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).
May 16, 2013
In modern slang, a “creeper” is that odd, socially awkward guy you know from the office, dorm, neighborhood, local restaurant. You can also call him a creep. A couple of years ago, Andy Samberg and his Lonely Island crew premiered the digital short called “The Creep,” with filmmaker and creeper John Waters, on “Saturday Night Live,” spawning a series of YouTube imitators mimicking the stilted, zombielike dance.
Going back 50 years, another dance spawned a different sort of “creeper.” The dance was done to the 1953 hit ”The Creep,” from big-band leader Ken Mackintosh. A slow shuffle movement, it was embraced by a subculture called the Teddy Boys, who became known as creepers.
The Teddy Boys first appeared after World War II, with roots dating back to the Edwardian era. In addition to distinguishing themselves by their musical preferences, Teddy Boys made themselves known through their dandy-like sartorial choices that referenced the early 20th century. A popular look included drainpipe pants with exposed socks, tailored drapey jackets, button-down shirts, brogues, Oxfords or crepe-soled shoes. Those ridged, thick-crepe-soled shoes with suede or leather uppers became known as “creepers” because of their association with the Creep dance (and maybe because if you misspelled crepe, you got creep?).
When British soldiers returned from World War II battlefields, they were ready to let off a little steam. Still wearing their crepe-soled, military-issued boots, they hit the London nightclubs. The shoe soon gained the moniker “brothel creepers.”
In 1949, when the U.K.-based company George Cox Footwear began designing sturdy, crepe-soled shoes, the style took off, particularly among the Teddy Boy set. With its combination of sturdy construction and “flair for originality,” the creeper became the company’s signature shoe.
In fact, this “Behind the Scenes” blog post about a current collaboration between Cox and the brand Fred Perry describes how making creepers at Cox entails meticulous handiwork that stands out among mass-manufactured goods of today. ”The company, famed for its creeper styles, utilises a production process known as Goodyear welting. The hands-on nature of this construction means that the shoes take much longer to produce than those made using wholly mechanised techniques. Whilst many modern manufactured shoes have their soles simply glued on, the Goodyear welting process involves several stages of sealing with each shoe individually finished by a skilled craftsman,” says the blog post.
After a lull in popularity, creepers re-emerged in the 1970s. We can thank Malcolm McLaren, Vivienne Westwood and the punk scene for reviving the distinctively soled style, as well as cyclical fashion trends in general. The Teddy Boy was back in fashion subcultures, although it remained far from the mainstream. McLaren and Westwood’s Let It Rock shop in London, which was renamed Too Fast to Live Too Young to Die, and then renamed Sex, kept the shoes in stock.
In addition to George Cox Footwear, brands like Underground and T.U.K. make creepers. They have been a mainstay in ska, punk, goth and glam for decades.
Just like punk itself, creepers have found their way onto runways, and they’ve gone more mainstream since the days of hunting them down at punk boutiques like Trash and Vaudeville on St. Marks Place in New York’s East Village. Even Rihanna is sporting them, albeit with her own rebellious take.
April 16, 2013
A fashion spread, Hollywood movie or advertisement usually doesn’t reflect with accuracy what everyday people actually wore at a given time. Historically speaking, to really get a sense of the fashions of the times, old newsreels, photojournalism and catalogs offer more true-to-life examples of what was in style.
One literary source is the book-length poem I Remember, by writer and artist Joe Brainard. When it was originally published—in three parts between 1970 and 1973 by Angel Hair Books—the small print runs sold out quickly. Most recently it’s been published by Granary Books. The 1,000 entries in this work all begin with “I remember . . .” and each describes a single memory from Brainard—growing up in Oklahoma in the 1940s, arriving in New York in the ’60s, making art, making friends, making a living.
