If the Shoe Fits; Part I

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Wednesday, March 6, 2024. Rainy day, off-and-on and overcast, yesterday in New York. With temps dropping to the 40s. Busy day though, the thought of Springtime around the corner subs for the season coming.

It’s the kind of weather that makes you think of sunnier times. In searching our archives I came upon a Diary (of old) in which I was reminiscing about those first days.  As all stories do, one thing led to another, and so did my yesterday afternoon’s research reading. As it was written:

A little history; Part One. I came to New York just out of college in early 1962. I was naturally starry-eyed about it, having grown with my father’s daily tabloids, the Daily Mirror and the Daily News. I had come to make a life, and was starry-eyed just being in the big city.

Flipping through an issue of the New York Mirror from March 11, 1962.

A college friend had arranged for me to stay at her mother’s apartment until I found a place to live. I was grateful although I knew nothing of residential New York. My only visits were as a tourist. However, the apartment was at 740 Park Avenue — a building this New England boy had never heard of, knew nothing about at the time. It was vast to a boy from a small New England town; a 16-room duplex with a live-in Irish maid and a German cook.

My hostess lived most of the time on her property on the coast of Maine, and her children had grown up and moved out or were away in college; so I had the place to myself. Although a luxury mansion with staff that is not mine was curious, it was not particularly enlightening. Most exciting and inspiring, for this new kid in town, however, was that my bedroom had a view of the towers in midtown, and the two giant neon signs in my purview were the RCA Building (at Rockefeller Center) and the IBM Building.

John F. Kennedy was in the White House. He and Jacqueline were the first generation born in the 20th century — he in 1917 and she in 1929 — to occupy the White House. To my generation, they represented our future. And for that moment, it was a bright and shining, highly optimistic one.

It was a very exciting time for a young man to be in the real world (versus world of academe), effused with hope inspired by the new President, and by dreams of a future in the big city. I had a girlfriend who lived a few blocks down the avenue. Her father, a very prominent New Yorker, was an old friend of the new President’s father as well as a close friend of the President. This vague association for me only added to the excitement of living in the Big Town.

Formal portrait of President and Mrs. John F. Kennedy standing on a White House balcony with the Washington Monument in the background, 1961.

The 20th century was century of massive change for the human race. Everything was altered by the new innovations and technologies, beginning with the electric light, the telephone, and the automobile.

In fashion, women went from wearing long skirts to the floor to short skirts above the knee. This was significant because like the new inventions and technologies — until that time in the history of civilizations, going back beyond the Greeks and the Romans — that had never happened before. Some native tribes in tropical climes, only the so-called Primitive People, were the only exception and long forgotten for it.

My personal interest in “fashion” at that point in my young life was simply about the clothes on my back. I followed the style of my peers — college fraternity brothers, for example — which was to dress practically, smartly; blue blazer, khakis by day, charcoal flannels by night. To fit in with the boys.

Casual meant the same — a polo shirt or a crew neck or v-neck sweater, Weejun loafers, buttondown oxford cloth shirts, with or without a tie.

It was a look. It still is with many, left over, again, from almost a century ago where the costume had moved out of the Victorians and Edwardians into the Vassar-Yalie Prep school sensibility. A navy blue suit, good lace-up shoes, preferably English. Blue jeans when it didn’t matter or at a casual dinner or lunch, along with a blazer and the Brooks Brothers Buttondown.

A Brooks Brothers print ad from 1962.

Brooks Brothers and J. Press were the two men’s outfitters who drew the university/business/men and boys, and their mothers and wives. There were many other manufacturers here in New York who turned out suits and jackets of varying quality from very low to very high end, but Brooks and J. Press really owned the image that was referred to as “preppy.”

I opened my first charge account (I don’t have one anymore) at Brooks Brothers on 346 Madison Avenue. It was 1962 when I was first living in New York out of college.  Their shirts were expensive:  $16 and $18! I bought two. That was admittedly extravagant.

When I told the man who waited on me that I wanted to charge it (I didn’t have an account at that moment), he asked for my name and address and a driver’s license. Then he wrapped up the shirts, put them in a bag and I was on my way.

Meanwhile, fashion style was expanding into the footwear. In the early ‘60s, an Italian company named Gucci opened a small sliver of a store on Fifth Avenue in the low 50s.  They sold a lady’s low-heeled brown leather shoe with a little brass plate on its tongue, referred to as a “Walking Shoe.”

It was notably very expensive ($45!). Aside from the  high cost of the shoe, the store itself also closed every lunchtime for an hour — unheard of in New York (or anywhere else in America) and on Fifth Avenue.

If you went into the store when they were about to break for lunch you were asked to leave, no matter who you we,re. And so you left. And returned later hoping that they’d sell you the shoe.

Vintage GUCCI women’s horsebit classic heels.

On top of that, the staff, all of whom were Italians from Rome, weren’t particularly welcoming when you entered at any time. It was an excellent marketing device, assuming that was the intention. The “word” got around town and soon the women who could afford the price had to have that Walking Shoe, no matter how they would be treated as customers.

Gucci also made with a men’s loafer of soft brown leather, and, like the women’s, with a the little brass buckle on the lip of the shoe. These too were very expensive for the time: $41. (Weejun loafers retailed for $18). The women who bought the Walking Shoe encouraged their husbands and boyfriends to follow suit. I did. My first time ever in Palm Beach in the winter of 1964, literally every man I saw at parties, at restaurants or anywhere, was wearing a pair of Gucci loafers.

Those early, all-too-brief years of the Jack and Jackie were accompanied by the emergence of Fashion as seen through the eyes and experience of one John Fairchild who revived his father’s long-standing (and dreary to anyone but those in the garment business) trade paper, Women’s Wear Daily. In those early days in New York, the industry was called the Garment Industry, or more frequently “Seventh Avenue” where many of its prime businesses had offices and showrooms. Its owners/ producers were referred to as “garmentos.”

John Fairchild took that single trade paper of no interest whatsoever to anyone outside of the industry, and re-directed its focus by highlighting personalities, transforming it into a small publishing empire that in a few years included popular magazines. It not only had a profound influence on the marketing of fashion but he began competing with the major dailies for readership. And he succeeded. He did this in several ways but the most obvious to the public, or those outside of the garment business, was by creating and publishing gossip to interest the readers, often involving the designers.

Society in New York was his target reader for his new circulation. Society — which ultimately is always about financial power — in those days of the WASP Ascendency was still in the hands of those men and women who could claim a birth or compatible connection to WASPdom. Fairchild’s WWD  publicized them with photo coverage of private parties, the occasional charity benefits, and the social life of its personalities.

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