March Madras: Brooks, Press, RL, Gant, O’Connell’s & Ben Silver

Mon 12 Mar 2012 - Filed under: 1990-present,Clothes,Sport — Christian
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March Madras continues with this updated post with two more sartorial jump balls.

In the first, J. Press squares off against Gant.

Wearing an almost blinding uniform, J. Press offers a traditional madras sportcoat priced at $495. But shouldn’t this guy have graduated by now?

In contrast to Press’ perennial classic, Gant offers classic-with-a-twist. Its madras jacket comes with elbow patches, a slim fit and short length (according to the description), and a price tag of $675.

In the next bracket, it’s O’Connells versus Ben Silver:

O’Connell’s sends out this US-made $495 offering, but is its patchwork design and bright colors a buzzer-beating Hail Mary that will make you the king of the lawn party, or a flagrant foul against good taste?

In contrast, Ben Silver presents a muted olive jacket that would pair great with charcoal gabardines and a navy knit tie; it’s also also last year’s model and is half off its original $645 price. Good deal, but late to the game with 2012’s lineup.

So who takes home the trophy?

* * *

It may only be March, but summer’s favorite fabric is already available from the usual suspects. And given that choosing the right madras sportcoat isn’t easy, with the countless possibilities, you might as well start pondering now what you’ll want to wear come June.

In this madras toss-up, Brooks Brothers squares off against Ralph Lauren. Ralph’s team has the bigger payroll but lacks the height advantage (the coach is a size 37 short). Brooks is old school, while Polo is new. And then there’s the possibility that white men can’t jump.

On the green team, RL offers a handsome classic-with-a-twist jacket for a mere $325. It has a three-button stance and sloping shoulders, but given last year’s $1,200 madras jacket, could the quality of this one be more in line with this Division III American Living jacket?

On the blue team is a classic easy-to-match offering from Brooks; not yet online, according to the spring catalog the jacket is priced at $398. The buttons are white instead of RL’s gray, and the jacket is also three-button and undarted. But are the working buttonholes a slam dunk or technical foul?

Sound off and let us know who wins this sartorial jump ball. — CHRISTIAN CHENSVOLD

On The Tea: Cold Weather Golf Gear

Sat 3 Dec 2011 - Filed under: Clothes,Sport — Christian
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Golfing in December requires a thermos full of Prince of Wales tea and several layers of clothing. Here’s how I do it:

Rugby shawl-collared pullover
Polo Ralph Lauren polo shirt
Lands’ End jersey turtleneck
Lands’ End flannel-lined cords
Tweed cap
Herringbone gloves
Brooks Brothers engine-turned belt
Etonic white saddle golf shoes in Harris Tweed bag
Classic Specs’ Beaumont sunglasses
Peugeot watch on alligator band
Bewlay pipe
Astley’s No. 44 blend tobacco
Callaway Hickory Stick lob wedge

Socks and underwear not pictured. Duvet from Ralph Lauren’s Modern Duke collection. Photographed in glorious 2.0 megapixels with a 2004 Canon PowerShot. — CC


What A Catch: Vassar Versus Ivies Touch Football

Thu 24 Nov 2011 - Filed under: 1960s,Sport — Christian
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“Vassar College’s touch football team today issued a challenge to the Kennedy family in Washington: play us,” announced The Poughkeepsie Journal in November 1962.

The reason for such sporting confidence? In the fall of that year, Vassar students had formed the first all-female college touch football teams. With names like the Joss Jocks, Noyes Nymphs and the Senile Seniors, the good-natured teams started out by playing against each other for fun. However, in typical trailblazing Vassar fashion, football quickly became much more than a casual campus pastime. With no other female college teams to play against, they extended invitations to teams from neighbouring men’s schools, including Yale, Princeton and Siena, which led to some high-octane excitement, as students fought it out to be victors in the Vassar “Wash Bowl.”

