Over the past several decades, G. Bruce Boyer has distinguished himself as one of the most erudite writers ever to tackle the subject of menswear.
Born in 1941, he came of age at the Ivy League Look’s height in popularity. A graduate of Moravian, the fifth-oldest college in the US, Boyer went on to do graduate work at Lehigh University and taught literature for eight years at Moravian and DeSales University. He has lived most of his life in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.
Boyer’s writing career began in 1973 with an article about the Duke of Windsor, penned shortly after the British royal’s death. Boyer submitted the story to Town & Country, and soon became the magazine’s men’s fashion writer. He has since written numerous books, most recently “Fred Astaire Style” and the forthcoming “Black Tie.”
Ivy-Style founder Christian Chensvold recently spoke with Boyer about the heyday of the Ivy League Look, its abrupt end, the sprezzatura of the WASP establishment, and why he doesn’t spend much time in online forums.
IS: You entered college in 1959. What were the typical items of clothing you wore at the time?
BB: A button-down shirt in the traditional colors: white, blue, pink, yellow or striped, a shetland crewneck, khakis and Weejuns. The other thing was argyle socks, and in the summer madras everything. For tailored clothing, the ideal would have been a navy single-breasted blazer, a Harris Tweed jacket, a gray flannel suit, and a tan poplin suit or seersucker. That was the standard stuff.
IS: Madras quickly leads us to what’s known as the Go-To-Hell look. How much of that do you remember?
BB: I remember that stuff from the early ’60s. I started to go to New York for shopping and my favorite store was Chipp. That’s where I saw the patch madras and tweed, even before Brooks. Because Chipp is gone now, people tend to forget them. But they were probably the most interesting and most important and the best of Ivy League clothing stores. They were always a little more expensive, too. If Brooks introduced the shetland to this country, it was Chipp that promoted the wild colors like coral, hot pink and lemon yellow. I think I had a cable-knit shetland in bright raspberry in the ’60s. Chipp also did all of the wonderful, wild tweeds: You’d get a tan herringbone with a lilac windowplane overplaid.
I also remember going to Langrock in Princeton, which was for me the greatest campus shop that ever existed. By the late ’60s, the whole town of Princeton was divided into two kinds of people: It was either tweedy professors or freaky kids. It was either guys in Harris Tweed suits, tortoiseshell glasses and bow ties, or kids in tie-dye and jeans. Yet everyone got along.
IS: The OCBD-shetland-khakis-Weejuns-argyles look is considered a uniform today, as apparently it was then. In hindsight we seem to have conflicting images of the style: On the one hand everyone wore the same basic things, but on the other hand, as you pointed out with Chipp, there was tremendous variety.
BB: I think the variety came not so much from the items within the genre, but from color. It depended on how out-there you wanted to be. On the one hand there was a big interest in drab colors. Olive green was a huge color. I remember having an olive tweed three-piece suit. A lot of guys wore olive or gray flannel and brightened it up with a rep tie, a pink button-down and argyles. But then there were more guys of a more dandyish bent who were really out-there with the lime-green shetlands and animal corduroy trousers in bright orange, and bright plaid sport jackets. You got a beat on a guy from his sense of color more than anything. Some guys were more quiet and conservative, and others were more out-there. Some guys looked more like bankers, and others like they spent their lives on the golf course, but they were wearing the same clothing. (Continue)
Though Ivy style during its heyday was broad and multifaceted (at least compared to what survives of it today), its core components were so fixed and predictable that by 1957 the look could be easily parodied with a few rhyming verses.
Even more telling, just such a parody came directly from the campus most credited with setting fashions: Princeton.
“The Ivy League Look” is a musical number created by The Triangle Club, Princeton’s theater troupe. The lyrics are by Clark Gesner, who would later go on to pen the musical “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown.”
The Triangle Club, whose past members include F. Scott Fitzgerald, Booth Tarkington and Jimmy Stewart, has graciously granted Ivy-Style permission to present the lyrics for the first time on the web, though reading them is surely not the same as seeing the song performed.
The idea of lifestyle marketing, so entwined with selecting clothing today, is already deeply present in these lyrics from 52 years ago. Credit is given to magazines for dictating dress; Ivy style is presented as both modern and American compared to lower forms of dress, such as that worn by greasers or Midwesterners; Brooks Brothers is held up as the can’t-go-wrong standard; and by simply following a few sartorial shibboleths, any man can look the part, even if he’s never set foot on campus in his life.
