“Sussed” is one of those British slang terms that suggests maybe we really are divided by a common language. It is often used by fans of the Ivy League Look in England — finding its cognate in the American concept of hip — and is used to describe the result of a long and earnest cultivation, the point at which one becomes recognized by one’s peers as being in-the-know.
“The Ivy Look” by Graham Marsh and JP Gaul, recently released in the UK and due out November 1 in the US, is fueled by a sussed sensibility. Published by Frances Lincoln, where Gaul (pseudonym for John Gall) works as its London sales manager, “The Ivy Look” is a sparsely written homage to the obsessive cult of Ivy in the UK, which, as we’ll see, has little to do with the Ivy League Look in America.
England vs. Japan
The two countries where Ivy has the strongest following are England and Japan. Though both are separated by thousands of miles from the original source, their attitudes towards American style are a study in contrast.
In Japan, Ivy style is revered with a kind of polite affection coupled with tremendous respect for its original source: college campuses. In the recently republished “Take Ivy,” as well as countless photo shoots for magazines like Men’s Club (as documented on the blog Heavy Tweed Jacket), the authenticity-obsessed Japanese regularly dispatched writers and photographers to capture American students in their native habitat.
But the English never did this, probably because Ivy was always a kind of secret society for the sussed few, not something for the mass readership of men’s fashion magazines (which kind of makes the publication of “The Ivy Look” disingenuous: you can’t be both sussed and mass-market). English clothing shops that carried Ivy clothes were also small and independent, not retail behemoths like VAN Jacket in Japan. And while there are countless Japanese Ivy fan sites on the Web, there’s not a single English Ivy blog.
As a result of the insular clique that comprises the UK Ivy fan base, an odor of dogmatic fervor hangs over it. What’s more, on Internet message boards, Ivy in the UK often seems characterized by a love-hate relationship with America, suggesting the longstanding rivalry between England and its former colony the United States.
But the biggest difference between Japan and England when it comes to American style is that “Take Ivy” is reported from primary sources, while “The Ivy Look” is interpreted from secondary ones. As Marsh and Gaul write in their foreword:
It seems appropriate that the authors came to learn and fall under the spell of the Ivy look through exposure to three quintessential American art forms: cinema, advertising and modern jazz. It is by exploring the most stimulating and compelling examples from these elements that the backbone of the book is formed.
This narrow and subjective point of view infuses every page of “The Ivy Look.”
The cult of the penny loafer
During the years 1955-1965, the period that “The Ivy Look” is chiefly concerned with, the Ivy League Look was something that certain American men wore either because they were raised on it, or because they adopted it later in life — perhaps at college or while working in a large Eastern city — believing it to be tasteful and appropriate.
But because the Ivy League Look is not native to England, it became something young men could latch onto in order to differentiate themselves from their English peers and to be part of a small elite of those-in-the-know. As a result, Ivy acquired many of the qualities of a music-fashion youth tribe, such as Mod or punk, in which the style forms the core of the person’s identity, and all his tastes and behaviors must conform to what is considered correct by his peer group. The clothes became the vestments of a veritable religious cult, demanding “love” on behalf of the wearer and requiring a “guru” to teach you the “secret code.”
In “The Ivy Look,” Gaul writes of “the alchemy of Ivy,” calling it “a powerful cocktail.” The shoe cabinet at J. Simons, a former London retail shop and chief house of worship for UK Ivy fans, “resembled an altar.” Moreover, “the item around which everyone congregated and gazed in awe at was the legendary Bass Weejun loafer.”
Of all American clothing items, the Weejun ranks highest on the English suss-o-meter. “If you are not wearing what are considered to be acceptable shoes you will be met with frosty indifference” from the Ivy fraternity, the authors pronounce. And the most acceptable shoe in the eye of the sussed is the Weejun.
Now most Americans would probably rank penny loafers somewhere between stodgy and banal. Yet for Marsh and Gaul (age 65 and 45, respectively), they are sacred totems of cool, connecting them, in their imagination, to the world of New York jazz clubs circa 1962. “It still means a lot to me that Miles Davis wore Bass Weejuns,” writes Gaul. “I feel like I am part of that tradition. I am following in his footsteps.”
It’s a case of shoe fetishism à l’outrance in which Weejuns are akin to Dorothy’s magic slippers: Just close your eyes, click your heels, and say, “There’s no place like Greenwich Village.”
For the cult of Weejunaires, the ultimate experience is a pilgrimage to New York City, which Marsh describes as “Ivy Central, a modernist’s Mecca, home of the button-down shirt and the Bass Weejun loafer, city of the sack suit and the legendary jazz clubs.”
Recalling his first visit to Brooks Brothers’ Madison Avenue flagship, Marsh writes that the clothing was laid out on tables “to be viewed as though works of art.” The metaphoric overstatement continues with this: “Each label sewn in every garment that Brooks Brothers sold carried the words ‘Made in USA,’ as reassuring to seekers of the Ivy look as an authenticated painting signed by Picasso.” Later, across town at the Village Vanguard, jazz pianist Bill Evans is like “an album cover come to life.”
