June 4, 2013
Frenchman René Lacoste was a superstar tennis player. In 1926 and 1927, he was ranked number one in the world, and during his tennis career, he won seven Grand Slam championship tournaments. But he found the attire associated with the sport restrictive. Tennis whites, as they were called, consisted of a white, long-sleeved button-down shirt, long pants and a tie. It was a lot of clothing to wear when racing to the net to make an overhead shot.
Lacoste was seeking a shirt that was more accommodating to movement. In a 1979 article from People magazine, he elaborated:
“One day I noticed my friend the Marquis of Cholmondeley wearing his polo shirt on the court,” remembers René. ” ‘A practical idea,’ I thought to myself.” It was so practical, in fact, that René commissioned an English tailor to whip up a few shirts in both cotton and wool. “Soon everyone was wearing them,” he smiles.
One school of thought attributes the shirt’s invention to meeting the needs of British polo players in India in the 19th century. The style was emulated in the U.S. by John Brooks, grandson of the founder of Brooks Brothers, after he saw polo players wearing the shirts in England in the late 1800s–hence, the reason we still call it a polo shirt today. It was also referred to as a tennis shirt—piqué knit cotton, short-sleeved, unstarched collar, a placket opening with buttons at the neck, and a “tennis tail” to help keep the shirt tucked in. (That tail even made an impression on artist-poet Joe Brainard, who, in his book-length poem I Remember includes the line: “I remember when those short-sleeved knitted shirts with long tails (to wear ‘out’) with little embroidered alligators on the pockets were popular.”) In 1926, Lacoste first sported the shirt when he played in the U.S. Open in New York City.
The American press dubbed him the Alligator in ’27, after he wagered for an alligator-skin suitcase with the captain of the French Davis Cup team. When he returned to France, “alligator” became “crocodile,” and Lacoste was known forever after as the Crocodile.
Not only did he embrace the nickname, but he went all out and had a logo of the reptile embroidered onto his blazer. It became his personal brand before there was such a thing.
Once he retired from tennis in the early 1930s, he started the company La Chemise Lacoste with his pal André Gillier, president of the largest French knitwear company at the time, to produce and sell crocodile-emblazoned shirts. The Lacoste tennis shirt made its way to the United States in 1952 and was carefully branded as “the status symbol of the competent sportsman,” an attempt to establish Lacoste in the upper echelons of society.
But, you’re confused, right? Isn’t the crocodile logo associated with Izod? That’s where things get complicated. Lacoste wound up in the United States because it had licensed its brand to Izod (then called Izod of London), which had been seeking out an upscale product.
Izod Lacoste, as the brand became known, initially looked like a flop; there weren’t many customers in the early ’50s for a pricey polo shirt (about $8 then) with a small crocodile sewn onto the chest. But Vincent De Paul Draddy, who originally licensed the Lacoste name for Izod, had a brilliant idea. He provided Izod Lacoste swag to some of his famous buddies, including JFK, President Eisenhower and Bing Crosby, and from there, the shirts caught on, and became easy to find in department stores. People were happy to wear them, especially if the rich and famous were already fans.
In the 1970s and ’80s, sporting an Izod, as the shirts became known, spanned across generations. Teenagers, and particularly those who wanted to assume a preppy look, embraced the style, even popping the collar to assume the full Biff and Muffy look. (See the 1980 book The Official Preppy Handbook by Lisa Birnbach, for more on how the Izod shirt was a key ingredient to achieving that look, or listen to Three 6 Mafia’s Poppin’ My Collar from 2006 for a more contemporary interpretation.)
By the early 1990s, the trend was fading. Lacoste and Izod parted ways in 1993 (Lacoste went further upscale; Izod became more moderately priced and abandoned the crocodile.)
Over the years, the shirt and its iconic logo spawned many imitators and admirers. Designers and brands from diverse price points have taken to embroidering animals onto polo shirts: ponies (Ralph Lauren), marlins (Tommy Bahama), eagles (American Eagle), and even the crocodile itself! The Chinese-based company, Crocodile Garments, was locked in a legal battle with Lacoste over the rights to the crocodile for over a decade until, in 2003, Crocodile Garments conceded to changing its logo. According to CNN, the settlement stated that Crocodile Garments would “have a croc with a tail which rises more or less vertically and it has skin which is much more scaly. It also has bigger eyes.”
