The Fashion Survivalist
It will be slim-pickings for American men this winter if they rely on the offerings shown at the latest round of menswear shows in New York. That’s slim, as in tight, form-fitting trousers; clingy, second-skin knit shirts, and pinched-shoulder, single-button sport coats. In other words, everything a guy needs to do a little dance, make a little love, get down tonight, as KC and the Sunshine Band so beautifully put it.
As labels like Donna Karan, Calvin Klein, Prada and Gucci continue to roll back the men’s silhouette a few decades, the disparity between what appears on the fat-free runways and in Joe Average’s closet has perhaps never been greater. In fact, “the other 90%,” as the fashion world likes to call those who virtually ignore trends, have never felt the pinch of a personal trainer’s calipers or the fit of the new stretch-poly fabrics. No sir. Most guys are nonexperimental. They have come to terms with flab (that’s why God created Dockers), and their idea of a sartorial adventure is cranking up the volume on a tie.
On the fringe of this group is an extreme faction of fashion survivalists, men who look up to such rugged individualists as Teddy Roosevelt, Douglas MacArthur and Ernest Hemingway, yet dare not explore the territory beyond cavalry twill trousers, shawl-collared wool cardigans and bucket hats. They take refuge in the familiar.
“Men are basically herd creatures and have a lot of ambivalence about wearing anything that makes them stand out,” says Ross Goldstein, a San Francisco-based psychologist and author of “Fortysomething” (Tarcher, 1991). “One could go so far as to say it’s hard-wired into our DNA. Donna Karan and Calvin Klein can make any fashion statement they like. But vanity is still one of the cardinal sins for most men. And while they might be interested in fashion, in order to give themselves permission to buy something, it has to serve some kind of practical or useful function.”
Indeed, while the outfitter Abercrombie & Fitch has gone prep urban, forsaking Field & Stream for GQ, such stalwarts as Willis & Geiger (now a division of Lands’ End), Pendleton and Williamson-Dickie still speak to men who expect their clothes to convey a purpose:
“Armed with a pen in one hand and a rifle or fishing pole in the other, Hemingway didn’t just walk through life, he barreled through with his chest out and his chin up. He didn’t just taste life, he bit off big chunks of it and gnawed on it for all it was worth,” reads an ad for Willis & Geiger’s “Hemingway Jacket"--featuring shell pockets and a recoil pad--in a recent Wall Street Journal.
Even if he doesn’t kill animals, the idea that a company has been faithfully manufacturing the same item since 1908 (the novelist helped tweak the original safari style, suggesting a gathered waistband instead of a belt to keep out ants, among other innovations) appeals to the survivalist. He appreciates that the Pendleton wool shirt, L.L. Bean boots, Ray-Ban aviator shades, Jockey cotton briefs and the W&G; flight jacket have gone virtually unchanged for 50 years or more.
“We’ve been making our basic work pant since 1922 and we still sell about 10 million pair of them a year,” says James McLaughlin, senior vice president of sales and marketing for Fort Worth-based Williamson-Dickie, a $400-million company that inadvertently got sucked into an anti-fashion craze a few years ago when its drill trousers, worn two sizes too big, became staples among skateboarders. “It’s a kind of Everyman pant that appeals to young kids, your basic Brooks Brothers customer as well as your local plumber,” he says.
Not surprisingly, many of the other survivalist staples have spun off from the military.
“They were invented for a utilitarian purpose and stayed on because they are stylish and work under a lot of circumstances,” says Norman Karr, a consultant and former executive director of the Fashion Assn., a New York-based trend-tracking service. It’s that “everyone loves a man in a uniform kind of thing.”
Bausch & Lomb first designed protective “anti-glare” eyewear in 1928 for U.S. pilots. When the lenses were introduced to consumers in 1937, the anti-glare label was dropped in favor of Ray-Ban. The original aviators, still sold today, feature a gold metal frame and green-tinted lenses and sell for $105 at Sunglass Hut, Los Angeles.
THE HENLEY UNDERSHIRT
Developed for loggers and gold-seekers working the rivers off the coast of Maine at the turn of the century, the classic Henley knit shirt--adapted from early thermal underwear--has been copied the world over. The “MacKenzie” version, named after the river in Canada, sells for $39 locally at Pendleton stores.
THE WOOL PLAID SHIRT
Developed in Pendleton, Ore., by a turn-of-the-century pioneer family, the shirt involves 60 manufacturing steps. It sells for $67 at Greenspans in South Gate and at Pendleton stores in Brea, San Marino and Torrance.
THE SAFARI JACKET
Created by Willis & Geiger in 1908 for Theodore Roosevelt’s post- presidential safari in Africa and still a bestseller today, the classic three-quarter-length jacket was redesigned in 1932 to author Ernest Hemingway’s specifications and subsequently renamed for him. Made of bush cotton poplin, the jacket features two expandable chest pockets, two cargo pockets for bullet shells, and a sleeve pocket for shooting glasses. It sells for $122 via mail order: (800) 223-1408.
Introduced in 1922 by Williamson-Dickie Manufacturing Co. and sold everywhere from Texaco gas stations to Home Depot stores for $16.99, the polyester/cotton twill carpenter pants featured a button fly until 1949, when the brass zipper was introduced. For its 75th anniversary in 1997, the company will reintroduce the original button-fly.
RUBBER AND LEATHER BOOTS
Leon Leonwood Bean’s heavy leather woodsman’s boots left his feet sore and wet. So in 1912 the avid outdoorsman invented the widely copied waterproof leather and rubber “Bean” boot, which is still made in L.L. Bean’s Freeport, Maine, factory and sells for $89 to $99 through its catalog, (800) 221-4221.
THE LEATHER FLIGHT JACKET
Ben Willis designed the A2 leather flight jacket for the U.S. Army Air Corps in 1930. The following year, with nary a thread change, he began manufacturing the sturdy coat for civilians. In a bow to its lineage, the original Willis & Geiger defense war contract number still appears on the label. Available by catalog only ( 223-1408) for $384 to $458, depending on size and color, it’s shown here with a $29 L.L. Bean chamois cloth shirt (first made in 1927) and a $17 Lands’ End ( 356-4444) turtleneck just like the ones worn by British polo players in the 1860s.
THE HANDMADE WINGTIP
Every U.S. president since Millard Fillmore in 1850 has worn handcrafted European calfskin shoes ($1,000 and up) by Johnston & Murphy. They are also a favorite among such sports legends as Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer and Tommy Lasorda. At Johnston & Murphy stores in Century City and Los Angeles.
THE SHAWL-COLLARED CARDIGAN
Manufactured by McGeorge of Scotland in Hawick, Scotland, since the 1940s, the classic eight-ply Shetland wool cardigan was originally made for Brooks Brothers and is now sold exclusively through independent specialty stores. It is sometimes called the presidential sweater because it has been a favorite of the last five U.S. presidents, excluding Bill Clinton, who prefers nylon running jackets. This one sells for $375 at Carroll & Co. in Beverly Hills.
ROYAL BRIAR COLOGNE
Created by Atkinsons of London in 1799, the original men’s fragrance, $14.50, is still a bestseller among sportsmen and traditionalists. It’s sold at such menswear stores as Carroll & Co. in Beverly Hills.