In 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.
The Esquire and Rogers Peet involvement would have been completely forgotten except for a very candid interview given by Bass treasurer John R. Bass to The Lewiston Daily Sun in 1951 on the occasion of Bass’s 75th anniversary. As preface to the treasurer’s quotes, the newspaper writes, “Bass officials were approached by representatives of Esquire and Rogers Peet and asked if they could make Weejuns.” John Bass then states, “We meet the Esquire people in Portland and discussed the project.”
In retrospect, the G.H. Bass & Company would seem like the perfect manufacturer for the Weejun, given that it pioneered moccasin-styled footwear. However, John Bass was not sanguine on the prospects for the Weejun. In the quintessential Yankee manner, he was cautious and cantankerous. “I’ll admit I was skeptical” he recounted. What was his issue? “I didn’t think this type would go over for it looked like a house slipper to be worn outdoors. But we agreed to work on it.”
The Bass Company ran into two snags that could have derailed the whole project. One was material, the company faced “difficulty in obtaining the right types of leather for the soles and uppers.” This was resolved when it found the right vendor. The second problem was financial: Bass could not meet the price point. “We were given a figure at which it was thought we should produce these shoes,” Bass told the Lewiston Daily Sun. “We could not do it at that price. We reported back to the Esquire people and were told by the president of the publishing concern to go ahead and make them anyway at the best possible price.” Although Esquire had coined the term “Weejun,” it ceded the righst to Bass.
With the vendor fully on board, the next step was the promotions of the product. Esquire offered “…advance notice of a new style: the Norwegian moccasin,” that they assured their readers was the novelty of the 1936 season. Its American appearance was at Palm Beach, and Esquire writes, “Its importance was immediately attested by the importance of the feet it covered: those of prominent society people, wealthy men, sportsmen with reputations for good dress.” Esquire further states, “Immediately, alert American bootmakers set to work to reproduce the model.”
This is pure hyperbole, since John Bass indicated that Bass was not particularly motivated to pursue the Weejun project. Esquire goes on to let readers know that they can source an American made version crafted for “those who like to keep to the fore of the quickly moving style parade.”
Other then snob appeal, what were the merits of the Weejun? According to Esquire, “The leather is sturdy yet soft and comfortable. Across the instep a strap is stitched on…. The shoe provides for slipper-like comfort for end- of-the-day wear, yet it may be worn about the house without fear of guests raising their eyebrows, for it is not a slipper. It cannot slip off at the heel because of a trick of construction that holds the back of the shoe tightly against the tendon Achilles while you are walking, yet permits it to relax while at rest.”
Esquire had done its part, now it was time for Rogers Peet to sell the Weejun. The first Weejun advertisement appeared in the May 27, 1936 issue of The New York Herald Tribune. The advertisement illustrated the Weejun and showed the feet of three men wearing them in Florida. The copy read, “First seen at Palm Beach! First at Rogers Peet! First shipment a sellout!” It goes on to explain that the Weejun was, “Originally made and worn by Norwegian peasants, and now worn as sports shoes by some of the best dressed men in America.”
The text continues:
They’re so casual, smart, and fit so well. Rogers Peet has had them copied authentically down to such details as natural colored cowhide, cup-of-leather moccasin construction, hand-cut soles and unique stitched peasant-shoe vamp. Quality throughout in both leather and construction. You’ll want them for wear at the club, at the beach, for farm, garden, and around the house. $6.50.
The Bass Weejun was introduced with fanfare and the muscle of the most prestigious men’s magazine and one of New York’s leading stores. Curiously, though, when the fanfare was over and Bass was left with the Weejun baby on its doorstep, it seemed to treat it very gingerly. For many years, whether it was the initial reluctance shown by John Bass or the desire not to kill the existing golden goose, the Weejun was often marketed as a secondary product. During those years the Weejun was presented as the shoe you wore after a long day of skiing. You would take your Bass ski boots off and slip on your Weejuns for the lodge. It was a happy coincidence that New England college students were also avid skiers.
Whether you credit Esquire, Bass’ marketing or the Weejun-focused advertising from campus haberdashers, the Weejun grew tremendously in its first 15 years, making up 60 percent of Bass’s moccasin style shoe production by 1951. Today the Weejun is still linked to the campus and the trajectory of the shoe from peasant to Palm Beach princes and finally to the apres-ski culture of New England is but a faint memory. — CHRISTOPHER SHARP