One of my favorite sentiments to pull out when talking about our friends over on the other side of the world, is that “the Japanese do Americana far better than we ever could.” Of course, it’s a blanket statement holds about as much weight as a bag full of feathers, but nonetheless it sure is fun to say. I first came up with the line during a spur of the moment discussion with a few colleagues about the state of the Japanese vintage market, which by now is probably stocked with more U.S. made deadstock pieces then any of us could even begin to fathom. It’s a cheeky line and makes me seem much more well-versed on the topic than I am, so I’ve kept on saying it, but each time I repeat it, it becomes that much more evident to me just how much of a double-edged sword those ten words are.
Last night I experienced what was either an incredible twist a fate, a sign from the gods, or a mere coincidence that I’m reading far too much into. You see, what you’re reading right now is my take two on Andy Spade, my first attempt at this post was scraped entirely after one of the surreal moments I’ve had in recent memory. As yesterday was my final day at work, I was kindly granted an early exit, getting off three hours before close, which gave me an unexpectedly free afternoon. After meandering through downtown, I decided to head home and fumble through the conclusion of my original post piecing together some evocative statement about Andy Spade and his literal dad jeans.
Well, in the end this wasn’t much a “Winter Week,” I suppose Sweater Week, or Knit Week, or even something about Trads and Fall would’ve been more appropriate, but oh well, hindsight twenty-twenty and all that. While the name might be off, I still have to finish what I’ve started, and there’s really only one piece that can properly round out this collection: the L.L. Bean Norwegian. The Norwegian erupted onto the scene in the mid-sixties and enjoyed decades at the top before slowly fizzling out in the early nineties, only to return to prominence recently, following along the same trajectory that trad style has taken as a whole.
Introduced in 1965, the Norwegian was L.L. Bean’s take on the old Scandinavian stand-by-the fishermans sweater. Back then the brand still actually cared about authenticity, so they used a white and blue birds-eye pattern that was close to the original yet also uniquely L.L. Bean, and employed a small Norwegian knit factory to produce the sweaters the same way they’d been doing it for decades. During their late seventies glory days, the Norwegian was crowning jewel of the L.L. Bean empire. For card carrying preps, it was their card, a sign that you knew what the hell you were talking about.
Although, overtime that L.L. Bean empire began to crack and crumble. All of a sudden, it was no longer considered cool to layer together every conceivable pattern and color, and the brash, dynamic wardrobe that once dominated was on it’s way out as the simplicity of solids moved in. Companies like L.L. Bean lost their identity. They began as a brand that embraced the American and European adventurer spirit, but their clothes were no longer even made there. L.L. Bean became a shell of brand, doing whatever it took to make a buck. Norwegian’s (if you could even call them that) started being produced in China, and the once high-quality sweater became a caricature of it’s past self. Eventually in the early nineties the company decided to do away with the sweaters entirely.
Through those dark decades those that held onto the traditional mourned the loss of one of their favorite pieces. The Norwegian even had an entire section dedicated to it in “The Official Prep Handbook.” Which is why in 2009, when L.L. Bean announced it was going to resurrect their signature sweater I don’t even think they were ready for the outpouring of support. Prep had begun to creep back in the conscience several years earlier and for those that held onto those ideals, their days of scouring eBay were over. Search for Norwegian Sweater today and you can still find articles written about the triumphant return of the traddy trademark. While I think we’ve all tempered ourselves a bit from the intensity of the layered out uniform of seventies New England undergrads, we can all take a page from their book when it comes to the Norwegian.
Summer is wearing on me. Tee shirts. Jeans. Sneakers. It’s all just getting a bit tedious, I mean where’s the fun in that? I miss the complexity of the cold. Tweeds. Knits. Wools. Sure, there’s something liberating about the simplicity of summer, but it’s also remarkably easy to just become complacent. I’m tired of wearing the same shirt and jeans for days on end simply because it’s just too hot for anything else. With it being next to impossible to put any effort into summer right now, I’ve started turning my focus towards fall, and the days ahead that’ll actually require some forethought.
