What Is Traditional American Style?

Our most recent video, Tradition, features a conversation with Jay Walter, a true-blue American style traditionalist. The American aesthetic is largely a creation of the mid-20th century, and after some years of being maligned, it’s being re-evaluated at the moment, as “Ivy League” style (a close variant) has its moment.

Above are two men in tailored clothing. In black and white, we see a customer at J. Press in the mid-20th century. In color, we see a contemporary photo of Patrick Grant, proprietor of Norton & Sons, a Savile Row tailor. Each of these guys is wearing an outfit that couldn’t be more emblematic of their nation’s signature styles.

Difference to note (pictured and unpictured):

  • The American suit features what’s called a 3-roll-2 buttoning arrangement. That means that there are three buttons on the front,but only two are openly visible and only one is intended to be used. The third (top) button rolls under the lapel. This is a classic button arrangement for suits of any nation, but it’s particularly vital to the American look. The English suit is in a classic English configuration: a narrow double-breasted.
  • The shoulders of the American jacket are soft and nearly unpadded. This is called a “natural shoulder,” and it’s comfortable and casual. Contrast this with the built-up, strongly-shaped shoulder on the Savile Row suit.
  • The American jacket lacks darts (folds, sewn into the fabric for shape) on the front. Most continental jackets have a dart on each side, running from about nipple level to the waist. This gives the jacket shape over and above the shaping permitted by the side seams. The classic undarted American coat is called a “sack,” because, well, it’s sack-like, rather than following the countour of the front of the body.
  • The classic American jacket has a single vent in the back, often a “hook vent.” The hook vent, a J. Press innovation, is cut wider at the top (giving it a hook-like shape) to prevent awkward splaying. An English coat is typically double-vented (sometimes called side-vented), which helps prevent splaying. Sometimes it’s unvented, in the style of the “golden age” of men’s style, the 1930s.
  • Pants in the classic American suit are, as Jay Walter described in our piece, typically flat-front, rather than pleated. They often have plain fronts as well. Generally, this is a simpler, more relaxed style.

There are of course other difference in the aesthetics - Americans have a predilection for button-down collars, even sometimes wearing them with suits, for example. The knit tie is a particularly Ivy League aesthetic. Belts are favored over braces, and loafers, especially penny loafers, are beloved.

The end result is a distinctive, American aesthetic. The shape is youthful. Because it lacks darts, the jacket falls straight, rather than emphasizing the shoulders and chest and narrowing the waist. The goal here is to attain the slim, straight body of the 20 year old, rather than the strong-shouldered, broad-chested body of the Powerful Man favored on Savile Row.

Of course, this style is just as much associated with an insurance salesman in Muskogee as it is with a young Bobby Kennedy. On the hefty man these youngsters of the 1950s and 60s became, the look has a different effect. The shapelessness and weak shoulders of the look can make a heavy man look, for lack of a better word, dumpy. Still: it is classic, comfortable and proudly American.

What’s important to remember is that a suit’s silhouette isn’t an absolute value, following exactly the curves of the body. There are choices about what to emphasize, what to de-emphasize, what to build up and what to slim down. These are informed by individual aesthetics and cultural tradition. I hope this will help you make informed choices for your own wardrobe.

What is the Meaning of a Hole in a Shoe?
If you ever needed proof that dressing is social and cultural, not absolute, or that you dress for those around you, not simply for yourself… it’s here.
A reader named Jonathan sent me a fascinating AP story about Jeffrey Franks, the International Monetary Fund’s envoy to Romania. When the IMF helps bail out a struggling nation, they send an economics envoy like Franks to guide the austerity plans that they hope will bring the country back from the brink. Franks, with an undergraduate degree from Princeton, a master’s from Oxford and a PhD from Harvard is one such envoy.
Romanians, it seems, are upset not just by those unpleasant austerity measures, but also by something smaller - literally smaller. Specifically, a hole in Franks’ shoe. The hole is visible in the picture above, and the AP says this has become a major point of contention in Romania - along with Franks’ black suit and cheap digital watch. I don’t have to outline the ironies here - a nation, chafing under outsider-imposed austerity measures, mocks the austerity of the outsider.
This kind of sartorial austerity is hardly anything new, either. Witness the patched shoes of Prince Charles, for example. In the context of great wealth, a disregard of outward signs of wealth can, contradictorily, be a powerful symbol of wealth. This is particularly true in places which combine the Protestant ethic with deep-rooted money, like the Northeast United States, or England. Nantucket reds, the famous faded red trousers of moneyed WASP vacationers, are another example: they could be replaced, but instead the fading demonstrates the leisure the wearer has enjoyed.
This isn’t even the first political shoe-hole controversy. In the 1950s, presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson caused a furor when a photograph was taken of the hole in the sole of his shoe. Stevenson came from the patrician Northeastern tradition that suggested that the greatest demonstration of class wasn’t to wear the finest clothes, but to wear your clothes until they were unwearable. Michael Bloomberg, the billionaire mayor of New York, only has two pairs of work shoes, and they’re both loafers.
Whether or not Franks comes from a patrician background, he’s certainly been steeped in what’s left of that world. And education at two Ivys and Oxford will do that. He may well have a touch of the contemporary version, brought over from Silicon Valley - a true technocrat has no need for clothes, his skill will do the talking.
What Franks missed, here, was that his values, whether they’re patrician, technocratic or just slovenly, aren’t shared values. He serves as a type of diplomat, and as a diplomat messaging and trans-cultural communication is part of his job. He has to understand that when he dresses, he sends a message. Given the baggage he enters every room with - “here comes the imperialist, telling us how to run our country” - he needs to be extra cognizant of how his choices will be received.
He also needs to stop wearing loafers with a business suit. That’s tacky in any country.