Not only was Lacoste, who passed away in 1996, around to see multiple animal-emblazoned polo shirt imitators, but he also was privy to the fashion evolution that took place on the courts–from the whitest of full-coverage tennis whites to the shortest of itty-bitty tennis shorts (thanks, John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors).
April 9, 2013
Anything is possible with sunshine and a little pink!
It all began with an orange juice-stained dress. American fashion designer Lilly Pulitzer, who died this weekend at age 81, started her iconic clothing line out of necessity. She had moved to Palm Beach, Florida, in the early 1950s after eloping with her then-husband, Peter Pulitzer, who owned citrus groves in the area. She opened an orange juice stand and while working there, discovered that squeezing juice was a messy business. To camouflage the inevitable stains, she said, she designed brightly printed sleeveless dresses. The style was a hit with customers who began to request their own dresses, and she began selling the vibrant floral shifts in addition to O.J. Her short, easy-to-wear pieces took off and she left the juice biz to focus on fashion design.
The “Queen of Prep” (as in preppy) as she became known, became the president of Lilly Pulitzer Inc. in 1959. Her iconic jungle and floral prints in shades of pinks, orange, blues and greens were manufactured by the Key West Hand Print Fabrics company in Key West, Florida.
Because of her pedigree—her mother came from the Standard Oil fortune and she married into the Pulitzer publishing family—Lilly Pulitzer seamlessly situated her brand amongst the blue-blooded set. From the 1960s to the ’80s, her Florida-vacation-in-a-dress shifts were worn by her former high school classmate Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, socialite and artist Wendy Vanderbilt Lehman and anyone aspiring to a Lilly lifestyle. Lilly herself summarized that lifestyle when she said, “The Lilly girl is always full of surprises. She lives everyday like it’s a celebration, never have a dull moment, and make every hour a happy hour.” Basically, her clothes were worn by the antithesis of any Molly Ringwald character from a John Hughes movie.
The brand hung on until 1984 when Pulitzer closed its struggling operation, but it was reborn when Sugartown Worldwide Inc. purchased the rights to use the company’s name in 1993. Today, Lilly’s legacy can be found in dresses, maternity clothes, stationery and bedding in department stores and Lilly Pulitzer stores around the country. (Apparently, as pictured above, Lilly prints can be found on Jeeps.) And they’re also on the backs of sorority sisters, as indicated by the special-edition Lilly Pulitzer collections made exclusively for them.
April 5, 2013
Have a look at the paintings of Georges Braque, Pablo Picasso, Fernand Léger and other Cubist painters whose work included hard, geometric forms and visible lines. As these artists were working in their studios, fashion designers, particularly those in France, were taking cues from their paintings. With la garçonne (the flapper, in French) in mind, the designers created fashions with the clean lines and angular forms we now associate with the 1920s-and with Cubism.
The styles we’ve come to connect with Louise Brooks, Norma Talmadge, Colleen Moore and other American actresses on the silver screen in the Jazz Age can be traced back to Europe, and more specifically, a few important designers.
- Jean Patou, known for inventing knit swimwear and women’s tennis clothes, and for promoting sportswear in general (as well as creating the first suntan oil), helped shape the 1920s silhouette. Later in the decade, he revolutionized hemlines once again by dropping them from the knee to the ankle.
- Elsa Schiaparelli’s career built momentum in the ’20s with a focus mostly on knitwear and sportswear (her Surrealism-influenced garments like the lobster dress and shoe hat came later, in the 1930s).
- Coco Chanel and her jersey knits, little back dress and smart suits, all with clean, no-nonsense lines, arrived stateside along with Chanel No. 5 perfume and a desire for a sun-kissed complexion in the early 1920s.
- Madeleine Vionnet made an impression with the bias-cut garment, or a garment made using fabric cut against the grain so that it skimmed the wearer’s body in a way that showed her shape more naturally. Vionnet’s asymmetrical handkerchief dress also became a classic look from that time.
- Jeanne Lanvin, who started off making children’s clothing, made a name for herself when her wealthy patrons began requesting their own versions. Detailed beading and intricate trim became signatures of her designs.