As the poet and his lifelong friend Ron Padgett explains:
…the repetition in I Remember proved to be a springboard that allowed Joe to leap backward and forward in time and to follow one chain of associations for a while, then jump to another, the way one’s memory does. Coupled with Joe’s impulse toward openness, the I Remember form provided a way for him to lay his soul bare in a confession that is personable, moving, perceptive, and often funny.
The book is a time capsule, a beautiful and candid catalog of one person’s memories, however fleeting. Incorporated into those recollections is documentation of how people dressed—some styles are still worn today, while others were passing trends that are relegated to fashion history. They all share Brainard’s funny, insightful and accessible style. Michael Lally of The Village Voice agreed: “Joe Brainard’s memories of growing up in the ’40s and ’50s have universal appeal. He catalogues his past in terms of fashion and fads, public events and private fantasies, with such honesty and accuracy and in such abundance that, sooner or later, his history coincides with ours and we are hooked.” What follows are a selection of favorites:
I remember sack dresses.
I remember pill box hats.
I remember thinking how embarrassing it must be for men in Scotland to have to wear skirts.
I remember old women’s flesh-colored hose you can’t see through.
I remember when girls wore lots of can can slips. It got so bad (so noisy) that the principal had to put a limit on how many could be worn. I believe the limit was three.
I remember when “beehives” got really out of hand.
I remember when those short-sleeved knitted shirts with long tails (to wear “out”) with little embroidered alligators on the pockets were popular.
I remember plain camel hair coats that rich girls in high school wore.
I remember having a crush on a boy in my Spanish class who had a pair of olive green suede shoes with brass buckles just like a pair I had. (“Flagg Brothers.”) I never said one word to him the entire year.
I remember sweaters thrown over shoulders and sunglasses propped on heads.
If, after reading I Remember, you crave more information about the work and life of Joe Brainard, who passed away in 1994, watch filmmaker Matt Wolf’s short documentary I Remember: A Film About Joe Brainard. Described on the website as “an elliptical dialog about friendship, nostalgia, and the strange wonders of memory,” the film combines archival images, audio recordings of Brainard, and an interview with poet Ron Padgett. Download the film here or check it out at the following upcoming screenings:
April 18 – 28, 2013
Festival IndieLisboa, Portugal
April 25, 26, 27, 2013
Brooklyn Academy of Music
Crossing Brooklyn Ferry
Screening Times TBA
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.
March 22, 2013
If your wardrobe is seriously lacking the next time you have a red carpet event on the horizon, consider taking a trip to The Way We Wore. The vintage boutique, its proprietor Doris Raymond, and her upbeat staff are the subjects of a new series called “L.A. Frock Stars,” which premiered last week on the Smithsonian Channel. Over the course of six episodes, the docu-reality show follows Doris and members of her charismatic team as they travel from California to Texas to New York on the hunt for rare fashions to stock in her Los Angeles shop.
We’re not talking run-of-the-mill thrift store finds. From beaded floor-length gowns to ostrich feather-adorned party dresses to one-of-a-kind Christian Dior jackets, the pristine garments and accessories in the LaBrea Avenue boutique have been purchased by A-list celebrities, stylists, designers, and serious vintage clothing aficionados who trust Doris’ eye. In between traveling alongside Doris on her treasure hunting shopping marathons, the viewer is exposed to educational tidbits from her encyclopedic knowledge of fashion history, a refreshing feature that distinguishes the show from its superficial, “What Not to Wear”-style reality television counterparts. We spoke with Doris to learn more about her passion for vintage.
How did you get into this line of work?
In the 1970s, I had bought a ring in the shape of a triangle with a carnelian stone and on either side of the triangle was marcasite. Someone saw it and commented, “That’s a really great Art Deco ring.” I said, “What’s Art Deco?” I went to the library and researched it, and from that research, I wanted to find out more of the context. When you get a little back story about an object, it amplifies the value and makes you appreciate it much more. So yeah, my career basically started all over a ring.
