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Photo courtesy of the Murray family

Phillip Murray, the originator of Nantucket Reds

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n a n t u c k e t

By Andrew Spencer Photography by Julie Almand

There are many things that locals and tourists alike find synonymous with Nantucket. Some recognize the lightship baskets, the woven rope bracelets and even the local airport code (ACK for those who are unsure or confused by all those bumper stickers). There is one thing however, that everyone knows and agrees is a staple of our island life:

Nantucket Reds.

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M

y personal preference in pants has oftentimes been called into

question. Apparently, there’s something about combining madras

and seersucker into a single garment that reminds people of

pajamas. That’s just the tip of the iceberg, as a friend’s blog about my clothing choices can attest. But I have my own little “get out of jail free” card, though, and that is the fact that I can always blame

it on the fact that I’m what people have come to term a “preppy,” and have been since my earliest days. It’s just who I am. In 1980, the preppy lifestyle was codified by a then-unknown writer named Lisa Birnbach, a columnist for the New York-based Village Voice. But with the publication of “The Official Preppy Handbook,” Birnbach’s name – although perhaps relegated to “that woman who wrote “The Preppy Handbook” – has been synonymous with the lifestyle that so many of us who are of a certain vintage have embraced. Among her other gems in the book, Birnbach posits the idea that “to summer” is a verb, and one of the crème-de-la-crème destinations for pursuing that verb is right here on Nantucket. Actually, the book is populated with several references to the Faraway Isle, and one such mention is in the chapter entitled “Dressing the Part.” Birnbach says in reference to one particular pair of pants, “Nantucket Reds: These well-loved Reds, originally a brick-red cotton canvas, have faded to the requisite cherry pink that only authentic Nantucket-bought Reds can achieve.” But how did the ubiquitous pants get that distinctive hue in the first place? Spoiler alert: What you’re about to read is pure urban legend. One version of the story has the store’s founder, Phillip Murray, strolling through the cranberry bogs one fall while wearing stonecolored trousers. Mr. Murray, the story goes, lost his balance and fell into the bog, staining his pants a faded red color. Another historical fiction claims that the pants were originally sails – given that they were originally made from sailcloth, this one has a little bit of credibility – that were used on scallop boats in the days before gas-powered motors. At the end of the season, those sails had faded to the distinctive shade of red we know today as Nantucket Red.

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Alas, the truth is much less romantic. Originally, Reds were just slacks, but not just any slacks. They were made from canvas sailcloth, as a way of making them more durable. Inspired by the trousers favored by French sailors from Brittany, the first Nantucket Reds were crafted by the M. Hoffmann Company in Boston. As their popularity with a certain set grew, the pants acquired the name of “Hulbert Avenue Reds,” a moniker ascribed them by a group of young ladies who were both summer residents of Hulbert Avenue and seasonal employees of Murray’s Toggery. It was Phillip C. Murray – the son of the store’s founder – who finally settled on the name Nantucket Reds. The rest is fashion history, and though the story itself might not be quite as fantastic as an unexpected dip into the cranberry bogs, there is an undeniable mystique attached to the color. That color – what Birnbach calls “cherry pink” – is the true essence of Nantucket Red. It is a color that is as synonymous with Nantucket as is the ubiquitous lightship basket or the ACK bumper sticker. It is almost inevitable that anywhere you go, somebody is going to recognize your faded slacks as Nantucket Reds. Case in point, a co-worker of mine was recently wearing his Reds, and he was genuinely surprised that I recognized them as authentic Reds. I should mention, too, that I live in Richmond, Virginia. As further proof of the legendary reputation of the color, consider the number of national retailers who have adopted their own variation of the color. It seems that you can’t open a clothing catalog today without seeing a shade of brick that has a Nantucket-themed name. Despite the number of impersonators that have sprung up, there is still only one true Nantucket Red, and the only place to get it is at Murray’s Toggery Shop on Main Street, Nantucket. As to the specific origins of the color red, though, it’s still a mystery. Elizabeth Murray, the daughter-in-law of the store’s founder, said of the color choice, “I don’t really know why they’re red. They could have been blue, I suppose.” “Red,” however, isn’t quite the word a lot of first-time viewers of the popular pants call them. “Pink” and “salmon” are two colors I’ve heard used to describe them; one opinion – albeit from an artist with an appreciation for a wide array of colors – was that they were “light fuchsia.” But to everyone who knows and loves them, they’re Reds, plain and simple. The secret to achieving that faded hue is, like it is for so many other things, a matter of time. Repeated washings in cool water cause the fabric to fade, but there are some other strategies that wearers have employed. Dipping them in salt water and leaving them in the sun to fade is one. Throwing them in the dishwasher is another. No matter how you achieve that sought-after shade, there is no denying the popularity of the fashion statement made by Nantucket Reds. “Nobody could have conceived that they’d become as popular as they are today,” said Elizabeth Murray. That popularity is due in no small part to the fact that the Murray’s team has branched out from the original pants. Those first Reds were specifically tailored for men, but the staff soon found that women were buying them, too, and those female customers began to ask for more feminine offerings. And as all good retailers do, the Murray family listened to their customers and adapted. Today, the array of clothing options is seemingly endless. Shorts, skirts, dresses, hats. Even a kitchen apron that was featured on Martha Stewart’s television show. But the whole thing started with a pair of pants back in the early 1940s, and preppies everywhere have been rejoicing ever since.

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Photos courtesy of the Murray family The Murray family was featured in an article in the Indepent.

The Murray family, with everyone dressed in Reds!

Store catalog, showcasing Nantucket Reds.

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Nantucket Reds  

Nantucket Reds

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