Tuesday, September 25th, 2012

Consider The Urban Woodsman

George looked exactly how I expected someone who went to Yale in the 50s to look. He wore a tie every day. Round tortoiseshell glasses perched on his aquiline nose. His voice fell somewhere on the spectrum between Franklin Roosevelt and George Plimpton. George, like many of the men in his family before him, was a Yalie; a fact he brought up on an almost hourly basis. He also often mentioned his partner, Douglas, who had passed away a decade before. One specific story revolved around George's embarrassment when Douglas, a Dartmouth student, visited him at school for the first time. Assuming George was alluding to the difficulties of introducing a boyfriend to friends in Eisenhower-era New Haven, I made some remark about how hard that must have been for him.

"It was," George responded. "He wore boots just like yours all the time." He pointed at my L.L. Bean duck boots. "You wear those things if you're going hiking in the woods. You don't wear them to walk Bucky in the city," he said, referring to the Pomeranian he paid me seven dollars an hour to walk.

I was reminded of this conversation a month as I was looking at a post on Brooks Brothers' Rogues & Gentlemen blog. Titled "Fall Essentials – Urban Woodsmen," the post featured, alongside "indispensable" prep pieces like the tweed sport coat and the "updated knitted tie, items like a vintage-looking canvas rucksack, a navy puffer vest, and Red Wing boots (which Brooks Brothers now carries). These pieces of clothing, the copy explained, are ideal for "strolling down the streets of Manhattan or chopping down trees."

The meeting of Ivy Style and rustic Americana is emblematic of the coasts moving inward to aesthetically meet in the Middle West; this is a considerable sea change for brands like Brooks Brothers. If those that historically cater to the 1% are offering styles borrowed from the 99%, what does that say about the brands' evolution? George died four years ago, but as I read that post I pictured him turning over in his grave (along with an entire generation of former Ivy Leaguers) at the very thought that one of the pillars of the traditional Ivy League look was promoting navy puffer vests and work boots, both items of clothing that wouldn't have cut the mustard for George. The generation he belonged to defined the traditional Ivy League look: custom-made suits, button-up shirts with button-down collars, ties and cuffed pants without pleats. And while we've all come to expect the woodsman look in Brooklyn (or on "Portlandia"), it's finally drifting uptown, in a metaphoric sense. It took a while, but the plaid shirts and thick woolen wears of the New England weekend meanderer and the Minneapolis logger have coalesced with the traditional urban prep look, to the point that it's getting hard to tell the two styles apart anymore.

This represents a pretty big shift for a company that in 1991 had George Plimpton write the copy for a six-page advertisement in The Atlantic. Plimpton extolled the company's "brand of elitism," and seemed shocked that Brooks Brothers had deigned to start selling blue jeans.

Brooks Brothers' most recent embrace of the urban lumberjack look—a willingness to get their hands dirty, also—highlights an enthusiasm among sartorially-minded gentlemen to embrace a more relaxed idea of what formal dress can be (the flannel shirt is fine for the office if you pair it with a knit tie and tweed sport coat), and it also shows the latest evolution of the American preppy look. Once strictly an aesthetic native to old-money New Englanders and their kids en route to prep school and East Coast colleges, now Barbour hunting jackets are as acceptable part of daily wear in fall as pastel tennis shirts are the summer. Even Gant, another brand launched out of New Haven in the late 1940s, has seen their fortunes turn around thanks to a popular partnership with designer Michael Bastian, a guy who describes his influence as "deep-woods preppy." It's a look influenced by his growing up on Lake Ontario, not time spent at Yale.


Paging through the book Ivy Style, a history of Ivy League dressing forthcoming from Yale Press, you get the feeling that the traditional preppy look hasn't really changed all that much from the look's Golden Age in the late 1950s to mid 60s. If you look at pictures of students from Yale, Harvard and Princeton from the interwar years to the early 1960s (think Fitzgerald's This Side of Paradise to Animal House's wayback style, for pop-culture points of reference) you see jackets and ties, everyday guys dressed up in a way that might mark them as a dandy today. But as America relaxed culturally in the 1960s, you began to see the ties and jackets disappear, save for the sort of students who voted for Nixon and worshipped William F. Buckley. By 1968, Yale had abolished its jacket and tie dress code that had been instituted in 1952 to combat "Disorderliness" and "Sloppiness." But even before the revolutionary days of the late '60s hit Yale, the other Ivies started to mark a decline in the suit and tie look. As Richard Press, grandson of J. Press founder Jacobi Press—the other major supplier of wears for the traditional Ivy look—told me of his days at Dartmouth in the last years of the 50s, unless you were going to a formal event, "If you dressed up with a jacket and tie you looked like a shmuck in most circumstances."

Traditional Ivy elements. (Images from Ivy Style, via.)

A pair of Dartmouth students in 1981. (Via.)