From watching the show, everything at The Way We Wore seems special – unusual, collectible, rare – and the garments have an attention to detail that we see less and less of these days. With the thousands of incredible objects you handle each year, when do pieces really stand out?
I could tell stories from the ridiculous to the sublime. Not to sound like a fashion snob, but oftentimes, the ones that blow my socks off and stick in my mind are the ones that cross the boundary from fashion into art.
One of my favorite examples is a Sonia Delaunay cloche and scarf that I bought in North Carolina about 20 years ago. Someone who had worked for me went to the State University of New York to become a curator and her first exhibition was about Sonia Delaunay. I had never heard of her until that point. The show, and her work, left quite an impression on me, especially because of Delaunay’s Cubist influences. The way she put things together was so identifiable that wouldn’t you know, six months later I’m in an antique store in North Carolina and I see this cloche and scarf and I think, “This can’t be,” but I bought it. And that began a journey of spending two years and many thousands of dollars meeting with experts on Delaunay. After two years, I received a certificate of authenticity for the cloche and scarf. I would say that was the most sublime experience.
How about something on the more ridiculous end of the spectrum?
Anything that makes me chuckle or laugh out loud is a piece that I want, either for myself or for the store. Several years ago, I was in Chicago and I bought these 1920s earmuffs and the actual ear coverings were composition faces – similar to a kewpie doll – with fur around each muff. It looked like you’re wearing heads around your head. That piece I have kept in my office.
So you’ve held onto the earmuffs, but how do you decide what to keep and what to sell?
I would say that everything from my collection is for sale because I’ve learned through the years that when you let go of something, something better will replace it. If I happen to have a client come in who is a good match for something that’s not visible in the store, I’d rather pass it on. I take on the role of foster parent. There’s nothing I can’t let go of except for my books. I keep my books because I use them for reference.
You come upon clothing that has been worn by historical figures on momentous occasions. How interested are you in the provenance of the garment?
Before I opened my store, I was a collector first. After I opened my store in L.A., I had to change my eye and my criteria for retail because 99 percent of my customers are less interested in provenance.
I recently sold two Native American garments to one of my favorite customers. A week or so after she bought it, I called her to let her know it had come from Rudolph Nureyev. The woman I got the pieces from was an extremely close friend of Nureyev’s and an executor of his estate. I thought she’d want to know. I rarely toot that horn until after it sells because I feel like the value of piece is in the garment itself, not who owned it.
Generally, it’s more widely accepted for people to wear vintage clothing these days. How have you seen the culture of vintage evolve?
There’s a reverence and respect for elements of the past regardless of the form it takes. With clothing, that appreciation has increased in the past decade because of social networks and platforms like eBay, where people began to have more exposure to the vintage clothing culture that exists. People began appreciating what was in their closets and what was in their relatives’ closets rather than just throwing everything into a dumpster, which is the way things were done in the past.
When I started wearing vintage in the late ’60s, early ’70s, my mother said, “Don’t tell people it’s used.” Buying at thrift stores was an indication that you couldn’t afford to buy new clothing. That was the case – I couldn’t afford to buy new clothing. But it wasn’t something I was embarrassed about.
Once you attach value, things change. And I think that has a lot to do with celebrity dressing, with people like Winona Ryder, Julia Roberts, and Renee Zellweger wearing vintage. It has become acceptable to wear vintage without having a stigma attached to it.
The Way We Wore boutique is on the more expensive end of the vintage clothing store spectrum with prices ranging from a few hundred dollars to up to $50,000. How do you compare your shop to the thousands of other vintage shops in existence?
Unless you’ve invested time in understanding the different types of vintage, coming into a store like mine can be off-putting because every piece is curated, cleaned, repaired, and the prices reflect that. My business is for more seasoned vintage clothing shoppers who understand the value of what they’re getting.
L.A. Frock Stars airs on the Smithsonian Channel, Thursday nights at 8, Eastern and Pacific times; 7, Central time.