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The Clarks Desert Trek – An Oi Polloi Champion

In the breakneck and high-octane world of ‘footwear’, most designs typically expire about as fast as a box of fruit. Plenty of brands have now settled into the role of court jester, whittling away their days embarrassing themselves in attempts to appease the fickle whims of the herd, soiling classic wares with naff gimmicks and moodboard-friendly designs in the process.

You don’t have to be a Nostradamus-type to know a fair chunk of this stuff is destined for the landfill, nor do you have to be some sort of genius to realise that lowering the heat and giving something time enough to simmer makes the wearable sauce all the sweeter.

Nowhere is this more apparent than the Clarks Desert Trek. These wide-toed beauties have pretty-much remained un-tinkered-with (aside from the odd material excursion) since their inception 50 years ago. Seeing as we forgot to put the champers in the fridge, a lowly write-up celebrating their half-century-long reign will have to suffice…

We’ve got the late-great comfort shoe connoisseur Lance Clark to thank for the Desert Trek (among countless other foot-based belters). The yarn goes that while Lance was running Padmore & Barnes in Ireland at the tail end of the 60s, he noticed his drawing instructor, a Dutch potter named Sonja Landweer, wearing a phat-centre-seamed pair of comfort shoes she’d brought over from the Motherland. Stricken by its uncanny resemblance to a Cornish pasty, Lance courteously borrowed a pair, tweaked them, and christened them with, in his words, “a great name” – the Six Toe.

Big man on campus Lance Clark. Photo by Sam Waller

Sensing he might just have struck gold, Lance Airbussed across the Atlantic with the Six Toe nestled firmly in his carry-on. The Yanks buzzed off the Beatnik flavour of the shoes, but they weren’t as enthusiastic about the name – much to Lance’s chagrin – and thus, the Six Toe was renamed the Trek. It was also during this trip that the iconic drawing of the rambling man strolled into the equation. Lance had previously commissioned the illustration from Sonja’s artist boyfriend, who apparently wasn’t too pleased that Clarks were making webs based on his girlfriend’s shoes without chucking the couple some wedge. Either out of goodwill or a cunning act of headache-swerving, Lance offered the mithering artist £500 to draw something to go on the back of the shoe. The royalty strongarming ended there, and the iconoclastic hiker was brushed into existence.

Launching stateside in 1971, the Trek made its way to Blighty a year later, under the sportier guise of the ‘Hike’. Greeted with little fanfare upon release, Clarks decided to yank the Desert Trek from their domestic range after only a few seasons. The book might’ve closed on our centre-seamed protagonist then and there if it wasn’t for an entire nation of dedicated fans on a small island in the Caribbean…

The ‘Clarks in Jamaica’ tale has been well-documented in the glossy pages of Al Fingers’ now-canonical tome of the same name, so those seeking a more comprehensive history should turn there, but for those pressed for time, here’s the abridged version. Even though they’d been knocking around as far back as 1911, Clarks mania didn’t reach fever pitch until the early 60s, as poor inner-city kids searched for sophisticated shoes that’d actually last longer than five minutes. Due to the fact that these English bulldogs were made in Blighty, Clarks fit the ultra-exotic, highly-exclusive bill perfectly, and their relatively simple construction meant they could be repaired without much hassle.

Some patriotic, custom-made beauties. Photo hoiked from ‘Clarks in Jamaica’ by Al Fingers

It wasn’t long until this blossomed into a fully-fledged subculture, which became known as ‘the rudeboys’. Amped up on a diet of showmanship and political discontent, fuelled the government’s economic bed-wetting in the wake of Jamaica’s independence, these lads earned their moniker thanks to their surly attitudes and flippant view of the law. Strangely enough, this propensity for crime helped cement Clarks as part of the uniform, as the spongey crepe soles wouldn’t make too much noise when you needed to creep up on someone and administer a bit of contact counselling. The Clarks/rudeboy association was so strong that in the early 70s, law-abiding, suede-loving Jamaicans ran the risk of a state-sanctioned smackdown from the rozzers just for wearing a pair.

