Raccoon Season

Historically, Ivy style has always championed durability and functionality. Nowhere is this truer than in the realm of outerwear, where such weathered classics as the toggle coat and balmacaan remain viable and timeless.

However, at certain vivacious moments in the style’s history, discerning collegiate sartorialists have exchanged the reliable for the resplendent, the austere for the ostentatious.

One such moment occurred in the 1920s, when young men threw off their tweedy raglans in favor of a far more flamboyant material: raccoon fur. University of Illinois football star Red Grange (1903-1991) and radio crooner Rudy Vallee are credited with popularizing the wide-collared, ankle-length raccoon coat, a fad which spread quickly across the campuses of the Northeast. The coats were particularly popular among young male jazz enthusiasts who garnered the nickname “collegiates” or Joe College.

The first wave of the fad ended with the dawn of The Great Depression, but the coat saw a brief revival in 1956.  This second coming of the coonskin coat saw voracious demand for secondhand furs in, as the Lord and Taylor College Shop proudly announced at the time, “a state of magnificent disrepair.” An article in the New Yorker from August 17th, 1957 traces the origins of the revival back to a group of three young New Yorkers and a presumably jazz and smoke-filled party at their Greenwich Village apartment.

As legend has it, Sue Salzman was about to buy a used raccoon coat on a whim when it was snatched up by another customer. Bemoaning her loss at a party hosted by herself and her husband Stanley, she was approached by an acquaintence whose relatives were in the boys’ clothing business and just happened to have a warehouse full of old raccoon coats. This crop of furs was leftover from the wave of Davy Crockett Mania, during which time they were chopped and used to make coonskin caps. “Feeling manic” from their good fortune, the Salzmans purchased coats for themselves and for every person who attended their party.

After they began receiving inquiries about the coats, the Salzmans and their friend Benjy Bejan decided to go into business and let the fur fly. When Glamour magazine published a photo of a raccoon coat and credited them as the supplier, the trio received over 300 letters, phone calls and an urgent inquiry from Lord and Taylor. The department store was a collegiate style heavyweight at the time, and, as Mr. Salzman admits, “anything that Lord and Taylor does in college fashions is copied.”  Once Lord and Taylor became involved, demand outweighed supply, and a trend was born.

It is no coincidence that the craze for fur coats arose during periods of unprecedented prosperity in which youths actively sought to redefine their own morality. In this age of traditionalism imbued with conservative nostalgia it is sometimes all too easy to forget that collegiate style once represented liberation from the dress of prior generations, a way to dress freely for those who lived freely.

Below are images from 1928, 1959, and from the Fall ’09 collection by Brooks Brothers (courtesy of Mister Mort), suggesting another raccoon coat revival might be just around the corner. Of course, that would negate the prosperity theory. — ZACHARY DELUCA

10 Comments on "Raccoon Season"

  1. I would love to have a raccoon coat, trouble is, I live in Texas, and it would be wearable maybe 2 times a year.

  2. I’d love a fur coat–raccoon or otherwise–too, but I live in The People’s Democratic Republic of California, and would probably be splattered in paint and harangued by the intolerants from PETA as soon as I wore it out of the house, to say nothing of the fact that here, too, it would only be wearable once or twice a year.

  3. I love the pictures, I had seen the Saturday Evening Post cover before but not the other pics. I have a feeling this may be the year raccoon makes a come back in the midwest. Expected cold weather and so many people buying gently used furs due to the economy. Just think how much we can save on our gas bills by wrapping in the warmth and luxury of a recycled fur!

  4. kentfield46 | October 25, 2009 at 8:46 am |

    Ever since I was a little kid growing up in the 50’s early 60’s — I have wanted a raccoon coat. Perhaps born in the wrong decade, I also missed the 50’s revival mentioned above. (RATS!) Now, many years later I have satisfied my desires and now own three different length raccoon coats. I love them. They are great fun to wear in the cold being the warmest coat possible. I love the comments too –varied, but all positive.

    I am aware of the anti-fur movement, which appears more political than compassionate. However, I am very knowlegable of modern fur farming practices and am comfortable wearing my raccoon coats –all pre-owned by the way. Hopefully The Brooks Brothers offering will spark the latest revival! The economy be damned.

  5. Kentfield, you should email me a photo of you wearing a coat. I’m sure we’d all be interested to see one in action here in 2009.

  6. An ebay seller once had a raccoon coat by Langrock. An Ivy League Fad sold by an Ivy League outfitter. It was amazing.
    It was also not my size.

  7. I too would love a fur coat (racoon or otherwise). Alas, I live in South Carlina where it would be wearable, at most, once a year…

  8. Christian,

    A belated follow-up that I have sent you a picture that you requested.

    And to the others above — as I write this much later in 2011 – we should form an online group of sorts that promotes the “raccoon coat” as a classic icon, and a fun, fashionable and practical way to fight the cold.

    Any takers?

    email at rongav@gmail.com

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