How Ivy Is It To Talk Ivy?

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 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.

61 Comments on "How Ivy Is It To Talk Ivy?"

  1. Reactionary Trad | September 22, 2017 at 12:30 pm |

    It’ not just clothes at all for me. It’s a conscious connection with tradition and a silent rebellion against the decline in standards not only of dress but of civilized behavior.

  2. What Reactionary Trad said. Been that way for me since I knew how to dress. Finding Ivy Style was just a matter of time.

  3. It is a link to the past, a particular past, both personal and larger than personal, and it is a matter of enduring taste, what looks good, what is time tested and proven.

  4. Charlottesville | September 22, 2017 at 4:05 pm |

    I tend to agree that, for some of us, traditional dressing is part of a conscious rebellion against a culture that is slovenly about many things, including wardrobe. Like the author of this post, I did not go to an Ivy League school, and came to the look more from a southern tradition than from the New England original. For me, it is part of a sense of history, as well as a personal aesthetic statement about what I like and what I believe is appropriate. My tendency to wear suits most days in the office, rather than sport coats, runs counter to the casualness that Christian and others often note as a hallmark of the Ivy look, but penny loafers, OCBDs, double-soled long-wings and the like are in line with the look and are a regular part of my kit. And I would contend that my 3/2 sack suits are as heyday-correct, and certainly as comfortable, as any sport coat. Sure it is “just clothes” but then Cary Grant was just an actor, Jean Georges Vongerichten is just a cook, and Frank Sinatra was just a singer. Clothing may not be high art, and need not be expensive, but can certainly be part of a well-lived life.

  5. I’m sorry, but chest tattoos don’t say “ivy,” they say “hipster.”

    The cigarette is another clear giveaway.

  6. Charlottesville, thanks for that response. I would say that neither my friend nor myself would say that it’s “just clothes” in order to minimize it. It’s just to say that you can be a radical or reactionary, a worker or a boss, and still wear Ivy clothes just as “authentically” as anyone else.

  7. Mitchell S. the point of the piece is to say that hard categorizations like that are difficult to justify. Chest tattoos may not have been Northeastern Elite, but the things that came together to make the Ivy Style we know today were never strictly Northeastern Elite styles.

  8. Charlottesville | September 22, 2017 at 4:57 pm |

    Thanks, CM. I suppose my style might be called radically reactionary. Hope you have a great weekend. Supposed to be beautiful weather here.

  9. “It’s just clothes,” True, but great clothes and timeless. Regardless of one’s reasons, we really are the cultural insurgents of the hear and now at least in clothing. 😉

  10. Mac, well put.

  11. “… is part of a sense of history, as well as a personal aesthetic statement…”

    Damn, Charlottesville, you–well, you just nailed it. again.

  12. “I’m sorry, but chest tattoos don’t say “ivy,” they say “hipster.”

    The cigarette is another clear giveaway.”


  13. Mac McConnell

    If your an insurgent in clothing or anything else, then my French Bulldog can pass as a French Poddle. As my daughter would say — “get real”.

  14. H. Korn
    Take a moment to look around at our culture, fashion and our institutions, then tell me why anything conservative, even attire, isn’t the real insurgency in our PC times.

  15. Not to mention that the photo of the guy in this piece looks like one of CC’s despised “bros”.

  16. “Take a moment to look around at our culture, fashion and our institutions, then tell me why anything conservative, even attire, isn’t the real insurgency in our PC times.”


  17. It’s quite obvious that for that unshaven, chest-tattooed, cigarette-smoking person in the photo, clothes are just clothes.

  18. Real ivy leaguers know the difference between “your” and “you’re” and to use “here and now”, not “hear and now”.

    Wannabes can’t fake education and class. The way you write and speak is a dead giveaway–no matter what you’re wearing.