Some naughty boys with their Airsoft rifles

Young lads appropriating something aspirational to one-up their peers and wind up the more traditionally-minded isn’t an unfamiliar narrative, but unlike many sartorial and cultural movements, Clarks’ power in Jamaica has yet to waver. From Rudeboys and Rastas to modern-day dancehall crooners like Vybz Kartel (who has a trilogy of tunes dedicated to his favourite shoemakers) and Popcaan, the crepe-soled power of Clarks still reigns supreme, with the Desert Trek (or the ‘Bank Robber’, as it’s known over there) still standing as one of the nation’s firm favourites.

Now, the Desert Trek is settling nicely into middle-age as one of the more discerning options on the Clarks shoe rack. While miles of the information superhighway has been exclusively cordoned off to Wallabee waffle, less lofty praise has been lapped upon the Desert Trek (well… until this article goes out at least), giving it the sort-of ‘if-you-know-you-know’ appeal of an obscure European comfort shoe.

Nestled firmly in the murky, hard-to-define zone known only as ‘smart-casual’, these have seen action on dancefloors, dirt paths and perhaps even your living room carpet, and unless the trajectory of human evolution takes a terrible, footless turn, we’re sure they’ll continue to pound pavements for another 50 years.

Spring Court G2 — An Oi Polloi Champion

The Spring Court G2 is a tennis shoe. It’s dead French, it’s mostly made out of canvas, and there’s some little air-holes in the sole for a bit of added ventilation. Some famous ‘cultural icon’ types have worn ‘em and, come to think of it, I’m fairly certain some regular everyday folks have worn ‘em too.

It’s the sort of humble design classic that doesn’t really warrant an introduction, never mind sentence after sentence of spiel trying to clumsily express why they’re good—BUT, for those with nowt better to read—here you go…

I’ll cut out most of the historical scene-setting here as most of it is pretty dull (and a fair bit of it was explained in this article a while back). Suffice to say in the early 20th century more people started playing tennis, and in turn, light, flexible footwear was called for. In France, it was a man named George Grimmisien (already a big wolf on the footwear campus thanks to his rubber wellingtons) who answered that call back in 1936 with his brand… Spring Court. 

It might be said that when it comes to canvas tennis shoes, in essence, they’re all pretty much the same. Cotton on the top, rubber down below, a bit of glue in the middle to hold it all together—but minor details make a big difference, and whilst a visiting extra-terrestrial (Alf, for example, or perhaps Dan Aykroyd with a conical bonce?), might see all ‘pumps’ as the same thing, anyone who’s expended valuable mind-matter mulling over the ideal white t-shirt or the optimum height of trouser hem will know that things aren’t so simple.

Just as a Renault Five isn’t just ‘a car’, a canvas pump is more than just cotton and vulcanised rubber, and on the hypothetical world map of canvas pumps, each has its own slight regional (and possibly stereotypical) distinctions which sets it apart from it’s foreign friends. 

There’s Team USA’s Converse All Star—the squeaky-clean high-school Spalding-dunker turned cig-smoking outsider… Italy’s Superga 2750—a sleek, modernist masterpiece best served with a Campari Soda, Slovakia’s Novesta Star Master and it’s humble stoic flavour, and let’s not forget Australia’s Dunlop Volley—an unassuming white pump which accidentally became the Antipodean roofers’ go-to shoe thanks to it’s grippy sole (this isn’t a lie either).

With it’s relatively wide shape (sitting a good few notches above the Superga and the Converse on the ‘chunk-o-meter’) and that grinning toe-cap, the Spring Court comes from the same friendly France as Asterix, battered old Citroen vans and Henri Rousseau. In 1936 it might have been seen as fairly radical thanks to those air-holes in the sole, but as time marches on it has become a simple, naïve item, like the cotton fisherman’s smock, to be worn without fuss or fanfare.

This simplicity might be the key to its charm—and in an ever-changing world of weak marketing and post-ironic footwear choices, they’re a subtle side-step from the noise and nonsense… the kinds of shoes that some buy summer after summer, in the same way Ivy League students used to stock up on button-down shirts.

