As Ivy Style’s Elegance Week continues, assistant editor Christopher Sharp presents this homage to the man who wrote the book on the subject.
* * *
I can still see myself sheepishly sliding a black paperback, face down, across the college bookstore counter like a schoolboy buying a nudie magazine. The book was Bruce Boyer’s “Elegance.”
I am not sure if my discomfort purchasing the book was because at that time people did not obsessively talk about clothing, or if I thought in my youthful preciousness I should have already been a grandmaster. I certainly wasn’t, but I wanted to remedy that.
I had been surreptitiously studying fashion. There were old Hollywood movies and lesser-known charming British films that that had interchangeable characters who all wore tweed and effortlessly smoked pipes. They all knew something I did not, but what? For clues I mined the New York Time fashion supplements, GQ and Esquire. I read Molloy’s “Dress for Success,” which was like an auto mechanics manual for business dress of the ’70s. I scrupulously took stock of those around me. But something was amiss: there had to be good clothes somewhere in this world, a way to recognize them and a way to wear them with aplomb.
Then came the black book. For years I would tell anyone who would listen that Boyer’s book was the key. Some have described it like having someone introduce you their tailor. In Boyer’s book I found a narrator’s voice like a great uncle, knowledgeable about all things sartorial. The essays were mini masterpieces of storytelling. It wasn’t “wear this, don’t wear that,” but “here are some staples that have stood the test of time, here is the backstory, and these are some of the establishments you can trust.”
I should add that I also have a personal fondness for Mr. Boyer, because he was very kind to me when I was starting off. In the age before the Internet, he actually answered my letters. In the time before eBay, he recommended sources and even talked me off the ledge when heavyweight Viyella disappeared from the market.
I have read “Elegance” so many times there is an indelible yellow thumb print were I have turned the pages thousands of times. Today I no longer read the book as a novice, but as a seasoned fellow traveler. The nostalgic me wishes I better knew the world he wrote about then. I would have loved to have looked at the shirting samples with Fred Calcagno, master cutter at Pec & Co., or to see the glorious tweed bolts at Langrock. But because of Boyer’s initial influence, I have been fortunate to meet Richard Press, Paul Winston and George Graham.
I think I sometimes channel Boyer when I write a piece for Ivy Style. I find myself using a word or two he would use, like “ersatz” or “deus ex machina.” But in truth, like another one of my mentors, Richard Merkin, Boyer helped me find my voice, whether it’s written on the page or expressed in something more subliminally sublime, like a perfectly chosen pocket square.
In the foreword of “Elegance,” Boyer writes, “Those whose appearances we admire wear their clothes with a certain sense of comfort and propriety of style we often call elegance.” Mr. Boyer is elegant, but am I elegant? There is the rub. My epiphany is this: elegant is a word like hero, and no man should elect himself. It is for others to bestow the honor, and those chosen must humbly accept it. Shall we say with elegance? — CHRISTOPHER SHARP
Today is the 75th birthday of Ralph Lauren, menswear’s great editor, as Bruce Boyer likes to call him. In his honor, here’s a tight little edit of some of his looks and ventures over the years. — CC (Continue)
Yesterday I popped into Paul Winston‘s place and immediately noticed something different. Paul was wearing a jacket. In all the times I’ve visited him, it’s either been balmy weather or the heater’s been cranked up. But yesterday was cool and crisp outside with no climate-controlling inside, and Paul confessed to feeling a bit chilly.
I immediately took out my iPhone and snapped a few shots, only to discover when I got home that they were all a blurry, disappointing mess. I’ll never again count on a telephone to do the job of a camera. I’ve tinkered with the files in iPhoto in the vain effort of amelioration, but the shot above doesn’t do justice to the great full-body I took that unfortunately l00ks like Paul is sitting across from you at a three-martini lunch.
The addition of the tweed jacket made Paul the epitome of the Old Money Look, and all you young fogeys should immediately copy this outfit for an air of degagé sophistication. The sportcoat is 35 years old and made by his family brand Chipp. It’s three-button and undarted, but with shaping at the waist — one of the things that distinguished Chipp from Brooks and Press, Paul pointed out. His emblematic tie depicts vintage fire trucks.
But my favorite part of the outfit is the contrast between the frayed shirt cuffs and the collar pin, a masterpiece of Advanced Style.
Below the waist the tour-de-force of nonchalance is complete: grey trousers, white athletic socks, and half-destroyed camp moccasins. I want to be old enough to be this cool. — CC (Continue)
The name James M. Brown III may not be familiar to you, but every trad web surfer knows his face, the face of an undergraduate of 60 years ago. Brown is pictured above in a shot from LIFE Magazine’s 1954 article “The Ivy Look Heads Across US,” which was much seen when the LIFE archives were put on the web several years ago.