The national press reveled in the prospect of Vassar women making a foray into the heart of typically masculine college sports. Although Vassar students were no strangers to press scrutiny, newspapers became especially enthralled by this latest sporting development, and their coverage ranged from the amused — with The New York Times observing that “Some of the dramatic highlights included huddles that resembled kaffeeklatsches” — to the mildly impressed, as The Philadelphia News reported: “Outstanding for the girls from Poughkeepsie was the speedy Dee Shell, who was a veritable reindeer in the flanker position.”

Perhaps inevitably, much of the press preferred to simply report sexist commentary and offensive jokes, with headlines like, “Hold That Line! Hold That Well-Built Line!” Articles were also quick to point out that the games were far from dangerous, as the girls could not actually be tackled, rather, they tucked a sock into the back pocket of their blue jeans and if the opponent retrieved the sock, they were tackled. Vassar players quickly realized however, that they had a much greater chance of winning if they tucked the socks deeper and deeper into their pockets, or swapped the sock to different sides constantly throughout the game, leaving their Yale or Princeton opponents in despair.

The rules may have been adapted to give the Vassar students an advantage, including being allowed more players and getting more points for touchdowns, but there was one aspect of the game that was firmly on a level playing field: the styles being worn. Photographs of Vassar students dressed in dirty denim cut-offs, Bermuda shorts, Capri pants, VC sweatshirts, crew neck sweaters and sneakers, being chased by men in equally casual garb, found their way into newspapers across the country.

The Kennedys may have become synonymous with idyllic touch football games on their estate at Cape Cod, all pastel polo shirts and perfectly rolled chinos, but Vassar girls and their opponents cultivated their own mode of football fashion that was equally appealing. The school spirit sweaters, comfy chinos and well worn denim all play an important part in that effortless, classic Ivy League and Seven Sisters uniform of the early 1960s. Perhaps the best accessory for this casual style was a rousing rendition of the chant penned by the New York Times in commemoration of Vassar’s touch football prowess: “Watch the Runner, Watch the Passer, Let’s Go Team, Let’s Go Vassar.” — REBECCA C. TUITE

Rebecca C. Tuite is a writer and fashion historian based in London currently pursuing graduate studies at University of the Arts. Her research is focused on collegiate American fashion, including the construction of the Vassar Girl style as a key archetype of American fashion and womanhood in 1950s American media. She completed her undergraduate studies at the University of Exeter and Vassar College.


Fore In Hand: How I Learned To Golf At Brooks Brothers

Sun 9 Oct 2011 - Filed under: Sport — Christian
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Brooks Brothers’ Madison Avenue flagship is a great place to pick up a striped tie. It’s also a great place to learn the world’s most difficult sport.

I’ve played a lot of sports in my life — probably 15 or so if you count things like kayaking and mountain biking. Fencing, badminton and swing dancing (which is sort of sportlike) were the biggest obsessions. Tennis, table tennis and surfing less so. I learn quickly, and after attaining a certain superficial mastery move on to something else. It comes with being a Sagittarius: shooting arrows until you hit the target, then galloping off in search of a new one. It may seem like fickleness, but it’s really just a sense of adventure and the desire to experience as much of life as possible.

In every case I never would have predicted the new obsession, and that goes especially for the latest one: golf.

I remember being age 11 and hitting a hole-in-one on a miniature golf course while on a family vacation. My father gave me a strage look, perhaps wondering if there was some untapped talent inside of me. But it was never encouraged, and it wasn’t until age 25 that I first tried to hit a golf ball.

I was doing a golf-related story for a magazine and was interviewing some guys at a course. They suggested I go to the range and try hitting some balls. I spent 15 minutes unable to get a single ball into the air. I quit with scoffing indifference, convinced the sport was a combination of impossible and impossibly boring.

