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).
March 6, 2013
At every stump speech, meet and greet, and town hall gathering during the 2004 presidential campaign, John Kerry wore a very distinctive bracelet: the bright yellow LiveStrong wristband. He wasn’t the only recognizable figure to embrace the cancer cause through a silicone band. Usher, Lindsay Lohan and Ben Affleck were also some of the 80 million-plus people who made it known they supported a good cause, and felt cool doing it too.
What followed was a charity wristband explosion, a distinctive way to wear your heart on your sleeve, or your cause on your wrist. Silicone gel “awareness bands” were made in all shades of the rainbow to build awareness and foster support for all types of causes: pink for breast cancer, purple for pancreatic cancer, blue for autism, red for AIDS, orange for anti-smoking. For a mere buck, you could slip a piece of rubber on your wrist and be braceleted, give yourself a pat on the back for your contribution to making the world a better place.
Look around. How many people do you see wearing those bands now? Almost none. They’d already lost their luster before the Armstrong doping debacle, disappearing almost as quickly as they emerged (although LiveStrong still sells them). In about 15 years, they’ll make an ironic comeback.
The aughts haven’t yet receded into the distant past, but already we’re thinking about what we’ll look back on and associate with the first decade of the 21st century. Not long ago, the New York Times published, “What Will We Miss When It’s 2033,” a rather broad assessment of the music, culture and style we’ll associate with 1999 to 2009, name-checking everything from Gwyneth Paltrow to the Black Eyed Peas to “Project Runway” to angular haircuts, flared jeans and trucker hats.
Last week, the fashion site Refinery29 ran a piece, “From Uggs to Y2K, What the ’00s Meant to Us,” that examined what cultural events influenced fashion during that decade. (Full disclosure: I was quoted in that article.) The post considered the sobering impact of 9/11 and the technological advances associated with the iPod and social networks. And although we may want to look the other way, it also mentioned a few cringe-worthy trends of the decade (Uggs boots everywhere with everything, low-slung jeans and midriff-bearing tops, tramp stamps, velour sweatsuits and gazillion-dollar “It bags,” just for starters).
Let’s look on the bright side and give the aughts some points for meshing style with intentionality. The popularity of cause-specific wristbands are on example. But there are others.
Simultaneous with – and in response to – fast fashion came a push for more sustainable clothing, reimagined for the aughts. Hemp-y, shapeless, neutral-toned bag dresses were updated with more form-fitting, stylish eco-fashion lines like Loomstate, Edun, Barneys Green Label and Stella McCartney. They found an audience who was willing to listen to why producing clothes in more earth-friendly ways (than, say, using 700-plus gallons of water to make one cotton T-shirt) was vital.
Remember Anya Hindmarch’s “I’m Not a Plastic Bag” tote bag that sold out in a matter of minutes in 2007? Or Lauren Bush’s FEED bag that followed on its heels? Both were green status symbols, especially as plastic bags were spurned and sustainable fashion, and its accompanying accessories, gained cachet.
The credit default swap led to the proliferation of clothing swaps. A desire to work with our hands, along with other responses to fast fashion, resulted in an uptick of DIY, crafting, recycling, upcycling, thrifting, as well as an appreciation for all things handmade, thanks to Etsy, which launched in 2005.
And however you may feel about TOMs shoes, its “one for one” model for giving shoes to needy children, begun in 2006 and now promoted in shoe stores around the globe, mainstreamed the discussion about a consumer’s responsibility to make socially aware clothing choices.
The Refinery29 post concludes by referencing a BBC article about the science of resurfacing trends, addressing the cycle of style. Only time will tell if we’ll look back on these cause-related fashion trends with amusement, befuddlement or gratitude, particularly if – and maybe it’s overly optimistic – in hindsight, we find that one small step for fashion leads to one more substantive step toward building a better world.
February 14, 2013
It was during the Roman Empire that St. Valentine is said to have left a note to his jailer’s daughter, “From your Valentine” before his execution on February 14. Today, thanks to St. Valentine, cards expressing one’s heartfelt emotions, a. k. a. valentines, are given to that special someone.
To defer to a classic idiom: It’s a day to wear our heart on our sleeve.
