From Peasantry To Palm Beach: The Story Of The Bass Weejun

Mon 1 Apr 2013 - Filed under: 1920s-'40s,Top Drawer — Christian
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weejunsIn the history of the Ivy League Look, Arnold Gingrich should receive honorable mention status solely based on his consideration of naming his fledgling magazine Town and Campus. He chose, however, to name it Esquire, and if that was were the story ended it would not be enough to warrant the virtual ink on this page. But Gringrich’s true contribution to Ivy is the nearly forgotten tale of his involvement in the launch of the Bass Weejun.

For much of the 20th century, American fashion was a top-down affair. Fashions were observed in places like Palm Beach, Newport, and swank continental resort towns, and reported in publications like Apparel Arts and Esquire. This reporting was accompanied by the artistic rendering of Lawrence Fellows and Leslie Salberg, whose illustrated men were bronzed and handsome. Whether on the beach or in the club these figures sailed through life with beautiful raiment and broad smiles that never betrayed a hint of the Great Depression. Theses images of the good life gave the merchant a look to sell and offered the customer a little respite in the same way their less-clothes-conscious contemporaries would flock to the movies for a dose of escapism.

If the average American was expected to ape the style of his social betters, the moneyed vagabonds that set the trends were completely unshackled. They sourced with impunity from vendors ranging from the carriage trade to local crofters. These style setters were inspired by both high and low culture and blended them effortlessly. They seemed to always incorporate part of the native kit wherever they traveled. Notable items brought back to the States included Aran knits, Breton red sailing trousers and striped jersey top, espadrilles and huarache sandals. In the modern vernacular it could be said that they were appropriating workwear to suit a life of leisure. The clothes of the indigenous fisherman, coal miners and peasants found a whole new appreciative market, and in the march to popular acceptance would travel far both in terms of geography and intended use.

The same trajectory can be seen in the story of the Weejun. In the 19th century, English sportsman began flocking to Norway to fish salmon. An especially popular fishing destination, according to J.P. Myhre, a bespoke shoemaker in Norway, was the Valley of Aurland situated in Sognefjorden. Myhre relates that by the dawn of the 2oth century these “Lords of Salmon” had taken to wearing a locally crafted slipon called a teser. These Norwegian peasant shoes would have remained the private vice of the well heeled angler, but forces were in place by 1935 that would shatter the shoes’ amenity.

Esquire representatives first saw the shoes at European resorts, followed by Palm Beach in the 1935/36 winter season. The shoes seen in Palm Beach were true Norwegian shoes sourced from two London shops; at the time there was no American maker of the shoe.

The tale of exactly how the Weejun came to be is still a little murky and has hints of sartorial skulduggery. It’s clear that Esquire saw the shoes in 1935; perhaps sensing their potential, Esquire partnered with the store Rogers Peet, which agreed to carry the as-yet-unproduced shoe. Esquire and Rogers Peet then commissioned Bass to make the Weejun. (Continue)

The Brooks Brothers Questionnaire

Mon 18 Mar 2013 - Filed under: Top Drawer — Christian
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In the history of the Ivy League Look, Brooks Brothers takes center stage. The brand has changed over the years, but so has society and the way men dress.

In the interest of research and to better understand this website’s readership, its perception of the Brooks Brothers brand, and its shopping habits at the retailer, Ivy-Style.com kindly asks you to respond to the following questions.

Question 1
Compared to the past, the quality at Brooks Brothers:
(Continue)

 

Reader Poll: How Ivy Are You?

Sat 2 Mar 2013 - Filed under: Top Drawer — Christian
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ivyjack2

How Ivy are you? Or rather, how Ivy is your wardrobe? Do you take the heyday as your guide and reject any items not part of the genre during the ’50s and ’60s?

Or do you simply enjoy reading about the heyday and looking at vintage photos, but dress with a contemporary sensibility?

Recently I left a comment suggesting that only those who live outside America and for whom Ivy is foreign and exotic would attempt to dress according to the dictates of Ivy genre parameters from 50 years ago.

Sure enough, soon thereafter I received an email from a young man in Poland who’s fascinated with the Ivy League Look yet has pangs of conscience over the urge to replicate it:

It’s also interesting that you reminded me of foreigners being the only ones that bother about Ivy style rules. I’ve noticed that, yet still cannot free myself from trying to act by the book.

Then yesterday reader “DCG” left this comment on the site:

I think there’s an interesting poll somewhere here measuring how many readers wear strictly vintage or exact replica ’50s-’60s Ivy League clothes versus how many incorporate such items into an otherwise modern wardrobe.

