Elegance Week: A Staple That Has Stood The Test Of Time

gbbAs 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

40 Comments on "Elegance Week: A Staple That Has Stood The Test Of Time"

  1. Bags' Groove | October 28, 2014 at 8:26 am |

    Pedants corner. That…mechanic’s…to…humbly…but nevertheless a nice piece.
    I recently described Boyer as incomparable, but I’m sure he would accept that there is one other of his impeccable ilk living in Italy: Luciano Barbera.
    And what do you know, they’re both gentlemen in their seventies. Says it all.

  2. I believe Bruce is still a sexegenarian.

  3. Bags' Groove | October 28, 2014 at 10:06 am |

    Christian, I’m surprised at you. Straight from the mouth of Wiki: born 1941…

  4. Richard Press | October 28, 2014 at 10:13 am |

    Co-curating FIT Ivy Exhibit with Bruce was equivalent to playing second fiddle with Jascha Heifetz.

  5. 73? Now I don’t feel so creeped out that he likes to be smooched on the cheek when greeted.

  6. The caption on the cover says it all – “Quality Menswear” Great read.

  7. “…even talked me off the ledge when heavyweight Viyella disappeared from the market.”

  8. +I remember reading Bruce Boyer’s “Elegance” 20-25 years ago. It taught me a lot about how to dress. I care a bit less these days, happily married to a brilliant woman, owner of a lot of stuff, I am far less concerned about my personal appearance. But I still know how to dress well when the occasion requires. I am happy to have the opportunity to thank Mr. Boyer for teaching me about American clothes.

  9. At the age of 71, I’m glad that I still care about personal appearance and dressing well. The occasion always demands dressing properly.

  10. Mr. Boyer also wrote Eminently Suitable around 1990 which is more of the type of chapters in Elegance.

  11. After all these years, I wonder if the word that works best for me is “Episcopal.” Granted, there are a few bad apples (sloths) in every bushel (parish), but, for me, the phrase works better than the multitude of others. “Ivy” is ludicrous, considering the sartorial habits of even the better dressed Ivy League students. Every descriptor falls short in some way (Protestant denominations included), so one had may as well just go with the word that makes the connection to real life as one knows it.

    Boyer gets at it when he goes with the phrase “Anglo American.”

  12. Ever hear the one about the poor Quaker? The elders from his Meeting get together and decide they want to buy him a brand new outfit, which they do. The next Sunday, they look out and don’t see him in Meeting, so they visit his home and ask where he’s been. The poor fellow looks surprised at their question and says “Fellas, I looked so good Sunday morning I decided to go to the Epsicopal service instead!”

    As you might have guessed, I stole this from a sermon by my hometown rector. Smacks of a “church joke”…

  13. DCG
    Corbin once offered a worsted two piece charcoal suit that was so dark they called it “parson’s grey”.

  14. NaturalShoulder | October 30, 2014 at 8:04 pm |

    @S.E. I am a Catholic and find the state of dress among my fellow parishioners deplorable. A few years ago, I attended an Episcopal service on a Sunday at which a friend’s daughter was baptized. I estimate at least 90% of males over age 16 were in jacket and tie or suit which left quite a favorable impression on me. I noted my observation to a friend who said he always wears a suit when attending Episcopal services with his fiance.

  15. @NatShoulder It’s a different world at the Latin Mass. “Trad” in more ways than one.

  16. @S.E.
    I share your dissatisfaction with the term “Ivy”, and find the term “Preppy” as distasteful as I do preppies themselves. Clipping “traditional” to “Trad” seems most un-traditional.
    I add my vote to Anglo-American (with a hyphen).

  17. @Camford & SE

    The kicker is that no matter how we describe it or what we call it the general public will still think, “what a preppy” when they see us.

