This is part one of a two-part piece on collegiate style in the South during the heyday. It is recounted to us by contributor James H. Grant.
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The distinction between the mode of dress known as Ivy League and the Southern Collegiate Style – if one actually exists – is somewhat murky. When I was in college in the mid-1960ss, we referred to our style as Southern Collegiate, but we sometimes called it Ivy League, or simply collegiate, or just plain traditional, but never “trad” and certainly never “preppy.”
The seminal event which prompted my own metamorphosis from what I wore before to what developed into my personal style took place in 1961. That was the year I purchased my first pair of Bass Weejuns; I have worn them ever since. Not the same pair, mind you, but I estimate that I have owned 35-40 pairs. Other manufacturers made similar penny loafers, notably Bostonian, but they were not Weejuns. And yes, you could tell the difference.
My friend George and I had been making mental notes on the clothes worn by various college guys who had previously attended our high school. Two of them went to the University of Virginia, one to Hampden-Sydney College, and another to Davidson in North Carolina. When they came home for the summer, we noticed that they dressed differently than when they were in high school. George, being more attuned to matters such as these, said he knew where they bought their clothes.
So, one summer afternoon, George took me to a curious men’s shop in Bristol, Virginia. The sign out front read simply: Bill King Clothiers. Although I recognized most of the clothing, it was the first time I had seen a store completely merchandised in the collegiate style, the style I would embrace as my own.
Bill King Clothiers had tables stacked with trousers: khakis, white ducks, seersuckers, and more dressy, tropical-worsted pants in gray and navy. Open shelves displayed Gant shirts arranged by size. There was a large selection of silk regimental stripe and club ties, English madder and foulard ties – even bow ties. The walls were lined with an impressive array of dark suits, navy blazers, plaid sport coats, and suits in tan poplin and seersucker. The shoe department had tassel loafers, basic black, brown and cordovan oxfords, wingtips, and of course, Weejuns. It did not take long to realize that this was the place I wanted to shop, so I decided to purchase a pair of Weejuns. After all, they were only $11.95. Weejuns were developed in 1936 by the GH Bass Shoe Company of Wilton, Maine. By 1940, the shoe known as style #734 was firmly entrenched on college campuses in the Northeast, and eventually became the shoe of choice at fraternity houses throughout the South. In the ongoing struggle between style and quality, style reigned supreme. Weejuns were not particularly well-made and had to be replaced at least once a year Fortunately they were not expensive. During that era, Weejuns came in three colors: black, dark cordovan, and a shade of reddish-brown, which was by far the best seller and pretty standard on campus.
When I went into the Air Force in 1967, I was surprised to see Weejuns prominently displayed in the small shoe department of our BX (base exchange) at RAF Chicksands in England. The sales lady told me they were probably her best-selling shoe, other than standard black military low-quarters and brogues.
Other popular styles of footwear included tassel loafers in brown or black – by Alden or Allen Edmonds. Some of us also had a pair of black wingtips to wear with a dark suit.
As it turned out, I was fortunate to have been stationed overseas at the end of the 1960s. I never experienced the decline of the style I had adhered to so faithfully. When I returned to campus in 1971, it was difficult to find proper collegiate clothing. Even still, I can honestly say that I never wore a garment made of polyester double-knit, bell-bottom trousers, or a tie-dyed t-shirt.
There was a resurgence of the collegiate style in the 1980s, at least that was the case in my new home, Atlanta. I gave most of my patronage to H. Stockton–Lenox Square, and sometimes bought Brooks Brothers-style seersucker and poplin suits from Jos. A. Bank.
Other essential elements of the Southern Collegiate Style were khaki pants with 1¾” cuffs, a sack-style navy blazer with three brass buttons, oxford-cloth button-down collar shirts, and regimental stripe ties. The khakis were all cotton and looked like you slept in them the night before. You could wear them for five minutes or five days and they would look pretty much the same.
It has been said that khaki pants became part of the collegiate wardrobe when young men returned to college after World War II. They just continued to wear their khaki uniform pants in civvy street. Not a bad idea, but military uniforms have no cuffs. Perhaps, those ex-GIs just turned their khakis up at the bottom and had cuffs sewn it, which would certainly account for the term “high-water” pants.
Belts were generally 1¼” black or brown leather with a standard heel and bar buckle. More dressy belts featured a plaque-style buckle in brass or silver – sometimes engraved with the wearer’s initials. The most popular casual belt was the tan leather surcingle belt with a cotton webbing of navy and burgundy, although other color combinations were available.
It has been said that collegians in the Northeast wore argyle socks with Weejuns. Perhaps this was so in the 1950s, but I cannot recall ever seeing a pair of argyles on campus. (And I never saw anyone hold their dilapidated Weejuns together with duct tape, although I have seen old Weejuns converted into sandals with a utility knife.)
Our hosiery was pretty standard: over-the-calf or mid-calf ribbed knit socks in navy, charcoal gray, black or sable. Actually, Weejuns were generally worn without socks except during the winter months.