The 1970s weren't the Ivy look's best decades: long hair, beards, bellbottoms and t-shirts became commonplace. Young Republicans shopped at Brooks Brothers, Gant, Fenn-Feinstein and J. Press for their suits, penny loafers and button-down collar shirts. It wasn't until the early 80s that America at large once more warmed to the preppy look. The satirical book, The Official Preppy Handbook, was a bestseller, and the Reagan-worshipping Alex P. Keaton of the television show "Family Ties" looked snazzy in his sport coats and suspenders. Along the way, even Andy Warhol traded in his leather jacket for a coat and tie from Brooks Brothers. As the country embraced conservatism, men's style followed suit (both literally and metaphorically). After a period of slumber, the Ivy style had come roaring back—and not much had changed. Reagan promised to deliver us safely to the prosperity of the post-war years, Jerry Rubin went from yippie to yuppie, and "earthy" and "laidback" gave way to wide ties, pinstripes and shined shoes.

But while pinstripes and Ralph Lauren Polo shirts were all the rage among adults, the younger American preppy was comfortable mixing up the dressed-down look of their parents' generation, but in a clean-cut way: Ski gear was worn off the slopes, and Maine Hunting Shoes were worn on the sidewalks of big cities. In 1984, Eddie Bauer teamed with Ford to create the very popular Bronco 2 SUV. And that same year, the first suburban lumberjack heartthrob came in the form of Jake Ryan, the wealthy, plaid-shirt-wearing object of affection for Molly Ringwald's character in Sixteen Candles. Played by then-23-year-old Michael Schoeffling, Jake Ryan is essentially the patron saint of the urban lumberjack. Ryan's ensembles included Oxford shirts under sweater vests with jeans, a pair of work boots and a clean preppy haircut. Whether he knew it or not, John Hughes was doing something more than making some of the greatest teen movies ever; he was telling the world it was perfectly fine to mix preppy with workwear. Jake Ryan may not have been the first urban lumberjack on film, but he remains the greatest, as well as a counterweight to the preppy rich kids of Hughes' Pretty in Pink, Andrew McCarthy and James Spader.

Jake Ryan and one of his plaid shirts.

The 1990s gave new meaning to the phenomenon. Pacific Northwest bands like Tad and Mudhoney wore flannel shirts and jeans. Nirvana sold millions of albums and suddenly the grunge look was seen everywhere from your local Kmart to the Perry Ellis New York Fashion Week runway, where Marc Jacobs introduced his grunge-inspired collection for spring/summer 1993 to the world. But while grunge came and went in the span of a few years, the even bigger change to American menswear during the Clinton era was the growing ascendancy of Abercrombie & Fitch in malls across America. A&F, long a sporting and hunting-supply company, underwent a total rebrand in the early 90s. No longer was it the store where Ernest Hemingway shopped to buy bullets for his rifle; now they were in the business of selling high-end and high-priced merchandise in a frattish style (or "neo-preppy" as Women's Wear Daily dubbed it ). While some may scoff at the suggestion, A&F going from hunters to frat boys was an important step in the progression of the urban woodsman.


These days, commenting on the hairy-faced gentlemen walking down the street in a major city has become passé. Yes, lots of guys have beards. Yes, you can see them all wearing black-and-red-checkered shirts as they lope along, carrying bags filled with artisanal this and that. They may look like they're coming home from a weekend hunting trip, but they're more likely on their way to their MFA program or band practice, dressed up in whatever Made in the USA gear A Continuous Lean is hyping that week. The look isn't new, but now the menswear old-boy establishment is finally getting around to embracing the scruff.

So how did these two looks become intertwined? Maybe it's a tonic for the allegedly growing American masculinity crisis. Putting on a pair of work boots to go sit in the office imparts a sense of gruff virility to the day that a normal pair of bucks don't. Wearing a Carhartt jacket over your shirt and tie is tougher and closer to the popular conception of what is macho; therefore, so is the guy wearing the getup.

Nor can the Internet's involvement be understated. Now we can easily see what everybody else is wearing. The barriers to entry when it came to style have been demolished by the egalitarian nature of the web—even if you're not at an Ivy, you can see the look online. The same goes for guys generally stuck shopping from the ivory tower. There are a thousand Tumblrs and wannabe Bill Cunninghams and Scott Schumans out there to showcase each style and how they interact and influence each other across different continents and cultures.

All of those things lend themselves to the trend, but the real explanation is simple evolution.

Related: A Tale Of Two Tennis Shirts

Jason Diamond lives in New York. He also lives on Twitter.

