The Swiss Army Knife of Tailored Jackets

Back in 2011 I wrote a little piece on the navy blazer for Gilt MANual, calling it the Swiss Army Knife of tailored jackets. And yes, I’ve actually worn it as a warm-up jacket to the tennis court. That’s probably a bit affected, but it was rather enjoyable, and probably for that reason. One thinks of ’30s Apparel Arts illustrations, Ralph Lauren ads, and the film “Evil Under The Sun,” one of my favorites for interwar resort style.

While writing it, I thought of the 1964 Yale student in the photo above, who downplays his rep-striped and blazered propriety with sunglasses indoors and no socks, which, speaking of affectation, somehow seems a lot more natural in front of the lens of LIFE Magazine in 1964 than in front of street-style photographers since 2011.

The text has disappeared from the web, but I disinterred it from the digital graveyard and present it here:

The Navy Blazer
By Christian Chensvold
For Gilt Manual, 2011

There’s a great Life archives shot that circulated through the style blogosphere some time ago: it pictured a Yalie, in 1964, wearing his navy blazer with shirt and tie, but accessorized with Wayfarers, Weejuns sans socks, and what appear to be flood-length white jeans.

The navy blazer is as essential as an essential can be—the Swiss Army knife of tailored jackets—and for good reason. It will get you through most occasions where a shirt and tie are required, yet pairs just as easily with the preppy uniform of polo shirt, khakis and boat shoes—or with distressed jeans, driving moccasins and an Italian accent. “I’ve never known a well dressed guy who didn’t own one, and wear it,” notes menswear historian G. Bruce Boyer. (When the City of New York unveiled its silver statue of Andy Warhol in Union Square this year, even the disheveled pop artist was immortalized in his Brooks Brothers blazer.)

But the secret to wearing it with style is playing against type, counter-punching its aura of tradition with irreverence, personal quirks and a dose of the unexpected. Try wearing it as a warm-up jacket some foggy morning to a sporting event—you know, the kind you participate in, not watch while chugging beer. Or use it as an extra layer on a snowy winter day, under a quilted jacket with cords, tattered sweater, and rubber boots.

There’s a peculiar irony in so much versatility coming from an item with so strict a definition. The blazer, whose origins are nautical, is not something that can be fooled around with very much without becoming something else. While button stance, vent(s) and ticket pocket are options, buttons should be brass, enamel, or mother of pearl, and fabrics are essentially limited to wool and cashmere. A blue linen version with tan buttons may be a fine jacket, but it’s not a blazer.

Speaking of which, perhaps because it sounds cooler, “blazer” has lately been used by the fashion media to refer to any kind of tailored jacket without matching pants, which is kind of like referring to your necktie as a “cravat” because it sounds more dandyish. This must end. The blazer has served generations of men, show it the respect it deserves.

26 Comments on "The Swiss Army Knife of Tailored Jackets"

  1. It also helps that he looks like Don Draper

  2. I picked up a navy double-breasted blazer just a few months ago. I spent a fair amount of time trying to decide on the buttons, but went with traditional gold in the end. The fact that gold is currently out of “fashion” makes them all the more alluring.

    I did discover an interesting factoid during my navy blazer research. A friend of mine is a retired British R.N. submarine commander. He advised me that while gold buttons are the standard for British navy and merchant marine, black buttons are traditional on navy blazers of U.K. yacht club officers.

  3. Notice also the classic East Coast styling: two-button sleeves and a three-two roll front.

    I wonder if in today’s casual world the navy blazer is still as versatile as it once was (and ought to be still). Regardless, I still wear one once a week. I often wear one to church, too; somehow, that just seems right.

    J Kraus, I’m jealous–I’d like to pick up a nice double-breasted one someday, too. If I could only find such a beast!

  4. I think you can wear one anytime, anywhere. Once I was told I looked like a preacher, but the guy that said that was wearing a jogging suit with Crocs shoes.

  5. How long did you wear it warming up on the tennis court? I could imagine getting hot very quickly in a jacket like that!

  6. But without street style photographers, I would still think that tan cargo pants don’t mix well with a peak-lapel dinner jacket. Silly me. And who can forget: ?

  7. James, I said I wore it TO the tennis court, not ON it. I’m not that affected!

  8. Since when is an off-the-peg navy blazer a “tailored jacket”?

  9. A “tailored” jacket as opposed to a parka or Baracuta jacket.

    “Tailored clothing” is an apparel industry term for suits, sportcoats and trousers, as opposed to sportswear.

    Perhaps I should’ve used a non-industry term.