The Triangle Club is still in operation and occasionally performs the number, though the lyrics probably don’t resonate the way they used to. — CC
Ivy League Look
by Clark Gesner
From the Princeton Triangle Show After A Fashion 1957
© The Triangle Club of Princeton University
Corduroy slacks disgust me
Black leather jackets are vile
Long greasy hair and blue suede shoes
Transform my blood to bile.
If you want everyone to accept you
As a modern American male
You must dress the way the magazines say
They dress at Harvard and Yale
Though you’ve never been to college in your live long life
Never looked beyond the cover of a book
You can convince every chap that
You’re a Phi Beta Kappa
If you’ve gone and got that Ivy League Look
When the weather gets too chilly for Bermuda shorts
Take those red flannel longies off the hook
Just be sure that that trap
Has a button down flap
You’ve got to have that Ivy League Look
Alexander they say tried to conquer the world
With a helmet and a shield to boot
He should have known he would fail
With all that armor and mail
When all he needed was a Brooks Brothers suit
(They’re very stunning!)
If you’ve lost your shirt and everything at poker games
And a burlap bag is all that ain’t been took
Just be sure that that sack has a buckle in back
You’ve got to have that Ivy League Look
With this dashing new style you’ll be tapered and trim
Just a slender as a blushing bride
You’ll be the picture of grace
When you are viewed face to face
And quite invisible when seen from the side
(You’re almost nothing!)
It is crucial that the well dressed man be most precise
And should always dress exactly by the book
For with a two button coat, you’re just a Midwestern goat
With three you’ve got that Ivy League Look
(Won’t play the Rose Bowl)
Just dress the discreet way, the smart Rogers Peet way
You’ve got to have that Ivy League Look
(Just call me tweedy)
I’ve gone and got that Ivy League Look
Almost two years before “The Official Preppy Handbook” made preppy affectation accessible to all, Nelson W. Aldrich Jr. had already caught wind of the zeitgeist.
His January 1979 cover story for the Atlantic Monthly, “Preppies: The Last Upper Class?” is a seminal work of exposition on the manners and mores of the WASP establishment. It is also helpful in filling out the dark years between the fall of the Ivy League Look circa 1965, and the revival of what remained of it, combined with new styles and attitudes picked up during an intense period of social change, in November 1980 with the publication of “The Official Preppy Handbook.”
In honor of the article’s 30th anniversary, Ivy-Style herein presents this largely forgotten historic document now digitized for the Internet.
In the article, Aldrich — who authored the book “Old Money” and edited the oral history of George Plimpton Ivy-Style wrote about a while back — attempts to outline the behavioral characteristics of the prep-school set, their likes and dislikes, values and revulsions. Aldrich links the ideology of the preppy to his forbearer, the WASP, to whom the preppy owes his austerity, deference, and attitude toward money.
Aldrich devotes only a few paragraphs to preppy clothing; in his view the term “preppie” designates a group of people, not simply a style of dress. When he does mention clothes, he does so to illustrate the insularity of preppy society, in which the tiniest modifications of attire can carry great significance.
Worth noting is the passage in which Alrich argues that the distinguishing sartorial details of preppy style — presumably things like hooked vents, lapped seams and two-button cuffs, or perhaps embroidered whale belts — are relished by outsiders once they’ve figured out the secret code, but viewed as “oppressive” by the preppies expected to follow the code.
Along those lines, the famous preppy nonchalance envied by all may not come as easily as it appears. Writes Aldrich:
For the Preppie, on the other hand, gracefulness is less a gift than a standard, something to measure up to, a performance. The delight of the thing comes from the knowledge that it’s all contrived, that the effect of effortlessness requires a good deal of strain, that negligence requires attention, that indifference requires concentration, that simplicity and naturalness require affectation. The most delicious “in” joke of Preppiedom is the anxiety everyone feels about being carefree.
Aldrich’s attitude toward preppy culture is ambivalent. At times the article parodies the anxieties of preppies, yet Aldrich also seems to exalt their modesty and discretion. Although preppies may be the target of his satirical tone, he finds redeeming qualities in them which he suggests may be growing rare.
