The Traditionalist’s Hit Parade

In light of the recent J. Press news, let’s “squeeze” in this New York Times piece from 2000.

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The Traditionalist’s Hit Parade
By Ginia Bellafante
12/19/2000

Not too long ago, in an attempt to compete with the world’s Gaps and Banana Republics, Brooks Brothers transformed itself from the kind of store that might dress a young man for his John Knowles life into one that might dress him for his Olive Garden life. Like Talbots, which has also shifted its focus, Brooks Brothers now attracts legions of customers who have never used ”summer” as a verb; it has even gone so far in its efforts at democratization as to issue a CD featuring the music of Santana.

As old guard purveyors of East Coast establishment style enlarge their tents, and as the fashion world pumps out a slightly mocking simulacrum of it, one might wonder — if one wonders about things like madras patchwork pants — where that culture’s authentic retail experience can still be had.

A tour through the more antiquated precincts of the Cheeveresque life would begin at J. Press on East 44th Street, which even during the holiday season rarely feels bustling. Depending on one’s perceptions of privileged people, J. Press either gives rise to visions of Beefeater-saturated extramarital affairs behind the tennis courts at the Greenwich Field Club or remains the proper and unpretentious place to buy a whale-print belt.

Press offers all the accouterments of an idealized life in which good bloodlines dominate: Black Watch plaid pants, grosgrain watch straps, ties with ducks on them — all presented without irony or shame. Although the store is now owned by Onward Kashiyama, the Japanese fashion conglomerate that has also invested in Alexander McQueen, its claims to the universe it is hawking are not false. It was first opened in 1902 by a Russian immigrant, Jacobi Press, in New Haven and suited members of the Yale faculty. ”We were credited with creating the Ivy League look,” said Arthur Noble, who manages the store’s Washington branch. That look was essentially a four-piece suit, comprising a sports coat, vest, trousers and plus fours to wear with the coat on weekends. ”We haven’t changed a lot in 98 years,” Mr. Noble said. ”But we don’t sell the knickers anymore.”

A man who outfits himself at J. Press might well have a pair of Belgian shoes in his closet, or if not, he’d be looking for a woman who did. Unlike, say, duck ties, Belgian shoes are an essential part of the prep wardrobe, carrying an image more genuinely exclusive than goofy. Part of the reason is that the fashion world embraced them in the 1970’s, and part of it is that they can be found in only one spot, Belgian Shoes, on East 55th Street. The store was opened in 1956 by Henri Bendel, originally one block away. It still maintains the genteel hours of 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. and started opening on Saturdays only last year.

The store has had the same manager for 44 years, Margaret Cardone, a native of Queens, who will tell you first and foremost that the Belgian shoe, a piped, bowed, slip-on affair, ”is not a loafer.” Like other elements of the prep iconography, Belgian shoes, brought to this country from Belgium in 1955, were intended for times spent swirling swizzle sticks in Palm Beach and on Harbour Island. Like many of their wearers, Belgian shoes aren’t meant to do much at all. ”You have to remember, the people who wore these didn’t go to work,” Ms. Cardone said, standing in front of a shelf full of shoes in pastels and bright yellow with contrasting piping. ”This is not a shoe to be worn all day.”

Lest the Times become cross with us, head over here for the rest of the piece

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24 Comments on "The Traditionalist’s Hit Parade"

  1. Evan Everhart | August 8, 2018 at 7:55 pm |

    I fiund this article to be thoroughly engaging, and even fascinating, and informative, that is until they began to engage in Belgian Onanism. I thought the article was supposed to be about J Press or BB? Oh well….I don’t know that I’d spend the time to review the rest in light of the Belgian rhapsody present in this limited excerpt. Thanks for the intro and opportunity to rip on those “slippers” regardless!

  2. Evan Everhart | August 8, 2018 at 7:56 pm |

    *found.
    -apologies; cell phone typing.

  3. Evan Everhart | August 8, 2018 at 8:02 pm |

    Hate to rant here, but I simply cannot fathom the pirpose or appeal of the Belgian slipper.

    Opera pumps, Church’s Achilles slippers, Velvet house slippers, even embroidered ones, even espadrilles I can understand, but those things just exceed the limits of perniciously precocious preciousness.

  4. Magnificently written. Cheeveresque.

  5. Belgians are mentioned because the article is about some of the remaining trad hot spots in Manhattan. Those shoes are de rigueur among the metropolitan set.

  6. Evan Everhart | August 8, 2018 at 10:34 pm |

    @GS:

    I realized what was being done, but I still cannot underwrite any support for those “things”. I suppose it seems neurotic or even trivial, but I really do find that those things inspire an irresistable feeling of abhorrence at thier repugnant lack of syle or purpose, to my own taste.

    To be fair, while I cannot abide them, I would not say anything to someone else wearing them.

  7. Evan Everhart | August 8, 2018 at 10:40 pm |

    I suppose from my incessant ranting about my hatred of Belgian slippers it has become some sort of idee fixe. Apologies for negative obsession.