My first step towards fall came about a week or so ago at Antonio‘s moving sale, where I was able to pick up something I’ve been after for about a year now: a J. Press Shaggy Dog Sweater. There was a time when Shaggy Dog’s were just one small chapter in J. Press‘ encyclopedia of American sportswear, but those days are long gone, and nowadays Shaggy Dogs live on as a remnant of a brand that seems nothing less than lost. For a brand that’s now notorious for their inability to adapt in the modern age (barring very recent developments), the Shaggy Dog is a reminder that there was once a time when J. Press were the innovators. Much of this can be attributed to Irving Press, (son of the brand’s founder, Jacobi Press) who led J. Press during their mid-century heyday and spearheaded their most legendary work, including the Shaggy Dog. Legend has it that Irving got the idea for the Shaggy Dog after watching someone that got caught in the rain while wearing a shetland sweater. Now, I don’t know how true that actually is, but what I do know is that what Irving came up with was nothing short of a masterpiece. He teamed up with Drumohr the legendary Scottish knit-wear company to source the wool, which was then literally combed to give Shaggy Dog’s their signature fluffed-out texture.
Shaggy Dogs represented J. Press in their peak. Customers flocked to the store in search of the sweater’s broken in vibe, and loud colors that hit the traddy sweet spot of brash yet classic. They were everything you’d expect from a maverick brand like J. Press and they became integral to that era. Looking back on images of New England icon John Updike sitting on his porch wearing a shaggy dog, coeds sporting them on the quad, politicians donning them during their days off, it’s obvious that these were the prime years of prep and Shaggy Dogs were nothing short of an essential. While this full blown trad lifestyle is no longer the norm, and nowadays other brands have their own version of the combed-out shetland sweater, J. Press continues to crank out their Shaggy Dog year after year, even bringing in some new colors, as a rare sign of life from an otherwise dull brand. Full disclosure though this design hasn’t been updated in decades so don’t expect anything close to slim fit. They’re pretty much what they’ve always been, a fuller cut, borderline boxy sweater with unparalleled warmth, which quite frankly sounds like exactly what I want right now.
Considering the fact that half of you reading this right now are probably wearing one, It’s only right to start this week off with the most commonplace of all acronymic items– the OCBD (oxford cloth button down.) While the latter half is attributed to the shirt’s button down collar, Oxford Cloth itself has a far less straightforward explanation. As the last remaining fabric from a series of four, Oxford cloth’s story is one of inexplicable survival. In the late nineteenth century a Scottish Mill designed and produced four cloths, one for each of the world’s most distinguished universities. While Harvard, Yale, and Cambridge all had their respective cloths lost to history, for reasons unknown Oxford endured becoming one of the most widespread fabrics in the world. Oxford cloth is created by weaving together two yarns that are of the same color but just a shade different, giving it a marled texture that breaks from the ordinary aesthetic of a solid dress shirt.
Oxford Cloth shirts were originally perceived to be a piece of formal wear and were exclusively worn as part of a suit. This all began to change in 1896, when John E. Brooks, (the grandson of Henry Sand Brooks, the founder of Brooks Brothers’) went to England and noticed that polo players were wearing shirts with button down collars to keep them secured during games. Brooks brought the design back to the states, and Brooks Brothers combined the button down collar with oxford cloth to create the OCBD. They remained a relatively formal shirt until the 1930′s, when tennis and polo players began wearing Oxford cloth button downs during their games. While these were still unequivocally upper class sports, they nonetheless placed the Oxford shirt in an entirely new context, and by the 50′s Ivy League undergrads were wearing OCBD’s. For the students, and their limited wardrobes, the versatile shirts were a major asset. OCBD’s could not only be worn untucked on weekends, or with a jacket when going out, the shirts relaxed basket weave also allowed them to be worn pretty much year round. Today, practically every company produces their version of the OCBD, and they’re somewhat of a collectors item, not because they’re rare but because you can never collect too many.