  19. KT
    I’ve never pretended to be anything but middle class with a small Midwest university education. If you followed my post you would know that. When you grow up, you will know that being Ivy League only bestows on you credentials, not honor or moral high ground or good taste. If pointing out my poor spelling and inadvertent word usage while ripping off a short post is all you got, then you’ve got nothing.

  20. In the age of auto-correct and voice to text (which I use a lot) criticizing spelling is pretty low hanging fruit. I knew what you were trying to say and that’s good enough.

  21. Houghton Mead | September 23, 2017 at 8:24 am |

    Correct spelling, grammar, and word choice are a sign of respect for your audience.

  22. And is trying to shame someone for incorrect use of the same a sign of respect? Seems rather petty.

  23. Houghton Mead | September 23, 2017 at 9:18 am |

    Correcting one’s spelling, grammar, and word choice should lead one to be more careful about such matters. View it as a service to be appreciated.

  24. Charlottesville | September 23, 2017 at 10:19 am |

    Thanks, S.E. You are too kind. I don’t want to jump into the middle of someone else’s fight, but Caustic Man is right. It is very easy to make a spelling error in a blog comment, particularly if one is using a smart phone. I frequently note some grammatical or spelling error just as I hit the “Send” key, and auto-correct and spell-check, while a boon to me on many occasions, also increase the chance of inadvertently substituting “your” for “you’re” or “hear” for “here” if I am in a hurry and insufficiently vigilant. A blog comment is not a legal brief or a resume, where absolute accuracy is essential in both spelling and grammar. Nor can one clean up typos after posting. In a world where “U R SO DUM LOL” passes for a witty rejoinder on so many sites, I think that we can afford to be a bit more gracious to our fellow commenters.

  25. And to comment on their actual arguments, rather than spelling and grammar errors that are not significant barriers to understanding what they are saying.

  26. Speliing and grammer errers ar knot meer detales, they interfear with the seriosness of a mesage.

  27. “Living well and being your own authentic self is as Ivy as it gets.”

    No. This is one of those lofty generalities that soothe and affirm every postmodern sensibility (“I am who I am, and that’s pretty awesome, right?”), but, well, no.

    Mr. Press, who ought to know, told us precisely what Ivy was a while back. This is a clumsy paraphrase, but it was (and is) an American interpretation of British clothing with snob appeal. There it is.

    If somebody’s being his/her authentic self, fine by me so long as no harm’s done. But if they’re doing it while wearing a black leather bikers jacket, ripped Levi’s, and Doc Martens–well, the person isn’t “as Ivy as it gets.” I mean, come on.

    The old Langrock ad remains a helpful corrective. But if we need pictures, then, for the love of Ivy, let’s revisit the J. Press ’61 catalog as often as possible. With that and thanks to Muffy here it is.
    Scroll down:

  28. S.E. your point is well taken but that’s not quite what I was trying to argue. My point is that a person can authentically wear Ivy Style clothes regardless of their class, behavior, or school affiliation.

  29. I think, in my absolutely modest opinion, that Ivy is a mix from old and classic clothes to other more modern and sportswear style, like football jackets. But I absolutely don’t think it’s just a way of dress, this style represent the NE way of life, the prestigious Ivy League style, I think that were we go, the people who whom we talk, etc, is all and indicator of how much we are Ivy.

  30. Tiziano, so Ivy exists on a spectrum? The next logical question then is at what point does one stop being Ivy based on the criteria you had in mind? Are some things more important than others? It seems to me that it’s a very complicated proposition. Far simpler if we just say that the clothes look nice and leave it at that.

  31. Football jackets or let’s just say football is a lot like Ivy. Both has it’s origins in the Ivy League, football was invented there. The NE lost it’s exclusivity of Ivy, just like football a long time ago. In the case of Ivy very soon after WWII.

    Grace can get you into heaven, it can also save you from getting your teeth kicked in by your imagined inferiors. Advice from my father.