As these designers were breaking new ground (and for some, that began in the 1910s), their looks slowly permeated mainstream culture and made their way across the pond. One of the best ways to see how these couturiers’ pieces translated into clothing with mass appeal is to look at a Sears catalog from the 1920s, which was distributed to millions of families across the United States. As Stella Blum explained in Everyday Fashions of the Twenties:
. . . mail-order fashions began to fall behind those of Paris and by 1930 the lag increased to about two years. Late and somewhat diluted, the style of the period nevertheless touched even the cheapest wearing apparel. The art movements in Paris and the Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs of 1925 managed eventually to make their influence felt on the farms of Iowa, Nebraska and Kansas, and in the ghettos of the large cities.
Ordinary Parisians were almost completely over wearing the knee-length, dropped-waisted dresses by the mid- to late 1920s, but in the United States, the style was increasing in popularity. In Flapper Jane, an article in the September 9, 1925, issue of the New Republic, Bruce Bliven wrote:
These [styles] which I have described are Jane’s clothes, but they are not merely a flapper uniform. They are The Style, Summer of 1925 Eastern Seaboard. These things and none other are being worn by all of Jane’s sisters and her cousins and her aunts. They are being worn by ladies who are three times Jane’s age, and look ten years older; by those twice her age who look a hundred years older.
The flapper look was ubiquitous enough to make its way into illustrations and comics. The comic strip “Flapper Fanny Says” tracked the trials and tribulations of the eternally young and somewhat androgynously stylish Fanny. The invention of cartoonist Ethel Hays in 1924, the strip remained in print into the 1940s under different artists.
Around that time, John Held Jr.’s drawings of long-legged, slim-necked, bobbed-haired, cigarette-smoking flappers were making the covers of Life and the New Yorker. His vibrant illustrations, along with those of Russell Patterson and Ralph Barton, captured the exuberant lifestyle–and clothing style–of the time.
Looking back, we can now see how art inspired the decade’s fashion trends and how those fashions fueled a lifestyle. That, in turn, came just about full circle to be reflected in yet another form of visual representation—illustrated depictions of the freewheeling flapper culture—that kept the momentum of the decade going.
April 1, 2013
A campaign in Massachusetts is determined to put an end to wearing saggy pants by enforcing a law enacted back in 1784 and amended in 1987. According to Section 16, “Open and gross lewdness and lascivious behavior,” under the “Crimes Against Chastity, Morality, Decency, and Good Order”:
A man or woman, married or unmarried, who is guilty of open and gross lewdness and lascivious behavior, shall be punished by imprisonment in the state prison for not more than three years or in jail for not more than two years or by a fine of not more than three hundred dollars.
Up to three years in jail and a few hundred dollar fine just for wearing your pants low?!
Omar Reid, president and founder of the Black Mental Health Alliance of Massachusetts, doesn’t think it’s such a minor offense. He initiated the campaign, upcoming billboards and the accompanying video “to address the growing issue of young men walking in the streets of our communities without regard and respect for themselves and their community.” Reid explains:
For the BMHAM it’s a behavioral health issue in our neighborhoods and communities that must be addressed the entire community….This is just the beginning of our public strategy to encourage parents, schools, police, social service agencies, housing agencies, faith-based organizations, along with men and women in our community, to take a collective stand and tell our young men and boys to pull those pants up.
How does Reid not recognize that punishing someone for wearing pants at butt level isn’t exactly going to imbue that person with respect for his community—and that the long-term consequences are likely to do more harm than good?
While the Massachusetts campaign may seem straight out of an Onion article, sagging pants have been a hot topic since the early 2000s, particularly because states, cities and local communities around the United States have tried to enact laws that would provide fines, penalties, potential jail time for those who sag. Memphis, Tennessee, Delcambre, Louisiana, and Fort Worth, Texas are just a few of the cities to try to enforce anti-sagging laws to mixed results, including a successful “Urkeling” enforcement strategy derived from the character Steve Urkel from the television show “Family Matters.”