  18. Charlottesville | October 31, 2014 at 12:18 pm |

    I wonder how many of us who follow this website are Episcopalians. I, for one, must plead guilty, and can attest to the generally well-dressed flock, whether here in Virginia or at St. Thomas on Fifth Ave. However, a number of the icons of trad or ivy or whatever we may call it are not WASPs. I think of JFK, William F. Buckley and Richard Press among many others. Thus, Episcopalian though I am, I think we must look for a broader designation. Hopefully “Ivy” is broad enough to encompass the southern branch of the sack suit and OCBD set, such as can still be found in admittedly ever-smaller numbers at the University of Virginia and Washington & Lee. Otherwise, I suppose I’ll need to go with trad.

  19. Vern Trotter | October 31, 2014 at 12:28 pm |

    As a life long Episcopalian, I recall a time when it seemed like all males in most parishes wore the Ivy Style of the 1950s and early 60s. In uptown Manhattan, St. Barts (low church), St. Thomas and St. James (high churches), and of course, the Episcopal Ritz, Trinity Church Boston (low church), the all male ushers even wore morning coats.

    Today, while we all still mostly dress up, you will find every style there is. All things considered, I believe the term Ivy Style is still most appropriate for the way we dress.

  20. @Oxford Cloth Button Down

    “The Public be Damned!”

    W.H. Vanderbilt

  21. Charlottesville | October 31, 2014 at 1:20 pm |

    Amen, to use an Episcopalian word, to Mr. Trotter. My wife and I attend St. Thomas when we are in Manhattan, and the ushers also wear morning coats and striped trousers, or at least they did in the recent past; I can’t recall whether this was still true on my last few visits. Other than weddings and on the occasional hotel staffer, I don’t think I have seen morning coats worn anywhere else in many years, although the Solicitor General may still do so when arguing before the Supreme Court. The sack suit and sport coat still appear on the old guard here in Virginia, but we are something of an anomaly these days and sadly I must confess to giving in to the 2-button darted item from time to time. Today, however, I am holding my head high in a gray 3-button herringbone sack and black knit tie from J. Press, OCBD from Brooks and penny loafers (alas in black leather rather than shell cordovan).

  22. For me, the WFB Jr. question remains a conundrum. Do I think “WASP” when I see and hear him? No. There’s the sartorial matter–he didn’t care enough to go with any style. (didn’t he favor 2 button suits with lots of shoulder padding?) Also, the flaunting of all things WFB Jr. (the books about sailing, the glorification of Switzerland slopes, the non-stop barrage of SAT words) may speak to an overt pretentiousness–flamboyance, even–that runs counter to the quiet, soft-spoken, discreet, staid WASPyness one recognizes in, say, an Archie Cox or a Cyrus Vance, or, these days, a Lincoln Chafee. I think the guiding idea is the deflection of attention. Actually, WFB’s brother James come to mind.

    As for “Episcopal” as a modifier. Well, it’s just that. There are parishioners numbered among the St. Thomas rolls who aren’t Episcopal at all. And some of the more Episcopal people I’ve known were Presbyterian, Congregstional, and secular.

  23. Just as many (most?) who stick with “Ivy” style have likely never set foot on an Ivy League campus.

  24. I’m just Irish Catholic White Trash (ICWT), I won’t walk into a church or synagogue or any holy place without a coat and tie, one must cover one’s bets.

    DCG is correct concerning the difference between congregational attire in churches doing the mass in Latin as compared to English. It’s and old school thing and the music is better too. 😉

  25. S.E.
    I’ve set foot on an Ivy League campus, admittedly it was because of some very confusing directions some Kennedys gave me to a drug house. 😉

    Obviously, the look originated in the Ivy league, the northeast. But the look has been all over the country in my lifetime, I’m in my 60s and grew up in different parts of the country. Different regions and times it’s been called Ivy League, Collegiate, Ivy, Traditional Soft Shoulder Clothing, Trad, Traditional, Traditional Soft Shoulder and Preppy (which sucks). I bet some from different parts of the country can come up with more. Regardless, same brands in NYC or Norman, Oklahoma.