Actually no such poll existed, but it does now. (Continue)

 

Arts of Asia: A Japanese Ivy Illustration Gallery

Mon 18 Feb 2013 - Filed under: Historic Images,Top Drawer — Christian
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In addition to meticulously researched vintage reproductions, plus the regular dispatching of photographers and reporters to capture American collegiate style in its native habitat, the Japanese have long used illustration as a way of expressing their fervent admiration of Ivy style. From stark line drawings to realistic paintings and silly cartoons, the Japanese continue to honor the art of fashion illustration decades after the American media abandoned it.

For the rest of this week I’ll be trickling out an assortment of Japanese “trad” images from Free & Easy and other sources. To avoid visual overload, I’ll present five or so per day. But for Internet archive purposes, I’ll add them all to this one post so there will be a single URL for future access. — CHRISTIAN CHENSVOLD

Updated 2/18/13

(Continue)

 

The Rise And Fall Of The Ivy League Look

Mon 7 Jan 2013 - Filed under: Top Drawer — Christian
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On October 1st something began bubbling in my subconscious. Ivy Style had reached its four-year anniversary, the MFIT exhibit had recently opened, and the accompanying book had been published.

I found that after four years of trying to look at this topic as objectively as possible, and talking to the men who were actually there during the heyday — Richard Press, Bruce Boyer, Charlie Davidson and Paul Winston — something unanswered remained.

I started thinking about Brooks Brothers and the college campus, which was chosen as the focal point of the MFIT exhibit, wondering about the connection between these two things. I soon found myself asking the most fundamental question: How do we explain how the Ivy League Look came about?

It’s easy to make generalizations, but hard to precisely articulate.

I next began thinking about the interplay between clothiers and their customers, focusing on the why as much as the what. Buttondown oxfords, plain-front trousers with cuffs, rep and knit ties — these are the whats, but what are the whys behind them? The answer couldn’t be simply “because that’s what Brooks Brothers sold,” when Brooks Brothers sold so much more that never became part of the Ivy League Look.

I telephoned Charlie Davidson and told him I was working on a piece though wasn’t sure where it was going. I started by asking him, “What portion of the Ivy League Look comes from Brooks Brothers, and what comes from the culture of young men on campus?” When Charlie, who’s been selling these clothes since 1948, responded, “That’s a good question,” I knew I was on to something.

The following essay is the result of my investigation. What began as an attempt to articulate Ivy’s origins grew into an overview about the whole broad arc of Ivy, how it codified and how it shattered into the complex “post-Ivy” era we’re in today.

In it I will argue:

• The Ivy League Look was as much about styling as the ingredients. And while the ingredients were relatively fixed and admitted new items slowly, the styling came from the campus and was always in a state of flux.

• It was the casual nature of the college environment and the importance of dressing down that led men in the 1930s to prefer rougher, casual fabrics — oxford cloth shirts, brushed Shetland sweaters, Harris Tweed jackets, flannel trousers — that has been the standard of good, understated taste for men on the East Coast ever since.

• The Ivy League Look included clothes for every occasion, from resort to formalwear, from city to country. However, the country element influenced the city far more than the other way around, and remains the most lasting influence of the genre.

• The Ivy League Look can be said to go through the stages of birth, maturity and decline, corresponding to specific points on a timeline.

• Once the look in its original, purist form ceased to be fashionable on campus, it ceased to be fashionable in society as a whole.

This lengthy piece will be presented throughout the week in five parts. New installments will be added at the bottom to preserve one cohesive post and comment thread.  — CC

• • •

The Rise And Fall Of The Ivy League Look
By Christian Chensvold

Part One: The Rise

In the late 1930s a new shoe became an instant hit on the Yale campus. First seen in Palm Beach in 1936, the “Weejun” penny loafer by GH Bass & Co. was immediately embraced by the students of New Haven. By 1940, the shoe store Barrie Limited was advertising its Horween penny loafers in the Yale Daily News, saying the shoe had “taken the university by storm.” (Continue)

 

Young Man With A Horn

Tue 23 Oct 2012 - Filed under: 1990-present,Clothes,Jazz,Top Drawer — Christian
Comments (76)

He was a prep-school dropout
From the Donegal Mist Academy,
Fortune’s fool who dared to love
The girl forbidden to everybody. (Continue)

 

A League Of His Own: The Andover Shop’s Charlie Davidson

Mon 6 Aug 2012 - Filed under: Personae,Top Drawer — Christian
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A League Of His Own: His aloof demeanor may not be that of a man locked in the groove, but Charlie Davidson has spent seven decades making Ivy Leaguers and his very own jazz heroes “hip to my kinda clothes.”

