Going Native: Batik, The Forgotten Campus And Resort Fabric

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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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

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30 Comments on "Going Native: Batik, The Forgotten Campus And Resort Fabric"

  1. Most of these are too much for me, except the top one. Not only is it a great looking jacket, but I had a near-identical one that I thirfted back in the mid-eighties. It unfortunately went missing one evening at a nightclub, so apparently I was not the only one who found it appealing.

  2. Have owned very nice cotton batik ties and pocket squares over the decades, but the jackets are no sale.

  3. I’ve always been a fan of batik, but I often forget about its existence. The reason for that may be I’ve never happened upon any batik items to add to my collection. If the opportunity came for me to get a nice batik sports jacket, I would probably seize it. And I would wear it happily. As a matter of fact, thanks to its neutral color-scheme, it’d probably turn fewer heads than my patch madras jacket. I could see myself wearing batik more often than I do the madras, which I reserve for only the most casual of events. In retrospect, I should have invested in a true madras rather than patch. For versatility’s sake.

  4. Batik is the best for bathing trunks.
    Sincerly i don’t like as cloth for coats.

  5. The rep tie does nothing for the top jacket. Swap it out with a black knit tie, a la the (jacket on the right in the middle picture) and you’re in business!

  6. Waldo Walters | July 28, 2014 at 1:45 am |

    Had no idea this was a thing, and happy to see it wasn’t marketed as Tiki schlock. Nice job C#.

  7. They are all too much for me, black knit tie or even air tie, but good luck to anyone who feels the need.

  8. Richard Meyer | July 28, 2014 at 6:41 am |

    Nice article. Lord knows, we can use ” more innocent times”

  9. Great piece Christopher. I love the historic background and details that you include.

    We must have been on the same wave length as I wrote about Batik this week as well, but it was Club Monaco’s current 3/2 Batik sport coat that inspired my post.

  10. Is there more information on White of New Haven – the ad
    lists two locations 287 York St – JPress is at 262 York St
    & 1020 Chapel St?

  11. Madras great in all things. Batik, only if in Nehru!

  12. For some reason, I can only picture myself wearing batik as shorts or pants, and I’m not sure about the latter. It feels much louder than madras, and I don’t really do GTH style.

  13. I couldn’t possibly feel comfortable (mentally) in a jacket like those. Reminds me of Will Smith “Fresh Prince” wearing his navy blazer inside out.

    Cheers!

  14. Christian | July 28, 2014 at 3:09 pm |

    Chris’ article inspired me to seek out a batik jacket. Figured it would go well with my Thor Heyerdahl beard and summer sunburn.

    Haven’t found one yet.

  15. Ken Pollock | July 28, 2014 at 4:19 pm |

    I had a really vivid mid-blue/white batik sport jacket while in college in the early 1960s. I bought it at the Gus Mayer Campus Shop, Carrollton Road, in New Orleans. Actually, I preferred it to the several madras jackets which I also had then, as it went perfectly with a blue b.d. shirt and navy trousers. It was both sporty and somewhat dressy looking.

  16. Ken
    You sir are a wild man, batik jacket, New Orleans, early 60s, rock-on! 😉

  17. @ Christian.

    Thor Heyerdahl beard? Goodness, I hope you haven’t been looking longingly at any balsa-wood.

  18. Christian | July 28, 2014 at 6:42 pm |

    No, just Tahitian women.

  19. I’ll be sure to wear these jackets with a black turtleneck underneath to the next Black Panther rally I attend. In all serious, these items belong on the scrap heap of history. They’re just that terrible.

  20. Mr. Sharp, point well made.

    “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…”

    I agree–a flood of madras and seersucker. But there’s no need to resort to batik. There is, after all, summer “tweed.” Worsted-silk-linen combinations in herringbones and glen checks and hopsack designs. Robert Noble does it right.

  21. Dutch Uncle | July 29, 2014 at 4:24 am |

    @EMJ

    Sir,

    One of the pleasures of reading comments such as yours is that it reminds me that there are still gentlemen with good taste and good sense around.

  22. Minimalist | July 29, 2014 at 4:33 am |

    Perhaps Black Fleece and York St. will include batik sarongs among their supposedly preppy offerings.

  23. Christian | July 29, 2014 at 6:04 am |

    This article is about how batik was popular among WASPy/Ivy types and sold at such pillars of the establishment as J. Press. I don’t get the Black Panther quip, nor why reading it would give Dutch Uncle pleasure.

  24. It is interesting how seersucker and madras survived while batik went the way of the wind. Gone with, that is.

    The vertical lines of seersucker call to mind dress shirtings as madras is most often represented in a tartan check pattern. (Condeding the British origins, this would be obvious).

    There are likely a few reasons why the fabric in question wouldn’t appeal to the prep palate–even the resort wear version–over the long term.

    Still, great piece. Many thanks.

  25. “conceding”

  26. Dutch Uncle | July 29, 2014 at 11:23 am |

    Christian,

    I was agreeing with EMJ’s comment that he items belonged on the scrap heapöof history, not with his Black Panthers remark. I did get the quip, by the way. He was referring to batik dashikis. A rather dated remark, I daresay.

  27. There is a way to tie together Ivy, Batik and the Black Panthers.

    During the Ivy heyday, the New York Philharmonic was helmed by Leonard Bernstein. Not surprisingly, Leonard was often seen in a Sack and OCBD. He was also a bit of a hipster however, and consequently often donned a turtleneck.

    In January of 1970, Mr. Bernstein hosted a fundraising soirée at his Upper East Side apartment with the top brass of the Black Panther Party. This event was later documented by Tom Wolfe in a New York Magazine piece entitled Radical Chic.

    We will never know, but it is possible that someone in attendance that night may have worn a Batik jacket over a black turtleneck.

  28. It seems that the popularity of Batik has seen an equal decline in Malayan South East Asia. Back in the 70s, anybody walking the streets of Singapore, Jakarta or any town in Malaysia would likely find a clothes shop selling some cheap and beautiful Batik (the actual stuff). We’d see cloth shops and tailors liberally displaying their latest prints. Additionally, Batik was part of casual wear , it was ubiquitous and had none sort of the exoticness or association with summer that Ivy Batik has. And it was cheap too – back in the 90s, a Batik shirt would probably be available for 10-20 dollars – all of this, locally made, authentic goodness.

    The use of Batik saw a decline in the late 90s and it is almost impossible to find a Batik shirt shop in anywhere but the most touristy areas (the authenticity of the Batik is questionable). Even in the more backward parts of the region there are no Batik cloth or apparel shops – the cloth is no longer distributed and traded locally.

    Now to find a Batik shirt, one has to go find a brand name label in a downtown mall. Additionally the cloth is now associated with the gaudy rich or vain, fat and old lecherous men past their prime who particularly enjoy Cantonese Karaoke.

  29. Main Line Philly | July 29, 2014 at 11:11 pm |

    It was all a merchandising gimmick to try to introduce a new element into the traditional Ivy wardrobe.

  30. Craig Bozorth | September 27, 2014 at 8:05 pm |

    Hi,
    I’d like to buy a ‘Batik’ jacket. 44-46R from a non smoker. I don’t much care about the design or shade. Just something else for the ‘kids’ to laugh at in class (HS at risk).
    Thanks,
    Craig

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