Since I’ve started writing about menswear I had never come across a topic that I simply couldn’t find a clear narrative about,—that was until I decided to write about the tennis sweater. As I attempted to string together the history of this classic piece of American sportswear, it became clear that no one really knows exactly where it came from. It’s not as if the sweater hasn’t been popular for decades, there are even photos dating as far back as the thirties of tennis players sporting these cable knit v-neck sweaters on the court. The biggest problem with determining exactly where the tennis sweater comes from is that it actually isn’t exclusive to tennis.
Around the turn of the 20th century, tennis pros were seen wearing early versions of the tennis sweater that had thin, spread out stripes around a v-neck collar. But from here the sweaters took an odd and indirect route, ending up as ski gear both in the U.S. and in Europe. While it’s not clear how they moved from the court to ski resorts, by the twenties the cable knit sweaters had found their place on the slopes. From there, it was the Prince of Wales, in his typical innovative manner, who brought the sweater onto the links, wearing it as part of his golf outfit.
By this time the sweater had arrived at it’s modern incarnation—a white body, with cable stitching across the front, and colored stripes tight around a v-neck collar. The Prince of Wales favored the touch of color amidst the simplicity, a style that was quickly picked up by American golfers on courses throughout the nation. Interestingly enough, back in Europe the sweaters had also found their way onto the pitch, as cricket players, following the Prince of Wales’ example, started wearing them. This is why today the terms “tennis sweater” and “cricket sweater” are often used interchangeably. Once the sweaters had made their way into country clubs, it was an easy step onto the court, allowing play to continue well into the cooler months. It was here that the tennis sweater found its rightful place, becoming an iconic part of the sport itself. Off the court the tennis sweater became a casual favorite of everyone from Cary Grant to suburban dads. The tennis sweater is less easy to find these days, but it’s unmistakable cable stitching and colored stripes, still make it a timeless piece.
In 1973 when Bill St. John founded Boast, the company’s name was not just a word, it encapsulated the very spirit of American tennis during that era. The early’s 70′s were a time of American dominance on and off the court, when players with big personalities would win games with authority and then go out for a few beers after. During that year, St. John was working as a resident pro in Greenwich, Connecticut when decided to start a company that would emulate this bold era of American tennis. Boast’s tennis sweaters became an instant success, not only on the tennis courts but in golf and squash as well. Boast tapped into the attitude of this period, when athletes were brash and creative, and creatives dabbled in sports. For Boast, this was a time of dominance in their own right as, everyone from the Yale squash team, to tennis pros, to John Updike sported the company’s maple leaf logo.
While that maple leaf emblem might have fallen out of the public eye for a few years now, the brand has recently seen a revival as entrepreneurs John Dowling and Alex Tiger have worked to reintroduce Boast to the modern market. Inspired by their love for the brand that they used to wear as kids, the two men decided to contact Bill St. John to bring the brand into the 21st century. Boast’s recognizable Pervuian cotton polos and maple leaf logo remain, but with the support of creatives Partners & Spade, and Ryan Babenzien, the designs have been updated for the contemporary man with that same brash spirit of 1970′s tennis pros.
Whit Stillman is a rare find – a man that actually enjoys disco. Stillman’s love for the much loathed genre runs deep, going as far as being the impetus for 1998′s, The Last Days of Disco. Following a group of friends as they spend their nights at the club, the film takes a look at the untold side of disco, those people, that like Stillman, not only enjoyed the music but lived for it. For these friends in the early 80′s they aren’t only watching their favorite music fade away, but they’re watching the death of their current social life. For Stillman, and for preps in general in this era, their world was changing. Their lifestyle was evolving and losing favor, forcing those that held fast to it to make a decision. As contrast collars and checked suits contrast with tee shirts and washed denim, The Last Days of Disco recognizes a shift in the American prep scene, leaving the old guard behind, and beginning to move toward a more casual aesthetic. Stillman recognizes this change as the characters seem to not only mourn the death of disco, but the death of their very style as well.
