It would be an understatement to say F. Scott Fitzgerald was an arbiter of the Ivy League Look. A former student at Princeton who, having become absorbed in writing dropped out to write several critically acclaimed books, Fitzgerald helped chronicle the Jazz Age and the clothing styles that came to define it. Though Fitzgerald was never recognized during his lifetime as the breezy writer we praise today, he is rightfully remembered for his contributions to the Ivy canon.
Of his books, The Great Gatsby is indisputably the most well-known, and for good reason is respected among those in the Ivy style community. After all, its plot was centered around the conflict between Old and New money, the infamous pink suit of Jay Gatsby and the establishment-style dress of Tom Buchanan, the “James Gatz” from North Dakota and the Yale educated inheritor from Chicago. But are we overlooking a book of his more essential to the Ivy style canon, This Side of Paradise?
If Fitzgerald wrote among the first pieces of literature to capture Ivy style, This Side of Paradise helped cement it. From the beginning, its main character, Amory Blaine, situates himself between the stories Fitzgerald and Jay Gatsby. Amory attended prestigious prep schools, dropped out of Princeton, and became the “romantic egoist” who was unable to convince the love of his life to marry him after to his inescapable fall into poverty. Fitzgerald, having dropped out of Princeton as well, wrote This Side of Paradise in order to secure himself financially and, ultimately, convince Zelda Sayre to marry him. The book was a success on both fronts.
At the same time, Amory was a figure who resembled the new money culture personified by Jay Gatsby – at one point wearing an overbearing combination consisting of a purple tie, purple pocket square and purple socks, only to be told “You must go to Brooks’ and get some really nice suits.”
Throughout the novel, Amory unsuccessfully attempts to adapt to the culture of Princeton. Yet he is, at the very least, able to grasp the conformity of its Ivy style, pointing to two distinct groups of freshmen students. One group, which Amory considers himself a member of, is described as the “slickers,” characterized as having:
1. Clever sense of social values.
2. Dresses well. Pretends that dress is superficial – but knows that it isn’t.
3. Goes into such activities as he can shine in.
4. Gets into college and is, in a worldly way, successful.
5. Hair slicked.
The other is the dubious prep school “big man,” who Amory contemptuously explains as being:
1. Inclined to stupidity and unconscious of social values.
2. Thinks dress is superficial, and is inclined to be careless about it.
3. Goes out for everything from a sense of duty.
4. Gets to college and has a problematical future. Feels lost without his circle, and always says that school days were happiest, after all. Goes back to school and makes speeches about what St. Regis’s [Amory’s fiction prep school] boys are doing.
5. Hair not slicked.
Towards the end of his freshman year, Amory asks his friend Tom D’Invilliers, both of whom had somewhat adjusted to Princeton’s elite culture, whether the year had been “slick”:
“’No,’ declared Tom emphatically, a new Tom, clothed by Brooks, shod by Franks, ‘I’ve won this game [fitting in at Princeton], but I feel as if I never want to play another. You’re all right – you’re a rubber ball, and somehow it suits you, but I’m sick of adapting myself to the local snobbishness of this corner of the world. I want to go where people aren’t barred because of the color of their neckties and the roll of their coats.’”
For me, This Side of Paradise had a profound effect on how I’ve viewed Ivy style. Though Ivy style is certainly more about clothing, Fitzgerald’s novel chronicles the history, culture, and connotations of class behind it. In a way, he portrays Ivy style as being much more than the clothes of privileged kids: they’re symbolic of an entire American culture.
Perhaps that’s way Ivy style has been so enduring. At Michigan State University, where I attend college, the culture is far removed from the Princeton of Amory Blaine, as most colleges are from the heyday of Ivy style. Yet through books like This Side of Paradise, I’ve always felt a connection between the history of my campus and others such as Princeton, which have been tied together by a once-shared style. Hopefully, students who wear tweed coats, repp ties and penny loafers – not Amory’s infamous combination of purple – are able to keep that connection alive. – JACK M. CARLSON