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esq-jfk-jackie

For a writer, or for someone such as myself who attempts to string sentences together into something intelligible, the greatest gift you can receive is a reminder of the triviality of your own work. I’ve written about JFK so many times that I feel like I know the man. Or I at least know the persona that John Fitzgerald Kennedy wanted the American public to become familiar with, yet the truth is everything I’ve ever penned about our thirty-five president could easily be classified as trite.

When writing about bygone historical figures, especially when discussing something as narrow as style, everything boils down to projection. I will never know if JFK dressed, or looked as he did as a conscious move, or if his status as a “style icon” is simply a byproduct of good genes and the standards of dress that existed during his lifetime.

I don’t intend to discredit all of my writing, nor all of the pieces that have been composed about JFK’s style over the years, for his attire was certainly not without merit. Especially when looking back, Kennedy’s style certainly had more than a little to do with his immortal status. JFK (and the same could be said for RFK) quite simply looked as a president should – dignified, but not stuffy like a monarch, and yet also spirited. If ever there was a politician that looked like hope it was JFK.

But what lies beneath all that? And more importantly, why am I bogging down your Friday afternoon with this essay. Last night, I read Chris Jones’ marvelous account of Kennedy’s assassination for Esquire, and I felt compelled to respond here today. Jones’ report is as thorough of a story as I’ve ever read, and I can only speculate how many hours of interviews and footage he had to scour through to piece together the complete tale (complete almost feels like too weak of a word to describe the piece.) I implore you all to read his report, because for as much coverage as JFK’s assassination has received over the years, I’ve never seen an account that takes such an exhaustive look at those that were closest to the President.

This is not the time or the place, so I’ll leave out my misguided lefty dreams about the possibilities for this country if JFK (or once again for that matter RFK) had never been assassinated. What I can say is that it was not Kennedy’s sack suits, nor his impeccable collar roll, nor his Shetland sweaters, that captivated this nation, and leaves his untimely death as an unhealed wound, ready to be reopened at any time.

Faulkner in his signature herringbone sport coat with his ever present pipe.

Faulkner in his signature herringbone sport coat with that ever present pipe.

I considered trying to write something halfway eloquent about the life and career of William Faulkner here, but after typing and deleting a slew of mediocre intros for the past half hour, I’ve decided it’s best to just tell you all to go read The Sound and The Fury. What I will say about the man though is that Faulkner’s appearance matched his writing – it was deliberate and personal. It was both typical for his era, and idiosyncratic through and through. Here’s a grab bag of shots of the man himself across the years, take a look, and then do yourself a favor: close the computer and just go read.

More of Faulkner's favorite herringbone jacket. Note the slightly rounded lapel.

More of Faulkner’s favorite herringbone jacket. Note the slightly rounded lapel.

Straight legged khakis with what appears to be a two inch cuff.

Straight legged khakis with what appears to be a two inch cuff.

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VRS

This past summer, during an exceptionably slow day at work, my friend (and former co-worker) Matt spontaneously summed up the entire current menswear wave with one word: “Italiatrad.” While Matt’s impromptu portmanteau was all we needed to kill a day discussing the marriage of Neapolitan and Ivy, after that day I’d practically forgotten about the word altogether, although I’m pretty sure Matt’s been searching for a “real” definition of the word ever since.  This past week though, I found Italiatrad back at the forefront of my mind, as I sat there reading the announcement that Antonio Ciongoli was leaving his role as deputy creative director of Michael Bastian to spearhead the creative direction of Isaia’s resurrected diffusion brand, Eidos.

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John Updike5

A month or so back, I was talking with a friend and I let it slip out that my ultimate goal when it comes to my personal style was to simply dress like John Updike.  Considering how much slack I already get for dressing like a fifty year old trapped in a twenty-one year olds body, I’m always skeptical to admit that one of my icons is an author from the late twentieth-century, as the obvious connotations regarding literature, and bygone decades make Updike seem, for lack of a better term, unprovocative. And yet to me, that’s the entire point of iconizing Updike, as he proves that you don’t have to look glossy, or flashy, or trendy, as long as you look like you know what the hell you’re doing.

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A couple years ago, while I was down in the D.C. area on a break from school, I stopped into the Smithsonian to check out a Norman Rockwell exhibit that was put together using pieces donated by George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, both of whom are avid collectors of Rockwell’s work.  The concept behind the exhibit itself was fascinating, as two modern American cinematic storytellers humbly paid homage to a painter who’s artistic style had greatly impacted their own creative endeavors.

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There was a time not long ago that if you asked me how I felt about New Balance I probably would’ve scoffed and said something snarky about how well they compliment boot-cut jeans and banker bros. And yet, as the adage goes “fashion is cyclical,” or as I like to say, eventually you’ll learn to love what you once shunned.  My relationship with the sneakers began in my latter high school years, during which I practically lived in a pair of grey New Balance 574′s.  But as I got older and outgrew my lax-bro sensibilities, those shoes suddenly became a symbol of everything that I wanted to leave behind.

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Before I dive into this, I feel the need to point out that I’m not some Americana fanboy.  Do I find it sad that out of Hanover, Footjoy, Florsheim, Allen Edmonds, Bass, Alden, Chippewa, Wolverine, Red Wing, hell even Nike, New Balance, and countless other brands that once produced their shoes in America, we’re left with only a couple that have stayed true to the states?  Absolutely, but for me, what’s really disheartening is that as we move our production to other countries we might gain cheaper products, but we’re also losing the notion of true American design.

You look at English shoe brands, or Italian shoe brands, or even Spanish brands, and there’s a definitive look to them.  You can tell their origins, their era, their style. On the other hand, if you pick up a pair of American shoes or “American” shoes, they’re just sort of there.  I’ll leave Alden out of this discussion because they’ve always been a brand that’s open to innovation and collaboration, but as for everyone else, they seem content to just keep cranking out the same designs, or worse, stealing from other brands.  It’s not about the lack of products made in this country, it’s about the lack of products made in this country that are worth talking about.  Flipping through eBay listings of vintage American shoes, there’s something dignified about them, there’s a touch of English influence, but they’re also sleeker, the details are more city, less country, but what’s most important to me is that they’re absolutely American, not just in production, but in design.  I’m truly not even sure what it means to be an “American shoe” anymore.

I was inspired to write this after looking at a photo that Ping had posted on Tumblr of his shoe collection, which included a beautiful pair of vintage Florsheim longwings.  Sure his shoes looked so great partially because he’d taken care of them, but there was also something inherently handsome about their design.  Everyday, people scrutinize and discuss the lasts, details, and shapes of Edward Greens, Carminas, Alden, Church’s, Vass, Alfred Sargent, etc. because these are shoes that deserve that analysis, they are thoughtfully designed, and meticulously crafted.  Maybe it’s just the nerd in me, but I wish that all American brands still made shoes that called for that sort of critical eye.

The only sign of hope comes out of the Northeast, where mocassin brands such as Rancourt and Co., have worked to keep production as close to the original methods as possible.  They’re setting a new precedent for American innovation mixed with traditional craftsmanship that I can only hope that other brands learn to follow in the future.  I apologize if this sounded like some heritage blog post circa 2008, but recently I feel like people are searching only for the aesthetic and ignoring what goes into a product, and what makes it worth wearing, I know we now have access to the items we want at cheaper prices, but I can only hope that it doesn’t mean we forget where we came from.

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