The Aristocrat of Topcoats: Boyer on the Polo Coat

Mon 11 Jan 2010 - Filed under: 1980s,Clothes,Historic Texts — Christian
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This year marks the 25th anniversary of one of the most erudite and entertaining tomes on menswear: G. Bruce Boyer’s “Elegance.”

Ivy-Style continues its efforts to digitize Boyer’s work for the Internet and a new generation of readers. This latest offering addresses the polo coat, the so-called “aristocrat of topcoats.”

Below are some words of reflection submitted by Boyer, followed by the article, which originally appeared in the July, 1981 issue of Town & Country.

* * *

I’ve been reading the latest editions of the fashion mags — as a professional critic, I’m desperate for any laughs I can get — and have noticed that the in fashion places this season seem to be either Kenya or India. I can’t speak for Kenya, but the literature is full of fashion that’s come out of the British Raj.

I once actually met a grandson of the Maharajah of Jodhpur — he was wearing a diamond on a chain around neck, and the stone was about the size of a small ice cube — and I asked him about jodhpurs. “The British stole that idea from my grandfather,” he pointedly said. The conversation drifted a bit after that.

But the sartorial heritage of that Indian-invented game of polo is still very much around, even when it comes to us from the British: the buttondown collar, chukka boots, the cummerbund, the polo shirt, and of course the polo coat.

The camel hair coat has changed its style a bit over the years, yet remains a classic of the genre. Brooks Brothers has been stocking them forever, or at least since the early years of the 20th century, and Ralph Lauren’s version (see example above) with flapped chest pocket is an authentic copy [note to CC: I know this sounds contradictory, but leave it in anyway] of one worn by the Duke of Windsor himself.

It looks to be with us for many years to come, the gods and camels willing. (Continue)

Secrets of Sprezzatura: The Messed-Up Shirt Collar

Sat 31 Oct 2009 - Filed under: 1980s,Clothes,Film — Christian
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Do your outfits look stiff and contrived? Do you have a tendency to wear matching pants and saddle shoes?

What you need is a dash of sprezzatura — deliberately calculated nonchalance — to give yourself a more devil-may-care, deshabille appearance.

Here’s a quick fix in three easy steps:

1) When you launder an oxford-cloth buttondown, keep the collar buttoned. As the shirt gets knocked around in the wash, then flutters in the autumn wind as it hangs on the clothesline, the back of the collar will inevitably come out of alignment.

2) Remove dry shirt from clothesline. Don’t iron it. Don’t fix the collar.

3) Put the shirt on and continue through your day as normal, completely oblivious — or at least feigning to be — of your messed-up shirt collar.

Image courtesy of the 1988 film “Mystic Pizza,” in which a married Yalie architect seduces his babysitter with wine, Mozart, and charmingly disheveled shirt collar. — CC

 

Prep Membership Card: The LL Bean Norwegian Sweater

Sat 17 Oct 2009 - Filed under: 1980s,1990-present,Clothes — Christian
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In the 1980s, I would stroll through the oak grove of my small college campus clad in a well worn pair of chinos, cream-colored turtleneck, a pink Brooks oxford and an LL Bean Norwegian Sweater. I was confident in believing I had found the perfect sweater that would be around forever.

Boy was I wrong.

November 1 will see the long-awaited return of the LL Bean Norwegian Sweater after hiatus of nearly two decades. Though not yet listed on the LL Bean website, you can place a telephone order for the sweater now.

Wildly popular in the ’70s and ’80s, the past 18 years have not been good to this preppy icon. In the wake of increased apparel outsourcing, the once authentically Norwegian sweater began being made in China. This sino-faux sweater received a chilly reception, and in one of the trade’s most creative euphuisms, Bean decided to let the sweater “rest.”

Long favored by Norwegian fishermen, the iconic blue with white birds-eye pattern is back and better then ever. Bean has returned to the original supplier, which has been producing traditional Norwegian knitwear for over 70 years from a small, idyllic island factory. The sweater is priced at $129.00 and is available in two models: the original crewneck and a 1/4 zip-neck. The zip sweater will be available through Bean’s retail stores and is designed to appeal to those more accustomed to performance fleece then staid wool.

