and other such basic information in what was intended as an introductory guide. And yet it’s not hard to see why this is squeamish territory: for London style-tribe scenesters, nothing could be more unhip than the thought of dressing in the clothing style whose original arbiters were the East Coast establishment.
Combined with an avoidance of the origins of the Ivy League Look and its chief merchants (who, outside of New York, were nearly all located in the communities serving Yale, Harvard and Princeton), was the curious inclusion of all sorts of randomalia, such as Zippo lighters, Porsche speedsters and French New Wave cinema, which may share the historical timeline as the Ivy League Look’s heyday but bear no direct relation except in the imagination of tribal members.
Perhaps opting to play it safe this time, the authors’ new follow-up tome, “Hollywood And The Ivy Look,” has minimal text. And in Marsh’s one-page introduction, England’s resident Ivy expert now sounds so confused he’s resorted to a wishy-washy cop-out when it comes to addressing his readers with the topic at hand:
There is a strong case to be made that the “Ivy League Look” was, in essence, pure Brooks Brothers and did not emanate from the eight East Coast universities. The jury is out as to the final decision and probably always will be. But now, back to Hollywood and the Ivy Look…
As Marsh returns to his comfort zone with an ellipsis, the book’s real content — rare photos — are fantastic and gathering them is something to be lauded. Though the second half, as in “The Ivy Look,” falls into the same trap of including many photos, films and TV shows that feel merely contemporary to the years 1955-1965 rather than expressions of the Ivy League Look, the book is a tremendous photographic documentation of the brief time when Ivy was popular and entertainers dressed with restrained good taste.
The text’s peccadilloes are largely confined to instances of scenester-geek chumminess (“kings of the buttondown,” “our man Perkins”) and calls to style-icon mimicry and tribal initiation (“wear this outfit and you’re guaranteed a passport to the Ivy Look”). There’s also a reference to Ivy as an “aesthetic,” but perhaps I’m the only one who finds that word pompous.
But as a counter to the many fusty dullards who have kept Ivy clothiers in business over the decades, the English provide a useful reminder that American natural-shouldered clothing can, in additional to being traditional and correct, also be cool. — CHRISTIAN CHENSVOLD
The Daily Mail recently reported on Franklin & Marshall — no, not the liberal arts college founded in Lancaster, PA in 1787, the Italian fashion brand.
Seems a couple of designers found an old college t-shirt, and, without bothering to research its origins, decided it would make a cool name for a logo-driven sportswear brand.
This year the company grossed $61 million.
The college eventually got wind of the name appropriation, and though initially miffed, ultimately decided to let the brand continue, since when you’re a school no one has heard of innocuous buzz is better than no buzz.
The tragic irony, however, is that the fake collegiate Franklin & Marshall sweatshirt (right), designed in Italy, looks more handsome and collegiate than the generic one sold in the real Franklin & Marshall bookstore (left):
Pictured at top are F&M students from 1956 wearing dirty white bucks. — CC
Ivy Style contributor and Newton Street Vintage proprietor Zachary DeLuca returns after a long absence with this dissection of two vintage Brooks Brothers suits. For additional photos, visit his tumblr The Suit Room.
One of the best things about my job is that every so often I come across a piece so good that I have to take a moment to admire the finer points of hand-tailoring that went into it. In this instance, I found not one but two such pieces, both from Brooks Brothers, both with the black label coveted by Brooks collectors.
The first is a strange bird considering Brooks’ die-hard affiliation with the three-button sack suit: A two-button darted jacket, with an ultra-soft shoulder.
H.I.S Inc. may be the missing link between workwear and Ivy-styled clothing.
The company was originally founded as Honesdale manufacturing in 1923 by Henry I. Siegel. It specialized in workwear, including denim, and was a contract manufacturer for JC Penny and Montgomery Ward. The firm was headquartered in New York with manufacturing facilities in Tennessee. HIS continued its contract work through World War II, making field jackets for the war effort.
Upon Siegel’s death in 1949, his son Jesse, who was only 19 years old, took control of the company. A graduate of Columbia, Jesse Siegel decided to move the company into the fashion realm by making modifications to its existing lines. Among other things, he is credited with putting a buckle on the back of khakis, which started a campus fad.
In 1956 Siegel introduced the company’s first house brand. It was called h.i.s. and named after his father. The brand targeted the middle-market teenager and college student, and was very successful tapping postwar Baby Boomers. The company went from $9 million in sales 1949 to $18 million in 1956, and b 1964 the company was doing $42 million a year in sales.
The h.i.s product line included odd trousers, shorts, sportcoats and suits. As a mass-market Ivy-inspired brand, h.i.s was sold in stores like Irv Lewis, Morris’, and The Squire Shop in Ithaca, New York. A 1964 joint advertisement for the later two Cornell outfitters claimed, “They provide the classics — the ‘bread and butter’ — the uniform items in the curricula of college clothes.”
According to the advertisement, those other brands included Botany 500, Hathaway shirts, Keds, Alder socks, Pendleton and Viyella. — CHRISTOPHER SHARP (Continue)