Ultimately his article is less the lampooning of a social class and more the taxonomy of an odd breed. Less than two years later, this taxonomy would reappear as a New York Times best-selling handbook.
The article is long and sometimes tedious, and so we’ve opted to present it in an excerpted format. This also presumably reduces our culpability in any copyright infringement accusation.
In addition to “Preppies,” Aldrich uses the terms Archies (from the Archie comic books) to denote the suburban middle class, and City Kids for the urban working class. — ZACHARY DELUCA & CC
* * *
“Preppies: The Last Upper Class?”
By Nelson W. Aldrich, Jr.
Atlantic Monthly, January 1979 (excerpts)
“Preppie” is a catchall epithet to take the pace of words too worn or elaborate for everyday use, words such as privileged, ruling class, aristocrat, society woman, gentleman, and the rich. Ideological struggle is too shaming to talk about these days. Lifestyle rivalry is the new engine of history. In this sort of society, Preppies pass for an upper class. (Continue)
Renowned menswear writer G. Bruce Boyer has generously given Ivy Style his imprimatur to reproduce several chapters from his 1985 book “Elegance.” It will mark the first time the articles have been digitized for the Internet.
We thought of no better way to launch the series than with Boyer’s chapter on Brooks Brothers, which is based on an article he originally wrote for the May, 1981 issue of Town & Country.
By G. Bruce Boyer
From “Elegance,” WW Norton & Company, 1985
When it phased out its custom tailoring department, the story was carried on the front page of the New York Times. The Daily News Record has called it the greatest men’s store in the world. It has a history going back over a century and a half and is in fact not so much a clothing store as an institution of American life. There is really nothing to compare with Brooks Brothers.
And of course, it is not just a men’s store any longer. In fact, it was something of a sociological event when Brooks, the bastion of masculine conservatism, opened a women’s department back in 1976. Not that women and Brooks discovered each other then for the first time, you understand, since the ladies had been lurking about the store for years, making off with raincoats and Shetland sweaters, ordering Bermuda shorts and polo shirts from the boys’ department. In 1949 Vogue photographed a woman in a pink Brooks Brothers button-down shirt. The decision to start a women’s department simply reflected an awareness of the arrival of the businesswoman and Brooks Brothers’ determination to accommodate her. After all, the firm has dressed her husband since the beginning of the nineteenth century.
Long before a Mary McCarthy heroine, in her short story “The Man in the Brooks Brothers Shirt,” picked up such a gentleman on a train ride, the relaxed Establishment Brooks look had more than a whiff of the right stuff. Once suspected an old school tie stuffed in the pocket, a library crammed with well-thumbed English essayists, and possibly a full-bent briar. Nothing outré, nothing exaggerated or self-conscious. The Brooks Brothers suit seemed to peg a man somewhere between Wall Street and his country house, by way of the Ivy League. (Continue)
On assignment for the online magazine at RalphLauren.com, Ivy Style founder Christian Chensvold muses on that brief point in time when jazz musicians went for the clean-cut look, which, considering many of them were junkies, was the only clean thing about them.
Sometime around 1954, jazz great Miles Davis walked into the Andover Shop, a small haberdashery in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and single-handedly turned the world of style upside down. Just as his groundbreaking album Milestones (celebrating it’s 50th anniversary next year) changed music, that afternoon in Cambridge shifted men’s fashion.
Miles emerged from the store clad head to toe in traditional “Ivy League”–style clothing, and in so doing merged two separate worlds—those of the establishment and the black jazz artist—as if fusing two dissonant notes to create a bold new harmony. The result was a crashing chord of cool that obliterated the line between square and hip, sounding a fashion fortissimo that lasted several years before fading into the silence of pop-culture obscurity.
Miles stocked up on tweed and madras jackets with a natural shoulder and narrow lapel; chino and flannel trousers; button-down shirts; knit and regimental striped ties; and Bass Weejun penny loafers. “It was a look that redefined cool,” writes Miles biographer John Szwed, “and shook those who thought they were in the know.”
“It sounds corny now,” recalls 82-year-old Charlie Davidson, who still runs the Andover Shop, “but Miles liked the real Ivy League look, and it became the hip way of dressing.”
Get the full story here.