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Fashion: American Dreams

Think All the Best Clothes Come From Europe? Just Look at These Home-Grown Classics
G. Bruce Boyer
From the Print Edition:
John F. Kennedy, Nov/Dec 98

The contemporary wardrobe of the American male contains a number of classic items that weren't all necessarily invented by us but are clothing styles whose genre we perfected, so to speak--popularized, made our own, and brought to the world anew and in an ideal form. I've chosen these pieces not merely because they're prototypical, the most famous, symbolic or ubiquitous, but also because they are the American fashion statements most popularly embraced by other countries and, as such, have had an international appeal and influence.

Americans' style of dress has, at least since the age of Andrew Jackson, been influenced by considerations of comfort on the one hand and by the impulse for equality on the other. This great "democratization of dress," if you will, is the reason we led the world in both ready-made clothing and sportswear. By the end of the nineteenth century, average Americans had become the best-dressed average people in the world. American clothing erased ethnic origins and blurred social distinctions. It is these two threads that have most decidedly woven the character and determined the course of men's clothing in the twentieth century.

The Seersucker Suit
American seersucker is a cotton version of the silk seersucker worn in the nineteenth century by the British in India. The word itself seems to be a Hindi corruption of a Persian phrase, shir shakkar, which translates as "milk and sugar." This etymology refers to the alternating smooth and rough textures of the stripes, the distinctive feature of the cloth, which is achieved by what is called slack-tension weaving: alternating fibers are held under normal tension, while intervening ones are kept slack to create a pattern of puckered and flat stripes. Seersucker's most distinguishing characteristic is its greatest stylistic virtue as well: it flaunts its rumpled state with aplomb.

It became popular as the perfect cloth for hot, humid climes. In the South, men began to wear seersucker suits in the summer around the turn of the century as a more comfortable alternative to flannel and linen, but they were considered a rather cheap approach to dressing and had little fashion allure until university men began wearing them after the First World War. They were seen at tony country clubs in the '30s and '40s but didn't really catch on with businessmen in the North until the end of the Second World War, as witnessed in a newspaper column written by that great writer and dandy Damon Runyon in July 1945:

I have been wearing coats of the material known as seersucker around New York lately, thereby causing much confusion among my friends. They know that seersucker is very cheap and they cannot reconcile its lowly status in the textile world with the character of Runyon, King of the Dudes. They cannot decide whether I am broke or just setting a new vogue.

Now considered a classic of the warm-weather wardrobe, the only thing about the seersucker suit that's changed--apart from its cachet, of course--is the price. In the '30s, the all-cotton beauty could be had for around $15. Today, the renowned American tailoring firm of Southwick still makes the original--the three-button, soft-shouldered model, with patch-and-flap pockets--for a cool $775.

The Striped Rep Tie
Let's get the nomenclature straight: when striped rep neckwear is discussed, the "rep" refers to the weave in the silk fabric, not to the repetitive pattern of the stripes. Most silk neckwear is produced in only a few weaves: rep (with longitudinal ribs), ottoman (with crosswise ribs), crepe (with a broad range of grained surface effects) and faille (with conspicuous crosswise ribs).

The necktie, of course, has a long history. Roman soldiers apparently wore cloths tied around their necks as protection from the sun, the cold and perhaps the odd sword swipe. The English word cravat is a corruption of the French word for Croatian, and came to be associated with neckwear because Louis XIV employed a troop of Croatian mercenaries who were fond of wearing colored ribbons around their necks. Then there was George "Beau" Brummell, who made his way up in society by dint of his wit and manners, the impeccable cut of his suits and fresh linen, and his ability to tie the most elegant neckband in London. It's not known whether Brummell wore striped neckwear, but in a self-portrait of a dandy named Ferdinand Georg Waldmuller done in 1828--the Beau had fled England a dozen years earlier and was then living in poverty in Calais--the artist is wearing white-and-blue striped neckwear. The American interest in the genre may well date from 1919, when the Duke of Windsor (then Prince of Wales) made his first visit to the United States. Fashion spotters were quick to report on everything he wore, and he was fond of displaying his regimental tie of broad blue-and-red stripes. (He was a former officer of the Grenadier Guards.) The Duke wrote amusingly of some confusion concerning the origins of that particular tie in his book Windsor Revisited:

Once in Washington, a reporter caught up with me and asked me what tie I was wearing. I replied: "The Guard's tie." Not seeming to understand me correctly, he repeated the question. "What kind of a tie?" I answered him again: "The Guard's tie." Misunderstanding my pronunciation he settled for "Gawd's tie." Afterwards he wrote in his column that I had "left this reporter doubtful as to whether the Almighty had actually ever devised a tie of his own."

Striped ties became collegiate favorites (whether they were regimental, club or college colors) in the years immediately following the First World War and have remained so ever since. The Robert Talbott Co. of Carmel, California, is the only U.S. manufacturer that regularly stocks a complete list of "Old School" college rep striped ties. The Ben Silver Collection, a catalogue of fine neckties in Charleston, South Carolina, lists a plethora of rep neckwear woven in England.


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