New To Us: Bass Weejuns
The Ivy League classic, that is still bench-made in Maine, gets a refresh in an exclusive range of luxury leather models
Mr Steve McQueen wearing a pair of brown leather Bass Weejuns in The Honeymoon Machine, 1961 MGM/ The Kobal Collection
Incubated in the cloistered confines of a handful of top East Coast schools in the 1950s, the Ivy League look went on to dominate mid-century men’s fashion in the US and leave an enduring style legacy that’s still felt today. Relaxed, easy but ultimately anchored in the codes of traditional formalwear, it was the precursor to “preppy” and the inspiration for designers both on home soil, such as Ralph Lauren and Thom Browne, and further afield, such as Japan’s Beams Plus.
Like any well-established look, Ivy League style has its heroes, and the soft-shouldered tweed jacket, Oxford cloth button-down shirt, flat-fronted khaki trousers and Harrington jacket are among the brightest stars in its firmament. But no item was embraced as instantly and enthusiastically into the scene as the original penny loafer: the Bass Weejun.
Jazz trumpeter Mr Miles Davis relaxes in a pair of loafers, 1960 John Dominis/ The LIFE Picture Collection/ Getty Images
The name Weejun is a mutation of “Norwegian”, and it’s in Norway that the shoe’s origins can be found. They were based on a locally crafted slip-on shoe that was originally brought back to wealthy European and American resorts by men who had visited Norway on fishing trips. In 1935, representatives from US Esquire magazine spotted the shoe in Palm Beach, Florida. Seeing a gap in the market, they partnered with the department store Rogers Peet to recreate the style. Maine-based shoemaker G.H. Bass & Co was commissioned to make it, and in 1936 the Bass Weejun was debuted to the world.
“It was the right shoe at the right time,” says Mr Christian Chensvold, editor-in-chief of the blog Ivy Style, explaining the Weejun’s immediate success. “It was casual at a time when dress among young people was becoming more casual, and not so expensive that a college student on a fixed allowance couldn’t afford it. The shoe seems to have had a magical quality that made it somehow new and fresh when it was first popularised, and yet also instantly classic.”
The explosion of the Ivy League look in the 1950s and early 1960s took the Weejun out of the campuses of American schools and colleges and sent it global. The collegiate connection was strongly emphasised by G.H. Bass & Co during this period, with a typical advertising tagline reading as follows: “As classic as the romance languages… as popular as the corner soda shop… Weejuns are the accepted fashion at every school and college.”
Mr Paul Newman in his Beverly Hills home, California, 1962 NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images
It was the ushering in of the era of the casual shoe. As Mr G Bruce Boyer put it in his seminal menswear tome, Elegance, “there was virtually not a middle-class young man or woman in the United States who did not own a pair of oxblood coloured penny loafers in the 1950s”. And while the popularity of the Ivy League look has fluctuated in the decades since, the penny loafer seems never to have fallen out of fashion.
Mr Chensvold puts it down to the shoe’s inherent flexibility. “You can make them whatever you want it to be, from preppy to punk,” he explains. “Die-hard trad guys will wear it with a suit, and over the past 70 years I’m sure there have been many guys, both young and old, who’ve worn a pair of black Weejuns with eveningwear. That deliberate casualness, or incorrect correctness, is a distinguishing hallmark of the WASPish, preppy approach to dressing.
“At the other end of the spectrum,” he continues, “guys in the 1950s – in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, according to legend – figured out that the shoe looked great without socks, even though it is essentially a dress shoe. And one step further, with shorts instead of pants. In London, those long-time Ivy guys still really fetishise the hell out of the shoe and associate it with all sorts of mid-century things like jazz and modern art.”
From left: Messrs Nicholas Ray, Dennis Stock and James Dean on the set of Rebel Without a Cause, 1955 Ronald Grant Archive/ Mary Evans
Of course, you don’t have to be a card-carrying Brahmin or a north London hipster with a penchant for mid-century jazz to wear a pair of Bass Weejuns. As a key component in one of the most influential and enduring trends of the past century, their place in the menswear pantheon is assured.
The Ivy League look continues to hold sway over the world of menswear, and some 80 years after the Weejun was first released it can still be found on the shoe racks of well-dressed men around the world. At MR PORTER, we decided that it was high time to give this classic the attention it deserves.