Not long ago I had a conversation with a friend who is a fellow clothes lover. His style is something I would describe as excessively patterned but casual and nonchalant. He cherishes elements of the Ivy League Look but mixes in pieces of this or that as he fancies. We were discussing whether Ivy Style is a lifestyle, a way of being and seeing the world, or whether it was just a style of dress and nothing more. Myself taking the first position and he the latter. The Ivy Style couldn’t help but imply the lifestyle, I said. It’s slouchy feel, relaxed appearance, and rustic fabrics suggest a person at ease with their world and secure in their place in it. A mastery of the mundane and the magnificent.
“It’s just clothes,” he said indifferently.
He went to an Ivy League school. I did not. This doesn’t immediately imply any authority on the Ivy Style on his part, as he attended long after the heyday and encountered an Ivy League disdainful of its own past. An Ivy League that, despite its still fairly high academic standards, behaves almost like a radicalized state school system. My authority on the subject, if I can be said to have any, stems mostly from a personal connection with the related (though highly different) Southern Trad style and an interest in the history of Ivy Style. Slim credentials, I know.
The Ivy-Style.com Facebook group, on the other hand, is populated with plenty of people who have authoritative wisdom regarding the Ivy Style. They are, without doubt, a wealth of information both historical and cultural. A constant refrain in that group is that Ivy is about more than just clothes. It’s about a way of life (etcetera et-yada). Sometimes that way of life means a commitment to honesty, good manners, dignity. Sometimes it literally means being a prep-school product who comes from an old family and is a member of exclusive clubs, (an admirer of JFK?). All others are just “pseuds” as one member put it. Indeed, group discussions seem to tend more toward justifying why one’s own interpretation of the Ivy lifestyle is correct rather than questioning whether the style of clothes implies any greater cultural affiliation. It’s a given that Ivy is about more than just clothes.
Perhaps this is the root of all the “Is it Ivy?” questions posted there. When it’s taken for granted that the lifestyle goes with the clothes it becomes imperative to know whether something is Ivy or not. But this, it seems to me, is an a-historical proposition. The Ivy Style may have started on elite campuses and with moneyed Northeastern families but it spread and flourished in a world where the middle class was taking control of the consumer landscape and imposing its financial will over manufacturers and retailers. It is very likely that Ivy Style would be virtually unknown to us today if it had not been for the middling sorts who spent their increasing disposable incomes on natural shouldered jackets and penny loafers. Their lifestyles would have been very different from the kinds of people who sent their children to Ivy League schools in the 1950s and 60s. This is to say nothing about the black jazz stars who embraced the style as their music enchanted white audiences around the world. Audiences who still frequently disallowed their presence at any white institutions other than entertainment venues.
These non-elites weren’t just passive consumers of Ivy-styled garments. The connection between foundational Ivy items like khaki trousers and middle class World War 2 veterans is well established. So too are the working class roots of staple Ivy fabrics like seersucker and madras, appropriated by well to-do Eastern elites and turned into fine tailored clothing. Ivy never existed in a bubble.
In recent decades historians have emphasized the negotiated character of the phenomenon of slavery in American history. Where previously the assumption had been that slavery was something imposed from above by all powerful white masters, now the institution is recognized as a product of both white and black actions. The agency of slaves to control their own environment was certainly nowhere near equal to that of their masters, but to take black agency out of the picture altogether is to miss an important part of the story and to disempower a marginalized group even further.
Clothes seem trivial in comparison to the life and death struggles of slaves and masters. Still, the changing way in which scholars view the past has much to teach us about the way we dress. Deidre Clemente, in Dress Casual: How College Students Redefined American Style, demonstrates that the economically powerful middle class, and college students in particular, largely drove the styles that retailers produced, not the other way around.
The widespread adoption of Ivy by middle class Americans couldn’t help but alter the style from an elite tradition into something more democratic. Instagram user @benjaminjlevy embodies the tattooed, madras wearing, middle ground between the establishment and the radical. Neither he nor, in all likelihood, the mass of Americans who adopted the style, asked if what they were doing was Ivy. They just did it and made it look good.
All this to say that I begin to think that my friend was right. Wearing an oxford shirt or gray flannels doesn’t necessarily imply moneyed privilege any more than it implies good manners (apologies to Tom Ford) or a love of the sea. The mistaken belief that to wear Ivy clothes one must be authentically Ivy, either in behavior or blood, is to view the past through squinted eyes. Things seem like they come into focus but only because much of the information is being blocked out. The confusing jumble of hallowed ivy covered halls, raunchy jazz clubs, sweat an toil, and nine-to-five company men all make up the Ivy Style we know today. Better than asking “Is it Ivy?” ask “Is it me?” Living well and being your own authentic self is as Ivy as it gets.
It’s just clothes after all. — PANI M.