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Take Ivy: Last Gasp of the Ivy League Look

Mon 12 Jul 2010 - Filed under: 1960s,Top Drawer — Christian
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When powerHouse Books releases the first English-language edition of “Take Ivy” on August 31, eager readers will finally get a chance to see its enchantingly atmospheric photos as they were meant to be seen: within the hardbound covers of a picture book. Though widely disseminated on the Internet, scanned photos seen on a computer screen just can’t evoke the sense of time and place the same as ones printed on paper and held in the hand.

Gazing at these idyllic scenes of campus quads, where groups of stylish young men live out the best years of their lives in tranquil isolation, cut off from the pressures of work and family that await them, it’s easy to feel drawn into some kind of halcyon golden age far removed from contemporary college life.

And this is what makes “Take Ivy,” created by photographer Teruyoshi Hayashida and three writers, such a special book. For in fact what it depicts is not a golden age at all, but the last rays of twilight on a declining silver age.

Although Hayashida and his team could not have known it, they were preparing the obituary for a moribund celebrity whose demise is imminent. “Take Ivy” chronicles the beginning of the end of the Ivy League Look, the final group of classmen for whom oxford shirts and penny loafers were a uniform, and the last gasp of a sartorial tradition that had slowly germinated, codified, and risen to popularity over the course of 40 years.

Midway through “Take Ivy” is a photo of a freshman wearing a sweater emblazoned with the expected year of his graduation: 1968. He could serve as a single representative of his generation at this time of unprecedented change. Clean cut and “collegiate” (how archaic that word sounds!), when he receives his diploma, he will probably look very different. And a decade later, the staples of his wardrobe — natural-shouldered sack jackets, oxford-cloth button-downs, Weejuns, discreet rep ties — would become symbols of stodginess and elitism in a new age of free-thinking egalitarianism.

Released in September of 1965 and apparently shot in spring of the same year, “Take Ivy” is a chronicle of the penultimate year of the heyday of the Ivy League Look. Only one year remained in which this style would still be considered smart by the majority of students. When the fall semester of 1967 began, following the torrid Summer of Love, America would begin to change with head-spinning rapidity, and the Ivy League Look would tumble into sudden free fall like a sartorial albatross hurled from the top of Nassau Hall.

In his novel “The Final Club,” Princeton alum Geoffrey Wolff tersely summarizes the rapid fall of the Ivy League Look. Referring to the Ivy Club, Princeton’s most exclusive eating club, he writes:

Lining the second-floor hall were group portraits of Ivy members, and Nathaniel paused to examine them. Till 1967 the club sections were photographed indoors, in the billiard room; dress was uniform — dark suits, white shirts, Ivy ties. In 1967 a white suit was added here, an open collar there. In 1968 the insolent, smirking group moved outside, and was tricked out in zippered paramilitary kit, paratroop boots, tie-dye shirts, shoulder-length locks, and not a necktie in view.

The photos in “Take Ivy” show the Ivy League Look as a house of cards trembling in the winds of change. The students pictured are more stylish than those of today, but they are also less formal than those who had come before. “Take Ivy” shows more tees than ties, more sweatshirts than Shetlands. While the clothing items themselves are purebred Ivy, the students’ lack of formality, elucidated in the text, is the first step in the gradual casualization of the college wardrobe, a process that has reached its logical conclusion in the flip-flops and pajama bottoms on today’s campuses.

If “Take Ivy” were a glass whose contents were the Ivy League Look, it would be both half empty and half full. Much is gone, but much remains (though what remains won’t be there for long). With their seemingly effortless nonchalance, the students teeter on the edge of a fence, with the past on one side and the future on the other, simultaneously upholding tradition and dismantling it. And it’s for this reason that “Take Ivy” is bittersweet on the eyes.

