A summer memory that always makes me smile was the one morning when I escorted my son on to his school bus. I was standing at the front of the bus when I heard a precious pipsqueak bellow, “That man is wearing pink pants!” As the bus monitors tried to shut him up, he continued to shout, “Someone please tell me why he is wearing pink pants!”
I would have loved to have told him, but the adult nuance would have been lost on him. And in truth, he had a point in an emperor’s-new-clothes sort of way. Pink pants, in this case canvas Nantucket Reds, are something one swears by or swears at. I became a convert after seeing them featured in the December 1993 issue of Cape Cod Life.
This year marks the 70th anniversary of Murray’s Toggery Shop of Nantucket. But there was a time when I did not know what Nantucket Reds were. In the world of classic clothes, the trouser I first associated with nautical history was the white duck, from a corruption the Dutch word doek. Duck at one time was linen and even today sometime appears as a blend, but for the most part modern duck is considered to be a type of cotton canvas.
White ducks’ more flamboyant cousin are the red sail canvas trousers in the color known as Breton red. In Brittany, France, sails were dressed red as a rot resistant measure, and the local seafaring folk also wore trousers and smocks in red. Red trousers would be adopted by yachtsman, as evidenced by the day uniform of the New York Yacht club and other non-commercial sailors. The red trousers, along with Breton striped shirts and espadrilles, would make up a resort uniform for those who frequented the coastal areas of Europe, such as the French Riviera and Costa del Sol.
City Clothing Company was a Nantucket Main Street store founded in 1908 and owned by Philip Genesky. According to the local paper, the Geneskys were a “pioneer Jewish family” from New Bedford. Philip’s son Emile managed the Nantucket store. This store was later torn down, and in 1916 a new store opened at 62 Main Street called the Toggery Shop. Emile was married in 1924 and moved back to New Bedford, but kept a summer place on the Cliff until his death in 1957. Genesky hired Phil Murray Jr. to manage his Main Street store, an easy choice since he had been working in retail since he was 14. Murray’s other occupation was that of a scallop fisherman, which he gave up to run the store. It’s worth noting that red sails are also anecdotally associated with The Nantucket Scallop fleet.
Philip Murray, Jr. was born in 1890. The Inquirer & Mirror describes his father as a “stowaway from the Azores” who “arrived on the island as a coal shoveler on a steam boat that ran between New Bedford and Nantucket.” Trish Murray Bridier, current vice president of Murray’s Toggery Shop, does not recall her great-grandfather being a coal shoveler, but did tell Ivy Style that he was from Graciosa and at age 12 stowed away. “He came to Nantucket to work as a day laborer when the cranberry bogs were being built off the Polpis Road,” she says.
The depression took a financial toll on Genesky, leaving his Nantucket store as his most significant remaining asset. Genesky sold the Toggery shop to Murray in 1945. Murray borrowed money from his brother Herbert, who owned a package store, to finance the purchase. The shop had traditionally been where island workers bought their clothes. Murray’s Toggery Shop carried such staples as footwear, waders, and hunting clothes and outerwear. The shop which is now where the current men’s department is was a dimly lit room with a linoleum floor and filled with wooden cases with glass tops. The red trousers at the time were made by the firm of M. Hoffman of Boston, a name largely forgotten but which still resonates with vintage workwear aficionados.
Philip C. Murray, the son of Philip Murray, Jr. and Alice Murray (neé Chase), was born at the Nantucket Cottage Hospital in 1921. Philip grew up on the island and graduated from Nantucket High School in 1939. He worked nights at the Steamship Authority to earn money for college. He made the trip off island to go to the small liberal arts college of Oberlin, in Ohio, where he studied economics. Murray was a veteran of World War II, having served in the Philippines. He met his future wife Elizabeth R. Cumby of Blackstone, Virginia, while he was in the service. They went on a blind date and later, while in training, he called her to ask whether she thought they could live on a lieutenant’s salary. “She thought he was crazy,” recalls Murray Bridier. But they were married in 1945 and spent 61 years together. After the war, Murray spent five years in Richmond with the American Legion, helping veterans transition to civilian life.
Nantucket was calling its native son back home, and Murray returned with his family via the steamboat from Woods Hole in 1951. Philip C. Murray went to work for his father at the Toggery Shop. The first job his father tasked him with was to sweep outside the store. His thundering voice and gregarious laugh rising from the pavement, it was a job he performed with vigor until his retirement. Murray bought the store from his father in 1959, with Philip, Jr. dying in December of that year. Philip C. got rid of his father’s deadstock and bought the neighboring Louis Coffin Dry Goods Store in 1963, which became the women’s department. The men’s department also was renovated in the 1960s. To promote this, he bought a pony, led it up into men’s window on Main Street, and raffled it off, says Murray Bridier. A curious bit of retail history is that Roland H. Macy got his retail start in a storefront located somewhere on Murray’s Toggery property. Historian Edouard Stackpole wasn’t sure if it was on the Fair Street side or the part between the ladies men’s area, according to Murray Bridier.