  10. I think “tailored clothing” is a term known well beyond industry insiders. No need to dumb it down, Christian.


  11. Amen as to the no-socks look. Just about as affected as deliberately spilling paint on your pants.

  12. I think the picture above (sunglasses, sockless)is rather stupid. When can sartorial world abandon the obsession of going sockless? And I personally find the excessive nostalgia of “people in the 60s were better dressed” annoying. Sure student body did dress conservatively back then, but it was due to the conformist environment of “getting in”, “be part of the group” other than”I dress to better present myself and showing my individuality.” That is why we see so many dumb dressers in the 60s magazines and the way of dressing traditionally went down hill in the wake of the civil right movements. There was simply no solid base even back then.

  13. Chenlong, young people (late teens-early twenties) are at the most group-conscious stage of their lives. Young people are extremely conformist in their dress: they conform to each other. It just so happens that at present, the way to be cool is to be “non-conformist,” so many young people conform to that by getting tattoos, wearing ghetto clothes, wearing baseball caps backwards (or at an angle), etc.

  14. BlazersKhakisNattys | September 28, 2011 at 9:13 pm |

    The more things change, the more things stay the same.

  15. Well, unfortunately I do fall into the age group of late teens-early twenties and I don’t quite share your opinion. Young lads like me are still largely in a conformist environment, except the dressing norms have changed: instead of suits, sport coats and sweaters we have sweat shirts, sweat pants, jeans and sneakers. And minority who wants to”make a statement” opt for tattoos and ghetto clothes. Tattoos and ghetto clothes are somewhat like hot pink pants and loud madras: they are sometimes admired, but certainly not majority’s choice. So to conclude, people haven’t changed as much as time has. But then again, I do know people around my age surf the internet and get the right knowledge about clothes, so there is yet hope…

  16. Christopher Landauer | September 29, 2011 at 1:03 am |

    I’m wondering if this is a dig at me, as I’m the only one here who’s entitled to use a Swiss army knife!

    Maybe I’m getting paranoid…

  17. Chenlong,

    The thing I’ve noticed is that at least some young people are rebelling against the Kasual Kulture of their parents (largely the Boomers) and are opting for jackets, ties, and chinos. I read that sales of bow ties have risen sharply in the past few years as well.

    This bodes well for men dressing well, dressing nicely, dressing appropriately again, rather than treating every occasion as another opportunity to thumb their noses at “the man” and wear sweats, jeans, and tennies.

    (I can hope, can’t I?)

  18. There was/is plenty of room for individualization and expression of personal taste and values within the supposed “conservative” style of dress. It may be that fewer people are aware of where to look for the cues, for example in the picture featured here.

    Personally, I don’t think any “style” is inherently “better”. For me, its just a matter of what rationales motivate an individual’s choice. In any era, two people could arrive at the exact same look based on either wanting to fit in or a deep appreciation of and/or the personal significance of a garment.

  19. For a young guy like me that doesn’t have the bank account to buy all sorts of odd jackets, the blazer is the most important item in my closet. I wear it with a different pair of pants each time, and it looks like I have a completely different outfit on each day.

  20. I bought my first BB two-button blue blazer two sweeks ago and just picked it up Sunday after alterations. It fits fabulously and gives you a very trim and tucked-in profile. I can’t wait to wear it out. I have prescription sunglasses that are gold-mirrored that I think will look wonderfully incongruous. Like a lot of people, I got tired of wearing sloppy clothing and gradually started to incorporate a more tailored look into my wardrobe. It’s not difficult, you feel much better and people react positively for the most part. Thoses that don’t probably hate that they look so disheveled standing next to you. I look forward to finding different ways to give it an edge.

  21. jiheison,

    Absolutely: there is a surprising amount of leeway for personalization in business attire. Of course, there’s more for some environments than others, but even physicians and lawyers can do a lot with a suit and tie to look trustworthy and sharp at the same time.

    I disagree with the notion that “all styles are created equal,” however. This is not the level of “a two-button jacket is better/worse than a three-roll-two”; this is the level of “dressing like an adult is better than not.” It means dressing for the time, place, and occasion (and season, of course).

    So shorts and flip-flops, while great at the beach, are wrong for church.

    But I might be misinterpreting what you meant. Perhaps you were talking about the former and not the latter.

  22. Coolest guy who ever lived.

  23. I’m with Danny N from 2012, that kid is cool.

  24. I call it the little black dress of menswear.

  25. Robert Archambeau | November 5, 2020 at 7:16 am |

    In times of great instability, the navy blazer is an icon of steadiness. In times of deep division, it is an icon of shared values. In times when norms are flaunted, it remains a vital emblem of enduring good taste. Long may it wave!

  26. Also, I can’t stop gawking at that madras jacket. It’s just so gorgeous. The prospect of what colors lie therein is tantalizing.

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