  8. Evan, that’s alright they’re not for everybody. Besides, I’ve read far more vicious screeds written about bit loafers like you wouldn’t believe. You’d think that these shoes had actually caused people harm.

  9. Boston Bean | August 9, 2018 at 12:58 am |

    GS,
    Bit loafers may not have done people harm, but they seem to appeal to an ostentatious personality type. That may help to explain why the reaction to them—on the part of those who abhor ostentation—has been so strong. Peace.

  10. Ugh. Belgian’s prompt the gag reflex like, well, nothing else. “Bit loafers,” new Patek’s, and shiny new Porsche SUV’s are runner-ups.

  11. Charlottesville | August 9, 2018 at 10:51 am |

    Well written, delightful piece. The opening line is the very best encapsulation of what has happened to Brooks I have seen. Bravo.

  12. Christian, this is a timely, well-written,thought provoking, fun piece with just the right amount of commentary that is both sardonic and self-aware. Pieces like these keep me coming back to this wonderful site! Thanks.

  13. Boston Bean & S.E., because WASPs are famous for their ostentatious personality and their love of shiny new cars, right? It is well known that WASPs favor bit loafers (and are about the only people who even wear Belgians, or at least popularized them), don’t let your personal distaste for the shoe forget this fact.

    Evan, see what I mean? Even mentioning the shoe rankles people’s sensibilities. 😉

  14. Boston Bean | August 9, 2018 at 3:26 pm |

    GS,
    It’s a matter of having standards of good taste.
    When one violates those standards, the sensibilities of people of good taste are rankled and they are more determined than ever to maintain those standards.

  15. Mr. Bean, Ivy/Trad style was formed by WASPs who, I should hope you agree, have standards of good taste. They also embrace bit loafers and helped popularize them. They clearly do not believe that a simple loafer adorned with a horse bit violates the standards of good taste. I would assume that by visiting this site you take your style cues from these people.

  16. Isn’t it true that any attempt to define a phrase (in this case, barely) so vague/general/abstract as “WASP” will result in all sorts of failure? Futility. “They also embrace bit loafers”– ??. Who constitutes “they”?

    I know plenty of “WASPs” who favor a more traditional, maybe understated, almost certainly New England(y) vibe–tweedy, outdoorsy, fuzzy, ruddy. Plain toe bluchers with suits and a simple penny loafer with khakis. More Proper Bostonian than Palm Beach or country club GTH. Consider the multitudes of Old Guard WASPs who favored small, discreet quiet coastal (or mountain) towns to the pink-and-green flamboyance of Palm Beach.

    Shall we permit the Greenwich-Palm Beach crowd to set the standards? If so, you end up with style defined (merely) by rich people who want you know to just how rich they are. When I see bit loafers, I don’t think “Ah, must be a WASP!” I think lots of other things, but not that.

    I have no doubt I’ll see plenty of bit loafers at a reunion I’ll attend next spring–along with new Barbour jackets, pink pants, spread collar shirts, updated traditional jackets and blazers…and alligator belts. We all know the look. (“sophisticated preppy”). Usually paired with the Range Rover, Audi, or BMW (probably leased) in the driveway. We’re all familiar with the vibe, which is alive and well in plenty of upscale suburbs. Just shy of gaudy.

  17. S.E., it is rather clear that by “they” I meant WASPs. You claim that WASP is a vague term then go on to describe your preferred style of WASP: the tweedy New Englander. The WASP has many facets, you even listed a few (Palm Beach and Country Club GTH which both employ the bit loafer in their wardrobes) and, as was my original point, just because you do not personally like a particular style/item does not mean it is not part of the trad/WASP canon.

  18. NaturalShoulder | August 9, 2018 at 11:14 pm |

    Quite an enjoyable read but I never thought J.Press patrons would have been Belgian loafer fans. Paul Stuart patrons, sure.

  19. Funny–a really well made calfskin Weejunesque penny loafer by Rancourt is just as expensive than an Alden “bit loafer.”

    GS, I’ll grant that I’ve been a tad unfair because of certain affiliations with the shoes in question. I agree with NaturalShoulder that the Belgian seems more Paul Stuart than J. Press. Ditto for the bit.

    For some reason (I can’t fully explain), I like both (Belgian and bit) for women.

  20. trace bearden | August 10, 2018 at 9:20 am |

    From a Crimson report about the closing:
    “In particular, J. Press specializes in the “Ivy League look,” a style whose heyday came in the mid-20th century. Of more than a dozen men’s clothing stores in the Square that carried the style at the time, only J. Press and fellow haberdashery the Andover Shop have remained.”

    And then there were none.

  21. NaturalShoulder | August 10, 2018 at 4:20 pm |

    @ S.E. wearing my Rancourt loafers in shell today. Fantastic shoe and well worth the investment.

  22. Johnny Bravo | August 14, 2018 at 4:05 pm |

    Belgian loafers are for women for God’s sake…

  23. Thank God, J. Press is still the proper place to buy a whale-print belt:

    https://jpressonline.com/collections/belts/products/whale

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