First introduced in 1965, the Norwegian Sweater earned the devotion of outdoor enthusiasts. The original model was 80 percent unscoured wool for water repellency and 20 percent rayon for strength. The new models are 100% wool. The whole process from farm to factory has improved; advancements in wool and knitting technologies allow the all wool sweater to be stronger, water repellent and retain its shape This change from the original sweater should be good news to devotees of traditional clothing who are largely synthetic-fiber phobic.

“The nearest thing to a prep membership card,” is how Lisa Birnbach describes the Norwegian Sweater in  “The Official Preppy Handbook.” The unisex sweater was integral to the preppy layering scheme, and the shoulders were supposed to be dirty as evidence of the deviant social practice of “gatoring.” Birnbach quietly warned against similar outdoorsy models, and encouraged readers to source exclusively from LL Bean. Three photographs, one illustration, and a handful of references in her best-selling tome solidified the Norwegian Sweater as a campus favorite and helped drive sales throughout the ’80s.

Growing up in 70’s the sweater was “the first LL Bean item I wanted,” says project manager Don Rogers, who spearheaded the sweater’s return. Its rebirth reflects a growing interest in American heritage brands, he says. “Now is the right time for the reintroduction of the sweater.” — CHRISTOPHER SHARP

Christopher Sharp lives in upstate New York. He is a former community-newspaper reporter who has served in the Navy Reserve for over 20 years, currently supporting the Global War on Terror.

 

Slipping Into Something More Comfortable

Tue 18 Aug 2009 - Filed under: 1980s,Historic Texts — Christian
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This is the second in our efforts to digitize the work of G. Bruce Boyer, whose many fine articles on menswear have not yet found their way onto the Internet. Titled simply “Loafers,” this piece originally appeared in the July, 1982 issue of Town & Country, and was collected in Boyer’s 1985 book “Elegance.”

Boyer was kind enough to provide a few remarks on the piece by way of introduction; they are followed by “Loafers” further below.

It’s been almost a quarter century since this piece was published in “Elegance,” and I read it again with mixed emotions. On the happy side, I think the broad idea of comfort’s influence — footwear serving as a synecdoche — is seen to be truer now than ever. On the less happy side, comfort’s influence seems now to be mostly the only influence.

Not quite true because the overriding rule of fashion is that we will continue to dress like those with whom we wish to be associated. But then of course, why shouldn’t comfort be the overriding concern? The answer to that question is another paper I’d like to present to The Academy of Arts & Sciences some day.

I still think “That Touch of Mink” made a sartorially interesting point, and that Kipling is more right than ever about 49-year-old women. I haven’t seen any stats about what dress shoe is the most popular, but I would still put my money on the slip-on. Will men really turn completely to those hyper-designed sports shoes, even when produced in black leather or dark suede? Most shoes are now made of synthetics.

What continues to surprise me, though, is how conservative we continue to be in our dress, how slowly we change. The style of business dress has changed only minutely in over a century. Only the Medieval cloak seems to have had such a track record in the past 800 years or so of male attire. When we think of all the incredible, unimagined inventions within the suit’s history — radio and TV, telephone, airplanes and cars, computers, organ transplants, superconductors, outer space travel, and on and on — how is it that men are still wearing the same style jackets and trousers and shoes and shirts and neckwear they did over a hundred years ago?

In so thoroughly materialistic a world, it’s intriguing to think that we continue to be intimately surrounded by objects of such incredible symbolic worth.

Me? I’m still wearing my Alden cordovan penny loafers, model #986. — G. BRUCE BOYER (Continue)

 

Dirty Rotten Scoundrel

Sun 10 May 2009 - Filed under: 1960s,1980s,Film — Christian
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Every so often Hollywood makes a film that perfectly crystallizes the inversion of values that has taken place in America since the 1960s. “Dirty Dancing” —  made in 1987 but set in 1963 — perfectly illustrates the newfound bias against clean-cut, Ivy-type guys who wear madras jackets.

Set at a summer resort in New York’s Catskill Mountains, the movie is a powerful piece of countercultural propaganda that, through the medium of cable television, repeatedly brainwashes American women into thinking that uneducated hunks in leather jackets are preferable to college boys in oxford-cloth buttondowns.

Johnny, played by Patrick Swayze, is poor and dresses in all black. He is the film’s hero. Robbie (pictured) wears white bucks and tennis sweaters. He is the film’s villain.