James Brown may have been destined to be the poster boy for J. Press and the new collegiate look that would sweep America in 1954. He was born in New Rochelle, New York, and raised in Mamaroneck and Darien, Connecticut. Brown was in the Kent school class of 1952. While at Kent he played football and hockey and rowed crew. Brown was in the Yale Class of 1956, where he was a member of Fence and Haunt (America’s oldest drinking club). He majored in American Studies and minored in visiting the prominent girl’s schools.
Ivy Style caught up with Brown via his yacht club. The octogenarian, who still possesses a warm smile and bright eyes, was interested in revisiting the article again and graciously shared with us his memories of how he became the face of Ivy (in profile, at least).
It was the fall of 1954 when a simple errand put him on a collision course with Ivy style history. “J. Press, or J. Squeeze as we called it, was the New Haven substitute for Brooks Brothers,” says Brown. “Best I can remember was that I had walked in to check on tails they were making for me.” When Brown entered the shop he was initially unaware that LIFE was shooting the New Haven portion of the article. “Somebody asked if I would change and then come back for some pictures. My residential College, Davenport, was next to J. Press, so it was easy.”
The photographer was Nina Leen, a Russian-born, self-taught vagabond who emigrated from Germany in 1939. She became one of LIFE’s first female photographers with more than 50 covers to her credit. Her photograph shows Brown being fitted for a sportcoat by a veteran J. Press salesman Herman Racow. This was a little bit of artistic license, Brown explains: “My salesman was George Feen, a short fellow, and you stuck with one salesman. George was the go-t0 guy for fixing parking tickets.”
Many Ivy devotees have mooned over the jacket he is wearing in the photo. “I don’t think I bought that jacket,” Brown recalls. “As I remember, they wanted to feature it and it fit.”
The tailcoat he’d commissioned was another matter. It saw plenty of action during the debutante season. “There were a lot of great coming-out parties with lots of alcohol, legal then,” he recalls. “I remember rolling down the hill of John Nicholas Brown’s daughter’s coming-out in those tails, to the breakfast tent at 2 AM. That house is now Harbour Court, the New York Yacht club station in Newport.”
Being featured in LIFE was a footnote in what has been a full life. After college, Brown served two years as an officer in the navy before heading to Wall Street. “The floor was very white shoe/old school tie while I was there. There were some incredibly unsharp members, sons of partners and guys who had the money to buy a seat. Going rate was $165K at the time. I have to admit, many of the clerks I worked with were sharper than I. Eventually firms got smart and bought seats for many clerks. They made great brokers.” Brown spent 11 years as a member of the New York Stock Exchange and a partner at Goodbody and Co. “It was a good life and I was lucky for the opportunity,” he says. “I hung in there until things got untenable.”
As far as hobbies go, Brown’s first love was actually being on the other side of the camera. “My grandfather introduced me to photography when I was 12. His dark room, where I learned, was featured in the 1928 Leica manual. While in the navy I won a couple of international awards for my photos.” Brown eventually became a commercial photographer. “I shot everything from fashion to candy,” he says. “I had a natural bent for marine photography after a lifelong love affair with boats.” That’s a bit of an understatement, considering Brown has captained or crewed in most of the major Eastern Seaboard races over the years. “What I loved about commercial photography was the challenge of lighting and solving problems,” he continues, “even to the extent of making some of my own gear. There was no Photoshop back then. It was film and you had to get it right the first time.”
Now happily retired in Florida, Brown still enjoys photography and sailing. — CHRISTOPHER SHARP
Like most retailers, Brooks Brothers is having a Labor Day Weekend sale. It’s a great time to take advantage of generous discounts, including on tan suits, which are currently half off.
The president was just seen heading over to stock up on them:
(Note: this is my second time posting on the prez this week. I’m starting to feel like a political blogger.) — CC
It helps to be old enough to look dignified.
A couple days ago I visited the Finnish menswear site Keikari and spied a quote from Hugh Hefner that was right up our alley — or at least mine:
I like jazz, foreign films, Ivy League clothes, gin and tonic and pretty girls — the same sort of things Playboy readers like.
I posted it on Twitter, where it got a dozen or so favorites and retweets, so I thought I’d share it here. The quote is from 1957, which got me wondering what Hef looked like at the time. A quick Google search turned up the image above.
We’ve featured the legendary sybarite a few times before, including this post, in which he talks about Ivy clothes in 1960, plus this one from approximately the same year. Finally there’s our post “Pipes And Cardigans Get The Chicks,” in which Hef is described as looking “like a college senior on his way to class.” — CC
Photo via New York Times.