As we reach the heart of summer, I sense a deprivation. It goes virtually unnoticed, and yet it is there for any Ivy enthusiast to investigate. The stores are full of the requisite madras and seersucker, but little else. Compared to the Ivy boom years, or even the golden age of the 1930s, it appears as if part of the color palette is missing, pattern is virtually nonexistent, and ethnically diverse fabrics are nowhere to be found. Some will contend that this is natural selection, that madras and seersucker won fair and square. Others will point out that in a shrinking market, you offer what sells and no longer take risks. A third faction will wish we not peruse the subject at all. But we are going there.
Before the full ascent of the counter culture, back in the days of in loco parentis, there was a burst of sartorial hedonism on campus that students took to with Tahitian abandon. This was expressed in an appreciation for native fabrics. The first fabric family are those that use a dye-resistant technique. This style of cloth dates back at least 1,500 years, and is found in Africa, the Middle East, India and China. For many enthusiasts, the pinnacle of this style is represented in the batiks of Java and the East Indies. Batik takes it entomological roots from the word “ambatik,” which means “to write with little dots.” The word harkens back to the Dutch colonial period, when various forms of the word like mbatek, batik, batek and battik were used. Dutch records from the 17th century report “highly decorated fabrics,” but it wasn’t until the importation of fine quality cloth in the 19th century that allowed the elaborate style to flourish.
During the colonial period, the Dutch were active participants in the batik trade. However, it was an Englishman who offers the first western view of batik. Thomas Stamford Raffles, Lieutenant Governor of Java from 1811-1816 describes the batik process in his 1817 work “History of Java.” A batik trade developed, and goods were produced that were designed to appeal to westerners. A highlight was a showing at the 1900 Exposition Universale in Paris. The golden age of batik was from 1850-1940, a long enough run that some American haberdashers got a taste for it before the mass commercialization of western-produced imitation fabrics in the late 1950s. For about the past 40 years, whether traditional batik is dying or resurging depends on what articles you read. UNESCO has designated Indonesian batik a masterpiece of Oral And Intangible Heritage of Humanity in 2009, and there seems to be a perpetual recruitment campaign to get new artisans.
Although it is impossible to say at this point when the Ivy League got their first taste of batik, it is known that New Haven was offering goods by the late 1930s. Richard Press recalls that J. Press were early promoters of batik, sourcing it from the venerable English firm of Welch Margetson. A 1939 J. Press cash sale advertisement features a variety of goods in batik made from sarong fabric. From 1939-1942, neckties, bathing trunks and pugaree flax hats with batik bands were offered. Like madras during this period, batik was part of the resort canon of goods. In one J. Press ad, the copy reads, “No Southern scenes during the forthcoming recess will be complete without many items featured at Press.” A contempory advertisement for White of New Haven echoes the resort theme by offering them in their clothing selections for the 1940 break, fully expecting they would be worn in Nassau, Florida and Bermuda.
in the summer 1952 issue, Gentry offers an early glimpse of native fabrics, including batik. Native fabrics would show up periodically in its pages through the spring of 1955. The real postwar batik boom would start in 1957, reaching its height around 1962-63 (a date based on advertising saturation, although batik is seen up to the end of the boom). Sports Illustrated credits the residents of Round Hill, Jamaica, for starting a batik trend in 1957, in the same way they popularized madras in 1955. “Batik seems to be the successor to India’s madras as the next hand-crafted fabric to crop up in sun-time American sports clothes,” the magazine wrote. Sports Illustrated continued to promote batik in 1960, when it featured the fabric being worn in Charlotte Amalie, the territorial capital of the American Virgin Islands. The batik trousers depicted were made by Corbin and sold at Paul Stuart.
Reading some of these primary sources, there is a suggested cachet of wearing cloth in its most authentic form. The summer 1952 Gentry Magazine presents photos of Thomas Shevlin and his trousers, which the editors point out were “tailored from native fabrics purchased overseas.” Although today we recognize that the sourcing of indigenous fabrics was certainly not a hardship for world travelers such Shevlin, and that such trousers could easily be run up by a tailor, one is left to imagine how even at a time of increasing American affluence that this cross-cultural sartorial expression might strike the average American as eccentric. The best modern example of this today is tennis reporter Bud Collins, who collects fabrics from his travels and has them made into trousers by the Andover Shop.
From 1952-1957, Javanese batik’s rival was African batik, which Sports Illustrated credits 19th-century missionaries with introducing. Gold Coast natives developed their own batik industry, “taking the patterns from their surroundings, using floral and plant life motifs as well as insect and animals.” If discussion of African prints seems a stretch down the Ivy rabbit hole, let me see if I can bring it full circle. Presented is a native-inspired shirt for Hathaway rendered in “Guaranteed to Fade” madras cloth, which was used to capture a variety of batik styles. Madras batik was also used for sports jackets. New Haven outfitter Fein-Feinstein marked a madras batik jacket in 1961.
Throughout the early ’60s J. Press offered batik in both a sport jacket and a shawl-collared dinner jacket. Ad copy describes them as “rich, deeply colored prints… rare examples of the beauty of these timeless fabrics.” The spring/summer 1961 J. Press catalog shows a color photo of the sportcoat with the advice that it is an “excellent choice for resort wear.” Some of the Press batiks hailed from Thailand, others from Indonesia. “They also worked well as warm weather tie and cummerbund sets,” recalls Richard Press. “Batik was the summer choice for the favored few, but secondary to madras and brightly colored Irish linen. In the end batik never fully achieved top rank.”
As with madras, the history of batik in the Ivy League is a back-and-forth between the islands and the campus. One could be outfitted on the islands or stock up before leaving. In the early ’60s the Yale Co-op promoted batik for campus wear and fraternity weekends, offering batik jackets in “patterns as bold and dashing as a new Jaguar.” Ithaca and Princeton haberdashers recommended batik for house parties. Hillhouse in Providence, Rhode Island, recommended batik shirts for Brown’s Spring Weekend.
The artist, writer and bon vivant Richard Merkin once recalled meeting a friend from Brown University in the mid-sixties. “He wore an old white shirt, frayed at the collar but monogrammed,” he wrote, “khaki trousers that had seen service upon some god-forsaken atoll in the pacific, a batik belt and Peal slip-ons.” At the height of its craze batik was offered in sportcoats, shirts, trousers, neckties, belts, braces, bathing suits, walk shorts, and even wristwatch straps. Although batik’s roots are ancient, it did not adhere to the campus as strongly as the ivy covering the walls. In what now seems like the blink of an eye students would move on to even bolder patterns — namely the psychedelic variety — leaving batik merely a relic of a more innocent time. — CHRISTOPHER SHARP