That simplistic nature also means that, like a good dollop of mayonnaise, they go well with most things. John Lennon famously wore a pair with a white suit whilst adhering to the Green Cross Code on the front cover of the Abbey Road LP (him and Yoko wore ‘em on their wedding day too), whilst David Hockney kept things horizontal with some khaki slacks and an old cardigan. To put it simply, you don’t need to be told how to wear these things.

All these favourable factors would maybe make you think that the Spring Court G2 (and it’s high-top brother, the B2) would be some kind of unit-shifting mega-hit, but unlike a lot of their canvassy compadres, they’ve never really reached that critical mass tipping point which plucks something niche into the mainstream.

Although they could be found on the high-street back in the late 90s, they were completely overlooked, as Oi Polloi founder Steve Sanderson explains, “There was a time before we opened the shop when Spring Court was only being sold in places like Schuh, but back then, they were being ignored by the everyday shopper. I ended up buying half-a-dozen pairs of the original G2’s in various colours out of clearance for basically a tenner a pair. No money at all, considering how good they were. We started digging around and we found out that Serge Gainsbourg and John Lennon used to wear them back in the day. So when we actually opened the shop, and it came to stocking footwear, Spring Court was a no-brainer.”

“For us, the main thing we were into with Spring Court was that they were always super comfy,” says Steve. “They’ve got an air-cushioned sole unit inside, with air vents on the outsole, which isn’t that common with most canvas pumps. For us, they’re as classic as Converse or Vans or Superga – they’re the same kind of animal.”

And then there’s the smell. This is where stuff gets pretty weird, but if you’ve made it this far into an article about relatively obscure French tennis shoes, then there’s a good chance that you too have been known to follow your snout and huff the ol’ shoe-glue from time to time.

For years Spring Court were renowned for their minty scent. This refreshing aroma presumably came from the adhesive used to stick the shoes together, but a lot of people were convinced that Spring Court added the scent later, to add a final bit of ‘je ne sais quoi’ to the Gallic daps. Was someone in the factory responsible for rubbing mint leaves into the soles? Or were mis-shapes from the Polo factory being ground down and re-purposed as shoe-whitener? And wouldn’t garlic have been more fitting for the ultimate in French footwear?

These questions sadly remain unanswered, but I can say that maybe four or five years ago, after the Spring Court brand was bought back by the Grimmisien family and the factory was moved, the Sminty scent disappeared to be replaced by something noticeably fruitier. No word of a lie, they’d apparently tried to recreate that signature scent, but quickly found that the original substance which gave off that minty bouquet was toxic and had been pulled from the shelves.

This shift in smell was more controversial than you’d maybe imagine, and whilst it deterred a few long-standing fans, it attracted a few new ones too. Bizarre? Maybe, but it certainly goes to show how important these seemingly unimportant details really are.

Yep, Spring Courts are just another pair of canvas pumps… but they’re very good canvas pumps. They still smell quite nice too.

Ralph Lauren — An Oi Polloi Champion

Ralph Lauren is a pretty intriguing character. He’s an 80 year old man from the streets of the Bronx, who spends his time riding majestic palominos around a ranch the size of Manhattan. He buzzes off teddy bears, he’s got a shed full of old cars and he apparently loves nothing more than kicking back in his wigwam and watching Downton Abbey on a Sunday night. Oh yeah, and for over half a century he’s been carving out his own wearable vision of the American Dream™—peddlin’ pony-smattered aspiration to everyone from Ivy League students to New York gangs.

His life would probably make a half-decent film, but until someone sorts us a few million quid and one of those clapperboard things, you’re going to have to settle for this meagre write-up. Saddle up…

The scene begins in the Bronx. It’s 1939 and two Jewish immigrants from Belarus have just welcomed their fourth child, Ralph into the world. Even from an early age, Ralph was into swanky garb, and whilst most young lads were busy smashing baseballs through windows and stealing apples from market-stalls, Ralph was working part time jobs to get his mitts on the sorts of clothes he’d seen on the silver screen. And when he couldn’t find the specific schmutter he was after, he’d have it custom made.

