We bring our series on elegance to a close with these thoughts from the founder.
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Take a look at this photo of former Esquire columnist George Frazier, author of “The Art Of Wearing Clothes.” There’s the Russell Plaid suit jacket, Churchill dot tie, and buttondown shirt — all pretty standard fare. But then there are the personal touches: the longish hair of the artiste, the boutonniere, and of course the cigarette with finger articulation straight out of Leyendecker’s sketchbook. If the sum total of the photo isn’t elegance, it’s at least sophistication, which is its first cousin.
Historic documents on the Ivy League Look reveal the breadth, quality and formality of the college student’s wardrobe in the aristocratic ’30s. But while neatness, correctness, quality and even panache within the boundaries of good taste were always virtues of the Ivy look, elegance is rarely mentioned. Indeed it was likely considered a vice in the deepest recesses of the preppy/Ivy tribe, smacking of outsiders and arrivistes. “Try For Elegance,” the 1959 novel based on author David Loovis’ experience at Brooks Brothers, sounds like a title his publisher chose.
In our lively comments section, some of the less broad-minded seem to insist that Ivy is a specific look. It’s easy to get that impression for the younger among us, those who’ve never seen first-hand the breadth of variety during the heyday at a legendary clothier such as Langrock. But I prefer to think of Ivy as a genre from which one can choose from a wider-than-you-think array of items to find one’s personal style. I can see the cool in the Ivy genre, and I can also see the elegance. But I suppose that’s because I can appreciate those qualities in other things as well, from the cool of Monk’s “In Walked Bud” to the elegance exhibited in the classicism and restraint of my favorite composer, Gabriel Fauré.
According to his biographer, George Frazier had practically an obsession with pink oxfords from Brooks Brothers. On a preppy kid with a green sweater draped over his shoulders, the shirt would create one kind of effect. On Frazier, with cigarette, martini and quick wit (not to mention, for a time, a home address at The Plaza Hotel), the effect would have been quite another. Elegance may not be an intrinsic quality of the Ivy League Look, but in the end what counts is always what you bring to your clothes, not what they give to you. — CHRISTIAN CHENSVOLD
Elegance Week and Halloween collide in this last-minute costume idea courtesy of this ad from a 1936 edition of The Daily Princetonian.
Just dust off your old tux, head off to that Halloween party, and say you’re dressed as an elite college kid from the thirties. Since no student dresses this way today, it qualifies as costume.
Don’t fall asleep without brushing your sugar-soaked teeth tonight. We’ll conclude our series on elegance tomorrow with a little show and tell from me. — CHRISTIAN CHENSVOLD
In the 1984 prepsloitation movie “Making The Grade,” protagonist Eddie gets invited to a black-tie event. To learn how to properly deport himself, he and two of his prep-school buddies study Cary Grant, the master of looking cool and elegant in a dinner jacket.
The entire movie is up on YouTube, so you can sneak glimpses of your favorite scene while at your workstation, or watch it on your mobile device while waiting at the dentist’s office. If you haven’t seeen it, it’s worth a few chuckles, and, like “The Official Preppy Handbook,” is an important social document of the ’80s preppy trend. The Cary Grant scene starts at 42:42. — CC
As Ivy Style’s Elegance Week continues, assistant editor Christopher Sharp presents this homage to the man who wrote the book on the subject.
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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
I’ve seen every masculine change in fashion from the “drape shape with the reet pleat” zoot suit of the WW II years to the latest “New Bohemian” look from Dries Van Noten, and the way I dress is still imprisoned by the years of my youth. But my appreciation of style is not, so I have indeed come to appreciate a great variety of looks that I wouldn’t myself attempt. Thom Browne and Junya Watanabe are creative and important, but not for me personally.
I’m stuck in the Anglo-American years of the 1950s and early 60s. I’m not the only one who can tell this story, but I’m the only one who can say what it meant to me. When the Ivy League style grabbed me in the early 50s, I sold my prole gear and bought a Harris Tweed sports jacket. And you never forget your first one. But I soon discovered what has remained for me the epitome of elegance: the gray flannel suit.
I’d saved the money I made from a part-time job when I was a junior in high school, and commissioned a made-to-measure medium- gray flannel suit from a local shop: single-breasted, three-button rolled to two, side vents, narrow trousers. I can see it as though it were yesterday, and I’ve never been without a gray flannel suit ever since. At the moment I’ve got three: a single-breasted, three-piece Cambridge gray solid flannel, a medium gray, chalk-striped single-breasted three-piece, and a medium gray double-breasted gray flannel.
