One of the most salient characteristics of the Ivy League Look is the hook vent on suits and sportcoats. Though primarily associated with J. Press — where it became a brand signature along with the combed Shetland sweater and the button-flap oxford shirt — the hook vent was also a common feature on jackets from brands like Norman Hilton that catered to independent campus shops. It was also occasionally seen at Brooks Brothers.
But today, save for J. Press, the hook vent has all but disappeared from the menswear marketplace.
It’s a detail whose origins and function I got to thinking about recently when I took a vintage Press sportcoat to Paul Winston, who worked at legendary clothier Chipp from the ’60s to the ’80s. The jacket had a vent that was some 11.5 inches, much too high for me. I had Paul re-hook it down to 9.
Though hook vents were standard at Chipp, Paul could shed no light on their origin. As to whether they were purely decorative or also functional, he did note that the off-center placement helps keep one’s derriere covered. Proponents of side vents will tell you that the problem with a single vent is that it is unbecoming on a man, constantly exposing his rear end.
I checked in with other menswear savants, but no one could speak conclusively. While Ivy League Look features such as natural shoulders are something we can interpret the ethos of (naturalness, unaffectedness, casualness), and while it’s easier to suggest the function of the hook vent, its origins are apparently lost to history.
Here are some thoughts, however, from various menswear experts. First up, Nick Hilton, son of Norman:
My feeling is that the hook vent probably was thought a necessary feature of a jacket back with a lapped center seam. Its function was to allow enough facing inside the vent to hide the trouser waist, shirt, etc. The “hook” brings the vent edge an inch or so off-center and provides more coverage. The lapped seam details and “swelled” edges were characteristic of more casual tailoring techniques, easier to affect than the hand-intensive bluff edge and plain seams necessary on suits because they (especially the edges) are done by machine.
More interesting is the bygone understanding that sport jackets are not just suits without pants, the approach taken by the majority of today’s manufacturers. Sport jackets are a more dignified form of outerwear, form following function.
G. Bruce Boyer emailed the following:
I thought we had agreed you’d only ask me easy questions. I’m ashamed to say don’t know anything about the history of the hook vent, and none of the clothing encyclopedias I’ve consulted have anything to say on the subject. I’ll ask my friend Len Logsdail if he thinks there are any English origins. It is of course the most Ivy League detail on a coat after natural shoulders and a soft chest.
Boyer later sent the following:
Logsdail says it’s an English tradition that started originally for evening tailcoats and morning coats, purely as a decorative detail. Men liked it and started to bespeak it on their business and sporting coats. So it’s all a bit ironic, isn’t it, that something with such formal origins is now associated with much more casual dress.
But if the hook vent’s roots are English (as most sartorial traditions are), what accounts for its apparently total absence in English tailoring? Wrote Boyer:
I’ve been familiar with English tailors since the 1960s and have never known any to do a hook vent on regular business suits or sports jackets. Lapped seams yes, but not hooked vents. My assumption is that it’s been purely an American Ivy League thing since before World War II.
Ivy-Style contributor Zachary DeLuca speculated the following:
The hooked vent probably had its origins in the same place that lapped seams did: outdoor riding or weather gear. Lapping is a stronger way of finishing a seam, which is why it is often found on raincoats and blue jeans. The L-hook of the vent is probably there to distribute the tension that is placed on a center vent when the jacket is pulled tightly across the back for whatever reason. Imagine pulling both sides of the vent apart on a non-hook center vent, and then imagine that same action done on a hooked vent. The tension doesn’t rip directly up the seam in the same way. Like the “button on center” stance, it was probably popularized by J. Press, though certainly not invented.
Alan Flusser had this to say:
As for the hooked vent, can’t say I know much about its origins, other than once it was cut, it could never be removed. As for J. Press, I have never seen its invention attributed to them, nor have they, the original Press family, ever told me that. I also would have to be shown how they stay more closed than a regular vent, although they did tend to be shorter vents, so that might account for the claim.
The other point about the vent, now that I think about it, is that because it has two rows of stitches across its top, it was a sporty touch, therefore intended on a coat trimmed with 3/8 or 5/16″ stitching on its lapels, pockets, etc., meaning it was not to be on a dressy suit. In any event, single vents with or without hooked construction were style details that reminded the sartorial cognosenti of what they were trying to distance themselves from. It was supremely allergic to English style and tailoring elegance.
Finally I called Denis Black, manager of the J. Press store in Cambridge and the company’s official spokesman.
Black said there have been stories that Irving Press invented the hook vent, but in fact he simply popularized it. It has been a feature on Press jackets at least before World War II. The vent is stronger than a traditional single vent, and helps cover the derriere, Black said.
Today hook vents are still on 99 percent of J. Press suits and sportcoats. “It’s an identifying trademark,” Black said, “just like the pocket-flap oxford and the Shaggy Dog sweater, that men looked for in others in the professional world.” — CHRISTIAN CHENSVOLD