We use the phrase casually, to mean exposing our true emotions, making ourselves vulnerable and letting it all hang out. The phrase is so pervasive that from Ringo Starr to Eminem to Carrie Underwood, those words-turned-lyrics have found their way into a range of musical genres.
But, what kind of sleeve? And why on a sleeve and not a pants leg or around your neck? There’s no clear answer. But many legends attempt to get at the heart (it is Valentine’s Day, after all!) of the matter and may explain the source of the saying. The three most popular stories:
1. In the Middle Ages, Emperor Claudius II believed unattached men made better soldiers so he declared marriage illegal. As a concession, he encouraged temporary coupling. Once a year, during a Roman festival honoring Juno, men drew names to determine who would be their lady friend for the coming year. Once established, the man would wear her name on his sleeve for the rest of the festival.
2. Around that same time, it’s speculated, when a knight performed in a jousting match in the king’s court, he’d dedicate his performance to a woman of the court. By tying something of hers, like a handkerchief, around his arm, he’d let the court know the match would defend the honor of that woman.
3. Or, we can credit Shakespeare, where it may have first been recorded in writing:
It is as sure as you are Roderigo,
Were I the Moor, I would not be Iago.
In following him, I follow but myself;
Heaven is my judge, not I for love and duty,
But seeming so, for my peculiar end;
For when my outward action doth demonstrate
The native act and figure of my heart
In complement extern, ’tis not long after
But I will wear my heart upon my sleeve
For daws to peck at. I am not what I am.
– Othello, Act 1, Scene 1, 56–65
In the circa 1603 play, Iago confesses to treacherous acts and says that by “wear[ing] my heart upon my sleeve,” or truly exposing himself, he’s basically invited black crow-like birds to peck away at him.
So maybe this Valentine’s Day, forgo the cloying Hallmark cards and flavorless Russell Stover chocolates. Take a risk of letting the “daws” have their way with you by affixing your darling’s name onto your arm. Or better yet, if you really, really mean it, ink it right into your flesh.
One step too far? Okay, how about just plastering pictures of your honey’s face onto your legs to show the world what he really means to you.
November 19, 2012
We can offer our gratitude this Thanksgiving to the English inventor Thomas Hancock for allowing our clothes to give a little as we indulge in a holiday feast. Without Hancock, we might not have elastic. And without elastic, this holiday could be very uncomfortable.
Hancock was a key player in establishing the British rubber industry. While patenting and producing elastic fastenings for gloves, suspenders and stockings in 1820, he was struck by how much rubber he was wasting. An early environmentalist, he invented a machine called the masticator that shreds scraps of rubber and allows those remnants to be recycled. Fun fact: Before patenting the masticator (how aptly named for Thanksgiving!), he called it the “pickling machine” to keep his invention a secret.
Hancock went on to create waterproof fabrics alongside Charles Macintosh, and from that collaboration, the classic mackintosh coat was born. Meanwhile, advances in rubber production moved forward. Decades later, elastic, and the rubber that’s key to its existence, has quietly established itself as an essential ingredient in the upcoming holiday, right alongside cranberries and stuffing.
With Turkey Day only a few days away, what follows are a handful of holiday attire suggestions to make the season of eating more comfortable—inspired by vintage fashion ads all emphasizing a certain stretch factor.
But first, if you absolutely refuse to let your holiday heft win, strap yourself into a girdle to maintain your svelte, girded shape. And good luck.
To those of us who have come to accept that we’ll be consuming more than usual, before you fill up your plate, consider doing a little stretching to ease yourself into the meal.
Speaking of undergarments, make sure yours have a comfortable enough waistband for the meal ahead (cowboy hat optional).
For utmost comfort, sweatpants, with their forgiving waistbands, provide the flexibility you’ll need to go back for seconds and thirds (sweatband optional).
Not feeling the dressed-down look? How about a slinky shift with adjustable lace sides for adding or losing a dress size as needed?
Or, for convenience sake, keep your spandex aerobics gear on throughout the meal. Plan a trip to the gym as soon as the festivities conclude.
And when all else fails, throw on a muu-muu-like robe.
