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Once upon a time apparel manufacturers put their labels, logos
and advertisements on the inside of garments. The principal
way of telling what brands people wore was to grab their collars
and turn them back. A recent alternative is to wait for the wearers
to be nominated for Academy Awards so Joan Rivers can assault them
with the demand to know: “Who are you wearing?”
A Zoo York T-shirt wearer. (Flickr user
Malingering / CC)
The times they have a-changed, as Bob Dylan predicted and the
folk admonition not to wear your heart on your sleeve is obsolete.
The streets are full of folks who wear their hearts, names, gags,
hobbies and innermost feelings on their sleeves and anywhere else
they will fit. T-shirt publishing means that even pedestrians can
have bumper stickers. Not all the messages are personal. Many
proudly advertise the brand worn or a knockoff of it, or the
college the wearer may or may not have attended or even seen. Gap,
Ralph Lauren, Tommy Hilfiger, Nike and Abercrombie & Fitch are
plugged by walking billboards, usually at no cost to the
advertisers. This makes shopping hard on us curmudgeonly
non-cooperators. I remember spending a full day trying, and
failing, to buy an unadorned cap. Luckily my wife, armed with an
X-Acto knife and markers, has become a specialist in removing logos
when possible, or blacking them out when not.
How and why did all this come about?
René Lacoste wearing the original crocodile symbol, 1927.
In 1927 a French tennis-star-turned-sports-shirt-manufacturer
had an embroidered version of a green alligator, his personal
signature icon, attached to the pocket. One might have expected
consumers to be offended, but they were not. Men wanted the
guy's alligator on their chests whether they played tennis or not,
if only to establish how much they had paid for the shirts.
Lacoste's company history boasts, “To the best of our knowledge,
this was the first time that a brand name appeared on the outside
of an article of clothing—an idea which has since become extremely
Well, if that is truly the best of Lacoste's knowledge, their
corporate researchers didn't look very hard. In the 1920s Jantzen,
a manufacturer of swimwear, used a diving girl as a trademark and
affixed it irremovably to every suit they made. And much earlier
Levi's had stitched its name on a trademarked leather square or a
red-tag logo to be seen on the back pocket of everyone who worked
for a living or pretended to, or just wanted to look western.
My own interest in the phenomenon began when, as a small boy, I
put on a pair of boxer shorts and posed before a mirror, pretending
I was lightweight champion of the world, which I may have hoped to
become. The boxer shorts were close enough in appearance to the
real thing for purposes of fantasy, but even as a child I knew that
for authenticity they would have had to say Everlast. I even toyed
with the idea of asking my mother to sew the logo on, but that
would have entailed somehow acquiring one, and anyway she was
already burdened by having to sew identification labels on all the
clothing I took to Camp Kon-o-kwee. (Today the labels are all
iron-on or stick-on.)
Tony DeMarco vs. Carmen Basilio, both in Everlast gloves, 1955.
Villet / LIFE magazine)
In issue after issue of Ring magazine, which I read while
my friends were reading The Wind in the Willows, I could see
that what most boxers, amateur or pro, had in common was not build,
muscle or a menacing stance, but the Everlast logo at the waist of
their trunks and on the cuffs of their gloves. Although I had no
childhood interest in marketing, I admired the audacity of a
company that promoted itself on the outside of the product they had
sold you. How did they get away with it?
It began in the Bronx in 1910, when Jacob Golomb, a swimmer
dissatisfied with the short life of swimwear available at the time,
set out to produce a swimsuit that would last. To drive the point
home, he named it Everlast. I
don't know how long the swimsuits lasted, but the company folded in
a year, and Golomb, taking the trademarked name with him, opened a
sporting gear business and was asked by a then-unknown boxer named
Jack Dempsey to design a pair of gloves for him. In 1919 Dempsey,
no longer unknown, wore the gloves when he won the heavyweight
championship of the world.
Ring apparel in that era was apparently no better than swimwear
was; boxers held up their trunks with leather belts. In 1925 Golomb
designed trunks with an elastic waist, which was not only lighter
and less cumbersome but offered an additional and more prominent
place to put the company name, where to this day it maintains the
brand's prestige, although the sport has lost its own. (The
elastic-banded trunks had an immediate and significant spinoff. The
men's underwear industry, adopting the idea, introduced “boxers,”
thus making my childhood fantasies look realistic enough to pass
the mirror test.)
Boxing's image—never exactly shining, since the profession was
from the first associated with gangsters and fight fixing—has
declined for good and humane reasons. But before the sport's image
got worse, the image got better, having been literally
enhanced when television came along desperately seeking content.
The Friday night fights brought the ring into the living room, for
a while making fight fans of millions who had never before seen
one. The award shows may have brought the red carpet, where stars
parade apparel and drop designers' names, but before the Golden
Globes we had the Golden Gloves, a national competition whose stars
performed on a plain, beige canvas. For viewers who could read, no
naming of names was necessary. I once saw a fight in which both men
wore Everlast trunks, not at all uncommon. The fight ended in a
knockout, with the loser flat on his back, keeping Everlast visible
to the overhead camera for the length of the countdown while his
opponent, resting his arms on the ropes of a neutral corner,
vertically delivered precisely the same message: Everlast. For the
manufacturer it was the ultimate win-win situation. And the
ultimate product placement.
Ralph Caplan is the author of Cracking the Whip: Essays on Design
and Its Side Effects and By Design. Caplan is the former editor of
I.D. magazine, and has been a columnist for both I.D. and Print. He lectures widely, teaches in the graduate Design Criticism program at the School of Visual Arts, was awarded the 2010 “Design Mind” National Design Award by the Cooper-Hewitt
and is the recipient of the
2011 AIGA Medal.
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If only for an hour or a day or a week.
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