EDITOR’S NOTE: Mr. Chevalier has posted a whole collection of these essays on the Facebook Group, as well as providing a lot of keen insight. He’s invaluable. – JB
IVY STYLE AND PLEATED TROUSERS: WHY THE DISCORD?
For at least as long as Ivy has been categorized as a style, it has been specifically associated with plain-front —not pleated— trousers. Not to say that all plain-front trousers are, by definition, Ivy in style … but rather that all Ivy-style trousers, by tradition, have plain fronts. But why?
As usual for Ivy style, the origin of its predilection for plain-front goes back to an era when tailored American Ivy menswear essentially crystallized: the early 1910s. At that time, pleats were not to be found on ANY trousers made and sold in the United States. (More below about the history of trouser pleats.) As the 20th century progressed and American tailoring as a whole began to include —indeed, promote— pleats as an option, Ivy style stuck to the trouser template of the early 1910s … just as it did with sack coats.
(Perhaps the larger question is, why the stubborn adherence to style details from just before World War I? One nostalgic possibility: it was a way to hold onto the twilight moments of a world, a way of American life, which WWI and its aftermath obliterated. Perhaps?)
The history of tailored trouser pleats in the Western world —I’ll focus on non-military wear, and on pleating rather than shirring (which already existed on mens trousers in the 1830s)— has murky and anecdotal beginnings. According to “those who should know”, a client walked into a Savile Row tailoring house in the early 1900s and requested pleats for a pair of sporting trousers (probably for tennis). Word spread among the Empire’s upper classes, and pleats began to be requested more and more from bespoke tailors.
It wasn’t until the early 1920s that pleats appeared on off-the-rack trousers and plus-fours in the UK. In America, the process took longer: its bespoke tailors began to offer pleats in earnest in the early ‘20s, and American ready-to-wear clothing manufacturers started to include pleats on trousers and plus-fours in the decade’s second half. Nationwide demand took off in the mid 1930s, and continued unabated until the mid 1950s: right at the time that Ivy style —with its deathless devotion to plain-front trousers— became mainstream.
THE ORiGIN OF THE TWO-BUTTON SLEEVE ON IVY SACK COATS
It’s one of those curiosities of Ivy style: why two buttons specifically, rather than three or four or even just one?
Before we delve into a (partial) answer, keep in mind that not all Ivy sack coats have had just two buttons on their sleeves: J. Press’s jackets tend to have three buttons. Even so, the two-button sleeve remains a stereotypically Ivy detail in the public’s mind, and most “mainstream Ivy” menswear manufacturers during the style’s heyday stuck to two buttons for their sleeves.
The ‘Ivyness’ of two buttons is rooted in the fact that Ivy sack coats, despite slight variations over the decades, are essentially frozen in time: in the early 1910s, specifically. And in the early 1910s, a two-button sleeve was the norm for virtually ALL types of tailored jackets for men, from sack coats to frock coats and tailcoats. From the late 1910s onward, however, that two-button norm gave way to a growing public preference for three or even four buttons. Only Ivy sack coats —most famously Brooks Brothers’s— continued to be made with only two buttons on their sleeves … year after year, decade after decade. Over time, what had once been the norm for every type of tailored jacket became associated with Ivy sack coats only. On those sleeves, it’s always 1912.
It’s a telling detail that, up until fairly recently, the top buttonhole on high-quality 3/2 sack coats was “finished” on BOTH sides of the left lapel … ostensibly so that the wearer could button it up if he so chose. This double finishing was done even on lapels which had been constructed so that they couldn’t be rolled upward! A “sign of quality”, albeit superfluous.
By Marc Chevalier