A few years later, in jeans and sideburns, after Vietnam War protests, public-figure assassinations, and a zeitgeist demanding a complete revaluation of all values, these students would have looked back on their college years the same way we look at “Take Ivy” nearly half a century later: as a simpler time forever gone. — CHRISTIAN CHENSVOLD

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Preppy Evangelist: The Lisa Birnbach Interview

Thu 29 Apr 2010 - Filed under: 1980s,1990-present,Top Drawer — Christian
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Six months ago Lisa Birnbach, author of the 1980 bestseller “The Official Preppy Handbook,” agreed to do a Q&A interview with Ivy-Style. Shortly after settling in New York, I contacted Birnbach, who said she was too busy to talk as she was finishing a sequel.

Then, when word recently leaked out about the forthcoming tome (“True Prep,” set for September release), it set off such a media frenzy that Birnbach’s publisher called a moratorium on publicity until the book hits shelves.

But Birnbach, in a beau geste that is very preppy, graciously honored her promise to Ivy-Style.

Below is the last you’ll hear from her until the fall, when I suspect she’ll again become a very public figure proselytizing in the name of prep.

But while the first book was a reveal of a largely unseen world of Northeastern upper-middleness, “True Prep” takes a more democratic approach, Birnbach says, and aims to preach a gospel of civility and good manners in a crass and vulgar age. — CHRISTIAN CHENSVOLD

* * *

IS: How did the new book come about?

LB: It came about when I met Chip Kidd. In the back of my mind there was always the possibility that I would revisit the “Preppy Handbook.” But it’s a very self-contained manual that didn’t really require updating, particularly as we said that nothing changes.

Chip came up in Facebook as a possible new friend, and I thought, “Oh, there’s that talented designer. I wonder if he’ll accept me?” Well I got an email back from him saying, “Is this really Lisa Birnbach? I’ve always wanted to meet you.” So we had lunch last May, and in the third hour he started to tell me how much online life there is dedicated to or inspired by the “Preppy Handbook,” none of which I was aware of. Somehow we started talking about a new book together, and here we are.

IS: How would you summarize what has happened to prepdom in the last 30 years?

LB: Polar fleece. Thirty years ago, not only did I never wear synthetics, I traveled to all 50 states saying, “No unnatural fiber has ever touched my body.” Now I have children that have not known a world in which there was anything but fleece. They wear recycled water bottles all day. And I embrace this synthetic, and like it or not it’s an accepted part of our sartorial vocabulary.

But the reason for this book is that the world has changed more profoundly than we could have thought 30 years ago. The group of people calling themselves preppies, or who want to be preppies, or who like preppies, are certainly more inclusive and less exclusive. People thought I was brilliant 30 years ago because the “Preppy Handbook” kind of predicted conservative backlash. Well I don’t think I deserve credit for predicting that, but whatever gift of intuition I may have, I never could have predicted portable telephones, the Internet, the loss of privacy, and the way people interact.

IS: The ‘80s are considered a pretty preppy, clean-cut and Republican decade, especially compared to the ‘70s and ‘90s. How much of what came after the OPH do you think you influenced? A few years later Hollywood makes the movie “Making the Grade,” Ralph Lauren grows his empire — to what degree do you think you set the zeitgeist into motion?

LB: I really don’t know. That’s a great question. I’m thinking… the silence you hear is my brain trying to work. (Continue)

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Bohemian in a Sack Suit: The 1959 Brooks Brothers Novel

Wed 10 Mar 2010 - Filed under: 1950s,Lit,Top Drawer — Christian
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For Ivy-Style’s 200th post, I thought I’d break out something special I’ve been sitting on for awhile.

Last year, between Los Angeles and New York, I spent six months in my old environs of the Bay Area, including five weeks staying with a former flame (now married to a Hungarian who lost his baronetcy in the revolution), in Oakland on Lake Merritt.

Out for a stroll one day, I popped into Walden Pond Books, one of those massive used bookstores you can get lost in for hours, and of which so few remain today. In the back were several tables loaded with paperbacks from the ’50s, a mixture of science fiction and detective dime novels and reprints of stuff like DH Lawrence and Ovid’s “Art of Love” with lurid covers.

Of these hundreds of books stacked pell-mell, one caught my eye: a 1959 novel called “Try For Elegance” by David Loovis. The characters were described as “white-collar Beats” and included Teena, “a commuter between Park Avenue and Greenwich Village,” and Paul, “a bohemian in a Brooks Brothers suit.”

