Fashion: American Dreams

Think All the Best Clothes Come From Europe? Just Look at These Home-Grown Classics
| By G. Bruce Boyer | From 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.

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.

The decline of the long-drive cowboys marked the emergence of the rhinestone variety of boots, which were popularized by actors on the stage and screen. Buck Taylor, who acted with the Buffalo Bill Troupe, was the first "King of the Cowboys." Then came the celluloid heroes: William S. Hart, Bronco Billy Anderson, Tom Mix, Tex Ritter and, at the pinnacle of the genre, Gene Autry and Roy Rogers. They were responsible for the most picturesque outfits ever worn by Americans: crimson shirts with lavender yokes and ornate cuffs, fancy pocket flaps, and pearl buttons; drainpipe pin-striped trousers with piped pockets and badge-shaped belt loops (the belts themselves of ornately detailed leather with large engraved silver buckles); fancy silk bandannas; wide-brimmed beaver felt hats with turquoise bands; and, of course, boots. Boots designed and made with more detail, artistry and color than were ever worn before or have been worn since: dove gray and citrus yellow, powder blue and orange, peacock blue and emerald green, and all of the most ingenious design. Merely to stitch an ornate monogram was absolute child's play compared with the cherry-red calfskin inlaid with white longhorn-steer heads or the sleek black ostrich hide decorated with climbing roses. Rogers was particularly fond of a pair that was ornamented with red, white and blue spread eagles.

The Leather Flight Jacket
Properly called the "U.S. Army Air Corps A-2 Flight Jacket," this most popular of garments ever issued to aviators was standardized by the U.S. Army in 1931 but found its greatest moments during the Second World War (as seen on Jimmy Doolittle, Flying Tiger commander Clair Chennault, Gen. Douglas MacArthur, the crew of the Enola Gay and thousands of other courageous soldiers). The backs of many of these battle jackets that saw action over the skies of the European and Pacific theaters of the war were adorned with hand-painted emblems, maps, names and the occasional pinup queen.

The design was a model of efficiency for duty in the cockpit of a fighter plane. Originally made of strong brown horsehide (now goatskin), with brass zipper and snaps, and a rayon (sometimes silk or cotton) lining, the jacket provided warmth and practicality. It was only waist length (the better for sitting), and the two snap-and-flap patch front pockets were set low (with hand-warmer slits) for easy access. Wool knit ribbing at the waist and cuffs held the jacket tight against the cold and prevented it from snagging on controls, and snaps at the collar points stopped the collar from flapping in the wind.

Perhaps hundreds of variations of this classic--blouson, as it is called today--are now available, but this one is the real thing.

G. Bruce Boyer is the author of Eminently Suitable.