The story of the J.Peterman Company is livelier than most catalog clothing brands’. Founded by charismatic ex-minor league baseball player John Peterman, the company stepped into the travel- and safari-themed clothing market that Banana Republic eventually vacated for more yuppie mainstream waters. The catalog features drawings instead of photos of items and sometimes elaborate backstories encompassing everything from how and where in the world an article of clothing was unearthed to the kind of man who might own it and the life he lives wearing it. “Seinfeld” famously parodied the eccentric catalog and its namesake when the character Elaine goes to work for J.Peterman, played by actor John O’Hurley. When the brand’s parent company went bankrupt shortly after Peterman had sold it in 1999, the real J.Peterman bought the name back with investment support from the actor that played him and re-started the company in 2001. A little life imitating art imitating life.
Maybe it’s strange for a vintage blog to post about a brand started in ’87 with clothes that hardly qualify as vintage yet. In fact, the motivation for this post came from listing a J.Peterman piece in the shop before my research uncovered just how recent it was. Despite their relative youth, J.Peterman products tell a story—literally—in the pages of the catalog, now online as much as in print. At its best, vintage clothing is all about telling a story too, all about something to wear that has heart, character—a past. And 1987 is not as recent as it used to be, with plenty of sellers already touting the Seinfeldian 90s as vintage. With its emphasis on quality and character, J.Peterman has already earned a place as the vintage of the future. Also of vintage interest are the company’s origins reproducing antique clothing and clothing worn in specific films. There’s also a section of the catalog online that features explicitly vintage pieces, although I’m not sure you could justify a $600 soup tureen no matter how thrilling the backstory. I know I couldn’t.
Well, I guess it depends on the story.
Above are my favorite looks from J.Crew’s Fall/Winter 2015 collection, which just showed at New York Fashion Week. After hours focusing on vintage garments, it’s fun to think about the next fashion horizon. The same way that current fashion builds on the past, today’s most popular vintage depends on those trends. From the looks of many collections including the above from J.Crew, that’s going to involve plenty of shearling coats and other textural top coats, collared sweaters, and more elegant scarf wear, all of which I’ll keep stockpiling til then. I could go on about how these thoroughly modern looks have numerous reference points to classic menswear in order to beef up my vintage connection–and how in a larger way J.Crew has come to embody a menswear heritage–but screw it. I just really liked this collection. And it almost made bearable thinking about next winter while this one’s still so record-breakingly underway. See the full collection courtesy of Complex Style.com.
I finally got around to watching the eponymous 2010 documentary on the original street style photographer Bill Cunningham of the New York Times. Truth be told, I binge-watched all of the more recent, more meritable fashion documentaries available on Netflix (“The Eye Has To Travel,” “Advanced Style,” “Ultrasuede: In Search of Halson”), but the one on Bill (I call him Bill now because I know him) was the one I most enjoyed, and was perhaps the most germane to a vintage menswear blog. “Bill Cunningham New York” documents how eighty-some-year old Cunningham tirelessly continues to bicycle around The City That Never Sleeps photographing the everyday style of New Yorkers on the street by day and the style of New York society people by night. When he sleeps himself the film does not say; he seems to live for work. Indeed what was most inspiring to me–and what makes the film transcend a fashion documentary–is Bill’s complete devotion to his art and the personal philosophies surrounding his work, especially how he manages to stay separate from the privileged world of many of his subjects, and eschews financial gain for artistic integrity. “If you don’t take any money, they can’t tell you what to do,” he observes, plainly and cheerfully as ever. Bill is a documentarian himself. He documents what fashion is without dividing it into good or bad, and celebrates what’s beautiful beyond what’s widely celebrated.
Coming so late, this post isn’t much for breaking news or weighty criticism, but just a recommendation that the Bill Cunningham doc is well worth seeing if like me, you still hadn’t. And that it’s plenty relevant for vintage enthusiasts and current fashionistas alike! Sure, Bill’s NYT column features mostly women (as all of fashion does), but he certainly covers plenty of men’s street style too, and he is himself a man in the fashion world (with a certain style of his own, I should say). Like vintage, street style is more concerned with what’s on ordinary people and how its worn than grand prescriptions from the fashion runways. With four or five decades of street style photographs and counting, Cunningham’s work is quite a vintage resource and becoming more of one every day.