  26. Charlottesville | October 31, 2014 at 4:42 pm |

    Quite true, S.E., re WFB’s 2-button suits, but generally he wore OCBDs and repp ties, if I recall, so sort of a mixed bag sartorially. His brother James, before whom I once appeared when he sat on the federal appellate bench, may indeed be a better exemplar of the Ivy style, Roman Catholic version, but when I saw him he was wearing a black robe and sitting next to Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who is also not particularly WASPy, so I’m afraid I can’t confirm whether his manner carried over to his wardrobe. Definately a gentleman, though.

  27. Charlottesville | October 31, 2014 at 4:51 pm |

    By the way, I think JFK was a 2-button man as well, at least during his Presidency. He generally wore his clothes well, although he sometimes buttoned the lower button of his suit coat, which looks odd to me.

  28. Charlottesville,

    I don’t know much about his style, but I like this picture of James.

    http://oxfordclothbuttondown.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/01/Jim-Buckley.jpg

  29. In “Spanish and Portuguese” synagogues in New York, London, and Amsterdam, the sexton/beadle (or “shamash”) and others aiding the clergy wear morning coat and top hat for services.

  30. A.E.W. Mason | November 1, 2014 at 4:09 pm |

    @S.E.

    Your comments on WFB are particularly interesting. For a good many years after the War and through the 1950’s my father was one of several partners at the Coudert firm who devoted much of his practice to the Buckley oil companies, principally Catawba Corporation and Pantepec Oil. (Will senior’s oldest friend, George Montgomery, was a partner.) My father had spent the War at the Los Alamos Lab and working on the full scale field test of the bomb–he had intended to become a physicist and was, I think, the most serious minded person I’ve ever known. In the 50’s “the boys,” as my father called them, would sometimes accompany the senior Buckley to business conferences. My father’s comments to me suggested that he found young Bill “flashy.”. But I do recall him saying quite plainly that Jim was actually the smart one, quite a bit smarter than Bill. And, while I admire some things about WFB, I pretty much agree with your assessment. Sorry to ramble.

  31. Someone once joked that, beyond the penchant for most things British, the true test of a WASP was whether or not the person in question makes something–particularly social gatherings–more interesting. If the answer is yes, the person fails the test. A joke, but truth lies therein.

  32. A.E.W. Mason | November 2, 2014 at 1:03 am |

    But it’s interesting to reflect on how uninteresting WASPs were? I think it actually depends on what one considers interesting.

  33. Charlottesville,

    JFK favored the Paddock jacket, a bespoke style in which both buttons are supposed to be buttoned. The buttons are higher than on a regular jacket, which is what makes it work.

  34. Christian, thank you for this piece. Your writing keeps getting better and better.

    I got and read this book a couple years ago. After re-reading it, I sold it on Amazon. After reading this piece I wish I had kept it.

  35. You mean Christopher, not Christian.

    Sometimes I get confused, too.

  36. Mr. Mason, we agree.

    The content of one’s interests and tastes make all the difference.

  37. As a WASP, am I now supposed to wear ultra-slim pink shirts, skinny red trousers, bit loafers, and jackets two sizes too small in order to become “interesting”? No thanks, I’d rather remain conservative and uninteresting.

  38. Yes Archmont, you are supposed to follow the dictates of the marketplace just as your caste has done for generations.

  39. Charlottesville | November 4, 2014 at 11:12 am |

    Thanks for the photo of J. Buckley, OCBD, and to you, Henry, for the info on the Paddock Jacket. I stand corrected, but still confess that I find it odd looking. I suppose I always rather think the 3/2 roll is the way God designed the original suit back in Eden, and am loath to embrace change.

  40. @MAC

    Recently, I attended a funeral for a relative. The “Guest of Honor” wore a rust colored LS shirt, no jacket or tie. The church (Protestant) was packed, very few people had traditional “dress clothes.”

    I, too, can not go into a church, (or funeral home) without a coat and tie. I speak as a lower middle class professional from working class parents.

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