Hip Ivy, Square Ivy, and Ivy

Editor’s note:  I didn’t edit this at all, not a stitch, but I will tell you my favorite sentence comes at the end.  “And much the same could be said of Ivy, which breathes easiest and wears best when it worries least.”  Thanks to Robert Archambeau for the submission!

Ivy style has fostered some great looks—the three-roll two, the OCBD, the Boston cracked shoe. (Well, perhaps the greatness of that last one is up for debate). But one thing is never a good look: anxiety. And if you follow discussions of Ivy Style, you won’t go too far without seeing anxiety creep in. Comments like “I don’t know if this is Ivy, but…” or “I know the pants here probably don’t count as Ivy…” signal uneasiness, or at least the sneaking sense that someone out there may be ready to shout the speaker down for the perceived sin of a quarter-zip sweater or a fabric with a too-high count of artificial fibers. 

One way to think about this fashion anxiety is to turn our eyes to one of the Western world’s great students of Zen, the late British writer Alan Watts. It’s not that Zen itself has some special connection to Ivy style, at least not as far as I know—though there is something about both Zen and Ivy that captures the Japanese imagination. Rather, it’s that we can learn something about different approaches to Ivy style by looking at Watts’ essay “Beat Zen, Square Zen, and Zen,” the first version of which appeared in 1959.

Alan Watts

Watts saw that a version of Zen had taken hold among people associated with the Beat Generation—Alan Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, and (more seriously) Gary Snyder. Calling this “Beat Zen” or “Hip Zen,” Watts noticed that it was different from other types of Zen by virtue of how it was worn with a bit of defiance and more than a bit of self-regard. Hip or Beat Zen always put its hipness on equal footing with its Zen, and was, in Watts’ words, “always a share too self-conscious, too subjective, and too strident to have the flavor” of traditional Zen. The Hipster who embraced Zen did it in part out of a desire for special distinction and special attention, defying norms and breaking with the majority culture not just out of a yearning for enlightenment but out of a desire to stand out.

There is certainly something analogous to Beat Zen out there in the Ivy community. Since the term “Beat” is tied so specifically to the literature of the Beat Generation, let’s call it Hip Ivy—an interest in herringbone, cardigans, and rep ties that, however much it stems from a love of workmanship and aesthetics, comes with a big dose of desire for social distinction, of standing out in a crowd. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing (Watts though Beat Zen was legitimate in its way) but it can sometimes have an anxious quality, trying hard to attract attention in a way the original wearers of Ivy style did not. The real masters of Zen, says Watts, “didn’t brag about it and set themselves apart as rather special.” Perhaps this is true of the masters of Ivy as well.

Square Zen was, if anything, more fidgety than Beat Zen. Square Zen is all about rules and the appeal to authorities. It is, writes Watts, “a quest for the right spiritual experience, for a satori which will receive the stamp of approved and established authority. There will even be certificates to hang on the wall.” Only under the stern supervision of the masters, and with scrupulous adherence to the correct texts, do the adherents of Square Zen feel confident that they have followed the true path.

Square Ivy is evident wherever we hear the claim “that’s not Ivy!” followed by a reference to that holiest of canonical texts, Take Ivy—or to a photo of, say, the Princeton class of 1964. It’s an approach that prioritizes existing canons of taste over innovation, which is viewed with as much deep suspicion as athleisure. The Square Ivy community does not see a company like Rowing Blazers as a fresh breeze from the future blowing through the quiet glade of Ivy, but as a growing murmur of heresy.

Alan Watts found much to admire in the masters of what he called Square Zen, but in the end, he found its anxious adherence to artificial rules limiting. Traditional Zen, he says, was never fussy about rules. Zen is wu-shih meaning “nothing special” or “no fuss”—but fussiness is part of both Hip Zen and Square Zen—Zen becomes fussy both “when it is mixed up with Bohemian affectations,” and “when it is imagined that the only proper way to find it is to run off to a monastery in Japan or to do special exercises in the lotus posture five hours a day.”

Here, in the idea of un-fussy ease, is where we come to the profound connection between Zen and Ivy. What could be more Ivy than a little nonchalance in the unselfconsciousness of the frayed cuff or collar, of the scuffed shoe leather or the worn-in comfort of a reliable old blue sport coat? Lacking a certain laid-back attitude, Zen, says Watts, will be “either beat or square, either a revolt from the culture and social order or a new form of stuffiness and respectability.” Both of these could be good things, but neither of them followed the main path of Zen. And much the same could be said of Ivy, which breathes easiest and wears best when it worries least.

  • Robert Archambeau

Robert Archambeau first took an interest in Ivy style when he noticed he fit in the clothes his father wore as a young professor at the Rhode Island School of Design in the early 1960s. He is now a professor himself, teaching English at Lake Forest College.

18 Comments on "Hip Ivy, Square Ivy, and Ivy"

  1. “…Ivy, which breathes easiest and wears best when it worries least.” reads like a koan. Well done!

  2. Philly Trad | January 6, 2022 at 9:44 am |

    Bruce Boyer is the epitome of a gentleman who never worries whether something is Ivy or not and whose Anglo-American style is the result.

