Where that sea of pink at every New England wedding originally came from.
You know that color that’s not quite red, not quite pink, but more of a dusty, washed-out salmon? Tucked away in drawers through the gray winter months, Nantucket Reds are yanked out as soon as spring arrives by men all along the East Coast. Tommy Hilfiger wears them, hedge fund men yank them on before heading out on their yachts for the weekend, and even some hipsters squeeze into a version that comes dangerously close to being considered skinny jeans. The pants have become as ubiquitous as your father’s cargo pants, yet they make their wearers stand out like cooked lobsters.
Despite their name, the inspiration for these intensely colored slacks came from the other side of the Atlantic in Brittany, France. In the 1800s, Breton fishermen tanned cotton canvas with tannins from tree bark to prevent the sails of their boats from mildewing. The tanning process colored the sailcloth a rich sunset red, which faded as it weathered in the saltwater and sun from mandarin red to a light, blushing cantaloupe color. Leftover cloth was fashioned into trousers and vareuses worn by the fishermen.
While it’s easy to romanticize Breton fishermen tearing away in their matching red-sailed boats, it’s worth remembering that the color was nothing more than a lovely byproduct of a completely utilitarian process. Tanbark sails made their way to the East Coast of the United States in the mid-1800s, although they didn’t make quite the same splash amid fishing communities as they had in Brittany. The cloth, however, was adopted for clothing by people living in small working-class communities on Martha’s Vineyard, Nantucket, Block Island, and Cape Cod, and all along the coast.
During the 19th century and at the turn of the 20th century, red and pink — a diminutive of red — were considered “strong” masculine colors, while blue and white were thought to be softer and more feminine. Pink, in particular, become a color that signified class.
In F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, protagonist Jay Gatsby, a millionaire with a shadowed working-class past, was shamed for wearing a pink suit by Tom Buchanan, an autocrat born into wealth. Tom has been “making a small investigation of [Gatsby’s] past,” he tells a friend, Jordan. Asked whether he found if “he was an Oxford man,” Tom replies, “An Oxford man! Like hell he is! He wears a pink suit.”
Jordan pushes the subject: “Nevertheless he’s an Oxford man.”
“Oxford, New Mexico,” Tom replies scornfully, “or something like that.”
Although pink wasn’t codified along gender lines as it is today, Gatsby’s choice of color signified to Tom that his adversary wasn’t born into and educated within the upper echelons of blue-blooded society on Long Island’s North Shore in the 1920s. By questioning the suit, Tom strips Gatsby of his rosy-hued American dream of mansions and class and Ivy League clubs, leaving him naked, alone, and utterly apish.
If pink was associated with the working class (many of whom wore brown, black, or cream), then how did it come to be adopted by the uber-wealthy living along the East Coast? The answer, of course, comes down to brilliant marketing and the flagrant appropriation and romanticizing of utilitarian working-class style.
During World War II, American women worked jobs in factories and shipyards that had previously been occupied by men. This was an era of Rosie the Riveter and a government-approved masculinization of women. After the war ended, however, men reassumed manufacturing positions and, despite the fact that many women remained in the workforce, the notion of the “homemaker” became synonymous with the idealized woman. With this new feminization of women, pink also became domesticated.
The G.I. Bill led to massive postwar economic growth, and with it came a new gendered brand of marketing. Pink became a “girly” color that was coopted not only by clothing manufacturers, but by makers of shampoo, soaps, and a variety of other products. It was within this environment that Nantucket Red — a color strikingly close to pink — started to be marketed to wealthy men. While this might seem contrary to the gendered marketing of the time, it’s worth considering how the color was framed.
Before Murray’s Toggery Shop was purchased by Philip Murray in 1945, the store was known for supplying locals on Nantucket with essential outdoor clothing such as waders and sturdy footwear. In the 1950s, Murray’s son, Philip C. Murray, took over the business, and he introduced Nantucket Reds in the 1960s.
Much in the way that Irish and Scottish tweed was appropriated by British upperclassmen as sportswear, a version of “Breton Red” pants were donned by wealthy vacationers visiting places such as the French Riviera, the Cinque Terre, Monte Carlo, and Costa del Sol. Inspired by the popularity of the pant as a style for the rich and famous, and aware that the colorful cotton canvas was readily available in the United States, Philip C. Murray knew his pants would be a hit.
Although pink had been established in American culture as feminine, Nantucket Red’s inherent message of sturdy outdoorsmen clothing appealed to a type of wealthy man who — despite working in boardrooms and offices during the week — wanted to be seen as belonging to the club of “real men” (even if their hands showed no sign of being accustomed to hard labor). Blush, flamingo, lipstick, rouge, coral, and rose: those were colors for women. Nantucket Red, however, even when it was deemed pink, couldn’t escape its rugged past as a color worn by scallop boat riggers and fishermen. Now, however, the people wearing it assumed the wheel of a very different sort of boat: a yacht.
By the 1980s, Nantucket Reds were associated with wealth, privilege, and whiteness, and they became a cornerstone of preppy summer style after appearing in The Official Preppy Handbook. Today, the warm salmon color appears on the decks of sailing boats and yachts, and the pant is partnered with both seersucker jackets and the classic navy jacket at summer garden weddings. There’s even a Nantucket Red soiree. Knock-offs can be purchased at J.Crew and other midrange outlets, making them accessible to an even wider audience. The pants ushered in a way for the wealthy to casually display their class, yet the rugged “everyman” outdoorsman associations made them appeal to men (and many women) across economic lines. There’s no doubt that Jay Gatsby — in his quest to embody the American dream — would approve, although he might also feel that he wore pink just a few decades too soon.
Today I ordered a sweater from Guernsey Woolens — more on that later — and in looking over their many tempting offerings I noted one sweater or “jumper” in “Breton red.” I ended up googling that color out of idle curiosity and fell down the rabbit hole to land upon the article linked above at the now-defunct Racked.
It is an interesting read. I doubt many other members here need a history of Nantucket reds although I myself found it educational. (I am after all, just a Snopes trying to pass for a Compson.) I was most struck by how the social language of color involving pink has changed, and to realize that the wearing of Nantucket reds by the likes of vacationing stockbrokers is an affectation of working class ruggedness, with the working class aspect so buried in history as to be all but forgotten. I had assumed that the wearing of Nantucket reds was more of a GTH trousers type thing.