The basic buttondown oxford-cloth shirts were in Carolina blue or a blue and white stripe, sometimes in maize, and, of course, the ubiquitous white. Gant was the preferred brand, although Sero and several other manufacturers, including upscale Hathaway, made good-quality buttondown shirts with placates and 3¼” collars. (It has been said that pink shirts were popular in the Northeast, but I do not recall ever seeing a pink shirt on campus. In fact, if anyone had worn a pink shirt, they would probably have been hounded out of the fraternity house. I can hear it now, “Hey sport, where did you get that Villager blouse?”) Starched shirts were strictly taboo. In fact, instructions on the collar of Gant shirts clearly stated “Do not starch.” Starching the shirt took away that relaxed, comfortable look, an important aspect of the collegiate style.
Our striped ties were silk and always in good traditional colors: navy on burgundy, burgundy on navy, maize on navy, green on navy, and if you went to the University of Tennessee, orange on navy (if you could find one). I had two – one of which was purchased during the fall semester of 1966. Admittedly, those old ties are threadbare today, but I still wear them anyway. Club ties, English madder, foulards, and paisley ties were popular, particularly with plaid sportcoats.
During the fall and winter, v-neck lambswool sweaters were de rigueur. The preferred brand was Cox-Moore, but other British manufacturers made nice sweaters – Pringle and Lyle & Scott come to mind. Navy was the preferred color, but gray, burgundy, camel, and sable were also popular. Some collegians had their sweaters monogrammed with their initials. One goofball actually had his sweaters embroidered with numbers, 1, 2, 3, etc., as if owning eight sweaters was supposed to impress someone. Like I said, he was a goofball.
Although the navy blazer was essential, we also wore tweed sportcoats in traditional Scottish patterns – houndstooth, herringbone and Glenurquhart – in shades of gray or earth tones. Like the blazer, these were always three-button, sack coats with center vent and flap side pockets. Three-button natural shoulder suits were generally in charcoal gray or navy, and very frequently purchased with a matching vest.
In retrospect, it still amazes me how dedicated we were – perhaps enslaved is a better term – to the Southern Collegiate Style. After all, what kind of idiot would wear a tweed sport coat and tie to a football game on a sunny September afternoon when the temperature was 90º and the humidity almost as high! Perhaps it was something we drank.
In the summertime, we wore white duck pants with Madras shirts or with a tropical-worsted navy blazer, and Weejuns sans chaussettes. After dancing for several hours on a hot, humid evening on the banks of the Tennessee River, the dyes from the Madras fabric would invariably bleed onto your white duck pants.
The Southern Collegiate Style was traditional, but not necessarily formal. Ties were generally worn “random” which meant notiepen, frequently askew, and never tucked into the trousers! A gentleman’s tie just covers the belt buckle – never above, and certainly not below. Sometimes you would have to tie your tie three or four times to get the length just right. The four-in-hand knot was standard, since it caused the tie to hang slightly askew and the knot was not precisely symmetric, both aspects which were thoroughly in keeping with the general sartorial philosophy of the collegiate style. Suits and sport coats were never buttoned except when you had to meet your date’s parents, interview for a job, or have your picture taken.
We were required to wear a tie to dinner at the fraternity house, with no excuses. In the fall and winter, ties were worn with sportcoats, but more frequently with v-neck sweaters.
Occasionally, we wore straw skimmers to football games and to dances at Alumni Gym on Friday nights. I can remember dancing to the music of The Tams, The Swinging Medallions, and Maurice Williams and the Zodiacs in the old gym with my skimmer. They looked right at home with white duck pants and navy blazers, but frankly, they were strictly ornamental. We all succumb to fits of exhibitionism from time to time.
The preferred outerwear for inclement weather was the old London Fog in khaki or navy. These could be purchased with an inner lining for cold weather. A few guys owned Balmacaan-style overcoats, but not many. We didn’t need them in the South. Umbrellas were called into service on rainy days, always black. An umbrella was also a great way to meet girls who were stranded in a downpour. I suspect that almost all umbrellas were either lost, stolen or turned inside-out by the wind at one time or another. Baracuta-style windbreakers were also popular, mostly in khaki, with a Scottish tartan cotton lining.
The Southern Collegiate Style carried over into personal accessories as well. Tortoise-shell glasses with round frames were standard. Wristwatches were generally round with roman numerals or knockoffs of the famous Cartier tank watch. The watches had dark brown or black leather straps or sometimes striped grosgrain nylon straps in traditional colors. Some guys sported pocket watches attached to a chain and fob worn across the front of their suit vests.
Bill King Clothiers in Bristol, Virginia, was the place where I became aware of the Southern Collegiate Style. Of course, there were other stores merchandised in the same manner. In fact, it would be my guess that most college or university towns had similar stores. Eljo’s in Charlottesville, the Georgetown University Shop, H. Stockton in Atlanta, Milton’s in Chapel Hill, the Collegiate Shop at Hall’s in downtown Knoxville, and M.S. McClellan’s Hansom House at the University of Tennessee were exponents of the style.
Finally, this essay is intended to be an anthropological survey of a particular mode of dress popular on some college campuses in the southeastern United States during the 1960s. It is certainly not intended to be critical of those individuals who chose not to embrace the style. It is merely a description of what some collegians chose to wear. Nothing more, nothing less. — JAMES H. GRANT