Color of Conquest: Bruce Boyer’s Ode to Olive

Olive and khaki were enormously popular colors for Ivy-styled civilian clothing directly after WW II, through the Korean Conflict (fighting ended in 1953), and a decade beyond.

We can only surmise that the wealth of well made but inexpensive military clothing on sale in Army & Navy stores throughout the country after 1945, as well as the personal clothing and uniforms worn by soldiers pouring into colleges on the GI Bill, were responsible for this popularity on campus. It’s staggering to think how much military surplus there was floating around back then.

Olive in all its various shadings from drab to dark was particularly favored in Shetland crewneck sweaters (with or without cables) and tweed sports jackets. The color also turned up in silk and challis neckwear and wool hosiery.

All of this is just prefatory to what I came here to tell you about: my absolute coup de high school.

I was a junior at the time and there was an important autumn school dance on the horizon. I was planning on wearing my prized — and only — sports jacket: a Harris Tweed gray and brown, district-checked one that had done such heroic duty on movie dates, record hops, parties, holiday events, and any other cool-weather social occasion that called for neckwear and a coat.

And then one Saturday morning, idly strolling through one of our local department stores on an errand for my mother, I saw it. In my time I’ve visited the best tailors Savile Row and Milan have to offer, and I can tell you that none of those experiences can match the thrill I got by what I saw hanging on a plain pipe rack in Hess Brothers Department Store in Allentown, PA when I was seventeen.

It was a three-piece, single-breasted suit in dark olive herringbone tweed, with a 3/2 button stance, narrow lapels, swelled seams, patch-and-flap pockets and hooked vent, paired with trim plain-front trousers with a belt in the back.

I went home as fast as I could and begged and pleaded with my mother. Finally she relented — may God bless her — on condition that it would have to serve as my graduation suit the following year. Of course I agreed — I would have agreed to be dipped in rancid yak blubber.

I got back to the store before closing time and the suit was still there. It fit beautifully. The tailor made the chalk marks for the sleeve and trouser adjustments and told me it would ready the next week. I was delirious. The blonde in my chemistry section would be at the dance, and this time I’d be prepared to make my move.

I went to that dance wearing my olive tweed suit, and I will say no further than I’ve had a great love and respect for the alluring qualities of olive tweed ever since. — G. BRUCE BOYER

25 Comments on "Color of Conquest: Bruce Boyer’s Ode to Olive"

  1. Ah, the famed Hess’s department store. I only have had the pleasure of seeing their Lancaster building, which has been converted into a boutique shop with condos above for all of my conscious life.

  2. Great story. Beautiful colour.

  3. Old School | April 12, 2011 at 7:05 am |

    As a college freshman in 1961, an olive corduroy was one of my first jackets. I remember wearing it with untipped wool challis ties in autumn tones which complemented the olive.

    Needless to say, the jacket had swelled seams, patch pockets with flaps and a hooked vent (maybe even a paisley lining).

    Am I mistaken in remembering that at the time, corduroy and tan were the only corduroy colors that were worn?

    The brand was “h.i.s.”, a brand I have never heard referred to, though at the time it was a known ivy league brand. (I insisit that “ivy league” had not yet been shortened to “ivy”). The logo (if my memory still serves me well) was a gothic lowercase “h.i.s.” in an oval surrounded by scrollwork ornamentation.

  4. Old School:

    Not sure whether I can reference FNB here, but one of the knowledgable guys over there posted this in the ‘boom years’ thread:

    An advert for ‘h.i.s’ in nice drab colours, might be of interest

  5. Thanks. There are also h.i.s. images in “The Ivy Look.”

  6. Ken Pollock | April 14, 2011 at 11:19 am |

    I bought very nearly the same suit, but without the belt in the back of the trousers, to start my freshman year at Tulane in 1959. Unfortunately, the New Orleans weather did not allow me to wear a heavy herringbone suit more than 4-5 times a year. I got mine at the Campus Shop of Blach’s in Birmingham. I think it was made by Joseph Greif and Sons.

  7. I’ve seen a lot of (and owned some) vintage H.I.S. clothing–the sixties stuff is more ivy-collegiate and then in the early seventies it goes more groovy-peacock-collegiate. The H.I.S. stands for Henry I. Siegel–I found this company history online:

    “Hoping to tap into the burgeoning consumer market of the postwar era, Siegel launched the company’s first brand, H.I.S (a play on his father’s initials), in 1956. The company’s line of branded casual wear targeted teen and college-aged baby boomers with denim jackets, corduroy pants, shorts, sportcoats, and suits. By the mid-1960s, Siegel ranked among the nation’s top manufacturers of sportswear for young men. Sales multiplied from $18.5 million in 1956 to $42.1 million in 1964, with the H.I.S brand contributing three-fourths of revenues by the latter year. Though the creation of a national brand allowed the company to command higher profit margins than it had generated with private-label goods, Siegel continued to concentrate on making clothes for middle-market customers.”

    This reflects my impressions of the clothes based on what I’ve seen–moderately priced clothing emulating the higher-end ivy stuff, and more accessible to high school and college students on a budget.

  8. MB had an army jacket in his S/S show

  9. Sadly, olive is not a flattering color for everyone. If you look good in cool blue tones–which describes more Caucasians than not–then the various shades of olive will not flatter you.

    Of course, you can wear it anyway if you want to, but it won’t go with the clothes that do flatter you, and if you wear it close to your face, it’ll make you look pale or sallow.

