Navy peacoat weathers shifting winds of fashion


Dear Marylou: I'd been waiting and waiting for Ralph Lauren's navy wool peacoat to be marked down way down from its original price of $1,000. Then it occurred to me that I could buy the original that inspired Ralph at an Army/Navy surplus store. Alas, none in my area carry this item. Is there a catalogue source? If you can find one, what men's size would be equivalent to a woman's 12? Also, what is the derivation of the word peacoat? C.C.H., Kansas City, Mo.

Dear C.C.H.: If it weren't for the fact that I found a U.S. Navy peacoat for you for $225, I would encourage you to wait for the Ralph Lauren version as he is the designer who set off the current round of military looks last April, long before the Persian Gulf crisis triggered the new Saudi chic.

The pea in peacoat or pea jacket is derived from the Dutch word pij the name of a coarse woolen material used in the first peacoats. According to fashion lore, Count Alfred d'Orsay, "a fashion personality," got caught in the rain without a coat and bought a double-breasted navy reefer jacket from a sailor. By the 1850s, the peacoat had become popular in the United States and Great Britain.

The version illustrated here is available at J. Peterman Company, 2444 Palumbo Drive, Lexington, Ky. 40509. The company's catalogue calls it "a masterpiece ... equal to black tie ... one of five things in which a man looks his best." (No mention of the other four, but I can come up with a trenchcoat, a cardigan sweater, a dressing gown/bathrobe and, of course, a tux.)

This piece of history comes in men's sizes 36-46 and women's sizes 6-16, so you don't have to guess at your size. It's made of 100 percent wool in the Navy's "Blue 3345." The Peterman catalogue also offers the U.S. Navy watch cap in wool rib knit for $10.

Dear Marylou: When it comes to shoes, I'm a double minority. I not only have small feet, I have wide feet. My size: 7-EEEE. Do you know of a company that specializes in wide shoes for small sizes? J.P., Centerline, Mich.

Dear J.P.: Hitchcock Shoes, Inc., Dept. 91K, Hingham, Ma., 02043, offers sizes 5-13 in widths from EE to EEEEEE (yes, six Es.) Write to them for a free catalogue.

Dear Marylou: What with thong swimsuits being outlawed in Florida's public beaches and a woman in Madison, Wisc., being charged with disorderly conduct for refusing to wear a top at a public beach, it seems that more and more women are getting into more and more trouble for wearing less and less. Who was the designer who first introduced the thong, and why are people suddenly finding it daring? K.O., New York, N.Y.

Dear K.O.: The late Rudi Gernreich, who designed the topless swimsuit in 1964, created the first thong in 1974. He told me then that he offered it to provide "the undeniable comfort and pleasure human beings take in nakedness." He considered the thong a compromise between liberty and legality because it offered "the freedom of nudism without breaking the law on public shores." (Gernreich obviously underestimated the Florida cabinet in Tallahassee, Fla., who made it a crime to be "butt-out" on state-owned beaches.)

The answer to your "why now" question might very well have something to do with fashion historian James Laver's theory about the cause and effect of fashion change. Laver said in 1964 that "all periods of prolonged and intense crisis have the effect of emancipating women."

Laver contended back then that "the post-crisis years of history find women reverting to 'little girl clothes.' " He likened Gernreich's topless swimsuit to a little girl's playsuit.

"It (the topless) makes sense," declared Laver, "and it will catch on whenever the municipal authorities learn some sense themselves. It's ridiculous to put clothes on to bathe. Gernreich's topless bathing suit is a decade ahead of its time, and in a century and a half it will be considered beautiful."

While toplessness is still not as prevalent as Gernreich and Laver predicted, the Florida and Wisconsin events, coupled with the topless clothes shown last October by Milan's Giorgio Armani and Paris' Yves Saint Laurent, do indicate a renewed interest in the subject.

Dear Marylou: I have a light green zip-front jumpsuit with attached hood. The pant legs are wide so wide it almost looks as if I'm wearing a long dress. I really like this jumpsuit and it is in good condition, but every time I wear it my grandchildren tell me that this style is outdated. Is this true? If so, how can I update it? I'm 55 and wear a size 10. A.B.B., New York, N.Y.

Dear A.B.B.: Your jumpsuit could jump right into 1991 if you narrowed the legs, making sure to take in the same amount of fabric on the inseam as on the other seams. Hoods are especially fashionable right now, so tell your grandchildren you are just ahead of your time.

Marylou welcomes questions for use in this column, but regrets she cannot answer mail personally. Send your questions to Clotheslines, The Evening Sun, 501 N. Calvert St., Baltimore, Md. 21278.

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