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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

(continued from page 1)

The Button-Down Shirt
The story is that, in 1896, John Brooks (the retired president of Brooks Brothers and grandson of its founder, Henry Brooks), while vacationing in England, took in a polo match. Naturally accustomed to observing the finer points and details of dress, he was fascinated to note that the English players wore shirts on which the long collar points were buttoned down to the shirt body at their points. It was explained to him that the buttons kept the points from flapping in the face during the vigorous riding. Brooks immediately went out and bought several of the shirts and shipped them home to his tailors, with instructions to produce the detail and add the style to the Brooks Brothers line.

At Brooks Brothers, the shirt is still referred to as a "polo" collar, and has been so widely imitated that virtually every shirt company does a version of it. Not to worry, as they say: the Brooks button-down has never been successfully duplicated or improved upon. The classic is done in oxford cloth shirting--blue and white are the traditional colors, but yellow and pink have always been favored by the more spirited--with precise 3 3/8-inch collar points and a simple barrel cuff.

This is the kind of thing that can make a guy, as the astute columnist George Frazier noted upon his introduction to famed writer John O'Hara. Charles Fountain tells the story in Another Man's Poison: The Life and Writing of Columnist George Frazier:

One night at Nick's, a jazz club in New York's Greenwich Village and a favorite hangout of O'Hara's, trumpeter Bobby Hackett, a friend of George's from the Boston jazz scene, brought George over to the author's table and introduced him. "Sit down and have a drink," said O'Hara warmly. "You're welcome at my table. You're wearing a Brooks Brothers shirt."

Call them what you will: blue jeans (from Genes, French for Genoa), denims (from the French serge de Nîmes), dungarees (from the Hindi dungri), or Levi's (after Levi Strauss). What we are talking about--whether they're big and baggy or straight and tight--is coarse cotton-twill trousers, dyed indigo blue, with prominent stitching, rear patch pockets and no crease down the leg center.

The fabric is variously said to have originated in Genoa, Nîmes or Bombay. But there is little doubt about who first popularized the product: Levi Strauss, a Bavarian immigrant, dry-goods wholesaler and itinerant peddler extraordinaire. According to the legend, Strauss went West, along with thousands of others who were hoping to profit from the discovery of gold in California in 1848. He took along bolts of heavy canvas from which he intended to sell tenting to the miners. They didn't need tents, he discovered, they needed clothes, particularly thick trousers that could withstand the rigors of mine work.

Strauss quickly found a tailor in San Francisco to turn the coarse cotton tenting into trousers. All of the details we associate with the pants were incorporated during the next several years: the indigo blue color, the copper rivets, the orange stitching; the very shape and silhouette of those early pairs are almost identical to the straight-legged variety worn today. Strauss originated the double arch stitched on the back pockets, the oldest trademark of any American apparel.

The great cult following came in the late 1940s and early '50s, when jeans were taken up by guys who favored the motorcycle look: short black leather jackets, T-shirts, jeans and engineer's boots. Europe discovered jeans during the '60s, and by the '70s a dozen or so companies had joined the prominent three American producers--Levi's, Wrangler and Lee--in bombarding the market. Today, virtually every designer has a line of jeans in his collection, and perhaps hundreds of manufacturers internationally have entered the market, with such a wide range of colors, styles and fabrics that calling such productions "jeans" boggles the body as well as the mind. At Levi Strauss & Co., nine different silhouettes now wear its famous red-tab label, the classic trim-fitted "501" among them. (The others include three loose-fitting models, several relaxed cut models and a "boot cut" version.)

Cowboy Boots
It's one of the great ironies that one of the most utilitarian of outfits evolved, for a short but memorable period at least, into one of the most ornate. Cowboy gear in America developed on the plains and pastures of the Southwest, particularly among those who herded cattle on the open grazing lands of Texas. The colorful period of the "long drives" lasted a mere 30 years or so, from the end of the Civil War to the turn of the century, but it produced the most vibrant, heroic image of our national life: the American cowboy.

Thousands of head of Texas longhorns were driven up the legendary Chisholm Trail from southern Texas to Wichita and Abilene, Kansas. It was a lonely and arduous undertaking, and, from hard experience, the cowboy's clothes were designed to offer protection, if not solace. His wide-brimmed hat and calico bandanna insulated him from the scorching sun and the choking dust, while tough leather gauntlets and chaps (seatless overtrousers of rugged leather) took the assaults of rope, sagebrush and animal bites. The boots, the most expensive aspect of the gear, were a special consideration: heels were high--about two inches, to prevent the rider from slipping in the stirrups--and sharply underslung to dig into the ground while cattle were being roped; arches were high and tight; and toes were pointed, to make getting into the stirrups easier and staying there less fatiguing. The upper part of the boot was cut high and straight, just below the knee, and made of tough leather to protect the leg from horse sweat, cactus needles, snakebite, flailing cow hooves and the dozens of other hazards of life on the range.

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