The enforcement of these laws is controversial because the majority of people who choose to make this fashion statement are young African American males. As a result, prosecution is generally equated with racial profiling, prompting the American Civil Liberties Union to write the blog post, “Why does the ACLU care about saggy pants“:
Government policy-makers have no right to dictate or influence style, nor do they have the right to protect themselves and the greater public from seeing clothing they dislike. In fact, clothing is a form of expression protected under the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution. A governmental body seeking to regulate content based expressive conduct, such as wearing saggy pants, must show that a substantial government interest exists in regulating the conduct, that the interest is unrelated to the suppression of free expression, and that the regulation actually furthers that government interest. The courts have been clear that government cannot ban speech simply because others find it distasteful. There is no evidence linking saggy pants to crime or public safety.
President Obama has even weighed in, calling anti-sag ordinances “a waste of time.” In a New York Times article from 2008, he explained:
“Having said that,” he continued, “brothers should pull up their pants. You are walking by your mother, your grandmother, your underwear is showing. What’s wrong with that? Come on.”
“Some people might not want to see your underwear,” Mr. Obama said. “I’m one of them.”
Wearing one’s pants really low makes the wearer walk penguin-like. The person waddles around, maintaining a stilted gait so that the pants stay in place. Cinched with a belt, in extreme cases underneath the backside with boxers visible, the pants make legs look overly short. Oversized shirts elongate the torso leading to skewed, caricature-like proportions.
Remember when it was totally acceptable to wear men’s boxer shorts as regular shorts in the early 1990s? How about corsets as outerwear? Or, ever see a woman whose leggings are stretched so taut across her derriere that her cellulite is visible through the Lycra? And let’s not forget super low-rise jeans with thongs peaking out. The list goes on and yet, you don’t hear towns passing laws against these styles, which are just as, or even more, explicit. What we have is a double standard.
Saggy pants got started in prison. Men weren’t allowed to wear belts for fear of self-harm and uniforms weren’t exactly well-tailored. That meant that more often than not, prisoners wound up wearing drooping pants. Outside of incarceration, the low-rise look stuck and ex-prisoners would identify one another by continuing to wear that style in public.
That look got co-opted by the hip-hop community and made its way into pop culture when groups like Kriss Kross wore their pants low (and backwards, but that’s another story, one that continues today with one of the members still wearing his pants backwards 21 years later) in music videos.
Today, everyone has an opinion on the subject, and teens’ views are as much a reflection of this issue’s divisiveness as are those of grown-ups. The Charlotte Observer posed the question, “Should people be punished for wearing saggy pants or exposing midriffs in public? Should wearing saggy pants be banned?” in its Young Voices section and responses varied. Adrian Delgado, 18, was strongly against the fashion: “I think that they should ban sagging pants because it just looks ridiculous seeing someone sagging.” Aaron Nash, 17, had more moderate views: “There should be a punishment for doing such actions as sagging and wearing shirts that show stomachs but not that severe, coming from a young perspective. All sagging and wearing shirts that show stomachs are just a fashion statement.” And Mario King, 18, supported the style: “I don’t think the government has the right to tell people how they can wear their clothes that they worked hard and paid for.”
Does a violation on a permanent record for sartorial choices really have more lasting positive effects than negative ones? Doubtful. As Benjamin Chavis, former executive director of the N.A.A.C.P. stated in a New York Times article, “I think to criminalize how a person wears their clothing is more offensive than what the remedy is trying to do.” Plus, wearing saggy pants is the punishment itself; much like the hobble skirt from the early 20th century, the movement-stilting, limp-enabling, malfunction-prone clothing is awkward enough to make you think twice about the price you pay for fashion.
February 5, 2013
In the age before the Roaring Twenties, women were still wearing floor-length dresses. Waists were cinched. Arms and legs were covered. Corsets were standard on a daily basis. Hair was long. The Gibson girl was the idealized image of beauty. And the Victorian attitudes toward dress and etiquette created a strict moral climate.
Then the 1920s hit and things changed rapidly. The 19th Amendment passed in 1920 giving women the right to vote. Women began attending college. The Equal Rights Amendment was proposed by Alice Paul in 1923. World War I was over and men wanted their jobs back. Women, though, who had joined the workforce while the men were at war, had tasted the possibility of life beyond homemaking and weren’t ready to relinquish their jobs. Prohibition was underway with the passing of the 18th Amendment in 1919 and speakeasies were plentiful if you knew where to look. Motion pictures got sound, color and talking sequences. The Charleston’s popularity contributed to a nationwide dance craze. Every day, more women got behind the wheels of cars. And prosperity abounded.
