In a recent post we wondered if the sack suit can surivive much longer. Well in one cinematic tale, it’s the last garment mankind will wear in the wake of a zombie apocalypse.
It wouldn’t be Halloween without a shot of Vincent Price, and above you’ll find the full version of his 1964 movie “The Last Man On Earth.” Based on the 1954 novel “I Am Legend,” which provided the source material for the recent Will Smith film of the same name, Price plays a scientist clad throughout the film in an Ivy-styled sack jacket.
As the film was shot in Italy, we have no idea if the jacket was authentic American or one of those foreign knock-offs.
Spoiler alert: Price’s character dies at the end, calling his adversaries “freaks,” no doubt in part for their two-button, darted jackets with shoulder pads. — CC
Ivy-style tweed sports jackets and suits are often distinguished by detailed quarter-inch stitching from the edge of the lapels down the front of the jacket. This distinctive feature is usually echoed by lapped seams that run across the shoulder, down the back seam, and around the pocket flaps.
But how did it get there?
Everyone who’s considered this question agrees that the stitching gives the jacket a sporty look, and that the addition of what English tailors sometimes refer to as a “swelled” edge makes for a casual, jaunty touch. It’s certainly something that one would never expect to see on a fine worsted or flannel business suit. We seem to intuitively recognize that this almost imperceptible detail is at home more in the country than in town, that this rakish element produces a casual, country effect.
And, as it happens, our intuitions are once again right. The quarter-inch stitch is in fact a vestigial visible trace of something long gone from utilitarian practice — and memory. It hangs on as decor rather than as a functioning detail, but like the two buttons in the small of the back of a tailcoat (originally used to button the tails when in the saddle), the quarter-inch stitch once had an important function. At least if you lived in the country and followed country pursuits.
Tweed jackets and coats, it should be remembered, were the Victorian equivalent of sportswear, the most useful country garment a gentleman could devise at the time to protect himself from the cold and wet of a day’s hunting, stalking or riding. The wool fabric is hearty and handsome, absorbent, abrasion-resistant, and warm. But without the tailor’s art, it would become a baggy mess after a few short hours on the moors. That’s where the quarter-inch stitch comes in.
In order to prevent the lapels (and therefore front of the jacket) from collapsing when soaked with rain, some unacknowledged tailors figured out that a reinforcing row of stitching down the front edge of the coat would keep the whole thing better in place. And it does. The additional stitching along the lapel helps the coat keep its shape by holding the cloth – both the inside and outside layers — together when wet.
Today we really don’t wear our sports jackets in the rain: various synthetic fibers and waxed fabrics have replaced wool for so many occasions. But that handsome quarter-inch of stitching is there as a jaunty reminder that these handsome coats we now wear as mere plumage were originally designed with great utility in mind. — G. BRUCE BOYER
Legendary menswear writer G. Bruce Boyer was men’s fashion editor at Town & Country throughout the ’70s and ’80s. He has recently returned to writing for the magazine.
Above image is a 1962 illustration from Brooks Brothers, which features swelled edges on its current Own Make sportcoats.
A couple years ago, when a guy at Brooks first mentioned they were considering a restaurant next door to the Madison Avenue Flagship, I thought it was a great idea. I still do. I mean, assuming there’s a bar, won’t it be the ultimate place to have a drink among fellow trads?
And for guys who work in menswear, it’ll be the obvious place to rendez-vous for a cocktail:
“Brooks, where else?”
But some don’t think it’s such a great idea. Writing for Forbes, Jonathan Salem Baskin notes how Brooks Brothers “invented apparel retailing for America’s ruling class,” and that it shouldn’t have to look beyond its sales floor to chart its direction. But the most interesting passage is this:
Brooks Brothers never sold products that were symbols of success; rather, it was where the successful shopped to eschew symbols. Sure, there were distinctive looks to the fabrics, colors and cuts, but the brand was less about selling a lifestyle as it was selling to it.
Buzzfeed, however, took a contrary view, saying the restaurant plan is actually a return to the brand’s roots — to catering to the very robber barons that Baskin says the brand built its reputation catering to:
While plans for the retailer’s new restaurant, “Makers and Merchants,” raised eyebrows when it was first reported by the New York Post earlier this week, the reality is that the Brooks Brothers aesthetic and core customer dovetail perfectly with the prototypical steakhouse diner. Think bankers, politicians, corporate executives who have no problem dropping $200 or more on a meal for two.
One more quote about well fed captains of industry. While preparing a piece on the upcoming Gilded Age exhibit at the Museum of the City of New York, yesterday I came across the following passage in the accompanying book:
[Brooks Brothers'] reputation for fine quality was unparalleled, and many of the most famous men of New York society turned to Brooks Brothers for their evening ensembles…
Brooks may have spent the Gilded Age catering to New York’s fancy-dress-ball set, but in the 21st century the sun never sets on its retail doors. As the Buzzfeed story points out, nearly half its 300 stores are located overseas. — CC
Last week I spoke at “the dear old Temple Bar we love so well.”
Mory’s, founded in 1863, moved from “the place where Louis dwelled” of “Whiffenpoof Song” fame to its currently shabby chic colonial quarters on York Street in 1912. Originally a private club, townies were never allowed on the premises unless they were employees. One of them, Carl, was a famously surly waiter for whom my dad provided gratis wardrobes to steer his Mory’s clientele to J. Press.
Here’s a fable from the heyday: Bill DeVane, venerable dean at Yale, was at a booth when Carl approached the table, threw a menu down and stood glaring. DeVane noticed Carl was scratching his behind. “Do you have hemorrhoids, Carl?” the dean asked. “If it ain’t on the menu,” Carl snapped, “we ain’t got it.”
Growing up in a college town is priceless, whether it’s Berkeley, Charlottesville, South Bend or Princeton. You can never say, “Goodbye Columbus.” (Continue)
We’ll conclude the recent batch of Kamakura-versus-Brooks discussion (aka the “buttondown showdown”) with a couple of photos snapped yesterday in the Madison Avenue store.
The shop may be small, but it still has room for some newly arrived pocket squares and wool neckties, in addition to all the shirts. (Continue)
Recently the comments section has been lively with discussion about Brooks Brothers shirts. Obsessing over them is practically an institution; as early as the mid-’60s George Frazier was writing, “What the hell’s happening to the roll on Brooks Brothers buttondowns?”
There’s a reason men get so worked up about them: they have strong attachments to this particular article of clothing. Like the fellow in the drawing above.
The cartoon by Charles E. Martin appeared in the New Yorker in 1952 and is available from the Conde Nast Store.
But be forewarned: the print costs more than a new Brooks Brothers shirt. — CC