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Friday, June 12, 2009

After all these years, still a blue blazer

By Dick Hirsch

So there I was, packing my suitcase to travel to the class reunion and wondering whether it was possible to avoid taking my Navy blue blazer to wear at the class dinner. Was there a viable alternative, I wondered.

It was what might be called a rhetorical wonder because I knew the answer before I started any serious wondering. The answer was “NO;” a substitute could not be found for that most versatile of all items of men’s clothing. The answer, as always, would be a blue blazer accompanied by either gray slacks or khakis. Of course I knew in advance that nearly all the classmates who attended would make exactly the same choice. It was the accepted uniform of our time for any “occasion,” so once again we would look like a glee club or a bunch of conventioneers all wearing the same outfit.

Years ago, if I had written about the wisdom of such a monumental decision, it would have been a topic that would have appealed only to men. That has changed and the blue blazer has become gender neutral. Women years ago recognized the adaptability of the jacket and added it to their wardrobe basics.

My introduction to the blue blazer was as a college freshman. Back home while in high school, I don’t ever recall seeing any of my contemporaries wearing one. There were those periodic “dressy” occasions that called for wearing a jacket and tie, but the jackets were usually herringbone or plaid, houndstooth check or Harris tweed. When I became a collegian, I immediately noticed the upperclassmen, as well as some of my new classmates, wearing the blue blazers, usually with the embroidered college seal sewn over the left breast pocket.

After a few weeks, I checked my budget and then marched down to Slossberg’s Campus Shop, nearby at the corner of Broad and Vernon streets, and bought my first blazer. Little did I realize that, as I was being fitted and the sleeves measured for shortening, I was experiencing what would later be regarded as a defining sartorial moment. The appeal of the blue blazer, a characteristic that transcends the passage of time, is that it is truly a switch-hitter since it can be considered either somewhat formal or somewhat casual, depending on the venue.

The pedigree of the Navy blue blazer has been fairly well established. It was conceived in the late 1830s by the captain of a British frigate, the HMS Blazer. Anticipating a visit to the ship by Queen Victoria, he wanted the crew to be especially well clad. He took his idea to a tailor who made the original design, using blue serge, he cut and sewed double-breasted jackets with two rows of brass buttons down the front plus brass buttons on the sleeves. The Queen apparently was mightily impressed and soon officers and sailors of the entire Royal Navy were being measured for the blazers. The term blazer is derived from the name of the ship, but it wasn’t long before yachtsmen, members of private clubs, and students at colleges and prep schools in England began adopting the style. They added a special touch, the embroidered seal of their organization on the left breast.

The design quickly crossed the Atlantic to the US and jumped the Channel to France and was soon popularized in much of the world during the 20th century. While the original blazers were double-breasted the most typical models now are single-breasted. Today they are sold in a whole spectrum of colors, but Navy blue remains predominant. While serge was the cloth of the originals, flannel became the fabric of choice, and now other lighter weight fabrics are used for summer wear.

My own history with the blue blazer has continued since that original purchase. It seems to me that it is a wardrobe basic, even for those who rarely wear a jacket. There is one quality of the blue blazer that was stressed to me by a retail clothier of note. Extolling its virtues, he noted one possible negative characteristic: “In Navy blue flannel, it picks up everything but girls.”

A few years ago I unexpectedly encountered an old friend, now a prominent surgeon in Boston. I was wearing my blue blazer and a pair of khakis. He took one look and observed:

“After all these years, you’re still a preppy.”

I disagree with that assessment. If I really were a preppy by today’s standards, I’d be wearing jeans.



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