I had a feeling I’d stumbled across a real lost artifact, and rushed home with the three-dollar book to do some googling.

I found an article in The New Yorker that profiled Loovis and his debut novel. Turns out the author was an Ivy Leaguer who worked at Brooks Brothers’ Madison Avenue flagship, and “Try For Elegance” was largely based on his experience there.

I can’t describe the serotonin-rush of serendipity that flushed over me because of this fortuitous find. In my six years of style blogging, this was without a doubt the coolest find. Who else would have noticed this book and been in the position to appreciate it, put it in context, and share it with an interested readership? If fate has a hand in blogging — if fate has a hand in anything — this was it.

As for the novel, its quality is about what you’d expect from an author you’ve never heard of who’s prone to describing the weather as “warmish,” “bluish” or “fallish.” But for our purposes here, “Try For Elegance” is a fascinating document for its dramatization of what it was like at Brooks Brothers (which is never mentioned by name) during its heyday.

Like his creator, Paul Dunar is the graduate of “a small Ivy League college.” He is a 29-year-old aspiring painter who’s been working at the store for a year, and who falls for a 19-year-old spoiled rich girl from the Midwest. Paul has a taste for good clothes, is conscious of being well dressed, and delights in the pleasure of being well turned out:

The silk jacket beneath his raincoat felt good, his trousers were perfectly pressed and his linen could not have been whiter. He too liked a handkerchief in his suit coat top pocket and as his raincoat fell open, he saw that it was thrust in at a casual and jaunty angle.

Here’s the first description of the store, which ends on a killer line:

It was with great pride that the Madison Avenue store proclaimed its one hundred and thirty years of continuous service; indeed, only two things appeared on its label: the store name and the year of its establishment. It catered in men’s furnishings and clothing to what is know as the perennial taste; suits designed with a narrow shoulder, made of subdued colored materials woven in England, and cut by the store’s own tailors; furnishings distinguished by flair without ostentation. In its long history, the store numbered among its customers American presidents and European kings, as well as all the people alive in the world during the last century and one-third who agreed that this was the style that mattered.

Here’s a sense of what customer service was like 50 years ago:

Of the twenty-six salesmen on the main floor of the Madison Avenue store, fourteen had worked there over ten years, six were members of the Quarter Century Club, and one man had actually been in the employ of the company for fifty-one years.

The latter gent was “more than an old salesman. To the well-bred of the era, he was a landmark, a reminder of youth and a happy, stable world.”

Quite a contrast to Paul’s floor manager, Mr. Pardee, who wears a gaudy watch and had “come in his teens from a tiny town in one of the far midwestern states.” Here’s Mr. Pardee:

He detested to the point of vehemence the term “Ivy League” although the store was generally considered as the long-time stronghold of that type of apparel. Dunar suspected Pardee’s lack of college background and a secret envy of the well-fed, rangy type of boy and man who mostly patronized the store had something to do with it.

Loovis devotes an entire chapter to dramatizing the feeding frenzy during one of the store’s semi-annual sales, during which Paul is poised to make enough money to move into a new apartment:

Even from a distance of three blocks, Dunar could see that a number of people had gathered and were waiting outside the Madison Avenue store…

He noticed the jam of people in front of the elevators. It was as if the cars were lifeboats, and it was necessary to get into one. But it was not often that the store offered reductions, in almost all its departments. And it was not too much to say that customer response to these private sales, unadvertised in the papers (notices through the mail only), was fanatic.

The store feeds the salesmen milk and sandwiches during the day to keep up their stamina, and at the end of the grueling day, during which the elderly salesman had collapsed from exhaustion, Dunar faces two and a half hours of writing up his sales book.

Here’s what The New Yorker had to say in its profile of July 11, 1959, after dispatching a writer to track down Loovis at Brooks:

We found him deep in wash-and-wear suits, on the second floor, and begged the privilege of an interview. Slender, dark-haired, and dapper, he said he’d be glad to give us a word or two between customers. To break the ice we remarked that he was the best-dressed author we’d encountered in many years.