In the 50s, the medium- and charcoal-gray flannel suit were the classic uniform of the EE (Eastern Establishment), “the man in the gray flannel suit” became the American national symbol of corporate conformity and conventionality, as the Great democracy assumed a sartorial stance of exaggerated understatement. The suit – with no padding, no darts, no pleats, and a single vent and narrow lapels – represented a balance between comfort and sobriety, and was accompanied by small-brimmed fedoras, purposefully casual buttondown shirts, narrow neckwear, and slip-ons. For the British, who watched their empire disappear in the wake of the war, it was a difficult pill to swallow, as English fashion historian John Taylor makes clear:
But Americans came to power parallel with the universal acknowledgement of the tenets of democracy, and their relative riches were a perennial source of embarrassment to them. Perforce, they tried to avoid any too vulgar indication of it in front of a penurious world or, alternatively, to convince themselves and the world that the trappings of success did not really matter.
Taylor hated what he thought was the “simulated negligence” of the buttondown and the rest of the Ivy League look, but that was what believed – and still do believe – was the great strength of it. The gray flannel suit is the epitome of this approach for me precisely because it has a dehabille, a slightly rumpled nonchalance denied to crisp worsteds. It’s got an easy elegance that can’t be beaten in a tailored garment. And of course I can always wear the trousers with my Harris Tweed sports jacket. — G. BRUCE BOYER
Bit loafers are one of those polarizing items in the genre. But love them or hate them, they’re certainly a step up in sophistication from penny loafers (which is why the OPH calls them “strictly post-collegiate”). We last featured them on Ivy Style with this photo of Fred Astaire, who is surprisingly sporting them with double-breasted flannel suit, oxford buttondown and satin tie (a recipe for elegance right there).
On Tuesday Oak Street Bootmakers released its new bit loafer in black and brown. Made in the US of Horween calfskin, it is priced at $328. That’s a fair price for American-made footwear that shouldn’t polarize anyone. — CC
Yesterday fashion luminary Oscar de la Renta died at age 82 at his home in Kent, Connecticut. The Ivy Style team had been preparing a series of posts on the concept of elegance, and when news broke of de la Renta’s death, Richard Press quickly revised his latest column, once again showing that King Richard The Forty-Fourth has a connection to damn near every person of note from the past 60 years. And so, on an otherwise dolorous day in the world of glamor and style, Ivy Style herein commences Elegance Week.
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Yesterday saw the passing of of Oscar de La Renta, who happens to be connected to the subject of the column I was working on. His widow Annette is daughter of the late Charles Engelhard, Jr., who established the gold standard of elegance at J. Press.
Engelhard’s wardrobe alliance with J. Press began in the mid-’30s at St. Paul’s School, where he patronized the regular J. Press travel exhibits, continued at the Princeton shop on Nassau Street, nearly coming to a woeful end in 1957 at the J. Press second-floor store on the corner of Madison Avenue and 44th Street. Charles Engelhard, Jr. graduated from Princeton in 1939, joined the Army Air Corps in 1941, earning the rank of captain as bomber pilot during World War II. Upon the death of his father in 1950, he inherited the family business and substantially expanded operations in South Africa, South America and Europe, becoming one of the world’s leading refiners of precious metals.
In a 1969 feature, Sports Illustrated called him The Platinum King, mogul of a vast economic empire, who pleasured himself with Cokes, Hershey’s Kisses, and the operation of a multimillion-dollar stable that competes on three continents. Here’s a quote:
That morning in the Aiken, South Carolina stable Engelhard was sockless, his fleece dipped in fleece-lined hide boots. He wore two sweaters, a bulky scarlet and a blue which rolled and bunched over mustard slacks— disordered clothing that would hardly fit the image of an international tycoon.
Whenever Mr. Engelhard got off the elevator on 44th Street, Walter Napoleon made certain there were plenty of iced Coca-Colas and a bowl of Hershey Kisses next to the swatches.
One day, however, he had an experience much less sweet. Mr. Engelhard (as he was always called) was in the midst of his annual winter visit when a worker crashed through a fake ceiling with the air conditioning unit he was installing, both landing between Engelhard and Walter Napoleon, star salesman and manager of the New York store. Bolts of woolens together with piles of swatch books were strewn around the wreckage between the two, yet miraculously nobody was hurt. Walter kept his pad and pencil out and, not missing a beat, Charlie continued to mark and select swatches.
The 1964 James Bond movie “Goldfinger,” adapted from Ian Fleming’s spy thriller of the same name, brought Engelhard unwanted celebrity. A man for all seasons, Fleming was author, journalist and a former British investigator in World War II. He was also a longtime Engelhard pal familiar with Engelhard’s intricate mineral and financial machinations, and modeled arch-fiend Auric Goldfinger on Mr. Engelhard.
Naming the Engelhard Library at the JFK School of Public Affairs failed to amuse the Harvard Crimson, which alleged that Engelhard’s Goldfinger-like machinations had beat restrictions on the export of newly mined gold by manufacturing solid gold art items, such as pulpit tops, dishe and bracelets. Once legally exported, they could be melted down into bullion again. London tabloids one-upped The Crimson, disclosing that Engelhard partied in an orange Goldfinger sweatshirt and called the stewardess of his private plane Pussy Galore.