After a spell of breaking-news interruptions, we’re finally returning to the topic of rules when it comes to dressing. It all started, you may recall, with a Japanese graphic that included the word “rules” along with “snob.” This got me free-associating about a certain type of fusty clotheshorse who takes pride not in anything original or unique about the way he dresses, but in his ability to follow rules with scrupulous assiduity.
I may have been overreacting. Like many who weren’t raised in a sartorially advanced household or community, I learned a lot from Alan Flusser’s books, first getting “Clothes And The Man” when I was about 19. There’s much wisdom in what it teaches, and the old cliché about needing to know the rules before you can break them became a hackneyed old phrase for a reason: it’s pretty damn true.
Before Flusser there were plenty of other style writers eager to help men dress better. One of them was syndicated men’s fashion writer Bert Bacharach, who in 1955 published “Right Dress.” As you’d expect from a book aimed at the mass market, it presents pragmatic reasons for dressing better, such as having a better chance of winning love and money, the two most important things in life. Bacharach isn’t exactly interested in encouraging personal style as an existential statement. It’s practical advice for the practical, and the book’s subtitle is “Success Through Better Grooming.”
Most of the book’s advice is either common sense, banal, or simply archaic. But “Right Dress” provided some period insight for our “rise and fall” essay, and it’s worth repeating those passages here, as well as some others that pertain to the Ivy League Look, which was just entering the national spotlight at the time of the book’s publication.
As you can see, the alpha wooer in the above image is wearing a three-button suit, buttondown shirt and rep tie. But don’t be fooled that Bacharach is recommending the Ivy League Look to his Main Street reader. In fact, he thinks natural-shouldered jackets make you look like a wimp. Bacharach writes:
The well-dressed man avoids extremes in clothing models. He passes up the so-called Ivy League type which makes him look emaciated and underfed. He shuns the overly padded and overly squared shoulders which make him look like a muscle-bound wrestler. He picks, instead, a model that is midway between the two, with body lines and slight shoulder padding which flatters the figure.
The other night I was browsing the streaming Netflix options and ended up watching “Monkey Business,” the 1952 screwball comedy with Cary Grant and Marilyn Monroe. I hadn’t seen the movie since starting this website, and a very interesting scene caught my attention.
Grant plays a chemist who thinks he’s discovered a youth serum (which, this being a screwball comedy, was in fact randomly created by a chimpanzee). Suddenly Grant, who was 48 at the time, starts acting years younger. In fact, about two-and-a-half decades younger.
Under the serum’s influence, Grant buys a convertible sports car and takes Monroe roller skating. He also makes a few changes to his appearance. He gets a haircut noticeably shorter than what he’d previously been sporting (might we call it a Princeton haircut?), and goes to a clothing store where he selects a bold plaid jacket. When he asks if there are matching trousers, the elderly salesman informs him that such jackets are typically worn with grey flannels. Grant then picks out a pair of argyle socks.
When the serum wears off and Grant comes to his middle-aged senses, he says he was “acting like a college boy.”
The primary theme of the “rise and fall” essay we posted at the beginning of the year is that the Ivy League Look is much more than a mere tailoring style consisting of natural shoulders and an undarted chest. The sack silhouette is merely the blueprint for the look, which owes more to a certain approach towards dressing — the acceptance of certain items and the rejection of others, the importance of being casual — so much of which was codified by college men of the interwar years.
The transformation of Cary Grant’s character from mild-mannered middle-aged scientist to rowdy college boy is not a radical one, but merely a matter of degree. His haircut is shorter but still conventional. We also get the sense that his jacket is from a reputable maker, even though it is bolder in pattern than the suit he was previously wearing. It’s also more casual, consisting of sportcoat and trousers. His argyle socks are also more casual and youthful than his sober business hose.
Brooks Brothers, J. Press, and all the other Ivy League clothiers catered both to men and their sons. It was young men who drove fashion, however, albeit within the confines of correct Eastern Establishment dress. With its emphasis on casualness under the constant shadow of recreation and sporting activities, the WASPy way of dressing confers dignity upon young men and youth upon older men.
And decades after the end of the heyday, it’s clear that the youthful approach won out. The sartorial legacy of the Ivy League Look is not grey sack suits, but what was once a college-boy approach to dressing: tweed jackets, grey flannels, argyle socks and loafers.
The quest for the fountain of youth goes back for centuries, but metaphorically Grant’s character shows us that all we need to do to shed the probity of middle age is cut our hair short and dress a bit more audaciously. Well, that and drive Marily Monroe around in a sports car. — CHRISTIAN CHENSVOLD
Last week Ivy-Style.com presented Julien Dedman’s 1954 Playboy article on Brooks Brothers. In this post, Rebecca C. Tuite, whose book on Seven Sisters style is forthcoming, examines the author’s parody of life at Yale.
