Boola, Boola: American Internationalism and The Ivy League Revival
By G. Bruce Boyer
At a fund-raising dinner in Miami, back when he was running for the Presidency, George Bush (Senior) told his audience how upset he was by an attack on him in Cuba’s daily newspaper Granma. “They called me a fascist in a democratic suit,” he grumbled. And of course the newspaper had gotten it nicely half-right: Slightly disheveled in a sack-cut suit, and given to colorful Shetland crewneck sweaters, khaki windbreakers and deck shoes, Bush is perhaps the best presidential example we have of American democratic business dress.
And as a graduate of Andover and Yale, why shouldn’t he? For the greater part of this century that dress has meant Ivy League clothes, an Eastern Establishment approach to the wardrobe for democracy’s ruling classes that was purposefully nonchalant and colorful. Easy fitting clothes without too much body consciousness about them. Or fashion, for that matter.
Three-button sack suits — cut purposefully nonchalant without darts and with little padding and interlinings, jackets are meant to hang straight down from the shoulders — and oxford cloth buttondown shirts, tassel loafers, pastel-colored Shetland crewneck sweaters, Harris tweed sports jackets, regimental striped ties, and bright argyle socks have been the mainstays of Ivy League style since the mid-1920s. From the 1930s through the 1960s men’s magazines regularly scouted the Ivy League campuses for the latest styles that would find their way to country club and chic resort. When Esquire listed the most prominent “birthplaces of style” in 1934, both Yale and Princeton were in the top ten.
After World War II it’s understated and comfortably nonchalant style became THE sartorial symbol of America’s managerial elite. Sloan Wilson’s novel The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit popularized the idea that Madison Avenue was Ivy’s true home, but it really was taken up by a wide spectrum of men, from cutting-edge jazz musicians (Miles Davis was resplendent) to politicos (Robert Kennedy, calculatingly tousled). Its exaggerated understatement became the basis of America’s post-war look as we accepted the mantle of international leadership in the West.
Every college and university town had at least one clothing store – the veritable “campus shop” – catering to the sartorial needs of faculty and students. Some of these shops – one thinks of Princeton’s Langrock, the Georgetowne University Shop, Cambridge’s Andover Shop, Julian’s College Shop in Chapel Hill, and J. Press in New Haven – had national followings.
Today all but a handful of these institutions are gone, given over to video shops and pizza restaurants. Unfortunate, because Ivy League styling is making something of a comeback. All the components are certainly there of le style preppy/ lo stile college in Europe, where every clothing manufacturer has come up with his own version of the Brooks Brothers buttondown, with its rolled simulated negligence, and the small-shouldered, closer-fitting, three-button suit is the latest sartoria silhouette. After years of selling us one fashionable trend after another – from highly engineered Milanese power looks, to caricatured versions of British m’lords, the Europeans are bringing us to re-evaluate our home grown classic wardrobe.
The movement towards this peculiarly American genre has been building for some time. If the Eighties was the age of the big-shouldered power look in tailored clothing, the Nineties has moved men towards a more casual, sophisticated elegance. It has been in fact a casual revolution that emphasized comfort, color, and texture over the muscular silhouettes and earth-toned fabrics that the important Italian designers like Armani brought us over decade ago. The formality of the dark worsted power suit has been replaced by the deliberate deshabille melange of checked shirts and cashmere ties with soft flannel suits, of wearing a quilted paddock jacket over a business suit to town, or a navy blazer with a polo shirt, corduroys, and suede tassel loafers.
Ever since tailored clothing has become more and more of an option as business dress, the suit has had to move decidedly in the direction of comfort, meaning softer fabrics and construction: lighter-weight cloths, less padding, less stiffness, less shaping.
All of which is the essence of the Ivy League tailored silhouette. The jacket with its smaller, shirt-sleeve shoulder, straight lines, soft chest construction, and narrower trouser, presents a trimmer, uncluttered, intently understated look, enlivened by bright colors and more tactile fabrics: Pink and yellow oxford cloth shirts, Shetland tweeds in plaids and windowpanes, pastel cashmere socks, brightly striped ties.
And after years of the Europeans influencing us, it now appears to be the other way ‘round. There is a sort of fashion nullification in all this, and while the Euro hyper-designed monstrosities are still seen on the runways, American designers have begun to control the high ground of inspiration for clothing seen on the street. Ralph Lauren is of course the Godfather of Designer Ivy, Tommy Hilfiger a close second.
It’s no coincidence that Brooks Brothers, the name most traditionally synonymous with the Ivy look, has freshened itself up after a decade and more of drifting stagnation and confusion. Nor that the Italian manufacturers have been deserting the their cool, high-tech approach with all it’s over-sized sleekness and sludge-colored crepey fabrics for a calculated casualness of lightweight flannels, cashmeres, and tweeds. The French mimic preppy with a vengeance. In Paris the native Faconnable store and the American Polo shop – across the street from one another – are almost indistinguishable to the untutored eye.
This casualization of the wardrobe has been easy for us to re-absorb, since we invented it. We invented soft and comfortable tailored clothing and sportswear, as well as the idea of mixing town and country, business and sports clothes together.
While sportswear has regrettably devolved into the truly unkempt sweatsuit look – and many people unfortunately look at their least athletic while wearing pseudo-athletic gear – at its most unseemly in supermarkets and restaurants, business wear has profited. Tailored clothing is softer and more comfortable than ever. Color and texture are back. It’s a new internationalism, but it’s got a particularly American flavor.