All these factors—freedoms experienced from working outside the home, a push for equal rights, greater mobility, technological innovation and disposable income—exposed people to new places, ideas and ways of living. Particularly for women, personal fulfillment and independence became priorities—a more modern, carefree spirit where anything seemed possible.
The embodiment of that 1920s free spirit was the flapper, who was viewed disdainfully by an older generation as wild, boisterous and disgraceful. While this older generation was clucking its tongue, the younger one was busy reinventing itself, and creating the flapper lifestyle we now know today.
It was an age when, in 1927, 10-year-old Mildred Unger danced the Charleston on the wing of an airplane in the air. What drove that carefree recklessness? For the most authentic descriptions that not only define the flapper aesthetic, but also describe the lifestyle, we turn to flappers themselves.
In A Flapper’s Appeal to Parents, which appeared in the December 6, 1922, issue of Outlook Magazine, the writer and self-defined flapper Elllen Welles Page makes a plea to the older generation by describing not only how her outward appearance defines her flapperdom, but also the challenges that come with committing to a flapper lifestyle.
If one judge by appearances, I suppose I am a flapper. I am within the age limit. I wear bobbed hair, the badge of flapperhood. (And, oh, what a comfort it is!), I powder my nose. I wear fringed skirts and bright-colored sweaters, and scarfs, and waists with Peter Pan collars, and low-heeled “finale hopper” shoes. I adore to dance. I spend a large amount of time in automobiles. I attend hops, and proms, and ball-games, and crew races, and other affairs at men’s colleges. But none the less some of the most thoroughbred superflappers might blush to claim sistership or even remote relationship with such as I. I don’t use rouge, or lipstick, or pluck my eyebrows. I don’t smoke (I’ve tried it, and don’t like it), or drink, or tell “peppy stories.” I don’t pet.
But then—there are many degrees of flapper. There is the semi-flapper; the flapper; the superflapper. Each of these three main general divisions has its degrees of variation. I might possibly be placed somewhere in the middle of the first class.
She concludes with:
I want to beg all you parents, and grandparents, and friends, and teachers, and preachers—you who constitute the “older generation”—to overlook our shortcomings, at least for the present, and to appreciate our virtues. I wonder if it ever occurred to any of you that it required brains to become and remain a successful flapper? Indeed it does! It requires an enormous amount of cleverness and energy to keep going at the proper pace. It requires self- knowledge and self-analysis. We must know our capabilities and limitations. We must be constantly on the alert. Attainment of flapperhood is a big and serious undertaking!
The July 1922 edition of Flapper Magazine, whose tagline was “Not for old fogies,” contained “A Flappers’ Dictionary.” According to an uncredited author, “A Flapper is one with a jitney body and a limousine mind.”
And from the 1922 “Eulogy on the Flapper,” one of the most well-known flappers, Zelda Fitzgerald, paints this picture:
The Flapper awoke from her lethargy of sub-deb-ism, bobbed her hair, put on her choicest pair of earrings and a great deal of audacity and rouge and went into the battle. She flirted because it was fun to flirt and wore a one-piece bathing suit because she had a good figure, she covered her face with powder and paint because she didn’t need it and she refused to be bored chiefly because she wasn’t boring. She was conscious that the things she did were the things she had always wanted to do. Mothers disapproved of their sons taking the Flapper to dances, to teas, to swim and most of all to heart. She had mostly masculine friends, but youth does not need friends—it needs only crowds.
While these descriptions provide a sense of the look and lifestyle of a flapper, they don’t address how we began using the term itself. The etymology of the word, while varied, can be traced back to the 17th century. A few contenders for early usages of the term include:
- A young bird, or wild duck, that’s flapping its wings as it’s learning to fly. (Consider how dancing the Charleston is reminiscent of a bird flapping its wings.)
- A prostitute or immoral woman.
- A wild, flighty young woman.
- A woman who refused to fasten her galoshes and the unfastened buckles flapped as she walked.
While the origin story differs depending on where you look, cumulatively, they all contribute to our perceptions of this independent woman of the 1920s. In the posts that follow, we’ll turn our attention to how those parameters set forth by Ellen, Zelda and Flapper Magazine are reflected in women’s attire we now associate with the 1920s, from undergarments to makeup and hair.