  3. Philly Trad, thanks for your statement. This is exactly what I describe as timelessness. Class does not mean to worry about being contemporary or whether protocols are matched too literal.

  4. Bravo — great insights here. I think it’s universal for many of us to go through either one or both the hip and square stages of anything we might take an interest in: If we’re new to it, we don’t trust ourselves and seek the perceived absolute wisdom of authorities on the subject. If we’re rebels at heart or have a need for attention we self-consciously assert our hip-ness with it. I’ve been both of these people when it comes to different aspects of my life and I imagine that’s true for others as well. It can take a bit of life experience for our own style to feel truly lived-in.

  5. Good stuff in here!

  6. Excellent perspective and the last line is the gem.
    Consider this. Once upon a time, I was told that Stanley Kubrick’s clothes closet solely contained multiple duplicates of exactly the same clothing items. The reason: that way, he never had to spend any wasted time considering what to wear. Mr. Kubrick had other, better and more important things to think about. His movie legacy certainly confirms that. And incidentally, he dressed in what we consider to be the “ivy style”. (Google him and I think you’ll agree).

    Now some may think Mr. Kubrick’s approach is a tad extreme, I know I do, but I can appreciate the concept. After decades of acquiring apparel, I have honed down all the articles of clothing in my closet to exclusively my absolute favorites. This method alleviates any anguish or anxiety about making decisions of how I want to be perceived. I can reach in, grab what is appropriate for whatever the day’s (or evening’s) endeavors demand, and without a second thought, be ready to go in a very few minutes flat. Add thirty seconds if a tie is involved. So far, so good., No complaints or ridicule from the public at large. I’m presentable. And more importantly I feel good about myself. The only drawback is that at times I find myself chilling out with a cocktail in hand listening to jazz (Stolen Moments by Oliver Nelson works pretty good) patiently waiting for my wife to get ready. If you are married, you may know what I’m talking about.

    In Howard Hawks’ movie, Bringing Up Baby, Cary Grant’s character finds himself in a predicament where all his clothes are missing. He is forced to get dressed with clothes someone has abandoned in a closet. He has no choice but to wear what he finds there. He looks ridiculous. .I don’t know if the line was written for him or he ad libbed it, but he rationalizes his situation with the line, “Clothes are clothes. I think of that line now and then. It provides perspective. I can not take myself or my clothes all that seriously. I wear what I love, enjoy it, and get on with it. And I try to live happily ever after. It’s all a big smile, anyhow.

    Great comment – Steve Jobs, same thing. And on the one hand, I get it. I always wear a white ocbd. Every week day. And I guess that removes some decision fatigue, right? And sure, I am going to encounter a bigger deal that day then what I am wearing. ON THE OTHER HAND. I am more than my biggest things to think about today. And I have room to both like a new tie and be a dad. – JB

  7. Yes, J.B.
    New tie, old tie,it doesn’t really matter. The key factor is not to be uptight about it. Or anything else, come to that.

  8. If you want to have a bit of fun with a hipster, upon meeting them notice the item they are clearly trying to show off and say innocently “I like that hat. My dentist has one just like it.” Or “Man those sweaters are really popular lately!”

  9. CanadianTrad | January 6, 2022 at 6:27 pm |

    Watts would have been 107 today.

  10. Trevor Jones | January 6, 2022 at 7:50 pm |

    Re-read the article, but every time it says “beat Ivy”, substitute the phrase “sprezzatura”. 😉

  11. Trevor Jones | January 6, 2022 at 7:52 pm |

    Forgot to add: I was really impressed with the quality of writing. No surprise Robert is in the humanities at such a high level. Well done!

  12. Minimalist Trad | January 6, 2022 at 11:55 pm |

    The source of my own decision fatigue is having to choose which one of my white OCBDs I should wear on any particular weekday.

  13. Minimalist Trad,

    I think you have a good program there. What shirt do you choose on Sunday? (I prefer Broadcloth.)

  14. Minimalist Trad | January 7, 2022 at 10:51 am |

    Sunday? Broadcloth.

  15. Working from home today. Yellow OCBD, grey crew neck lambswool sweater, khakis and barefoot. Gave my attire the same amount of consideration today as I would if I were attending a board meeting. With very few exceptions, traditionalist clothes look good in any combination without great planning or editing.

    I would replace the word zen with cool. I thought beatniks were cool for a very short time but then considered them to be jive. Real jive, daddy.


  16. Guess a few of us committed comment sins. Was it mentioning Aristotle or linking out to another essay? Asking sincerely so I don’t do it again.

    Hail tolerance full of inclusivity…

  17. An interesting and eye-opening reference to the inner peace and comfort to be enjoyed by the followers of traditional Ivy. In RA’s fourth para he references the chosen texts of the true believers of the preferred style and the Zen connection. I’d like to add one more, a more foundational reference and that is the TOPH. For the young acolytes of IS, especially during their years at prep school, they need to learn the basics that the TOPH provides. As they mature into Trad Ivy and begin their individualization of the genre, they will be firmly rooted in knowing the basics from which they came and the relief from anxious anxiety that it provides.

  18. “This article is not Ivy!”

    Just joking; it’s nice (and Ivy?)

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