Fair Isle. Argyle. Cable knit. Cardigan. There are as many sweater vest possibilities as there are, well, full sweater possibilities. But not since the 1990s sweater vest/T-shirt combo (à la Chandler Bing) has the sleeveless wonder enjoyed mainstream popularity. That’s one reason they make a solid vintage option. Like their more full fabric-ed cousin, the turtleneck, classic menswear may never completely abandon the sweater vest, but they are not readily available from current fashion retailers. Meanwhile vintage stores are flush with them, and it can be a good way to score older eras or designers that are otherwise difficult to find. Originally listed in the shop as a kind of taste experiment, or to see if anyone was still paying attention, sleeveless knits have emerged as a consistently strong seller.
At the heart of their appeal is the versatility and almost accessory status of the sweater vest. Somehow a sweater vest doesn’t feel like as much of a commitment as a full sweater or a jacket (although in execution it can be more of one). More like a hat or a pocket square, don one as a finishing touch, a boost of color or pattern or texture to pull an outfit together. With the resurgence of suits, and particularly three-piece suits, the sweater vest is already beginning to make its latest comeback. Sometimes billed as the “poor man’s three-piece suit,” the sweater vest is a wonderful way to freshen up and extend a suit’s life, dressing up or softening a suit look depending on the sweater vest at hand.
Above is a gallery of winter-themed and/or Christmas-inspired sweaters from the recent shop that are not completely oblivious of the so-called Ugly Christmas Sweater craze. You know the sweaters: dizzying, Technicolor patterns; cartoon Christmas mice; beads, applique, embroidery—once worn in more-or-less festive earnest, and now worn in rare trans-generational irony by everyone from fun uncles and lacrosse moms to hipster millenials.
While this men’s shop doesn’t usually go in for what has lately become the annual UCS fad, we agree that there’s no ugly Christmas sweater like a vintage ugly Christmas sweater. But then again, does an ugly Christmas sweater have to be ugly?! I don’t really think the above ones are. And if there is a holiday license to go big in one’s fashion choices, I say use that power of self-expression for nice instead of naughty. Tis the season to go bright, go bold, and still be stylish: plus then you get to wear your favorite new old sweater way past Christmas morning.
Among the perks of collecting and selling vintage menswear are the random artifacts one unearths while digging through clothes in the usual antique shops, thrift stores and estate sales. I discovered the vintage MoMA kaleidoscope pictured above (the top one actually) and nabbed it thinking I’d figure out more about why I liked it later. It isn’t rare. Both kaleidoscopes pictured here are readily available on eBay or Etsy for $10-100 (and what cool vintage Christmas gifts they’d make). Those above are two of four similar kaleidoscopes designed by artist Ernest Trova between 1965 and 1974. According to etrova.org, the first version in black with white text was published by the Pace Gallery of New York in 1965; MoMA published a second version in red with black band and white text/figures, a third version in blue and white (above top), and a final version in lighter blue with blue and red landscape, which is labeled 1974 (pictured fifth and sixth above). According to The Kaleidocope Online Book, the “Trovascopes” (or at least the two pictured here) are most likely manufactured by the Steven Manufacturing Company, since their dimensions exactly match the Steven #150 model of the same time period. The initial two versions may be much rarer, since I wasn’t able to find any available images or listings for sale.
Ernest Trova (1927-2009) was a St. Louis pop artist and Surrealist most known for his abstract figural “Falling Man” sculptures (pictured last and second to last), which explored themes of man’s mechanization echoing a religious fall from grace. Becoming a kind of personal iconographic language, Trova widely repeated the figure of the Falling Man throughout his painting and 2-D work as well as more commercial objects like wristwatches and these kaleidoscopes, and indeed viewed all his art as one unified masterwork. Perhaps as compelling as the themes of spiritual and technological fall embodied in the Falling Man was Trova’s own fall from public acclaim. Once heralded as among the most important American artists working in the 1960s and 1970s–his art represented at the Guggenheim, Whitney, MoMA and Pace Gallery–Trova is now all but forgotten in comparison to his contemporaries like Warhol. Though Trova’s work seems to have much to do with serialization and commercialization, he was criticized for his commercial ventures like the wristwatches and kaleidoscopes. Without them though, I may never have come to know their creator or his wonderful Falling Man, changing with each turn of the kaleidoscope.
