In this same period of the mid- to late-nineteenth century other methods of using colors to indicate affiliation gained prominence. By the early twentieth century many style choices served as a way of indicating one’s affiliations. The two scenes referred to in Chariots of Fire (in the Genealogy essay) are a great example of how colorful this practice got to be. The hat-bands, caps, sweaters, blazers, scarves, and ties in those scenes indicate specific affiliations.
|Cambridge Full Blue Blazer|
What they are showing off is pride in the specific affiliations and in their own athletic achievements. It is similar to a Yale student who wears a t-shirt from his crew team on campus. His shirt might spark a discussion with his football playing roommate about which sport is better, but this is a completely different kind of pride than he would be displaying if he were to walk into a gas station in Oklahoma and announce to everyone that he goes to Yale. The messages these young men on Chariots of Fire are broadcasting are meant for and understood by insiders. They are intrinsic to their world and help them locate each other within that world.
This older practice of wearing one's school's or regiment's colors is manipulated successfully today by many clothes-sellers to exploit the working-class habit of creating an identity out of association with brand names and powerful entities. Thus, without any legitimate association with a school, club, or regiment you can buy a blazer with a club patch on the breast pocket and ties that replicate real school, club, and regimental stripes from companies also lacking any affiliation. In a world where people would know what these clothes mean, you would look quite silly pretending to these affiliations when you obviously have no claim to them. In a social world where few have any idea of the original meanings of such items, as is the case in much of the United States, few are likely to see you as pretentious for wearing them.
|Top: An Old Harrovian (graduate of Harrow)|
Bottom: Old Harrovian at Oxford
I certainly would never suggest wearing anything with badges or embroidery meant to suggest a fake school or club. Sporting the tokens of a fake institution seems even more pitiable, if less dangerous, than posing in those of a real one. One should be very comfortable, however, with wearing ties that look like regimentals as long as their pattern does not actually signify any specific institution (i.e., a striped tie designed simply for fashion, which are widespread enough to be meaningless).
Returning to the display of brand names and logos on clothes, few Americans would know what it means to have gone to Harrow, but many seem to think it means something to wear a brand like Ralph Lauren. Thus, a little [or huge] polo player over the left breast can be a powerful signifier stateside. It allows one to absorb an institution with power and recognition into one's identity. Many clothes-sellers spangle their wares with logos, promising purchased dignity to their customers. Amusingly, the fake club blazers (sweaters, etc.) that one finds often feature the name of the company in the crest of the badge. For anyone who knows what these clothes are really supposed to mean, this could give rise to the embarrassing questions, “Oh, you rowed at Ralph Lauren University? And where exactly is Ralph Lauren University?”
I recommend avoiding any clothing that tries to feature a company as a prestigious affiliation for proud display. Sadly, sellers offering some otherwise adequate items but insisting on putting a logo on every garment they sell are not linked below. Though Ralph Lauren offers some of the archetypes of logoed clothing, they also offer many garments that are very clean, logo-free, and worth considering. Thus, they are linked below and are one of the sellers I consistently turn to and appreciate. Other companies that are suffering more and more from logo-acne but still offer a good number of clean garments are also linked below.
Some companies conscript their customers to serve as billboards in more subtle ways. Burberry is putting its tartan on everything, and Luis Vuitton has long covered its luggage in what is simply a field of repeated logos. As with real regimental ties, such subtle branding could go unrecognized by the unaware. Among those who do know, however, such signifiers risk turning attention from you to the specifics of your shopping proclivities. Higher cost does not salvage such display. In fact, the more expensive a brand is, the more insulting it is to expect customers to serve as marketing tools.
I encourage you to develop a style that makes you look good - a different task from broadcasting your choice of clothes-sellers for others to admire. It is certainly much easier to help someone recognize a brand you are wearing so that they think, "Oh, that's expensive - he must be impressive," than it is to put together a handsome, unique look. But only the latter is a matter of having style. I would suggest that it is preferable to have others think of you, "He always looks confident, capable, and comfortable," rather than "He wears a lot of Tommy Hilfiger."
Finally, a huge amount of clothing worn today features the names, logos, and colors of sports teams, professional or college, worn routinely by fans. It is unlikely anyone would ever assume that you actually play for the Chicago Bulls just because of a t-shirt. The risk here, as with logoed clothing, is less one of posing than of diverting attention from yourself to an external institution to create your identity. College paraphernalia has an increased risk of the air of posing as one can more easily be assumed to be or have been a student at the advertised school. A team's paraphernalia worn to watch one of their games makes perfect sense. An old P.E. shirt from college for a jog seems fine too. A school tie for an appropriate event certainly makes sense. Beyond that you just need to be careful about using such items to create an identity dependent on the dignity of institutions rather than developing a personal style.
|Members of Polo's Imaginary Crew Club|
None of this is to say that you should shy away from the elements of early 20th century sports style. It, along with country clothes of the same period, lays the foundation for Smart Casual, a level of formality that could play an important role in the style of many American men. As it allows you to look simultaneously sharp and at ease, you would do well to really understand and make the most of traditional sports style. The trick is learning how to use and be inspired by it without coming off as a poseur or dressing in costume. (Indeed, the trick to employing any established style is to express yourself while avoiding costume or posing.) There is no appropriate occasion for anyone to wear the logoed pretend-wear of the Ralph Lauren rowers pictured above. Similar, unmarred garments, however, garments that put the focus on you rather than on a famous institution willing to sell affiliation, can be worn smartly for many occasions.
|Sporty Oxford and Cambridge Men|