During his teens he was making his own ties and flogging them to his fellow classmates, and by the 60s he was working for Brooks Brothers. This was admittedly only for a pretty short slab of time, but the link from Brooks Brothers to Ralph Lauren is worth mentioning. The American equivalent of a classic British gentleman’s outfitter, Brooks sold a heady mix of button-down shirts, Shetland wool sweaters and tweed jackets, providing a solid blueprint for the all-encompassing lifestyle Ralph would later make his own.

After his stint at Brooks Brothers, Ralph convinced fancy clothes company Beau Brummel to let him design his own range of ties. Going against the trend at the time for narrow neckwear, Ralphy’s ties were big and wide… harking back to what he saw as the glory days of men’s style. Realising he was onto a winner, in 1967 Ralph busted out from Beau to go it alone—Polo was born.

Taking its name from perhaps the classiest sport in existence, Polo saw Ralph go beyond the jugular-shielding domain of the necktie and break into making a full range of clothes, inspired by the kind of comfortable way of life he’d always aspired to. Expanding on what Brooks Brothers were doing, he offered a full uniform for those who wanted to join him in his version of the U.S.A.—a parallel universe where everyone drove vintage Bugattis and had a summer house in Maine.

Rene Lacoste’s classic pique tennis shirt was tweaked to become the Polo Shirt.

This uniform quickly expanded, and rather than just focus on one thing, Ralph looked over the whole expanse of the American dream before serving up choice cuts on one big metaphorical buffet table. Rene Lacoste’s classic pique tennis shirt was tweaked to become the Polo Shirt, cowboy ranch-wear sat side-by-side with pleated slacks and years before Massimo Osti and Daiki Suzuki were traipsing around army surplus shops in search of inventive pocket configurations, Ralph was harvesting details from functional garb to make hard-wearing gear for civilian life. Fishing… sailing… skiing… no bold and wholesome activity was safe from his magpie eye.

Fishing… sailing… skiing… no bold and wholesome activity was safe from his magpie eye.

Perhaps more importantly than all this, Ralph knew there was more to clothes than just clothes. Ralph’s adverts (a lot of which you can see on this Tumblr goldmine) ignored tech-specs and jargon in favour of glossy images of perfect humans living the good life. Not afraid of a bit of camera time, he even got stuck into the mix himself, kicking it as a New York banker or suppin’ suds like a leathery-faced Andy Dufresne.

His shops pushed the boundaries too. Rather than just scruffily shove his wares on shelves and expect them to sell, he created mahogany-panelled wonder-shops that looked more like exclusive country clubs than ’retail outlets’. No secret handshake or membership card was needed for this club… all you had to do was buy a shirt—or in the case of a certain New York gang… steal one.

By the late 80s Polo had finally outgrown its WASPy customer base, and thanks to the brash multicoloured skiing and sailing garb Ralph was crafting, had caught the eye of a gang of working class New York kids looking to stand out on the streets of Brooklyn. Dubbed the Lo Lifes, this lot spent the late 80s and early 90s nabbing the most audacious Polo garb from fancy department stores before competing between themselves to see who could wear it best.

A similar, but slightly more subtle, thing was happening over here in Britain. With the birth of ‘club culture’, dress codes were enforced as a desperate attempt to do away with violence and pesky troublemakers. Sportswear was out the window and countless scallies were sent in search of ‘a smart shirt’. The humble Ralph Lauren button-down soon became the shirt of choice for lads trying to get through the doors. In an era that was big on logos, that embroidered pony only added to the appeal.

Today his fanbase continues to expand, and Levi’s aside, there’s probably not any other clothing company out there which has been involved in so many different cultural movements and worn by so many iconic figures (from Raekwon to… er… Johnny Vaughan). In the same way that VW is the second largest car manufacturer in the world, but still manages to maintain a cult following with obsessives, Ralph creates relatively attainable mass-produced clothing which can still appeal to dozens of niche subcultures, each with their own version of Ralph’s vision.

