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