Loovis later tells the magazine:

“The ‘elegance’ of the title doesn’t refer solely to physical surroundings, by the way. An elegant person is a gentleman, one who knows how to handle himself. He cares for his life, and intends to live it in association with others who care and with things that are beautiful and fine. In my novel, I deal sympathetically with a middle-class hero who wishes to play the game but is ill-equipped to do so.”

You’ll dig the vintage Brooks lingo here:

Mr. Loovis was called away to wait on somebody, and upon returning he told us that Brooks Brothers salesmen take customers in rotation and that, by bad luck, the customer who just had fallen to him had proved an egg, which is a BB term for a customer who takes a lot of time and then doesn’t buy anything. The opposite of an egg, Mr. Loovis told us, is a wrapup — a customer who knows exactly what he’s after and wastes no time getting it — while a sea bass is a big buyer, and a huckleberry is a pleasant fellow who moseys around the store for an hour or so, making no trouble, and eventually buys a necktie or some other small article.

Loovis closes by telling the New Yorker:

“The job gives me a good income and I believe in what I’m selling; there’s an undeniable integrity, a psychological validity, here at Brooks that I mightn’t find anywhere else.”

— CHRISTIAN CHENSVOLD

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Damned Dapper: The Origins of the Go-To-Hell Look

Tue 16 Feb 2010 - Filed under: Clothes,Top Drawer — Christian
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The following article is actually the first one The Rake assigned me, but it was held for several issues while they waited for new spring clothes to photograph.

It’s out now in the current issue, and was great fun to research, as I got to talk not only to Bruce Boyer and Paul Winston, who’ve since become friends and colleagues, but also Alan Flusser, Denis Black, Ethan Huber and Lisa Birnbach.

The complete text is below, or you can click here for a PDF with the accompanying fashion shoot.

* * *

Damned Dapper: The origins, philosophy and specifics of the “go-to-hell” aesthetic — the conservative WASP’s colorful, critter-filled creative outlet
By Christian Chensvold
The Rake, Issue 8

Thomas Watson Jr. was president of IBM during the years when it was a punchline for sartorial conformity. Throughout the ’50s and ’60s, gray suits for employees were standard, white shirts required.

It may seem an odd non sequitur, then, that Watson once ordered a custom sport coat whimsically embroidered with dozens of little skiers, to wear during cocktail hour at the lodge after a long day on the slopes.

Since the time of Martin Luther, the Protestant nations of the Western world have been known for a sober palette compared to the scarlet and purple of their Catholic neighbors. Perhaps this repressed sense of color ironically accounts for the riotous display of blinding pastels that characterize the preppy look of the WASP, or White Anglo Saxon Protestant, a term popularized in 1964 by sociologist E. Digby Baltzell to describe the small caste of elites that ran American business and politics.

While WASPs have largely lost their power stranglehold on American society, their influence on the world of fashion is stronger than ever. And despite their notorious character flaws (bigotry, emotional impotence, fondness for peanut butter), they’ve long led America with sterling examples of virtue and self-sacrifice.

And for that they have as good a chance for getting into heaven as anybody else — unless, of course, St. Peter guards the “pearly gates” like a nightclub bouncer enforcing a dress code. In that case, WASPs will surely have their trousers damned to the netherworld.

GOING TO HELL

Tom Wolfe may seem an odd springboard for a story about color. But while the dandy author’s wardrobe may be all white, his prose is pure purple. He’s also a keen sartorial observer, and in 1976, in an article for Esquire entitled “Mauve Gloves & Madmen, Clutter & Vine,” Wolfe uses the catchy phrase “go to hell” to describe the garish pants worn by elite Bostonians vacationing on the island retreat of Martha’s Vineyard. The phrase continues to enjoy limited usage, and the passage that birthed it is worth quoting in full:

[Bostonians on Martha's Vineyard] had on their own tribal colors. The jackets were mostly navy blazers, and the ties were mostly striped ties or ties with little jacquard emblems on them, but the pants had a go-to-hell air: checks and plaids of the loudest possible sort, madras plaids, yellow-on-orange windowpane checks, crazy-quilt plaids, giant houndstooth checks, or else they were a solid airmail red or taxi yellow or some other implausible go-to-hell color. They finished that off with loafers and white crew socks or no socks at all. The pants were their note of Haitian abandon… at the same time the jackets and ties showed they had not forgotten for a moment where the power came from. (Continue)

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The Miyuki-zoku: Japan’s First Ivy Rebels

Tue 24 Nov 2009 - Filed under: 1960s,Clothes,Top Drawer — Christian
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The first Japanese to adopt elements of the Ivy League Look were a youth tribe called the Miyuki-zoku, who suddenly appeared in the summer of 1964. The group’s name came from their storefront loitering on Miyuki Street in the upscale Ginza shopping neighborhood (the suffix “zoku” means subculture or social group). The Miyuki-zoku were mostly in their late teens, a mix of guys and girls, likely numbering around 700 at the trend’s peak. Since they were students, they would arrive in Ginza wearing school uniforms and have to change in to their trendy duds in cramped café bathrooms.

And what duds they were. The Miyuki-zoku were devotees of classic American collegiate style. The uniform was button-down oxford cloth shirts, madras plaid, high-water trousers in khaki and white, penny loafers, and three-button suit jackets. Everything was extremely slim. The guys wore their hair in an exact seven-three part, which was new for Japan. They were also famous for carrying around their school uniforms inside of rolled-up brown paper grocery bags.

What lead to the sudden arrival of the Miyuki-zoku? Although Japanese teens had been looking to America since 1945 for style inspiration, these particular youth were not copying Princeton or Columbia students directly. In fact, Japanese kids at this time rarely got a chance to see Americans other than the ever-present US soldiers.

The Miyuki-zoku had found the Ivy look through a new magazine called Heibon Punch. The periodical was targeted to Japan’s growing number of wealthy urban youth, and part of its editorial mission was to tell kids how to dress. The editors advocated the Ivy League Look, which at the time was basically only available in the form of domestic brand VAN. Kensuke Ishizu of VAN had discovered the look in the 1950s and pushed it as an alternative to the slightly thuggish big-shouldered, high-waisted, mismatched jacket-and-pants look that dominated Japanese men’s style throughout the 1950s. As an imported look, Ivy League fashion felt cutting-edge and sophisticated to Tokyo teens, and this fit perfectly with Heibon Punch‘s mission of giving Baby Boomers a style of their own.

When the magazine arrived in the spring 1964, readers all went out and became Ivy adherents. Parents and authorities, however, were hardly thrilled with a youth tribe of American style enthusiasts. The first strike against the Miyuki-zoku is that the guys — gasp! — would blow dry their hair. This was seen as a patently feminine thing to do.

More critically, the Miyuki-zoku picked the wrong summer to hang out in Ginza. Japan was preparing for the 1964 Olympics, which would commence in October. Tokyo was in the process of removing every last eyesore — wooden garbage cans, street trolleys, the homeless — anything that would possibly be offending to foreign visitors. The Olympics was not just a sports event, but would be Japan’s return into the global community after its ignoble defeat of World War II, and nothing could go wrong.

So authorities lay awake at night with the fear that foreigners would come to Japan and see kids in tight high-water pants hanging out in front of prestigious Ginza stores. Neighborhood leaders desperately wanted to eradicate the Miyuki-zoku before October, so they went to Ishizu of VAN and asked him to intervene. VAN organized a “Big Ivy Style Meet-up” at Yamaha Hall, and cops helped put 200 posters across Ginza to make sure the Miyuki-zoku showed up. Anyone who came to the event got a free VAN bag — which was the bag for storing your normal clothing during loitering hours. They expected 300 kids, but 2,000 showed up. Ishizu gave the keynote address, where he told everyone to knock it off with the lounging in Ginza. Most acquiesced, but not all.

So on September 19, 1964, a huge police force stormed Ginza and hauled off 200 kids in madras plaid and penny loafers. Eighty-five were processed at nearby Tsukiji jail. The kids got the message and never came back, and that was the end of the Miyuki-zoku.