What is the Meaning of a Hole in a Shoe?

If you ever needed proof that dressing is social and cultural, not absolute, or that you dress for those around you, not simply for yourself… it’s here.

A reader named Jonathan sent me a fascinating AP story about Jeffrey Franks, the International Monetary Fund’s envoy to Romania. When the IMF helps bail out a struggling nation, they send an economics envoy like Franks to guide the austerity plans that they hope will bring the country back from the brink. Franks, with an undergraduate degree from Princeton, a master’s from Oxford and a PhD from Harvard is one such envoy.

Romanians, it seems, are upset not just by those unpleasant austerity measures, but also by something smaller - literally smaller. Specifically, a hole in Franks’ shoe. The hole is visible in the picture above, and the AP says this has become a major point of contention in Romania - along with Franks’ black suit and cheap digital watch. I don’t have to outline the ironies here - a nation, chafing under outsider-imposed austerity measures, mocks the austerity of the outsider.

This kind of sartorial austerity is hardly anything new, either. Witness the patched shoes of Prince Charles, for example. In the context of great wealth, a disregard of outward signs of wealth can, contradictorily, be a powerful symbol of wealth. This is particularly true in places which combine the Protestant ethic with deep-rooted money, like the Northeast United States, or England. Nantucket reds, the famous faded red trousers of moneyed WASP vacationers, are another example: they could be replaced, but instead the fading demonstrates the leisure the wearer has enjoyed.

This isn’t even the first political shoe-hole controversy. In the 1950s, presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson caused a furor when a photograph was taken of the hole in the sole of his shoe. Stevenson came from the patrician Northeastern tradition that suggested that the greatest demonstration of class wasn’t to wear the finest clothes, but to wear your clothes until they were unwearable. Michael Bloomberg, the billionaire mayor of New York, only has two pairs of work shoes, and they’re both loafers.

Whether or not Franks comes from a patrician background, he’s certainly been steeped in what’s left of that world. And education at two Ivys and Oxford will do that. He may well have a touch of the contemporary version, brought over from Silicon Valley - a true technocrat has no need for clothes, his skill will do the talking.

What Franks missed, here, was that his values, whether they’re patrician, technocratic or just slovenly, aren’t shared values. He serves as a type of diplomat, and as a diplomat messaging and trans-cultural communication is part of his job. He has to understand that when he dresses, he sends a message. Given the baggage he enters every room with - “here comes the imperialist, telling us how to run our country” - he needs to be extra cognizant of how his choices will be received.

He also needs to stop wearing loafers with a business suit. That’s tacky in any country.

Put This On Episode 5: Tradition

Jesse talks with Jay Walter, head of Made-to-Measure at J. Press in New York City about their classic American style. Then a talk with designer Thom Browne, who’s merged traditional aesthetics with fashion ideas, and become perhaps the most influential menswear designer of the last ten years.

iTunes / Vimeo / YouTube

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It’s On eBay
Circa 1960s Madras Blazer
Starts at $29.99, Ends Monday

It’s On eBay

Circa 1960s Madras Blazer

Starts at $29.99, Ends Monday

A Coat Renewed
I’d estimate that this herringbone Brooks Brothers tweed is from the mid sixties, but it could just as well be from the 80s or the 50s.  A coat like this is pretty much the same in any year.  I bought it a couple years ago at the Salvation Army for ten dollars.  The tweed was in great shape, and with a toothbrush and some Oxyclean I managed to address the bit of ring-around-the-collar that kept it from looking perfect.  Outwardly perfect, anyway.
The only problem with the jacket was the lining - in the time I owned it it went from threadbare to hanging in shreds.  I wear the coat so much that I decided it was worth replacing.
I had a scarf lying around the house that my mom had bought from an estate sale.  It was a yard square, and with a bit of measuring, I realized I could line the whole thing with the silk from that scarf.  I brought the jacket and the scarf to my tailor, and a hundred dollars later, it was completely relined. 
I think the new lining looks like a million dollars, and I’m always happy to give old clothes new life.  And - bonus - at my request he added an extra pocket for my phone. 

