Wearing o' the Green 

For LOCal Irishmen, nothing says St. Patrick’s Day like that March fashion basic, the Kelly-green blazer.

As the day nears, sightings of “the wearing of the green” signal the coming of spring in the city as sure as the first hint of pollen on the car windshield.

A quick glance at parade spectators may suggest that “the wilder the better” seems to be the only green-fashion rule. White-and-emerald striped “cat in the hat” hats compete for attention with giant shamrock-shaped Mardi Gras beads and the occasional electric lime leisure suit.

For male paradegoers desiring to blend in like native Savannahians, “dressy” and “conservative” are the fashion hints to follow, and for decades, the Kelly green single-breasted jacket has been most Irishmen’s wardrobe staple.

Changing and staying the same

Jimmy Parker has been selling the same style green blazer to men in the Irish community since he opened his haberdashery,

J. Parker, Ltd. in 1972.

“I watch the parade at Abercorn and Gaston Streets,” says Parker. “As the guys go by they flash the inside of their jackets to show me their ‘J. Parker’ label. I got out in the middle of the street one year and took a photo of 75-100 guys marching, all of them wearing jackets from my store.”

Parker estimates he’ll sell 100 of the wool and polyester blend blazer during the St. Patrick’s Day season which started in February.

“We’ve always considered ourselves as the headquarters for the ‘wearing of the green.,’” says Parker. “We stock the jacket year-round. We get a lot of calls from out of town and mail the coats out. Some people who have been to Savannah for the parade and seen the coats will call us when they get home.”

Across town at John B. Rourke, owner Don McElveen does a steady stream of business in green blazers.

“The style has never changed,” McElveen says. “The lapel may have gotten a quarter of an inch wider or narrower but other than that, it has stayed the same.”

Both upscale menswear retailers stock up in January on merchandise with a hint of Irish that leans toward tasteful instead of garish.

McElveen offers a line of $65 ties with a repeat pattern of eighth-inch pale green shamrocks on a background of sea foam, yellow, navy, blue, or pink.

Parker carries specially-made suspenders in navy or muted green with a narrow diagonal dark green stripe, embroidered with “Savannah” and “St. Patrick’s Day.”

At both shops, the wildest items on the racks are wide-wale blue corduroy trousers embroidered with emerald green shamrocks.

Role reversal

In the early 20th century, the wearing of the green by a non-Irishman could earn him a pummeling at the hands of a testy son of Ireland, according to Jimmy Buttimer, a fifth-generation Irish-Savannahian and historian.

“Back then they considered anyone wearing green as making fun of the Irish. They felt more proprietary about the whole thing because they were just so damned defensive about their reputations,” Buttimer says.

Savannah’s green blazer tradition at St. Patrick’s Day probably started in the early 1960’s.

“In our lifetime there were certain Irish organizations that when you were admitted you got a green blazer. I think the Irish Heritage Society was one of them,” says Buttimer.

In earlier generations, even the Irish avoided wearing green.

“When you see pictures of the 1940s and even the ‘50s, they’re not wearing the blazers or anything like that,” says Buttimer. “The older Irish, they wouldn’t even wear green ties -- they’d just put on a good suit of clothes and put a sprig of shamrock in their lapels.”

His grandfather, the late Toby Buttimer, was reluctant to wear any green, even a pair of green socks darned for him by a friend. It was an affront to the custom passed to him from his own grandfather.

“They certainly wouldn’t wear the stuff like people wear now,” says Jimmy Buttimer.

Talkin ‘bout my generation

While the green jackets will be out en masse on Friday, some “Gen X” and late Baby Boomer Irishmen are veering away from the tradition.

Parade committee chairman Jay Burke, 40, admitted that fewer members of the parade’s Executive Committee will be wearing the blazer than in past decades.

“This group’s a little different I guess, a little more independent,” he says. “Not that we’re changing anything, maybe some might wear a darker green instead of a Kelly green. Most of us try to stay low profile. We enjoy the work aspects of it.”

Twenty-six-year-old Eamon Sheehan takes his wardrobe cues from his father Dan Sheehan, last year’s Parade Grand Marshal. The Los Angeles resident grew up in Savannah and never misses a parade.

“My dad wears a suit; I wear a suit. It’s no disrespect to the green jacket. I just never did,” Sheehan says.

“I cannot tell you that in the future that I wouldn’t wear them, because it is definitely the attire for the day.”

Size does matter

The only change that Bill Bradley might make in his wardrobe some years is the size of the green jacket he wears with the customary khaki pants, white shirt and tie.

“The first time I wear it each year is at the Grand Marshal election,” he says. “When I put it on I know how well I’ve done since last St Patrick’s Day. If it fits me I’m happy. If it doesn’t, I’m grumpy for that party.”

A member of the Parade Executive Committee, Bradley, 40, is staunch in his adherence to the blazer custom.

“The younger crew may be breaking ranks a bit and wearing dark suits, but wearing the coat is just part of being Irish on St. Patrick’s Day,” Bradley says.

“They have a right to do that, but I think if you’re a Savannahian and you’re of Irish descent you should have that green jacket on.” w

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Robin Wright Gunn

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