Starting in 1945, Japanese authorities generally viewed all Western youth fashion as a delinquent subculture. Despite looking relatively conservative in style compared to the other biker gangs and greasy-haired rebels, the Miyuki-zoku were still caught up in this delinquent narrative. In fact, they were actually the first middle-class youth consumers buying things under the direction of the mainstream media. It was Japanese society that was simply not ready for the idea that youth fashion could be part of the marketplace.

After the Miyuki-zoku, however, Ivy became the de facto look for fashionable Japanese men, and the “Ivy Tribe” that followed faced little of the harassment seen by its predecessor. The Miyuki-zoku may have lost the battle of Ginza, but they won the war for Ivy League style. — W. DAVID MARX

W. David Marx is a writer living in Tokyo whose work has appeared in GQ, Brutus, Nylon, and Best Music Writing 2009, among other publications. He is currently Tokyo City Editor of CNNGo and Chief Editor of web journal Néojaponisme.

Special thanks to Valetmag.com, Kempt, Selectism, ModCulture and the many other sites that linked to this post.

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Chipp Off The Old Block

Wed 15 Apr 2009 - Filed under: 1960s,1990-present,Top Drawer — Christian
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Paul Winston’s bold suit linings are so famous, many clients select the fabric for the lining before the fabric for the suit itself.

Vivid linings are just one of the signature styles of Winston, the renowned tailor who began working for his father Sidney’s New York-based clothing company Chipp in 1961. Chipp soon became renowned for inventing the patching of madras and tweed, and for dressing President Kennedy.

Winston stayed with Chipp until the company’s dissolution in the early ’80s, and currently operates Chipp2/Winston Tailors out of a fifth-floor office in Midtown Manhattan.

Sidney Winston founded Chipp in 1947 following many years with J. Press, where he began working after high school. Previously located near 44th and Madison — among the cluster of traditional clothiers Brooks Brothers, J. Press and Paul Stuart — Chipp at its peak employed 30 tailors and a sales force of 10, and offered both custom and ready-to-wear clothing.

Paul Winston, now 70, attended Hopkins Grammar School, a small prep school in New Haven that is one of the nation’s oldest. He went on to study at Union College in Schenectady, New York. After joining Chipp, he commuted by train from Stamford for 37 years.

Winston currently resides in Wayne, NJ, where he boards a bus every morning at 6 to get to the office around 7. As further evidence of his dedication to the art of tailoring, he often works at home until midnight. “I figure the older I get the less time I have,” he says, “so I ought to be doing something other than sleeping.”

Winston recently spoke with Ivy-Style founder Christian Chensvold about Chipp’s heyday, his current clientele, personal tastes, and his dislike of any kind of dressing orthodoxy.

* * *

IS: When your father left J. Press to start Chipp, what was his vision for the company?

PW: It’s just the American Dream to want to have your own thing rather than work for somebody else. My father was a natural salesman. His first job at J. Press was going to all the prep schools. He was just a kid out of high school himself, and he met a lot of people who became really important, but he met them when they were contemporaries of his, and there’s a big difference in the relationship you have with someone you meet when you’re both 18 years old. He met Thomas Watson Jr. of IBM and Cyrus Vance and that caliber, and had a relationship with them for the rest of his life that was much warmer than if he’d just met them later.

IS: When would this have been?

PW: He was born in 1912, so it would have been about 1930. At that time Brooks and Press traveled all over the country doing trunk shows. They also went to certain prep schools and colleges. My father knew a lot of people who went on to work in New York after they finished school. He started Chipp with a man named Lou Praeger, who also worked for Press as manager of the store in Princeton.

IS: When were the company’s golden years?

PW: I’d say the ’70s.

IS: The Ivy League Look went into fairly rapid decline sometime after 1965. What allowed you to thrive in the ’70s?

PW: We had a niche that continued, even though the Ivy League Look in general was declining and was probably bigger in Japan. But our customers wanted it, and many still want it today. Certain people object to calling it “Ivy League,” but however you want to call it, we still have that niche we’re filling with more completeness now than ever because there’s really nobody doing it anymore. (Continue)

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