  32. Mac McConnell

    I have read many of the comments that you have posted on this site. I was taught that a civilized, educated, and well-mannered man is a gentleman. Mr. McConnell, in my opinion you are a gentleman, and a well-dressed one to boot.

    I was also taught that an educated, churlish, rude, and ill-mannered man is a boor. I have found that many of the boors that I have meet like to flatter themselves by believing that other people envy their educational and family background.

    I hope you have a pleasant weekend.

  33. Charlottesville | September 23, 2017 at 12:50 pm |

    S.E. — I tend to agree. Ivy is Ivy, and is not endlessly mutable. There may be some latitude, but eventually if all the rules are thrown out, it is no longer Ivy. Can Ivy embrace a 2-button closure? Sure. Darts? I guess so. Pleated pants? Yeah. A spread collar? Maybe. There is precedent for each of these, but at some point it becomes something else. A tweed 3/2 sack coat worn with a repp tie, khakis and and a lavender OCBD? Purple is not a classic heyday color, but I would say that this combination is still Ivy. A pair of patchwork madras shorts with a wife-beater and a sleeve of tattoos is not Ivy. Nor do I think that everyone would want to dress in pure Ivy style. There are lots of stylish, non-Ivy dressers. I would not mind swapping wardrobes with Prince Charles, at least occasionally. And Ralph Lauren probably would not say that the double-breasted chalk stripe suits or cowboy hats and jeans he wore in the 80s were Ivy, but he always looked great, so who cares? But as for me, I wish I could order from that 1961 J. Press catalog. What great clothes. Where can I get that tab-club-collar shirt in blue and white U stripe? And let’s not forget that even heyday Ivy had some leeway for eccentricity. It was fun, for example, to see the Austrian velour hats on offer at Press in ’61. I have always had a soft spot for those Alpine hats. I’m not sure that I would wear one, but they are so wonderfully 60s, like something from an episode of The Saint or Mission Impossible. So wear what you want, but if you refer to a single-button, blue Armani sport coat and gray skinny jeans as Ivy, then the term has no meaning.

  34. It’s a safe guess that plenty of “educated, churlish, rude, ill-mannered” men bought clothes at J. Press and Brooks throughout the 20th century. They may have occasionally lacked manners but by God they had good taste.

    I wonder if it’s possible to stop the on-and-on about what’s Ivy style and just go with the historical record. Americanized British clothing–with lots of snob appeal. Period.

    Again and again and again and again, it’s this:

  35. Charlottesville | September 23, 2017 at 12:55 pm |

    Good advice, Mac. And I agree with Mr. Korn’s gentlemanly assessment.

  36. Want to know just how wide spread Ivy was in America, then check out the cities J. Press reps visited in SE’s post of their catalog. Even though we had Ivy shops locally, in HS we would skip class to drive downtown Kansas City’s Muehlebach Hotel to meet the Press rep. Same went for the Brooks Brother’s rep when they were in town.
    Everyone would discus our new catalogs from Press, Brooks, Cable Car and others arriving in our mail boxes. Truth be told much of what they sold were the same make as what we could get in our local shops, mostly the exception of made to measure and of course Press’ venerable history.

  37. S.E.
    Thanks for reminding us that we still owe a lot of thanks to Muffy.
    Gratitude is another characteristic of a gentleman.

  38. Looking at your friend’s Instagram, I’d say he looks like a man who breaks today’s rules of conservative dress in a way that shows familiarity with those rules, much in the same way as presumably the Ivy style did in its day. So he is right: it looks like it’s about the clothes, but it’s really not.

  39. Long live Muffy.

  40. Ditto to you S.E. for sharing those worthwhile links.

  41. Carmelo Pugliatti | September 23, 2017 at 11:33 pm |

    Thank you Muffy,God bless you,

  42. Muffy’s blog is great and informative but she used to be more active. Wonder why she changed.

  43. Parker Bradford | September 24, 2017 at 1:07 am |

    Muffy Aldrich’s blog, “The Daily Prep”, which is now called “Salt Water New England”, was–along with CC’s Ivy Style–one of the the major sources of much of our pleasure and knowledge about things Ivy/Trad. Muffy was the unfortunate victim of a holier-than-thou “exposé” because she had adopted the on-line persona of a New Englander, as if this was something uncommon in the worlds of literature, journalism, and entertainment. Fortunately, her old posts are still available.