By Christian Chensvold
From The Rake, issue 23 (click here for PDF)

Half a century ago, a certain social set really had its priorities in order. Life’s pursuits ran something like this: Jazz, tennis, newspapers, Yankees vs. Red Socks, Newport and Nantucket, sailing, contemporary literature, prize fights, prep schools and the Ivy League, cigarettes and cocktails, college football, Broadway shows, and New York parties that blended socialites with beatniks.

Somewhere in this cross between Old Money and the creative class, between college town and metropolis, between traditional and cool, lies what Charlie Davidson calls “my kinda clothes.” And what kind of threads are these? Multus ne multus, English country attire with an American twist and a guiding spirit of jazz-hip. This, after all, is the man who dressed Miles Davis in 1954 for the style chameleon’s Ivy League phase.

That midcentury date suggest Davidson is at the age when one is either long forgotten or a living legend. At 86, Charlie — as everyone knows him — is incomparably the latter, the last of a certain breed of American haberdasher from an age more golden than ours. He is the epitome of “old school,” and that old school, founded in 1661, is Harvard.

Since 1953 Charlie has operated The Andover Shop in Harvard Square, the off-campus commercial center of the distinguished university in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Along with his original and still-extant shop, founded in 1948 in nearby Andover (where it serves the elite Phillips Academy Andover prep school), Charlie has been dressing students and faculty in tweed jackets and penny loafers since before the Ivy League Look’s 1950s heyday. The entire Anglo-American look of chinos and buttondowns, herringbone jackets and Shetland sweaters, argyle socks and tassel loafers that Ralph Lauren sells around the world, Charlie Davidson has been selling since before it was popular the first time around.

“Charlie is the last of the greats of the natural-shoulder business, back when it was the power elite who were wearing that stuff,” says bespoke clothier and menswear historian Alan Flusser. “Charlie goes back when it was just for prep school and college students in the Northeast, and remains as the lone standard bearer of East Coast/elitist-trad male style. His eye for colors and materials is first-rate, and he is masterful in his interpretation of conservative New England style. He has been able to make a living selling his vision of classic American traditional style longer than any other retailer. This speaks to Charlie as much as a force of nature as well as a force of personality.”

The Andover Shop is certainly an unlikely style mecca. It’s not on Madison Avenue in the heart of Midtown Manhattan, but in a college town adjacent to the sartorially reserved city of Boston. The shop is tiny and merchandise is spare and presented without fuss. But the advanced sartorialist will immediately notice the copious bolts of fabric that line the wall, a dizzying variety of rare English cloth that Charlie has accumulated over the decades. The off-the-rack house cut is a two-button jacket with an undarted front, while bespoke services start at a modest $2,500, well within the limits of Yankee frugality.

But to stimulate Charlie’s enthusiasm — to get him to bust out the really rare stuff — one must demonstrate genuine interest in clothes and a certain esprit. With his well known aloofness, some shy customers feel like commissioning a suit from Charlie Davidson is like going to an audition. “He’s a brilliant designer and an excellent merchandiser, but a very private individual,” says Richard Press, grandson of the founder of rival Ivy League haberdasher J. Press. “I always felt that The Andover Shop was a very private commercial enterprise. It served a fairly narrow range of people who met Charlie’s very difficult credentials of acceptability. He didn’t seem to welcome customers he didn’t feel belonged at The Andover Shop. He’s a vastly entertaining individual, but does not suffer fools lightly. ”

In a 1995 article for Atlantic Monthly, John D. Spooner shares an anecdote about Charlie’s lackadaisical attitude when it comes to serving unknown customers. Seems one day a wealthy businessman came into The Andover Shop and ordered three suits. Charlie said him they would be ready in a month. “After five weeks,” writes Spooner, “the customer, whose last name was Zachary, called to inquire after his suits. ‘Not quite yet,’ Charlie said. Another two weeks went by and Zachary was put off again. Charlie had not made the suits. ‘He’ll get the message,’ Charlie told me. ‘I am not sure I like the cut of his jib.’ Four weeks more and Zachary called, irate. ‘What the hell do you do over there?’ he asked, ‘make the clothes alphabetically?’ After hearing this line Charlie made the suits. Zachary had passed the test.”