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“Yale men everywhere join in one brotherhood at eventide to remember the golden days of yesteryear and the great gothic towers of this university whose flying buttresses and grinning gargoyles symbolize a Yale Spirit that will not die – not even if you beat it with a stick,” wrote Julien Dedman (Yale Class of 1948) in the introduction to his 1950 compendium of cartoons, “Boola Boola! A Satirical Peek at Yale, Its Foundations and Other Unmentionables.”
Perhaps it’s just as well that the Yale spirit was so unshakable, as Dedman took aim at everything from boring Whiffenpoof performances to Burberry sportcoats, dastardly Dostoevsky assignments to disappointing dates with Vassar girls in his lampoon of life at Yale in the 1950s. Blending original caricatures and reprints from Dedman’s work at the Yale Record, “Boola Boola!” is not only an amusing snapshot of Yale campus life over 60 years ago, but an homage to the work of America’s oldest college humor and cartoon publications, the Yale Record.
In our last post we mentioned a 1954 LIFE Magazine article entitled “The Ivy Look Heads Across US.” It’s been referenced several times here, including in a few of Richard Press’ columns, as J. Press was largely featured in the article.
But we’ve never actually presented it here and new readers may not be familiar with it. We’ll follow up the presentation of it below with Richard’s next column, in which he’ll recount his 15 minutes of fame when the LIFE issue came out and he was a wee lad in prep school. Trust me, it’s one of his most amusing columns to date.
Following that, Rebecca Tuite will examine “Boola Boola,” the 1958 book about life at Yale by Julien Dedman, author of the Playboy article on Brooks Brothers featured in our last post.
I can think of a couple of other things that would be apropros to this series as well, so stay tuned for a nice run of interelated historical posts.
Now back to LIFE. The story ran in the November 22 edition of the weekly magazine, the entire contents of which are viewable here via Google Books.
Here are highlights from the text:
The “Ivy League look” identified with determinedly inconspicuous New England males for over 50 years and with Madison Avenue advertising men for the past 10, has now got out of eastern hands and is making its way across the country.
It has also got away from upper-bracket tailors and into the hands of cut-rate clothiers like S. Klein, whose advertisement gives as complete and compact a definition of the look as has ever been written. The popularity of the natural-looking suit has widened quickly in the last two years as men became dissatisfied with pale bulky suits and flashy ties left over from their postwar splurge.
Although the authentic Madison Avenue uniform perpetuated by Brooks Brothers and campus-originated shops like J. Press has nonexistent shoulders and fits so snugly that it looks a size too small, facsimiles from volume clothing manufacturers and tailors are less severe in cut. To reaffirm their individualism beleaguered Ivy Leaguers are considering adding a fourth button to their jackets or resorting to a radical new silhouette.
And on the second page:
A New Haven institution which rivals Yale in some well-tailored hearts is J. Press, established in 1902 and now carried on by the founder’s two sons. Its slope-shouldered product, which the Press boys consider the only acceptable dress for a normal Yale man, has scarcely changed over the years.
Press has branch stores in New York and in Cambridge and maintains traveling representatives to replenish the wardrobes of scattered alumni customers. Sometimes regarded as more of a club than a clothes shop, J. Press is delighted rather than dismayed that its look is now capturing the country.
In closing, the other day another reference to 1954 came to me: That’s the year that Charlie Davidson recalls dressing Miles Davis, which he told me in the “Ivy League Jazz” story for Ralph Lauren that inspired me to create this site. It’s an anecdotal reference, to be sure, but I think we have a solid case for the bookends of the Ivy League Look’s broad popularity: 1954-1967.
Up next, Richard Press. — CHRISTIAN CHENSVOLD
Recently on Ivy Style’s Facebook page a reader posted an article by Julien Dedman entitled “That Brooks Brothers Look.” A quick investigation revealed that the article comes from the February, 1954 issue of Playboy, and that Dedman had graduated from Yale in 1948.
I’ve argued several times for the year 1967 as an end of the heyday, and I think we may now have a strong candidate for the beginning. Nineteen-fifty-four is the same year LIFE Magazine published its “Ivy Look Heads Across US” story. The Ivy League Look must have been new enough to warrant these mass media stories, but not popular enough to feel like old news.
The article includes the above illustration from Shepherd Mead’s book “How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying,” which Playboy had modified to show that all the items should be sourced at Brooks Brothers. Scans of the full article, which is a bit difficult to read, can be seen on our Facebook page (scroll down to the entry from July 13). (Continue)