Fast forward 16 years to March of this year, when I visited Brooks Brothers’ newly remodeled third floor, where there is a $60,000 super high-tech golf simulator. I was encouraged to take a few swings, and Brooks’ PR director snapped this photo of my baseball-inspired finish:

I remained uninterested, but a couple of months later I began dating a woman who plays golf (her company also manufactures most of Brooks Brothers’ Chinese-made clothing — talk about sleeping with the enemy). The seed must have been planted in my head that golf was a possibility. After all, if she could do it, so could I. So one day, while browsing in Brooks, one of the hosts of the simulator encouraged me, carnival barker-style, to come up and take a few whacks. I ended up spending two hours learning the rudiments of golf, and went back for two more hours the following day.

It was July 13. Since then I’ve devoted myself completely to studying the sport, and this week, just shy of my third month, I played a full course for the first time. But let’s backtrack.

I started going to Brooks regularly. The guys who run the simulator are from Golf Manhattan, a simulator lounge in Midtown. The simulator is a large soft screen you hit balls into. A set of cameras record the speed, trajectory and spin of your ball flight. Instant physics calculations are made, and your shot is replicated in the virtual world of the computer-generated golf course. If you hit your shot long and straight, you make it to the green. If you slice it wide, you watch your ball fly into the lake. Putting is a little weird, as there’s no real hole to hit into, but overall it’s invaluable training for the process of advancing down a 500-yard fairway, changing clubs along the way to adapt to the decreasing yardage, and for working on your swing.

I also began watching the Golf Channel daily, downloaded a couple dozen instructional videos, read the breviary “Golf in the Kingdom,” and started bicycling to the driving range on Randall’s Island. Perhaps from finesse moves such as the parries in fencing, or the delicate underspin pushes in table tennis, controlled pitches from 100 yards or less came to me the most naturally, while driving off the tee was so difficult I resolved to just forget it for six months.

I bought nearly all my equipment on eBay. After being told there was no reason to get expensive clubs at the beginning stage, and that any set would do so long as they were designed to be forgiving, I scored a complete set on eBay for $30. Being a style guy with his priorities straight, I then proceeded to drop $150 on brown-and-white spectator-style golf shoes. Putter, sand wedge and pitching wedge, all in great condition, were found at a thrift shop for $8 each. The hickory-shaft Callaway lob wedge, pictured below, ran $60 on eBay.

Somewhere around the seven-week mark I put my skills to the test. The girlfriend and I rented the lounge at Golf Manhattan for two hours and played an 18-hole course on the simulator. Using a 5 iron as the longest club, I came out with a score of 77, which no one could believe. Granted there were a few mulligans (do-overs) when I made a total miss-hit, and gimme putts were probably set at a generous nine feet. Still, as we left the building, my girlfriend, who shot a 95, said, “You’re not a beginner anymore.” It was a great compliment but was also daunting, as I knew I now had no excuse not to learn to drive off the tee.

It wasn’t until the following day that I realized why I’d hit so well: I hadn’t thought about technique at all. I’d gone there to have fun and was only thinking about the yardage and my club selection. In other words, I was thinking about the game, not my feet, hips, shoulders, arms, wrists, takeback, follow-through, grip or the countless other things that go into swinging a golf club. In short, I was in the zone.

I found the zone again that same week the first time I went to play outdoors. In Corona Park in Queens, right next to the tennis center at Flushing Meadows, is a “pitch and putt” golf course consisting of 18 holes of 30 to 80 yards. Every hole is a par three, meaning you’ve got one shot to land on the green and two putts to get it in the hole. The first hole is 80 yards, and I made par on it — the first hole I’d ever played on a course not run by a computer. It was like catching my first wave on a surfboard.

But highs in golf rarely last. Soon the nightmare holes came: Pitches didn’t find the green, chips skated from one end of the green to the other, and it took four putts to get the damn ball in the hole. But I found the zone on the back nine, shooting a 29 against a par of 27. I was so focused it was as if my mind was willing the ball into the hole. I’ve played that short course another five times since then and have never been able to match the determination I had that first time out.

Golf is like that, and if you’re philosophically inclined, will constantly present itself as a metaphor for life. Unfortunate events can be miraculously reversed by a fantastic rescue shot. And of course attitude determines everything. Putt timidly and nervously and the ball will never find the hole. Visualize it going in, and maybe it will.