    Olive pants, anyone?

  10. Evan Everhart | August 6, 2018 at 10:36 pm |

    My first Brooks Bros. suit was an olive poplin wash and wear from the 1960s (I’ve still got it and wear it regularly), my first sack suit was an olive and gold micro herringbone tweed suit, also from the 1960s. I also still own and wear that suit, and it hits all the cue marks; lapped seams, high roll 3/2 buttoning, 2 button cuffs, swelled lapels and overstitched edges, and patch and flap pockets. I wish that it were cold more so that I could wear it more. I also habe a dark olive with gold pinstripes worsted wool Southwick suit from the 1960s which has all the “right” stuff.

    I LOVE Olive!!!!!!!!

  11. re h.i.s. clothing I still remember the great radio spots they had in the 60s. Warning this might get stuck in your head h i s h i s h i s I believe the voice over is the legendary NY dj and “5th Beatle” Murray the K

  12. Charlottesville | February 18, 2020 at 5:19 pm |

    I was born in the same area as Mr. Boyer, and my eldest bother (14 years my senior) worked at Hess Brothers in Allentown part time when he was in school in the 60s. Alas, he was confined to the stock room, so would not have been wearing so elegant a suit, at least not at work.

    It is remarkable that the Ivy look was so mainstream at the time. Just a few years later, it required seeking out the college town specialty shops or Brooks, Press and a few other stalwarts. The closest I remember to a “popularly priced” Ivy was Jos. A. Bank, which was still staunchly in the Ivy camp in the late 70s and early 80s. Thankfully Ivy clothing is still available today for those who are willing to make the effort.

  13. I’ve been acquiring more olive lately – scarves, jackets, hats and pants to compliment all the navy that I currently have.

    Olive pants are super great and look better with a navy blazer than traditional khaki.

    There’s something not quite right about navy + khaki.

  14. Forgive me if I related this story before. I grew up without any type of suit/sport jacket until I was 14. Mom always insisted that boys should not look like old men. I recall, in 1966, I was in a Zayre’s department store, and saw a rack of cheap sport coats, priced at $7.88. Looking over the available, i saw the only coat in my size 44L. (I was fully grown. Have worn 44L since.) A sorry looking brown 2 button. A second, no doubt, with no breast pocket what so ever, and the top button too high. With only the bottom buttoned, the coat didn’t look too bad. Of course, I bought it. (With my own hard earned money.)

    I wore that coat throughout high school, and a little while after US Army service, when I bought better quality replacements. Funny, no one commented negatively about my first coat, at least not to my face.

  15. Glenn,
    “There’s something not quite right about navy + khaki.” I agree. It tends to look ‘little sailor-suitish’ to me, but I am not thrilled with olive with navy either. Perhaps it isn’t the color combo that isn’t right, but the texture and weight of the fabrics. My navy blazer is a bit too ‘dressy’ for chinos.

  16. Old School Tie | February 19, 2020 at 10:23 am |

    Olive. Hmmmm. What does it go with? Well, itself, for starters. Olive suits, hell yeah. Or you could just opt for an olive tie. Navy with white, cream, yellow and grey. Khaki with chambray, burnt orange, browns and stripes. Maybe with a splash of red thrown in for good measure.

  17. I own more OD drills than khaki. Wear what fits your style, but OD, khaki, and grey trousers go with anything unless you’re going for the Garanimal look. Prefer light olive poplin suits to tan.

  18. Charlottesville | February 19, 2020 at 11:33 am |

    Wriggle – Nice story. I enjoyed dressing up a bit in my early teens as well, even though it was rarely required except at church.

    I too am an olive fan, both in my wardrobe and in my martinis. I have an olive corduroy coat similar to that worn by Mr. Ripley above, as well as various other items. Olive chinos do look good with a blazer, but I like plain old khakis as well. Olive gabardine is also quite nice, whether as a suit or for odd trousers to be worn with a sport coat.

  19. I acquired a bunch of olive some years ago (I think I did a few posts on it), changed my mind as usual and purged it, and then recently added a couple of items. It seems to be a color one cannot escape.

  20. There is a famous yoga master who never wears the color green and bans anyone from wearing the color green in his L.A. studio.

    Courtesy of Google:

    “Bikram Choudhury famously does not allow yogis to wear the color green in his Los Angeles yoga center; one rumor has it, he associates green with a tragic personal episode.” “He says green is an unlucky colour and bans it from all his studios.”

  21. Agreed. Olive gab or preferably, worsted, in just about any shade does go well with my club check or a blue blazer.

  22. MacMcConnell | February 19, 2020 at 2:43 pm |

    I worked in a leasing operation in the 70s. We leased everything for airplanes to software to cars. We had some older car salesmen who sold cars that came off lease. I liked to talk to the old guys, they were a hoot. They always told me that green cars were bad luck to have on the lot, unless the cars were foreign. Of all the crazy things they ever said to me, that has stuck with me for fifty years.

  23. @MacMcConnell:

    Your comment is very interesting. The 70s was a decade when avocado green was popular for home appliances. I had no idea the green was bad luck for cars.

    One thing I heard is that sailors are very superstitious and that wearing green on deck is considered very bad luck.

  24. Also, sailors believe that a boat painted green is bad luck because it guarantees that the boat will run aground:

  25. Trevor Jones | February 19, 2020 at 5:04 pm |

    Finally got around to watching The Talented Mr. Ripley. Thoroughly enjoyed.

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