Robbie is a Yale med student working a summer job at the resort. Evidently planning to study gynecology, Robbie has no less than three dalliances during the course of the film.

While Robbie has the collegiate look, he’s no rich kid: Not only is he forced to work as a waiter to pay for med school, his sense of superiority, unsupported by high birth, must seek its justification in the novels of Ayn Rand. At one point Robbie spouts a cynical remark about the superiority of the select few, then whips out a tattered copy of “The Fountainhead.” He’s promptly called a sleazebag.

At the end of the film the resort owner laments how the business has survived two World Wars and the Great Depression, but that he isn’t sure he’ll make it through the ’60s. “It all seems to be ending,” he says. “You think kids want to come with their parents and take foxtrot lessons?” — CC

 

Bruce Almighty

Tue 3 Mar 2009 - Filed under: 1950s,1960s,1970s,1980s,1990-present,Top Drawer — Christian
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Over the past several decades, G. Bruce Boyer has distinguished himself as one of the most erudite writers ever to tackle the subject of menswear.

Born in 1941, he came of age at the Ivy League Look’s height in popularity. A graduate of Moravian, the fifth-oldest college in the US, Boyer went on to do graduate work at Lehigh University and taught literature for eight years at Moravian and DeSales University. He has lived most of his life in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.

Boyer’s writing career began in 1973 with an article about the Duke of Windsor, penned shortly after the British royal’s death. Boyer submitted the story to Town & Country, and soon became the magazine’s men’s fashion writer. He has since written numerous books, most recently “Fred Astaire Style” and the forthcoming “Black Tie.”

Ivy-Style founder Christian Chensvold recently spoke with Boyer about the heyday of the Ivy League Look, its abrupt end, the sprezzatura of the WASP establishment, and why he doesn’t spend much time in online forums.

IS: You entered college in 1959. What were the typical items of clothing you wore at the time?

BB: A button-down shirt in the traditional colors: white, blue, pink, yellow or striped, a shetland crewneck, khakis and Weejuns. The other thing was argyle socks, and in the summer madras everything. For tailored clothing, the ideal would have been a navy single-breasted blazer, a Harris Tweed jacket, a gray flannel suit, and a tan poplin suit or seersucker. That was the standard stuff.

IS: Madras quickly leads us to what’s known as the Go-To-Hell look. How much of that do you remember?

BB: I remember that stuff from the early ’60s. I started to go to New York for shopping and my favorite store was Chipp. That’s where I saw the patch madras and tweed, even before Brooks. Because Chipp is gone now, people tend to forget them. But they were probably the most interesting and most important and the best of Ivy League clothing stores. They were always a little more expensive, too. If Brooks introduced the shetland to this country, it was Chipp that promoted the wild colors like coral, hot pink and lemon yellow. I think I had a cable-knit shetland in bright raspberry in the ’60s. Chipp also did all of the wonderful, wild tweeds: You’d get a tan herringbone with a lilac windowplane overplaid.

I also remember going to Langrock in Princeton, which was for me the greatest campus shop that ever existed. By the late ’60s, the whole town of Princeton was divided into two kinds of people: It was either tweedy professors or freaky kids. It was either guys in Harris Tweed suits, tortoiseshell glasses and bow ties, or kids in tie-dye and jeans. Yet everyone got along.

IS: The OCBD-shetland-khakis-Weejuns-argyles look is considered a uniform today, as apparently it was then. In hindsight we seem to have conflicting images of the style: On the one hand everyone wore the same basic things, but on the other hand, as you pointed out with Chipp, there was tremendous variety.

BB: I think the variety came not so much from the items within the genre, but from color. It depended on how out-there you wanted to be. On the one hand there was a big interest in drab colors. Olive green was a huge color. I remember having an olive tweed three-piece suit. A lot of guys wore olive or gray flannel and brightened it up with a rep tie, a pink button-down and argyles. But then there were more guys of a more dandyish bent who were really out-there with the lime-green shetlands and animal corduroy trousers in bright orange, and bright plaid sport jackets. You got a beat on a guy from his sense of color more than anything. Some guys were more quiet and conservative, and others were more out-there. Some guys looked more like bankers, and others like they spent their lives on the golf course, but they were wearing the same clothing. (Continue)

 
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