I learned that the first time the girlfriend and I decided to have some fun and play the miniature golf course at the Randall’s Island Golf Center. The course doesn’t have silly loop-the-loops, but real undulating greens that force you to pick your line carefully. On the first hole, my first shot ended up too close to the brick boundary to take a backswing, so I bounced it off the wall billiard-style into the hole. The girlfriend gave me a look of quizzical befuddlement. A couple of holes later the first hole-in-one came, and she started to look annoyed. When we came to a crazy U-shaped hole that went up and down with an extreme sideways bank, I visualized the shot going in (as I’d learned from an instructional video), and proceeded to knock it in.

Now the girlfriend looked at me like I’d just walked on water. I think she asked if I was from another planet. I told her to just go up and do it. She tried but made a lousy shot. I said try again and don’t let the ball hit the wall — hit it just enough to trickle down the middle. She proceeded to hole it, and jumped up and down ecstatically. She’d gone from disbeliever to believer in 30 seconds.

Golf requires a certain faith. How else could anyone believe it’s possible to hit a ball down a gopher hole from 500 yards away with a little f**cked-up stick, as Robin Williams hilariously described it, in just a few strokes? When I played a full course for the first time last week — at Kissena Park in Flushing — I went there expecting something amazing to happen, and it did. Despite slicing nearly every drive, I parred two holes (with a birdie putt rolling off the lip), and made bogeys (just one over par) on seven more.

When I first tried to hit golf balls 16 years ago, I concluded it was impossible. Now I know it’s not, and if you can rise to the challenge and handle the frustration of golf, you’ll feel like you can do anything. It’s also more affordable than you might think, and more fun than television would suggest. And if you work in Midtown Manhattan, you can stop by Brooks Brothers on your lunch hour and start learning to play.

I may sound like an evangelist, but a better term would be believer. Thank you Brooks Brothers and Golf Manhattan for showing me the way. — CHRISTIAN CHENSVOLD


On Point: Chens on Fencing for Ralph Lauren Magazine

Wed 31 Aug 2011 - Filed under: Sport — Christian
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My latest piece for Ralph Lauren Magazine is on the rise of American fencing. I spent about five years training up to five days a week and faced the national champion several times (the first time losing 5-0 in 45 seconds; the last time a more respectable 5-3).

At the time, US fencing was barely a blip on the international radar. But much has changed in the last 15 years, and now America routinely takes home medals in the sport.

While far more esoteric than squash, tennis, crew and sailing, fencing is nevertheless a recurring motif in WASPy books and films, and makes an appearance in “Catcher in the Rye,” “Dead Poets Society,” “The Great Gatsby,” and others.

Pictured above is my fencing master, Heizaburo Okawa, circa the mid-’60s, doing his signature counter-riposte in an impossible yoga-like contortion. The image was reproduced on t-shirts and posters that are familiar to many fencers. Okawa was the most famous fencer to come out of Japan, later immigrating to America, where he became national champion, and was recently inducted into the US Fencers Hall of Fame. — CHRISTIAN CHENSVOLD


Le Crocodile: How Lacoste Became The Preppy Polo of Choice

Wed 8 Jun 2011 - Filed under: 1970s,Clothes,Sport — Christian
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By 1980 it was crystal clear: “The sport shirt of choice is Lacoste,” declared The Official Preppy Handbook. “Only the all-cotton model will do, the one with cap sleeves with the ribbed edging, narrow collar and two-button placket (never buttoned).”

How did a French shirt with a crocodile for a logo become the go-to preppy polo? Our story both begins and ends with the initials RL.

French tennis great René Lacoste was an innovator on and off the court. With a smart rearcourt-based game, he won 10 major titles and made 51 Davis Cup appearances as part of a quartet of French tennis legends revered to this day as The Four Musketeers. After retiring he developed the first metal tennis racquet and tinkered with golf club designs. His New York Times obituary noted that he kept working on racquet patents and painting landscapes until his death in Southwest France in 1996. (Continue)

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