A Coat Renewed

I’d estimate that this herringbone Brooks Brothers tweed is from the mid sixties, but it could just as well be from the 80s or the 50s.  A coat like this is pretty much the same in any year.  I bought it a couple years ago at the Salvation Army for ten dollars.  The tweed was in great shape, and with a toothbrush and some Oxyclean I managed to address the bit of ring-around-the-collar that kept it from looking perfect.  Outwardly perfect, anyway.

The only problem with the jacket was the lining - in the time I owned it it went from threadbare to hanging in shreds.  I wear the coat so much that I decided it was worth replacing.

I had a scarf lying around the house that my mom had bought from an estate sale.  It was a yard square, and with a bit of measuring, I realized I could line the whole thing with the silk from that scarf.  I brought the jacket and the scarf to my tailor, and a hundred dollars later, it was completely relined. 

I think the new lining looks like a million dollars, and I’m always happy to give old clothes new life.  And - bonus - at my request he added an extra pocket for my phone. 

The Black Ivy, from our pals at Street Etiquette and Unabashedly Prep.

The Black Ivy, from our pals at Street Etiquette and Unabashedly Prep.

Q and Answer: The Three-Roll-Two
Benjamin writes to ask: I inherited a handful of my grandfather’s tasteful suits a few years ago  and am slowly having them tailored and integrated into my wardrobe.  Among my favorites are a very classic Brooks Brothers navy blazer and a  cotton khaki suit. Both include three-button jackets, however the lapels  were folded as two-buttons leaving the third button hole exposed on the  lower part of the lapel. Being under 6’, I tend to prefer a two-button  jacket, so I would like to keep them folded the way they are now. But I  would also like to know a little more about the style, what’s the deal  here? Was it a style years ago? Is it considered tacky?
What you’ve got is probably the most classic suit buttoning style, the 3-roll-2:  three buttons, with a roll in the lapel that rolls under the top button, making the coat functionally a two-button.
Three-button suits were the style of the “Friends” era, and two buttons the style of the “Cheers” era.  The 3-roll-2 is a compromise.  It’s found on many Savile Row single-breasteds, and is the classic buttoning for the undarted Ivy League-style “sack” suit.  It’s the opposite of tacky - the epitome of class.
The great challenge will be preserving the lapel roll as such.  On cheap and mishandled suits, the lapel doesn’t roll at all - it folds.  Often dry cleaners will press the lapel down into the chest of the suit, flattening out the suit’s three-dimensional shape.  They’ll also often press a 3-roll-2 into an awkward three-button, so be vigilant.  A good tailor can steam the lapel roll for you to preserve its shape.

Q and Answer: The Three-Roll-Two

Benjamin writes to ask: I inherited a handful of my grandfather’s tasteful suits a few years ago and am slowly having them tailored and integrated into my wardrobe. Among my favorites are a very classic Brooks Brothers navy blazer and a cotton khaki suit. Both include three-button jackets, however the lapels were folded as two-buttons leaving the third button hole exposed on the lower part of the lapel. Being under 6’, I tend to prefer a two-button jacket, so I would like to keep them folded the way they are now. But I would also like to know a little more about the style, what’s the deal here? Was it a style years ago? Is it considered tacky?

What you’ve got is probably the most classic suit buttoning style, the 3-roll-2:  three buttons, with a roll in the lapel that rolls under the top button, making the coat functionally a two-button.

Three-button suits were the style of the “Friends” era, and two buttons the style of the “Cheers” era.  The 3-roll-2 is a compromise.  It’s found on many Savile Row single-breasteds, and is the classic buttoning for the undarted Ivy League-style “sack” suit.  It’s the opposite of tacky - the epitome of class.

The great challenge will be preserving the lapel roll as such.  On cheap and mishandled suits, the lapel doesn’t roll at all - it folds.  Often dry cleaners will press the lapel down into the chest of the suit, flattening out the suit’s three-dimensional shape.  They’ll also often press a 3-roll-2 into an awkward three-button, so be vigilant.  A good tailor can steam the lapel roll for you to preserve its shape.

All I Want For Christmas: Christian Chensvold

All this month, we’re asking men we think are cool to tell us about something they’d like to get for Christmas.  Christian Chensvold is the founder of Ivy Style, a blog which chronicles the Ivy League look, from Weejuns to sack suits.  So what does the Ivy Leaguer want for Christmas?

I’m hoping someone close to me, or even a stranger full of Christmas spirit, reads this and sees that all I want for Christmas are Mark McNairy’s black tassel loafers for Bass. These shoes are like one of those girls in your neighborhood that you never really noticed, and then one day suddenly you go, “Wow, she’s hot.” I’d pair these with soft shoulders and hard bop.


Tassel moccasins, Mark McNairy for Bass, available at Barney’s. Call for details.