What is a CPO shirt and how does it relate to Nantucket fashion and a 95-year-old seamstress? It began in the mid to late sixties when a young woman named Lia Marks, who had been born in Germany, arrived on Nantucket by way of New Jersey after her second husband, an air traffic controller, was offered a job on the island. Lia was trained as a skilled seamstress and had worked in a factory making shirts for companies like Sears Roebuck and many others. Nantucket Looms was just beginning to make clothing using the leftover woven fabrics from their commercial ventures; producing interior fabrics, custom rugs and clothing. I was able to interview Lia about her time working for Bill Euler and Andy Oates, the original owners of Nantucket Looms.
At the age of 95, Lia Marks has a clear mind, a brilliant memory, and is quite articulate. “Bill Euler, one of the owners, brought me a beautiful silk tie and said he wanted to make ties from remnants of the woven fabrics, using his tie as the pattern,” she said. “So, I took the tie apart and went to work.” As a point of pride she says, “ I always stitched the seam by hand.” She loved working upstairs where Bill had his office and the weavers worked in a beautiful open space overlooking the town. “ At first I sewed at home, but I didn’t have enough room to spread out the fabrics,” she continued. “So they had a long table built on the second floor away from the customers, where I could work without distraction. But I was itching to make a shirt,” she said.
Bill had the idea, and Lia designed and created the pattern for what ultimately became a status symbol, their CPO (Chief Petty Officer) naval shirt made from their woven fabrics. The buttons were ivory, back when it was legal to import ivory, and artisans were carving scrimshaw scenes on ivory whale’s teeth. The woven fabric rendered the shirt heavy enough to wear as a jacket, once they were lined with colorful printed Pima cotton fabric made by Liberty of London. Every man wanted one in order to be “in style.” They might never have bought such a fashionable, and slightly feminine garment elsewhere, but if it was from Nantucket Looms it had a certain cache and was deemed “Nantucket casual dress.” It was a suave adaptation of a most manly design, the CPO shirt worn by young men in the navy. You don’t get more masculine than that! Men who normally donned blazers for dining at The Opera House, or the Yacht Club or the famed Chanticleer in ‘Sconset, suddenly were making a fashion statement of which their wives approved. How brilliant was that? Every man had to have one. It made them feel distinctive and youthful. And then the women followed with jackets of lighter colored weaves. This “look” had just the right “summer on Nantucket” feeling. The woven ties were often pared with a classic blue blazer and white or khaki pants, and loafers without socks. This became the acceptable casual wear for a man who didn’t feel dressed without a jacket and tie in the evening.
Lia said, “I made so many of those ties, but I loved making the CPO shirts. In fact, I still have one I can’t seem to finish. It needs to have the collar made smaller,” she muses longingly. “I don’t have the energy anymore,” she admits. “I used to measure and fit every customer, and they picked the fabric and lining they wanted, so it was truly custom made. I can still picture the one I made for the star of the television series Hawaii 50. I can’t remember his name, but we sent it to Hawaii and it was lost in the mail. We couldn’t replicate it because we were out of the fabric he chose. He was so disappointed.” Lia remembers so many of her customers. “Oh I loved making those shirts. It never seemed like work.”
The CPO jacket was so popular the demand kept Lia busy year ‘round. It was not unusual for her to make over 300 jackets in a year, many of them worn by the famous and infamous. Writer, Nathanial Benchley, a summer resident and best selling author of many books – The Off-Islanders was turned into the popular movie, The Russians Are Coming – owned as many as a dozen jackets.
Another customer was Dustin Hoffman and many other celebrities and notables from all walks of life bought the jackets. Lia never brags. In fact it is difficult to get her to take credit, always referring to her creations as “Looms Jackets.” Lia says over the years she hardly altered the original CPO design. “Some had collars, others had more pockets, and when ivory became illegal in this country, the buttons were made of bone.” The jackets with ivory buttons are now considered heirloom treasures, although it’s impossible to tell the difference unless you’re a scrimshander.
The jacket became a collectable and, to this day, some 50 years after its conception, men are still wearing them on cool summer nights. In fact, at cocktail parties, the men often engage in one-upmanship with the number of jackets they own. It is a status symbol, signifying how long the wearer has been coming to the island. This is a statistic that has and always will be significant among islanders.