Iconic items and apocryphal tales go hand in hand. General manager Gilles Bridier once found several customers gathered around salesman Ed Walton. They listened intently and chuckled as Walton spun the tale of Murray getting the inspiration for reds by falling into a Cranberry bog while wearing stone-colored trousers. What is true is that before they were called Nantucket Reds, the summer girls who worked in the shop called them Hulbert Avenue Reds, in the same way Belgian Shoes are called Foxcroft slippers. Murray preferred to go with Nantucket Reds and his greatest business coup was recognizing the potential of the store’s red trousers. Over the years Murray launched a whole line of red products and had the foresight to trademark Nantucket Reds in 1980. What was once private-label trousers have become a recognized brand name. Orvis, for example, encourages its catalog readers to “own the originals,” and has been selling Murray’s Toggery Shop products since 2011. Some readers might be surprised by Murray’s own preference. “My dad wore the Nantucket red caps, shorts and sometimes the long-sleeved shirt, but not the pants,” Murray Bridier confesses.
In the late 1950s, the trousers were made by the British sail company Rockall. Traditionally, red sail cloth loses color and fades to a bricky pink. It is this shade that has been coveted over the years. It is a process that naturally happens, yet it did not stop resourceful individuals from doing boat drags and salt water soaks, followed by a dry in the sun to hasten the process. When the trousers were sourced from Berle and made in Georgia at the Gips plant, the tags came with a warning — as if anyone needed it — that the trousers were designed to fade. Interestingly enough, the trousers shed color even unwashed, which can be seen if one has ever examined an unworn vintage pair that has turned the white lining pink.
Five years after Tom Wolfe observed Boston men wearing what’s now referred to as air-mail red trousers on Martha’s Vineyard, Murray’s Toggery and its Nantucket Reds were officially canonized in 1981 with the publication of “The Official Preppy Handbook.” Murray’s was designated the official outfitter for all island activities, while Reds were number five on the approved trouser list. They were to be worn any time, and were “de rigueur at country and yacht club affairs with a blazer and club tie.” When Business Digest asked Murray about the endorsement in 1986, he laughed and said, “We got a lot of business because of that book.”
Nantucket Reds are curiously much discussed on the Interwebs. There is anxiety expressed by some because new they are not red enough, even though they still want them to end up pink. Then there is the outsourcing debate, which has been ameliorated to some degree with the new American-made M Crest line by Gitman. The fashion press also speculates over whether red trousers are in or out, and hand-ring over the signaling of privilege. And yet Murray’s Toggery beats on.
For a trouser that causes such consternation, It has not stopped mass-market retailers from offering up their own alternative version. I am not going to address the big names, but will say that there are some contrarians out their who have sourced red trousers from places like Nobby, Haul Over, Puritan Cape Cod, Brickmans, and Mark & Fore and Strike. Over the years, some these retailers have offered canvas, but a twill seems to be the offering of most of Murray’s current competitors. Regardless of the brand, if an individual is wearing red pigment-dyed clothing that throws color, he owes a tip of his Breton cap to Philip C. Murray for being such a relentless champion of what you might call red-y-to-wear.
Philip C. Murray died in 2007, followed by general manager Gilles Bridier in 2010. Although their loss was felt immensely on the island, the Nantucket Reds legacy continues, and visitors will still find a family shop now in its fourth generation, which also includes the Castaway Clothing brand. Philip Murray’s son John explained their retail philosophy to Business Digest thusly: “We always have a member of the family on the floor. We want our customers to know us… We try to know them, too. We want our customers to feel comfortable here and come back.”
Red trousers are a fault line. They are loved and hated, a badge of honor and a thing of derision. Some wearers are sincere, while others are ironic. As with Mickey Mouse ears at Disneyland, I suspect some island visitors buy them because it is the thing to do. Which might explain the barely worn Nantucket Reds that show up on ebay. Others may be swept up with emotion and the seductive lure of island life.
I don’t really blame them: romanticism is a gentle persuader. I was reminded of this recently when after surviving the brutal winter, I rushed into wearing reds on the first warm day. It was before a matinee performance of the local opera company. A friend spotted me across the room, walked up, and said, “I like your reds, you look like you should be in Nantucket drinking a G&T.”
I smiled and said, “I wish.” Strangely enough, sometimes the talismanic power of things like Reds is magnified the farther one gets from the island. — CHRISTOPHER SHARP