Color of Conquest: Bruce Boyer’s Ode to Olive

Bruce Boyer has noted that the two most prominent colors during the heyday of the Ivy League Look were charcoal and olive. But while charcoal remains a default basic, olive is an often overlooked accent color.

We asked Boyer what he remembers of olive during the heyday, and he penned this little ode on its military origins and power to charm the fair sex.

* * *

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

G. Bruce Boyer is a contributing editor at The Rake and the author of several books on menswear. His latest, on Gary Cooper, is due out in October from powerHouse Books.

Pictured above is Matt Damon in “The Talented Mr. Ripley” wearing the Ivy purist combination of olive corduroy sportcoat, white oxford-cloth buttondown and black knit tie.

9 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?

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