Denim obsessives hanker for vintage RRL selvedge… modern day Lo Lifes hunt down technicolour sailing jackets… skate brands endlessly rip off his classic low-profile sports cap… and all the while, Ralph is still out there, still heavily involved in his dream-weaving empire and still getting about like some denim-clad, horse-riding Yoda. Some man.

The New Balance Running Shoe – an Oi Polloi Champion

The New Balance running shoe (in all it’s mildly confusing numbered guises) is a true left-field classic. Whilst the sportswear industry has often relied on naff gimmicks and fluro-hued fabrics to make a quick quid, straight forward, no nonsense designs like the 1500, the 991 and the 574 have somehow managed to carve a niche far beyond their original purpose. Here’s a quick potted history of the brand behind them…

Things kicked off for New Balance in Boston back in 1906. The story goes that a man named William J. Riley was spending the afternoon sat in his back yard, casually watching his chickens cluck about, when something dawned on him. Although his feathered friends had round, stocky torsos and spindly legs, they seemed to be able to get around with zero fuss thanks to their three-clawed feet. Due to this slightly bizarre observation, Riley deduced that weight distribution was the key to comfortable walking. He quickly set about designing a flexible arch support with three support areas, and the New Balance Arch Support Company was born.

Writing about the arch support industry is admittedly pretty dull so we’ll now skip forward a bit to 1961. New Balance had changed hands a few times by this point, and was now owned by a couple named Eleanor and Paul Kidd. These two were constantly being approached by local athletes and running teams to make custom footwear, and realising the need for comfortable, well-fitting running shoes, decided to work on their own off-the-shelf design.

The result was the Trackster — a narrow shoe made of red and white leather which looked more like something you’d find at your nearest bowling alley than the trainers you’d associate with New Balance today. These featured two pivotal design points… firstly, they had a rippled sole, which distributed weight more evenly than traditional spikes, whilst still offering plenty of grip, and secondly, they could be bought in different widths to suit different feet.

The Trackster did well with the running groups of Massachusetts, but New Balance was still a tiny cottage industry, with only six employees doing everything from making the shoes to posting them out. It wasn’t until 1972, when a marketing and sales mastermind called Jim Davis (not be confused with the Garfield creator of the same name) bought the company, that things hit the proverbial big leagues. With Jim at the helm, the brand came up with three main ideas which they’ve stuck to to this day.

Firstly, they whacked a big ’N’ on the side of the trainers, making them instantly recognisable. The work of a man named Terry Heckler, the simple New Balance logo was considerably more stripped back than the more complicated graphical flourishes of the Nike ’swoosh’ or the adidas stripes, meaning people instantly knew what they were looking at.

They also did away with fancy names in favour of a number system. There’s various articles on the internet which explain this system in pretty tedious detail, so I won’t write too much about this. Basically, each number defines what the trainers are made for and what its main strengths are, and generally speaking, the higher the number, the swankier the trainers. Perhaps a strange move in the age of bold and aggressive advertising, but Jim and Terry felt that ’New Balance’ was the name people needed to remember, not whatever daft name their individual trainers would be called.

The first glimpse of the new logo (and those numbers) was the 320, a suede running shoe which helped raise the profile of the brand after bagging a Runner’s World award in 1972.

The third ingenious brain-wave was to hoik the prices through the roof. Rather than push to make cheaper and cheaper trainers and sacrifice the quality, New Balance went the other way—investing in better materials and technology, and adding a price tag to match. In 1980 the 620 was the first running shoe to break the $50 mark, and just two years later they smashed past the $100 barrier (which would equate to about $270 in today’s dosh) with the ultimate in wallet-punishing luxury… the 990.

Rather than put customers off, the 990’s hefty price tag only added to its mystique, with running shops across America echoing with the cries of “What makes those grey things so expensive?” The answer was a relatively complex construction technique known as ‘slip lasting’ (which made them fit nice and snug), and a mysterious chunk on the back of the sole known as the ’Motion Control Device’ which reportedly added a bit of ankle support.