When it comes to style, Charlie reserves his greatest appreciation for everyday men with individual panache (what he and writer friend George Frazier would call duende, or a kind of magnetic charisma), not ambulatory mannequins dressed by designers — or tailors, for that matter. “The customer knows more about style and taste than the merchant,” he avows. What he notices most in a well dressed man is the whole picture, “from his haircut to his shoelaces,” which suggests something deeper, a core competence in the art of dressing and exquisite taste. Charlie scoffs at curriculum-based dressers punctiliously concerned with rules and genre perimeters. Sophisticated dressers, he says, see a wide horizon beyond buttondowns and striped ties. “Charlie has a larger sartorial vocabulary than the died-in-the-wool traditionalist,” says Paul Winston, whose family ran rival trad clothier Chipp. And while he’s the oldest practicing torch-bearer of the Ivy League Look, Charlie is strongly opposed to “looking like a ’50s caricature,” and cryptically calls Ivy style more of an attitude than a wardrobe. “You know a preppy,” he says drily, “as soon as he walks in.”

Charlie Davidson was the right man in the right place at the right time, he asserts, and the result has been a life so satisfying that he wouldn’t even consider retiring. “It’s a party all day long,” he says, “just being enthralled by the people who walk in the door.” Though his father had been a Texas farmer, Charlie grew up in Andover and attended the noted prep school. That he would eventually found a shop with strong ties to the school is rather magnanimous, considering he was kicked out (that’s right: the greatest preppy clothier was a prep-school dropout). After serving in World War II Charlie spent one semester at Bowdoin College in Maine, then worked for J. Press in New Haven, Connecticut, serving the Yale community. Whereas Brooks Brothers, which traveled frequently to prep schools and colleges, provided the upstanding establishment look, J. Press was more youthful, Charlie says, “adding a little more stylistically to get kids away from their father’s clothes.” During his brief stint with Press, Charlie sold a hat to Gregory Peck that the actor wore in the film “Gentlemen’s Agreement” (Peck doffs it in one scene, revealing the J. Press logo). Shortly thereafter Charlie opened The Andover Shop in 1948 at the age of 22.

“It was the perfect moment,” Charlie recalls. He hosted trunk shows at such leading prep schools at Groton, St. Mark’s and St. Paul where, because of his youth and cool attitude, he became better known than the traveling reps from the bigger stores. Five years later he opened the second shop in Harvard Square, where Charlie found himself at an outpost through which countless 20th-century luminaries would pass through on visits to the famed university. “Harvard Square is the epicenter of the universe,” he says. “The whole world goes right by and comes in here.” Former President George HW Bush was a former classmate and Andover Shop patron who inquired about Charlie all his life, and when African-American author Ralph Ellison received an honorary degree from Harvard, Charlie Davidson was his guest.

A jazz fan since he was a teenager, Charlie went on to befriend boyhood crushes such as Billie Holiday and Anita O’Day. And in the mid-‘50s, when campus concerts became popular and jazz musicians began taking style cues from their audience, Charlie provided clothing to such jazz greats as Chet Baker, Stan Getz, Paul Desmond, Gerry Mulligan and The Modern Jazz Quartet, and became lifelong friends of legendary producers (and Newport Jazz Festival founders) George Wein and Charles Bourgeois. Recalling a night with Charlie hearing Bobby Short at New York’s Carlyle Hotel, Rake contributing editor G. Bruce Boyer says the entertainer rushed over to give Charlie a hug, while the band waved at him as though he was their favorite uncle. “I share Charlie’s love of jazz,” Boyer says, “but envy him because he actually knew so many great artists, and they loved him.”

Adds Richard Press, “Charlie brought jazz musicians within the boundary of establishment style but still let them express themselves individually.” Charlie also became the chief clothing consultant — and closest friend — of George Frazier, Esquire’s witty style columnist and author of the seminal essay “The Art of Wearing Clothes,” who was said to have developed his own understated yet dapper style — chalk-striped flannel suit, pink oxford buttondown, navy dot tie and boutonniere — under Charlie’s tutelage. “Charlie is special,” notes Paul Winston, “in part for having outlived the very legends he’s dressed.”

Even as an octogenarian Charlie reamins “mad for clothes,” passing hand-me-downs to his tailor and acquiring new things with delight. “I love getting something new,” he says, “while my old clothes are like old friends.” Some things never change, including, apparently, the world around him. When you’ve turned your vocation into your own private gentleman’s club with yourself as grand pooh-bah, there’s something to be said for having rose-colored blinders on. “People say how much Harvard Square has changed,” says Charlie, “but I haven’t noticed. To me nothing’s changed. The ties get wider, than they get narrower — that’s it.”

Notoriously press shy, it took some convincing for Charlie to talk to The Rake, (though that was nothing compared to getting him to sit for the camera). His reasons for reticence are myriad, but they partly come down to the ephemeral nature of style, which is something you ultimately have to feel, not notate by chiseling into a block of marble. “I hate giving interviews because by next week I’ll change everything I said,” Charlie sighs. “That’s why I can’t read articles about me. I’ll say, ‘I said that?’”

Photos by Tasha Bleu.

 
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