A pair of vintage-inspired fall/winter looks with menswear staples from classic, mostly American brands:
Top—Vintage two-piece tweed suit with 3-2 roll front (from Jack Bell of Philadelphia); 1960s unlined silk foulard necktie from the Harvard Coop Society; L.L.Bean Fair Isle wool sweater vest; 1970s leather & suede cap; vintage Florsheim Chelsea boot; repp silk scarf in black pattern; vintage Par-Temp trench in green/brown micro-houndstooth pattern.
Bottom—Paul Stuart striped cardigan; vintage Wrangler denim shirt; GAP slim-fit cords; vintage Lodenfrey navy wool toggle coat; Pendleton wool felt ascot cap; vintage Lacoste belt; L.L.Bean duck boots.
As fall and winter close in fast and the usual seasonal fabrics—corduroy, tweed, flannel—are lovingly bandied about fashion circles, I wanted to make sure that camel hair was not overlooked this year. Camel hair is prized for its natural warmth, texture and golden tan color, all of which make it well suited to cooler weather wear and seem to heighten the luxury of any article it comprises. Most associate camel hair with long overcoats or blazers (like the second and forth photos above), both prep classics. The camel hair coat originated in England as a long wrap coat with a belt worn between polo matches and known as a Polo Coat. The Polo Coat’s popularity in the United States rose with the advent of the sport throughout the 1920s until becoming a staple of the Ivy League look by the late 1920s and into the 1930s.
Camel hair garments now come in many other colors, patterns and forms that showcase the material’s natural richness. Blue, brown and gray-dyed camel hair (like the J.G. Hook sport coat pictured second to last) and houndstooth or Glen plaid patterns (like the Brooks Brothers example pictured third) are also commonly seen, though perhaps not as immediately recognizable on the rack as the familiar tan. Although we don’t have any current examples from the shop, camel hair sweaters, scarves, and especially socks are loved for their lightweight warmth and moisture wicking qualities. Camel hair sport coats can be worn all the way through early spring and can easily be dressed up or down, looking as good over jeans and plaid flannels as with neckties and buttondowns. Camel hair menswear makes a solid vintage option too as previous generations cast off their old camel hair coats and new generations of men fail to pick them up with the same gusto as they inherit their fathers’ tweeds. For now, there’s still plenty to go around on Etsy and eBay or in your local shop. Look for 100% camel hair, trusted brand names, natural (not padded) shoulders, and details like leather knot buttons, patch pockets and elbow patches. Like sheep sheared for wool, the camels are not sacrificed for their coats, an important consideration vintage or not—especially when you consider that friendly face in the very first pic!
With an American pedigree reaching back to the California Gold Rush, it doesn’t get much more vintage than Levi’s, and you certainly don’t have to be a vintage seller to know the name. What began as the ultimate workwear has evolved into a national association and worldwide obsession with denim and beyond. Denim is also its own world within the vintage business with experts scouring Levi’s tabs for big ‘E’s or little ‘e’s to determine blue jean gold. The Levi’s Vintage Clothing line aims to celebrate (and capitalize on) the brand’s beloved history by recreating classic pieces to original specifications using Levi’s own archives. Until recently, the line had its own informative website but was only available through select retailers. Now Levi’s has launched a stand-alone site that offers the line directly to the public and provides the historical background for many of the pieces. Organized into a 100-year timeline from 1878 to 1978, the new site places the shopping experience squarely in a historical context that invites exploration–whether or not you’re in the market for a $385 jean jacket. That’s right, the price point for these expert reproductions is anything but ‘vintage.’ While not truly vintage pieces, these are certainly the next best thing (to some, maybe better than the real thing). Above are some of my favorite pieces from the collection, but you’ll have to visit here for yourself to learn the details behind them.