Caveat on Sports Styles

Many elements of men’s style serve as indications of affiliation with a family, school, club, military regiment, or other institution.  Tartans (i.e., plaid patterns) have been used to represent clans of Scotland since the  early 1800s.  Before that, different color combinations had regional associations derived from the weavers who preferred them, but without the exclusivity of representing any one specific clan or institution.  In the Victorian era, many began to subscribe to a code of etiquette that looked down on anyone wearing a tartan to which they did not have a legitimate claim according to the developing code.

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.

And they need not just indicate affiliation.  They can also indicate status within that affiliation, like the Full Blue earned by top athletes at Oxford and Cambridge as opposed to the Half Blue that, while not indicating as much of an accomplishment, is still prized.  Different sports may also be indicated through further design variations.  Similarly, one tie may be worn by a boy while attending a school while a different one indicates that he is a graduate of the school.  "Old boy" refers to both the alum and to the tie he wears, not to mention the network into which he is woven.  Thus, a young man's clothing items could variously indicate a sports accomplishment at boarding school, an accomplishment in another sport at university, a university club, and the college he attends within the university, among other things. In those two scenes in Chariots of Fire, the young men are each presenting their curriculum vitæ in the rich language of sports clothes.

Cambridge Full Blue Blazer
And yes, they are certainly showing off in what they wear.  But one must be clear that here showing off is not a demonstration of the fact that they currently attend or have previously attended elite schools.  The fact of an elite education is rather unimpressive in a room where it applies to everybody.  This is not about superiority through exclusion but about competitive camaraderie.  It is a pride among peers who are all on the inside.

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 is not quite the same thing as much of the wearing of sports paraphernalia by fans today.  Many men today identify intensely with teams with which they have no connection at all other than perhaps a geographical proximity.  Nevertheless, they fiercely claim ownership of these teams as they speak of "my Mets" or "my Raiders" in arguments as heated as political debates.  This sense of affiliation is more akin to the working-class tendency to build an identity through the display of brand names and logos of companies [car, electronics, clothes, etc.] with which one has no actual connection other than purchases made from them.  It is not the same as the old leisure-class habit of wearing the tokens of institutions to which one has very much belonged to be recognized by peers.

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.

Not all of this appropriation has been an intentional marketing ploy, of course.  Sometimes it is just pure appreciation and imitation.  The future Duke of Windsor, while still the Prince of Wales, often wore the Guards Tie in his travels in the U.S., a tie to which he had a right after service in WWI as an officer of the Grenadier Guards.  American men took to it instantly, unaware of the fact that it was not simply a matter of fashion for the Prince, but a badge of honor and a remembrance of those with whom he served.  His niece's son, Charles, the current Prince of Wales, and Charles' two sons, William and Harry, also all have a right to this tie as seen in this photo.  While most regimentals can be a bit garish, this tie is particularly handsome and versatile, as American men since the 1920s have recognized.

Top: An Old Harrovian (graduate of Harrow)
Bottom: Old Harrovian at Oxford
When Brooks Brothers introduced an array of English regimental ties to the U.S., making the imitation that much easier, they simultaneously tried to soften the offense.  They cut the fabric of their ties so the stripes slant from the right down to the left, the opposite of the way regimentals are cut in the U.K.  A wearer, then, could display elite colors while hoping to avoid accusations of pretending.  For most any American man functioning in the U.S., these imitative regimentals with the stripes slanting down from right to left should be more than safe and unoffensive.  Indeed, the real thing slanting down from left to right would also likely go unrecognized most of the time, but if you really want to be safe, avoid any regimentals you have no right to.

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
No garments with words, pictures, logos, or visible monograms on them should ever be worn as professional clothing.  Such belong in private attire if anywhere.  Even there they should be worn sparingly, as your clothes should be about you if you want to develop your own style.  In general, you should avoid any clothes someone can read and only wear items that indicate an affiliation if you can legitimately claim it.  And the latter are best worn in contexts where broadcasting that affiliation makes you more approachable rather than less.

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