Needless to say, seeing our national style referred to with such exagerrated reverence must strike Americans as strange, quixotic, or even silly. Completely absent is the sense of fun and whimsy of the Japanese with their little Ivy cartoon characters (admittedly a different kind of silly). In the UK, Ivy and suss are serious business, and when Marsh and Gaul refer to Ivy “obsession” and “fetishism,” they’re not being censorious.
Yo, where my WASPs at?
“The Ivy Look” includes sections on London Mods, French and Italian cinema, the Miyuki-zoku Japanese youth tribe, actor Steve McQueen, foreign cars, and smoking paraphernalia. It also includes facts about the photographers and graphic designers of the many jazz album covers featured (Marsh is a graphic designer who has previously published a book on jazz album covers).
And yet bafflingly there is no discussion of the actual source of the Ivy League Look: the WASP establishment and its institutions, such as prep schools and private universities, that kept Brooks Brothers and J. Press in business throughout the 20th century. This is akin to two Americans writing a book on British rock from 1960-1970 and not including the Beatles.
Marsh and Gaul use the term WASP twice in passing, though what the acronym stands for is not given, nor is it explained who or what WASP even refers to. And while the term Ivy League appears a number of times, the authors do not explain what that means either, and the only mentions of an Ivy campus are in two photo captions of show business personalities referencing Harvard. Marsh and Gaul do not even bother to tell their novice reader why Ivy is even called Ivy — the very thing that serves as the title of the book.
The closest they get to describing the actual arbiters of the Ivy League Look is this odd and clumsy description:
The east coast of America during the 1950s and 1960s was without a doubt the spiritual home of the Ivy look. It was all about taking care of business, looking sharp within a pared-down, confident, modern America. From Barnett Newman’s minimalist field of color “zip” paintings to Frank Lloyd Wright’s beautiful Guggenheim museum and Eero Saarinen’s design for the TWA terminal at Idlewild Airport, New York, the culture like the clothes exuded modernity.
That the authors consider Modernist architecture more pertinent to the topic at hand than college campuses shows just how narrow their point of view is. They immediately put the focus back on jazz:
For non-Americans, however, these cultural influences surface most prominently in the Ivy League clothing. It wasn’t about the man in the grey flannel suit, more about those hipster saints that grace ultra cool modern jazz album covers.
What Marsh and Gaul don’t seem to understand is that jazz musicians only adopted the Ivy League Look after being exposed to it at campus concerts, as Roy Haynes has told me. In fact, since college students were a large part of the jazz audience and campus concerts were lucrative, one could argue that musicians altered their style to better reflect their audience. Moreover, Miles Davis only donned Weejuns and buttondowns after being taken to The Andover Shop, which catered to Harvard.
In the following passages, Marsh and Gaul continue stressing the association of Ivy with artists:
A pair of penny loafers quickly shook off strict WASP collegiate affiliation by being adopted by any self-respecting horn-rimmed architect or angst-ridden abstract expressionist.
Even today the donning of a pair of Weejuns and a Brooks Brothers button-down operates as a metaphor for creative intent.
But the hypothetical architect in the above passage, or Frank Stella, the Abstract Expressionist who went to Andover and Princeton, presumably picked up the taste for penny loafers and buttondowns in school. When it comes to the Ivy League Look, the starting point is the university, the very reason why the look is named for the Ivy League.
Failure to credit the WASP establishment and college campuses as the mainspring of the Ivy League Look is the cardinal sin of “The Ivy Look.” And in committing it, Marsh and Gaul make it clear — though they may not even fully realize this, as the text is ambiguous — that Ivy in the UK is entirely its own entity with no relevance to Americans. British Ivy may share some of the same sartorial building blocks and cultural reference points as the Ivy League Look, and it may have borrowed a truncated version of the name, but it is not a branch of the American Traditional tree. It is a seed blown across an ocean that sprouted a species of its own.
“The Ivy Look” and the Internet
To better understand this new species and the ethos behind it, it may be helpful to look at how English Ivy fans discuss the topic in the raw, uncensored and putatively anonymous medium of the Internet.
Talk Ivy is an Internet forum where European Ivy fans gather — often to theorize ad nauseum about the “works of art” and “soul-enriching beauty” of Ivy style. It is mentioned in “The Ivy Look,” and bills itself as the leading Ivy message board in the Western hemisphere. The forum includes two members germane to our discussion here — “Gibson Gardens” and “Toffeeman” — as both have written posts that suggest they were involved with the publication of “The Ivy Look.”
In this thread, forum member Gibson Gardens says, “I want just 20 sussed people to buy this book. Don’t give a shit if we don’t make a penny.” Here as well as here, the member called Toffeeman talks about being interviewed for this article in The Independent. And finally, the Talk Ivy forum’s moderator here says that Gibson Gardens and Toffeeman are the same person, elsewhere referring to him as “John.”