Launched only a few months after Time Magazine ran a cover article on ‘The Fitness Craze’ that was working the United States into a sweat-soaked frenzy, the timing for the launch of this high-performance slab of pigskin suede couldn’t have been better. Rich yanks were suddenly bothered about jogging, and whilst a recession had hit America hard in 1982, those who had money had a lot of it. The 990 flew out, and along with German performance automobiles and Japanese hi-fi systems, it soon became a status symbol for the well-heeled elite.

More classics followed. In ’84 there was the 1300, in ’88 there was the 574 and in ’89 there was the 1500. Subtle… comfortable… well-made… their appeal extended far beyond the running track, and by the early 90s the humble New Balance ‘sneaker’ wasn’t just the shoe of choice for President Clinton’s morning jogs, but also a common sight on the heavily-Kärchered patios of American suburbia. Just as madras shirts and khaki slacks symbolised comfortable leisure in the Kennedy era, relaxed conventions meant that the new wave of minted family men spent their Sundays grilling assorted meats in washed-out jeans and a pair of well-worn running shoes.

This was by no means a fixed uniform (and many suburban dads no doubt opted for snide no-name trainers often left out of the history books), but one man who took this comfort-based outfit to the extreme was Apple mastermind Steve Jobs.

Some footwear/cultural figure associations are a little weak—and just because someone happened to be photographed once wearing a certain brand of trainers doesn’t mean they were lifelong fans. That said, the link with Jobs and New Balance is a little different. Like Einstein (and Homer Simpson), Jobs often wore the same outfit every day—in his case, a black Issey Miyake turtle-neck, some Levi’s 501s and a pair of grey 991s (and later, 992s). Not only did this casual uniform save invaluable time, but it helped Steve and Apple stand out in a world of suited-up CEOs.

Strong, simple design lends itself to a thousand different customers, and beyond suburban dads and California tech maestros, the New Balance name was cropping up in hip hop tracks by Biz Markie, A Tribe Called Quest and KRS One.

This fairly safe running shoe brand might not be the first thing you’d expect ODB to mention in the same sentence as a Desert Eagle handgun, but hip hop style has a long history of appropriation. Along with Polo sailing jackets and Timberland boots, New Balance trainers were aspirational items which hinted at a life of comfortable leisure far beyond the mean streets of New York.

These days a simple pair of New Balance trainers still exudes that air of quiet splendour. Often made in America (or the west coast of Cumbria), they’re a well-crafted side-step from the current era of hyped-up trainer madness, built to be worn and not just hidden away in a shoebox (or listed on eBay). They’re pretty comfortable too.

The Shetland Jumper — An Oi Polloi Champion

Jumpers don’t get much respect do they? Big jackets are fawned over in pubs across the land, stashing unworn trainers under your bed has become a socially acceptable pastime and countless online forums exist dedicated to discussing the correct way to wash a pair of jeans… but the humble woolly jumper is ironically left out in the cold.

This is probably down to the fact that even the fanciest of jumpers are pretty simple, basic items without even as much as a RiRi zip for bragging rights — but it’s in this simplicity and lack of gimmickry that lies the appeal. As full sci-fi level jiggery pokery enters every corner of our lives, they remain reliably… er… reliable. And no jumper embodies this as much as the Shetland jumper — those brushed wool crew neck knits made in Scotland, and favoured by Ivy League students, mid-60s Mick Jagger and countless other sharply-dressed cats. 

But how did these fairly traditional Scottish jumpers become a key part of the wardrobe for rich students on the East Coast of America? And why should anyone care? Here’s a quick potted history.

As you’ve probably deduced, the story begins in Shetland — a gaggle of rocky islands halfway between mainland Scotland and Norway. Hundreds of years ago this remote archipelago was slap-bang in the middle of an important trade route, but due to the fairly sparse, windswept nature of the islands, the small population didn’t have much to offer.

One thing they did have was loads of hardy, stocky-looking sheep (which were about the only thing which could survive in the fairly harsh climate), and seeing as they were using the wool to knit jumpers for their own torsos, it wasn’t too much of a stretch to rattle off a few extra as a way to barter with the passing ships and trade for useful stuff that wasn’t found on the islands.

