How Ivy League Universities Shaped American Style Forever
The modern American wardrobe was born on the college campus in the first half of the twentieth century. Over time, several iconic garments cemented the casual-yet-smart look, advocating an American way of life in the process
In partnership with: Gant
GANT marks its 70th anniversary with a new seven-piece campaign, commemorating its most iconic creations
From the withered tree, a flower blooms; a saying that aptly sums up America's situation following the Second World War. Eisenhower was presiding over economic growth, Presley's gyrating hips made women swoon and Rosa Parks would ignore orders to relinquish her bus seat. As the Second World War ended and American soldiers returned home, the country went through a period of rapid change. New tastes and influences in sport and fashion spread across the nation. Radio, TV and magazines introduced people to an active lifestyle they had never dreamed existed.
Since sports activities influenced many creative tailoring features, the demand for a comfortable look continued to spread. The rigid hierarchical looks of the past were now being playfully reworked through youth culture. Ivy League universities became hot-beds of academia, exploration and fashion. The term Ivy League was first used in the 1930s to refer to a group of northeastern American colleges that were sporting rivals. It soon became synonymous with more than just sports, denoting academic excellence, prestige, tradition, while creating a new and relaxed style of fashion that rippled across the country.
GANT was a pioneer of this preppy aesthetic, founded in 1949 by Bernard Gantmacher. The retailer is celebrating its 70th anniversary with a Seven Decades Seven Icons collection, which pays tribute to the enduring appeal of these heritage pieces, which shaped the fabric of American life forever.
The Button-down Shirt
The origins of the button-down shirt can be found on the polo pitches of England back in the 1860s. Polo players found that whilst galloping at full speed, the collars on their shirts would often flap up in the wind, causing an unnecessary distraction. John E. Brooks, son of the founder of Brooks Brothers, saw this innovation on the polo pitch and immediately decided to manufacture it in America. It was introduced into the American market on a small scale – in the ’40s the only way to acquire a button-down shirt was by custom-ordering one at a specialty store. In a moment of marketing genius, GANT decided to stock button-down shirts in its Yale Co-Op, which outfitted Yale University students with casual wear essentials. The aim was to dress well without necessarily dressing up. They struck gold. The shirt became such a staple of East Coast universities and the way that you wore one indicated your relationship status; a guy would remove his shirt loop (designed to keep it hanging wrinkle-free in the locker room) when he was going steady with a girl, and she, in return, would wear his scarf.
The Club Blazer
When the club blazer started appearing in universities, it was an essential part of preppy American sportswear. It was a more casual look, presenting a sharp contrast to the double-breasted, padded-shoulder suits that dominated in the pre-war years. The first blazers were worn by rowers at both Oxford and Cambridge University, and were designed to keep them warm during chilly morning training sessions. Like many sportswear pieces, the boundaries between work and play softened and rowers started to wear their blazers on campus. In the same way that the letterman jackets that originated in America in the 1950s designated an athletic accomplishment, rowing blazers served as status symbols. At the turn of the century, the blazers found their way across the Atlantic at Ivy League universities like Princeton, Cornell, Yale, and Harvard.
In 1848 Sir Harry Lumsden, commanding officer of a British regiment in India, had an idea to dye the white trousers of his regiment to a colour more suitable to the arid and dusty conditions his men faced. Blending a mixture of coffee, curry powder and mulberry juice to disguise the inevitable dirt, the Indians called the colour khaki, meaning 'dust' in Hindi. However, the first reference of the term 'chino' was when American troops were stationed in the Philippines during the Spanish-American war, as the trousers which they wore were made of a Chinese (chino, the Spanish word for Chinese) cotton twill. The tough wearing fabric became a staple of military uniform and when GIs started returning from the battlefields of WW2 they soon became a common sight on college campuses. Students followed, and so too did Hollywood. Look at any picture of Paul Newman or Steve McQueen and, more likely than not, they've probably got a pair of chinos on.
Dressier than a t-shirt, but more casual than a regular shirt, the piqué was born out of the requirements of sports. Most sources attribute the invention of the modern polo shirt to Jean René Lacoste, who won seven grand slam singles in the 1920s. Unhappy with the stifling and stiff 'tennis whites' available at the time, he decided on an unstarched collar and a longer back known as a 'tennis tail' that could be tucked in easily. Importantly he used pique cotton as it was breathable and durable. At the 1926 US Open, he wore his new invention and it instantly caused a worldwide stir. Soon, other tennis players began to wear the short sleeved shirt, and polo players began to adopt the new style too. As the 1950s came about, GANT began to manufacture the polo shirt in different colours and unsurprisingly, it became a defining staple of the smart-casual style.
The Heavy Rugger
The Heavy Rugger’s origins are in the classic rugby shirt, designed as part of the uniform for the game. Traditionally they were made out of a heavy knitted jersey fabric. In 1823, both the game of rugby and the rugby shirt was born, responding to the need to tell teams apart and for a garment with functionality and comfort. Due to the nature of the game, the fabric is generally strong and traditional rugby shirts have rubber buttons so that they would, if pulled on in a game, come undone rather than pop off.
The Varsity Jacket
As American as apple pie, the varsity jacket (also known as the Letterman or Letter Jacket) has been around since the 19th century. Originally based on wartime bomber jackets, its appearance changed with the introduction of leather sleeves in a different colour to the body. The year was 1865 and Harvard’s baseball team was looking for a way to highlight the team’s star players. An enterprising young fellow decided that in order to really distinguish themselves, an 'H' for Harvard should be sewn onto the front, hence the term 'Letterman.' The jacket would be reserved only for the players who had excelled in the most crucial games, namely those against Princeton and Yale, and those who didn't make the cut would be required to give their jackets back at the end of the season. The garment therefore became associated with prestige and status amongst students of Ivy League universities.
The Cable Knit
The Cable Knit sweater originates from the Aran Islands off the West coast of Ireland, where the harsh Atlantic winds batter even the hardiest of residents. Historically made from 100% sheep’s wool, the knit allows air to get in, but to allow moisture out, making it an essential bit of gear. Traditionally each part of the pattern is representative of the island way of life. The cable stitch, the most popular of the stitches, represents a fisherman’s rope. The diamond stitch represents the small, farmed fields of the Aran Islands. The zig-zag symbolizes the winding paths of the high cliffs, while the basket-knit sections were said to represent a fisherman’s basket, as a good luck charm for a plentiful haul. Eventually, the cable knit sweater transitioned from work to leisure. The style became associated with gentlemanly pursuits, such as golf and cricket, and took its place as a casual yet preppy American piece.