As Stillman’s second film, Barcelona continues to explore the preppy culture that was the focus of Metropolitan. Only this time, the characters are older, a bit experienced, equally as naive, and completely at odds with a foreign land. Barcelona follows Ted Boynton, a highly cerebral salesman, and his cousin Fred, a U.S. Naval Officer as they attempt to fit in with the Spanish culture. Both men, in Barcelona by assignment, and not by choice, consistently find themselves out of place in the city. Ted, struggles to understand the Barcelonian women that surround him, while Fred remains utterly confused as to why the U.S. is viewed so poorly by the Spanish.
From the first moment the two men appear on screen, their appearance tells the entire story. Looking like he’d been plucked directly from Metropolitan, Ted’s wardrobe consists mainly of blue blazers, OCBD’s, and dark brown loafers. At first, Fred only wears his military uniform, but slowly begins to adopt his cousins wardrobe of sack suits and ties. Against the Spanish backdrop the two men are unmistakably American, constantly conflicting with casual Barcelonian lifestyle. In their button down collars and ties, Ted and Fred appear stiff and out of touch, something indicative of the men’s relationship with Barcelona as a whole. Whit Stillman himself had spent several years working in Spain, and likely had a similar experience to his two characters. To Stillman and the two cousins, the way they dress and behave is just a part of who they are, but as a result they struggle in relating with the Barcelonian culture. Through the way the characters preppy aesthetic clashes with the Spanish culture, Barcelona examines what happens when a man is entirely out of his element.
Between interviews on A Continuous Lean and L Magazine, articles in the New York Times and NPR, as well as countless other write ups, Whit Stillman has been unavoidable over the past month. And with his first movie in thirteen years opening up just a few weeks ago it’s easy to see why. Much has been written on Whit Stillman over the years, he’s been called ” the wasp woody Allen,” his characters have been called “urban haute bourgeois,” and all the while he’s been celebrated for his presentation of young preppy culture. Despite all this recent buzz around him Stillman has just four remarkable yet spread out films under his belt, making far too easy to simply overlook his Influence as a director. I personally knew little of Stillman prior to this week, but what I’ve discovered has been a man that is a paragon of contemporary prep, both through his personal background and style as well as in the stories he presents within his films.
Stillman was born in Washington, D.C. in 1952, shortly thereafter his family moved to upstate New York as his father began an (unsuccessful) campaign for the New York State Senate. Throughout this period Stillman reveled in the atmosphere of upstate New York, taking in the natural setting, and generally growing up in a seemingly perfect 1950′s family. This all changed in the 60′s, first as Stillman’s father was appointed a member of JFK’s cabinet, relocating the family back to D.C., and then a few years later when Stillman’s parents divorced. With his life radically altered, Stillman found solace in books, acting, and dancing. In 1973, Stillman graduated from Harvard with two thousand dollars to his name and began working at Doubleday Publishing. In the 80′s Stillman worked as sales agent, selling well known Spanish films to the U.S. market, he even acted in a few of the films. But, it was not until 1990 that Stillman made his first movie: Metropolitan.
In regards to his personal style, consistency has always been a major theme for Stillman. Since college he has never worn blue jeans, he still likes Bass Weejuns, and through his attire he exemplifies prep from a period in which how you dressed was paramount. This attitude is what lead him to create Metropolitan in the first place. In his ACL interview, Stillman tells a story of how he wrote a letter to the New York Times in response to a quote about Fred Astaire that said, “People don’t wear clothes like this anymore.” Stillman disagreed entirely and intentionally dressed the characters in Metropolitan in opposition to this. Each character appears well groomed, formal, and thoughtful, yet they all have a touch of personality in the way they dress, expressing that people not only still dress like this today, but they know how to do it on their own terms. This symbolizes Stillman’s preppy style in Metropolitan – people not only dressing well, but also dressing for themselves.
Metropolitan explores debutante parties (social events Stillman attended during his time at Harvard) as a way of reflecting on preppy culture and style. At these affairs the characters are dressed in black ties, tuxedos, and long tailed overcoats. During the day Shetland sweaters, botton down collars, and repp ties prevail. The characters attire was not just about looking a certain way, it was about being a certain person. Just like Stillman’s own style, his characters illustrated that the way in which you dress speaks volumes about the type of person that you are.
“So many things which were better in the past have been abandoned by so called convenience.”