As luck would have it, the clothes they made were dead warm without being chunky, thanks to the unusually fine wool from the Shetland sheep, and jumpers soon became a major export.

On a slightly strange, sheepish side-note, apparently old time P.O.T.U.S. Thomas Jefferson kept a rare four-horned Shetland ram on the patch of grass out the front of the White House. This might sound like a bit of a jolly lark, but farmyard historians state it was anything but — and the ram was eventually put down after attacking some walkers, killing a small child and going on a full-scale GTA-esque five-star wanted level rampage. Look it up if you can be bothered.

Back to the jumpers, in the late 19th century rural Scotland was a mecca for rich gentry with time to kill — and minted land owners from all over Britain would take the trip up north to trounce around shooting grouse and tickling trout. These country pursuits required simple, hardy garb as opposed to regal finery, and functional clothing made from wool, waxed cotton and corduroy helped create what became the classic outfit of the country gent. The Shetland jumper (and it’s slightly more outgoing brother, the patterned Fair Isle knit) sat nicely amongst all this — an ideal warm layer for those cold and frosty mornings when a nip of whiskey wouldn’t suffice.

Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, a family company by the name of Brooks Brothers was on the hunt for new wares to catch the monocled eye of the American elite. The casual wealth of British high society was still the number one cultural influence across the pond, and Brooks Brothers were amongst the main proponents of this style.

These country pursuits required simple, hardy garb as opposed to regal finery, and functional clothing made from wool, waxed cotton and corduroy helped create what became the classic outfit of the country gent.

In 1896 they introduced the button-down collar after spotting the innovation on the shirts of English polo players, and in 1904, they brought over the Shetland jumper.

Back then, Brooks Brothers served up a swanky smorgasbord of choice garments from the high class domains of golf, rugby, hunting, fishing, sailing and basically any other leisure pursuit that demanded shedloads of dosh. Put simply, anyone who was so rich that they didn’t care about looking rich was well catered for. Campus outfitters J.Press were also keen on the jumpers.

By the 1930s, the students at America’s Ivy League colleges (eight elite colleges in north-eastern USA) were looking for just this kind of stuff. Dressing down was the order of the day for those who could afford to — and thanks to that brushed wool (a detail added in the early 20th century to lessen the itch-factor), the Shetland was the ideal thing to help attain that comfortably dishevelled flavour. The fact that campus mainstays J.Press had also came up with their own version, known as the Shaggy Dog, also helped the jumpers become synonymous with the Ivy League get-up.

It’s probably important to point out somewhere here that although there’s a fairly defined set of el classico Ivy garments (like Bass Weejun loafers and madras shirts), the lines were more blurred than you’re sometimes made to believe — and despite what various fancy dress role play weirdos might say, it wasn’t some strict military-issue uniform.

Whilst the book Take Ivy (a photo book of students striding around leafy campuses in button-down shirts and Bass loafers produced by a Japanese brand of American-inspired garb called VAN back in the mid-60s) is sometimes seen as a bible for people wanting to attain a certain level of casual style — it was in fact the result of strict editing. The people behind it spent a long time scouring the colleges of the East Coast before they found anyone they deemed slick enough to feature on the pages.

All this aside, the Shetland jumper was a firm favourite. They came in loads of colours and were sold in large stacks in all the classic campus outfitters. And being subtle, functional items, they had appeal beyond just swanky educational institutes — so when the so-called ‘Ivy look’ broke into the mainstream in the early 60s along with jazz records, French films and beatnik prose, the humble Shetland knit once again found a new audience.

They had appeal beyond just swanky educational institutes 

Since then, whilst most things have changed drastically over time, the Shetland jumper has remained pretty much untouched. Even now, hundreds of years after some salty-faced knitwear pioneer first decided to make a torso-shaped slab of clothing out of Shetland wool, they’re still made on a remote Scottish island in effectively the same way they were all those years ago. Oh yeah, and they’re still dead toasty.