Nantucket Reds: Still Fading After All These Years

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Full disclosure: I was born with mild color blindness that is more infuriating than it is debilitating. When I first got the green light from Matt and Steve that I would be writing a piece on Nantucket Reds, I thought that seeing a full array of pink pants and shorts were, per usual, my slightly irritating color blindness mixing up my basic colors yet again.

But, after some light research, I came to realize that Nantucket Reds aren’t actually red at all — at least, not after the first wash. Knowing that I beat my own eyesight at its perpetual game of color dyslexia, I quickly discovered that this understood but unspoken rule of calling objectively pink pants “reds” demonstrated just how influential Nantucket Reds have become in preppy clothing culture since their small town debut in the 1960s.

With no exaggeration, Nantucket Reds are the staple summer clothing item of Northeastern coastal preppy enthusiasts. If you have spent any time in Nantucket, Massachusetts, you already know what I’m talking about. But, this also applies to our fellow preppy enthusiasts in Martha’s Vineyard, Cape Cod and even Provincetown. It’s hard to walk around any of these places, let alone the great state of Massachusetts, without seeing at least one person sporting a pair of these famously faded pink pants. Since their introduction, Nantucket Reds have become a staple of international preppy culture, even earning a spot in the 1981 “Official Preppy Handbook.”

 

 

 

So, you may be asking, how did a local Massachusetts fashion staple become part of wider preppy culture? Well, It all begins about 110 years ago in Nantucket, Massachusetts at a store called the City Clothing Company.

 

 

 

 

 

Philip, Philip, and the Main Street Toggery Shop

The story of Nantucket Reds begins in 1908 about as humbly as any American dream could have: a hardworking immigrant family moves into town and sets up a new business venture on Main Street called “City Clothing Company.”

The owner of this new shop, Philip Genesky, had other small businesses in New Haven, Connecticut about six hours away. He appointed his son, Emile Genesky, to manage the Nantucket location, and in 1916, for unspecified reasons, City Clothing Company was torn down and a new building was erected in its place called “The Toggery Shop.” Since “toggery” is just a fancy British word for “clothing,” not much changed on the sales side of the Genesky business following reconstruction. But, when Emile was married in 1924, the operations side of Murray's Toggery Shop took new management that would forever alter the course of preppy history.

Emile hired an experienced local retail worker and scallop fisherman by the name of Philip Murray Jr. to manage the Toggery Shop in his absence while he moved back to New Haven to be with his wife. Philip Murray Jr. is kind of mythical in his many descriptions online because not a lot is known about his origin story: some say he moved here as a stowaway from the Azores, others say he arrived to Nantucket by working as a coal shoveler.

Regardless, the Genesky family must have admired him tremendously, as they sold Murray their most valuable asset in 1945 — the Toggery Shop — following a series of unfortunate business incidents related to the Great Depression.

At the time of this new possession, the Toggery Shop was the most popular stop for island workers wanting to acquire quality footwear, outerwear and waders. It was, and still is, the go-to place for locals and tourists to buy clothing that made them feel like they were part of the coastal fashion scene, and Philip Murray’s son, Philip C. Murray, must have understood this unique local market from a young age.

 

The Second Generation of Philip

Just like his father before him, Philip C. Murray was a man with a wealth of experience and grit. He graduated from Nantucket high school in 1939, working night shifts at the Steamship Authority to save money for college, and was eventually drafted for service to the Philippines during WWII.

Following the war, Murray (the son, not the father) married a woman he met while stationed in Virginia during basic training. He spent five years in Richmond with her but eventually moved back to Nantucket after his father’s business seemed to be calling him back from afar. In 1959, Philip C. Murray bought The Toggery Shop (renaming it "Murray's Toggery Shop") from his dying father, but also saw incentive to expand the family business by also buying the adjacent Dry Goods Store in 1963 and turning it into a women’s department store.

 


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Murray wasn’t just a run of the mill businessman, however. When he renovated the original Toggery Shop and newly acquired women’s department to give them a modern feel, some local historians say that he promoted the grand opening of both stores by buying a pony, parading it down Main Street, then raffling it off to the highest bidder.

 

 

 

Nantucket Reds become a Toggery Shop Staple

During the midst of this local popularity and hype in the 60s, the Murray family business, according to their own website, introduced a new product that seemed to become instantly popular amongst locals and tourists: Nantucket Reds.

Originally, Nantucket Reds were men’s pants made from red canvas fabric meant to fade into a soft pink over time. But, as popularity grew, so too did the wardrobe possibilities for this unique Northeastern red fabric modeled after the red sails common to sailboats in Brittany, France. When Murray trademarked the Nantucket Reds brand in 1980, The Toggery Shop was offering products ranging from hats, overalls and even blazers.

But, if we’ve learned anything from American capitalism over the last 250 years, it’s that a market absent of any real competition is a breeding ground for what I like to call the “Great Value” of competition. Think about it: you go to the store to buy Tylenol, but then you see Great Value Ibuprofen for a fraction of the price. Both items could cure your hangover, but only one of them came first and has a quality, historical name brand to protect.

Unlike my poorly constructed metaphor, Nantucket Reds had already solidified themselves as a staple summer clothing item in Massachusetts and throughout Northeastern coastal towns before their sudden popularity. It seems that their mention in 1981’s “Official Preppy Handbook” was the catalyst that both put them on the national stage and invited their competition into the faded red trouser market.

In the 90s, and even more today, we can see a plethora of faded red trouser products coming from some of the big name preppy brands that I won’t mention by name here. Am I saying this competition is undeserved? Absolutely not. In fact, the Murray family has used these alternate versions of their original faded reds to solidify their own authenticity.

Even in their current product descriptions, you’ll find slogans like “own the originals” and "guaranteed to fade" as a way to legitimize the original brand; and, to be fair, the competition of Nantucket Reds primarily uses twine over red canvas to cut production costs, which has allowed the Murray family to maintain an edge in the quality department. But, even though we can thank Philip C. Murray for casting faded pink clothing into the limelight, we can also thank the competition for solidifying the summer staple in preppy clothing culture.

 

 

Still Fading After All These Years

Whether you own a pair of original Nantucket Reds trousers sold to you by Phillip C. Murray or are sporting a twine blazer you recently bought from their competition, we can all agree that the Murray family was on to something truly unique in the preppy fashion world that has transcended both time and space.

Sure, you could be sitting on Main Street in Nantucket right now wearing a pair of faded Reds, be reading this article in the cool Massachusetts summer sun and consider yourself a hipster in every sense of the word. But, you could also be sitting on the sands of the Gulf of Mexico or the beach walks of the Pacific Ocean sporting the same pair of pants and most people would pass thinking, “woah, those pink pants look pretty cool.”

Really, any coastal setting in 21st century America would be stylistically feasible for these once-niche faded Red trousers, and we can thank the pioneering vision of the Murray family (now in the third generation of ownership at The Toggery Shop) for giving us such a summer classic.

 If you liked the history of Nantucket Reds, be sure to check out Country Club Prep’s inventory of faded red summer products:

1 comment

Love the article, going to send a few pics of my well-worn Nantucket Reds baseball cap under separate cover…

Bill Steinberg August 21, 2019

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