The following is a noteworthy remark from Gibson Gardens, in which, among other things, he compares his love of Ivy to an Islamic terrorist organization:
This [Stanley Blacker jacket] is a sacred text upon which we are gazing, and I react with Al-Qaeda-like fury and intolerance when the very roots of the look are so nonchalantly dismissed with a few ignorant pokes at a keyboard.
At the age of 24 I lived for the Ivy look: I ate, slept and breathed the whole thing. A friend coming back from Brooks in 1987, our first pioneer, was greeted like he’d returned from the Moon… We studied the sales receipts like they were medieval parchments.
We would visit J.Simons when it was closed in the evenings and silently stare in the windows. We were dysfunctional, intense and we didn’t get any action with the opposite sex for about 4 years.
I don’t know where it all came from, this seriousness about clothes, but it felt very important back then, a real expression of self and our collective world view. I still get that way now and again…
It wasn’t just clothes, it was all the other associated ephemera. We were learning a code.
As for the topic of America, here are some of Toffeeman’s recent comments:
Milk and cookies America? Not for me. I’m more into Miles pissing all over that stuff wearing pink seersucker at the Newport Jazz Festival while shooting up backstage.
Who made the cars and the fridges and built the detached homes for the wankers in their button-downs? The American Dream is built on bullshit.
Norman Rockwell is sweet and charming nonsense. I don’t believe in that world any more than I believe in Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy.
But most interesting are these two comments, in which rises on the horizon the distant mirage of an Ivy utopia, a Weejun-wearing, socialist-stylist paradise where the disenfranchised and sussed are one. Writes Toffeeman:
I want a messy, ugly, funky multicultural world with everyone in no socks and Weejuns grooving along to Jimmy McGriff. It’s a new hippydom based on proper shoulder line, half an inch of oxford cloth at the cuff and real selvedge 501s.
As someone keen to dignify Ivy and to reclaim it as a progressive, forward-looking “culture” embracing modern jazz, modern architecture and design and a generally heightened aesthetic sensibility, an aspect of the clothes which cheers my socially conscious soul is their obvious green [eco] credentials.
These daffy notions are what American style, removed from its native context and untethered to its original traditions, can inspire.
Constructing a context
English Ivy fans could acquire American clothes on pilgrimages to the US, by mail order, and at the English shops that carried the “clobber,” but, separated in time and place, they didn’t have the same social context in which to wear the clothes. So somewhere along the way they created an artificial and arbitrary context based on the consumption of popular media — records, movies, ads — and the Modernist ethos and aesthetic they saw embodied in this media. “Tradition,” as it relates to Ivy in the UK, is several decades of men swooning over Weejuns, collecting records, looking at old magazines, watching movies, and talking among themselves.
The “world” of Ivy, a term used on “The Ivy Look’s” dust jacket, is a random assortment of cultural items merely contemporary but seen as intimately related. The sum total of these tastes and interests — natural-shouldered jackets, Blue Note jazz albums, scooters, Levis, French New Wave films, modern architecture and Steve McQueen — is what the authors call “Ivy.” This world, of course, is no more real than Toffeeman’s imagined utopia.
Take this reverie, from the book’s car and scooter section, which almost reads like fiction:
In the early 1960s, driving down the Massachusetts Turnpike from Boston to Cape Cod in a Porsche 356 Speedster, Ivy cap firmly in place and Baracuta G9 Harrington zipped up against the wind, must have given those lucky owners a real buzz.
What Marsh and Gaul are talking about here is not anything that actually happened, but a hypothetical scenario consisting of idealized components. You can hardly blame them, or the rest of England, for approaching the topic of Ivy in this fantasy-fueled way. What working-class Londoner would want to idolize some privileged twit at Yale specializing in tax law, when he could wear a Baracuta and khakis, smoke Lucky Strikes, and imagine he’s a character in an American movie?
But to really live Ivy requires you to live in America — New York, specifically. And yet all the English have are the clothes, the simulacrum of movies and photos, and their imagination. Perhaps because the thing they love is always beyond their grasp — like a beautiful woman whose photo you can hold, but not the woman herself — accounts for the bitter zealotry the English feel for this subject.
But if “The Ivy Look” is not an accurate portrayal of the Ivy League Look in America — does it try to be? The answer is yes and no. The main problem with the book is that it floats in a gray area, attempting to chronicle American style and culture at mid-century while imprisoned in its extremely limited point of view and highly subjective interpretation.
As a result, the sections that try to explicate the Ivy League Look in its native context simply feel inaccurate, having a hipster part stand for the establishment whole. As for the passages that describe the UK Ivy fraternity, “The Ivy Look” is nothing more than the print manifestation of a collective daydream. — CHRISTIAN CHENSVOLD
All images provided by Frances Lincoln, from the book “The Ivy Look” by Graham Marsh and JP Gaul, published at £12.99. “Le Samourai” and “A Bout de Souffle” images courtesy of The Reel Poster Gallery; Converse illustration by Graham Marsh.