  44. Am I the only one who is really disturbed by the photo at the top?

  45. Palio W | September 24, 2017 at 3:06 am |

    “Am I the only one who is really disturbed by the photo at the top?”

    No, you’re not alone in that sentiment, Palio.

    It’s disturbing to see such a blatant example of the descent of Americans into a barbaric Trailer Park Nation here at where we are accustomed to seeing examples of civilized attire and behavior.

  46. Does anyone know where the J. Press store in San Francisco was located? I’m just curious. Odds are a very young me walked by it with some frequency but it wouldn’t have been on my radar at the time.

  47. Sunny In Newport | September 24, 2017 at 10:04 am |

    Muffy’s the real deal. It’s just a question of what deal that is.

  48. Mr. Bradford, haven’t been able her older posts, where are they? Sounds like she was exposed as a phony and went near-incognito, interesting. Either way, SWNE has some lovely posts.

  49. From what I can tell I’ll bet Mr. Levy is way better dressed and far more enjoyable to hang out with than bitter old men backbiting strangers on the internet. You can talk about proper behavior all you’d like, but if your preferred past-time is cattily tearing down people online like teenage girls, you need to revisit your etiquette notes.

    As for Mrs. Daily Prep, she always seemed perfectly lovely. It was her nasty husband that poked the tiger with his shady past (including racist articles as an undergrad) and his renunciation of his given surname. I’ll take chest tattoos over unethical, evil-minded internet behavior any day.

  50. Speaking of which, It is interesting to note that etiquette books were largely marketed to middle-class people looking to establish a semblance of gentility. I mean, you only need a book of etiquette if you didn’t grow up knowing how to do this stuff in the first place.

    All this talk about being a gentleman. Just be one.

  51. The guy at the top also needs to wash his hair.

  52. I started smoking in my late teens so that I could look like Sean Connery in Dr. No. Who is this fellow emulating? He look not dissimilar to Ratzo Rizzo from Midnight Cowboy to me.

    Is it who or whom?

    What is the meaning of the “This” at the end of a couple of posts above?


  53. I started smoking at about thirty. Although I occasionally bummed a fag from women I dated in college who smoked, for obvious reasons. I’ve got no tats, don’t find them appealing.

    One other confession, I’ve got a handlebar mustache. I grew it for some cancer charity and kept it. I was going for the Lord Kitchener look, but it sadly looks like a hybrid Lord Kitchener / Gene Shalit look. 😉

    Live and let live. The guy in the photo above reminds me of a Tim Martinsen from high school, he had a nice wardrobe, fun to party with, but saturday night you never knew if he would pick you up in a stolen car or not. He became an optometrist, so you never know..

  54. Sack

    “This” is the most apt thing I’ve read, and I can’t think of any thing else to add. It’s internet lingo invented by and now overused by these kids today. Are you down with that?

  55. whiskeydent

    Word up, my cracker.


  56. SFSteve:

    Both the 1969-70 and 1980 editions of Polk’s San Francisco directory give the address of J. Press Inc. (men’s clothiers) as 233 Post Street, 2nd floor. John O. Kennedy was manager (hard to discern in these books, it may have been O’Kennedy.)

  57. Finally got around to checking back here — thanks very much Old School. If it was on the second floor, I was undoubtedly ignorant of its existence. Apparently one had to be in the know in order to locate it, but I’ll bet the rent was reasonable.

  58. Mr. Armstrong may not have a place in the trad pantheon a la Mile Davis, nevertheless his famous statement: “If you have to ask what jazz is you will never know” is a propos.

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