November 1, 2012
It’s hard to believe—especially as the East Coast reels in the aftermath of Sandy—that the election is just a few days away. While the candidates crisscross battleground states in last-ditch efforts to win over undecided voters, and volunteers go door to door to get out the vote, voices are growing hoarse with strain. Of course, if all else fails and laryngitis sets in, you can communicate your campaign message through dress! Usually, that means the requisite campaign T-shirt, button, baseball cap—or mask, if you really want to make your point. But occasionally, campaign-wear turns more creative.
The most fun campaign garment I’ve seen of late is this Rockefeller for President dress made from paper! Designed by Candidress, it might have been worn by an avid Nelson Rockefeller supporter during the 1960, 1964 or 1968 presidential elections when he unsuccessfully attempted to secure the Republican nomination. Emblazoned with “Rocky”—on a balloon— and an extreme close-up of his face, the dress recently sold for $255 on eBay.
(Thanks, Sarafina Creeley!)
Another paper dress! This one, from 1968, was for the guy who actually won the Republican nomination. Who knew Richard Nixon was so design-savvy? (Anyone wear a paper shift when they were a fad?) Made by Mars of Asheville, North Carolina, the highly combustible disposable mini (“This material is fire resistant unless washed or dry cleaned, then becomes dangerously flammable when dry,” the label explains.) can be yours for $1250.
How about upgrading from the tired presidential button to something with a little more pizazz? Even though it’s the size of a quarter, I’m sure this blinged-out campaign pin made a statement when worn—only on the fanciest occasions, of course!
Going back a couple of election cycles, I enjoyed reading the story of this Eisenhower campaign dress on What I Saved from the Fire. The dress owner explains:
Surely I would grab my vintage Ike Dress from the fire. The Eisenhower presidential campaigns of 1952 and 1956 featured some of the best paraphernalia. Like the man himself, his campaigns were comparatively larger-than-life and infused with charisma and excitement; though a mediocre president, the General understood a good campaign.
More importantly, this dress was a gift to me from David Garth, one of the founders of the political media business, whose own outsized personality was infused with the spirit of a good fight, a sense of historical adventure, and the creation of dramatic moments full of wit and imagination, punctuated with high dudgeon, and, in all, just plain fun. Garth became my mentor as I was just starting out; as a young man he had worked for Adlai Stevenson in his second race against Eisenhower. In a way, then, Ike was a beginning for him and his gift of the Ike Dress to me reminds me of my own start.
So, in the beginning of the 21st century, I must say that in some ways I pine for the 20th—for campaigns like Ike’s full of naive spectacle; for scrappy, lively people like Garth; for optimism and a belief in civic virtue in which, though politics and life might soil from time to time, any cynicism remains but a temporary reaction.
Continuing with Eisenhower’s inventive campaign gear, this plastic child’s hat with a moveable elephant is quite a campaign memento. Found in the Cornell University Library collection of political Americana, this hat convinced kids that politics were fun.
Reagan time (thanks to eBay)! It was 1980, digital watches were “in” and Republicans wore this one in support of the Gipper.
GOTV-ers, check out these patriotic bellbottoms! Discovered on eBay a couple of years ago, I grabbed the seller’s story about the pants for my online art project, Sentimental Value in which I collect stories about clothing from eBay. She wrote (grammar and misspellings as is):
THERE IS A FUNNY STORY BEHIND THESE AS I HAD NO CLUE TO WHAT THEY WERE I HAD BOUGHT THESE AT A GARAGE SALE ABOUT 20 YEARS AGO AND I WAS WORKING AT THE POLLS . I JUST THOUGHT HOW COOL THEY WOULD BE TO WEAR WHILE HANDING OUT FLIERS. AFTER THAT, PUT THEM AWAY AND FORGOTTEN. THIS FOURTH OF JULY I FOUND THEM, LISTED THEM IN JUNE 2010 AND I GUESS THE WAY THEY WERE LISTED NOBODY PAID ANY ATTENTION TO THEM. I JUST HAPPENED TO BE READING A JUDITH MILLER BOOK LAST NIGHT TRYING TO FIND SOME OF MY GLASS WARE WHEN I SAW THESE PANTS AND THEY HAD THEM VALUED AT $180. SOMEBODY COULD HAVE GOT A GREAT BARGAIN BACK IN JUNE. WHO KNEW, I CERTAINTLY DIDN’T.
Partisan politics and paper dresses aside, remember to vote on November 6!