20 Comments / Post A Comment

Consider the woodsmen of the urb': they chop not; neither do they saw.

wb (#2,214)

<---- Shopping Semi-Ironically at Tractor Supply Company Since 2002

Dressing like a Maine woodsman is not a new thing for the preppy; that's what you wear doing this and that around the camp in summer or chopping wood at Christmas.
The new thing here is the dire financial situation of Brooks Brothers over the last 20 or so years. They can no longer get by as a seller of shirts and suits for men. So their (then new) British owners a few years back introduced women's clothes and (even more) casual clothes and now their current Italian owners are trying to make them a one-stop lifetyle shop selling boots and what have you alongside everything else. That is, now BB also sells what you would normally have bought at LL Bean or Orvis. It's not a change in style it's a change in brand management and retailing.

@My Number Is My Address : Agreed. And, from the same motives but in the opposite style direction, you have the Thom-Browne-designed "Brooks Brothers Black Fleece" line which is basically trad-as-satire.

MaryPS (#5,688)

@My Number Is My Address Agreed also. Retail economics has a lot to do with it, and always has: at least according to company lore, the reason Leon Leonwood Bean started selling "button-up shirts with button-down collars" at his Freeport store is that there was unmet demand for them–weekend rustics wanted to grab a clean shirt for work on their way back to the cities, and he wanted to grow his business, which meant diversifying. (Full disclosure: I worked for L.L.Bean Signature and am wearing a pair of their heels right now.)

Mount_Prion (#290)

I also find it helps to have a $250 glass dome with a piece of moss under it on your unfinished wood furniture, and either a skull or a pair of antlers on the wall.

Jared (#1,227)

@Mount_Prion Fuck your $250 glass dome with a piece of moss under it.

barnhouse (#1,326)

Alas, I thought this was going to be about the ethics of eating the urban woodsman.

@barnhouse: Infinite Vest?

Kevin Knox (#4,475)

@barnhouse Jake Ryan: would let him.

margiesled (#238,317)

@Kevin Knox probably

rj77 (#210)

When Promo Photos Irk: Jake and Samantha were *not* dating at that point in the film, so they shouldn't have their arms around each other. They don't get together until she's in the bridesmaid dress and he's dressing up the lumberjack with a preppy sweater vest.

In other news, Jake Ryan ruined me for all other men.

Carry on.

ejcsanfran (#489)

@rj77: Michael Schoeffling (the actor who portrayed Jake) "now lives with his wife, Valerie L. Robinson of Virginia, also a former model, and their two teenage children Scarlet and Zane, in Newfoundland, Pennsylvania, producing handcrafted furniture as the owner of a woodworking shop."

So he is now totally a preppy lumberjack in real life. FORESHADOWING!

iantenna (#5,160)

this seems as good a place as any to post this fucking bullshit, which continues to make my blood boil some 2 years on since first seeing it.


@iantenna : For those days when you can't decide if you want to chop down a tree or play croquet.

wb (#2,214)

@Gef the Talking Mongoose That fucking ax. It enrages me!

Exene (#2,244)

@wb The brass coke bullet is pretty cool though.

@iantenna I bet they sell the watchbands I like. Save me a trip to Murray's…

ArtisDead (#12,792)

Having grown up in the North Shore suburbs of Chicago (one of America's great bastions of preppydom) during the 70s, I remember that whether one was a "freak" or a "jock"(and one had to be either one or the other unless they were "greaser gear-heads") one wore (STRICTLY) Levis courderoys or jeans and Hudson Bay flannel shirts almost. School books and drug paraphenalia were carried almost exlusively in authentic "Duluth packs"(SERIOUS green canvas and leather North Woods camping back packs) and on our little suburban feet were worn giant Vibram-soled Frankenstein-like hiking boots or authentic sole-less Indian moccasins obtained during summer visits to friends' family lodges in authentic Indian-riddled Northern Wisconsin. Winter outerwear was almost exclusively olive-green arctic parkas with the wolf-fur hood lining. Belts, when worn, were to be of hand-tooled THICK leather and Indian-bead varieties.

Of course, during summer (all 70 days of it back then in pre-global warming Chicago) the wardrobe was exclusively IZOD shirts (of all colors and pastel shades – including pink for boys without threat of beatings) or flannel shirts with cut-off sleaves but always combined with cut-off Levis jeans or canvas canoeing pants with sewn-on flannel or Indian-bead patches.

Formal wear came rarely (funerals) but exclusively from Fell & Co. on Green Bay Road in downtown (VERY JEWISH) Highland Park – which was OK because the salesmen and tailors were all Europeans. Or, of course, Marshall Fields State Street (next door to Brooks Brothers AND Abercrombies where one went exclusively for safari and hunting gear)

Upon graduation, those that didn't get into U of Colorado/Boulder went to Alaska where flannels could be flown year-round.

Just sayin! We were a very seriously lumberjacked-out generation. We also coordinated well with our moms' rustic Ford Country Squire (fake wood sided) station wagons, too!

Did I mention the Oshkosh-My-Gosh denim overall "renegade" look that taught us that fashion really could hurt? When I came out of the closet as a butch homo in 78 I didn't have to buy a thing.

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