Maybe it’s because I’m a photographer myself, maybe it’s because I’m from a town and work at a club which he photographed on multiple occasions, or maybe it’s because I, like anyone else, don’t mind looking at glossy pictures of “attractive people in attractive places doing attractive things” (his words, not mine), but I’ve always been drawn to the photography of Slim Aarons.
For those who don’t know, Slim Aarons was a society photographer for multiple magazines in a prospering postwar society. His photographs chronicled the lives of the jet-set crowd from as early as the 1940s to as late as the ’90s. Many criticize him and his work for being too mixed up with this group, but the truth is Aarons’ work is an impressive and significant look into a bygone era whose residues remain only in small sects of places where it once flourished. The work has gone on to inspire professionals in countless industries, from fashion to landscape architecture, art to real estate.
While Ivy-Style.com narrates the sartorial and lifestyle traditions of the upper echelon of the middle class, Aarons’ work, with a few notable exceptions, typically documented the elites of the upper class. But in those days, the “upper class” was not just classified by those with the most money. It meant, for one, coming from a tradition of money, but also, a tradition of taste and sensibility: a tradition where rules were put in place for a reason. In that line, there are a great deal of connections between the upper and the upper-middle classes. That is why I think it is with justification that we can examine the work and look for connections to the sect of society we take our cues from.
After his career as a war photographer during World War II, Aarons went on to document those who would travel between Palm Beach and Martha’s Vineyard, those who had the title Count or Lady before their names, those who played polo rather than, say, basketball. In documenting this class of people, he documented what they wore. There are, of course the stereotypes of the man in Key West wearing Lilly Pulitzer pants, the woman skiing in Stowe with a turtleneck under a heavy Norwegian sweater, and the New York businessman in a well fitting suit splashed across the pages of Aarons’ many collections. But what his lens really captured was a group of people wearing clothing that not only fit their respective bodies, it fit the lives they lead. It was not only practical, but it was elegant, it remained useful while being striking.
If you’re lucky enough to come across his original publication, A Wonderful Time (1975), the only book he published during his career (a seller with a good condition copy would not be overstepping to ask $1,000), you’ll see a collection of his work pre-1975. The photos are as tantalizing as they are mesmerizing. You could spend upwards of an hour looking at every detail of a single photograph. And while the cars, the estates, the horses, the vintage sporting equipment and so on are just as fun to look at, us vestiary-minded look immediately to the clothes. So what do we see when we look at the clothes? Well, in order to examine the clothing, we have to examine specific looks portrayed in specific photos.
When leafing through the pages of A Wonderful Time, which is broken up first by areas of the United States, then by areas of the world, my gaze fixates upon a man on his Vermont farm (top image) wearing a blue OCBD, straight-fit chinos and a brown leather belt that matches the brown of the boots. Nothing about this outfit jumps at you, it doesn’t scream for your attention, but it does make you stop and realize the care put into it as well as its practicality.
Next up is Newport, where a man and his wife attend a party. The gentleman is wearing a Prince of Wales sport coat paired with a simple black tie and timeless black sunglasses. Again, nothing to scream for our attention. Here the importance is placed more on the “looking good” than it is the practicality, but the outfit is very much fitting for the environment they inhabit. And again, the details are what bring the outfit to life: three chest buttons, two cuff buttons, a natural shoulder, a half-Windsor knot on the tie and, of course, a well cut fit. An outfit that was just as cool then as it is now.
From Newport, the reader boards a virtual plane whose next stop is New Jersey. This is a picture of a man on his estate shortly before skeet shooting. If we take a step back and focus less on the details here and more on the overall outfit, we see a man dressed for what he is doing but not at the expense of his dignity. To me, the look on his face and relaxed pose say it all.
The plane then lands in Palm Beach with a picture of Lilly Pulitzer’s brother, Peter. This picture wreaks of a term I love to use, “casual elegance”. While he is true to his Ivy staples — pink OCBD, understated belt, straight-fit khakis — the details here, unlike the previous two photos, matter less. It’s about the way he carries himself. Although just a photograph, an old one at that, there’s something that gets transmitted when looking at this photo, a sense of both confidence and nonchalance. That sense is the essence of not just the Ivy style but of any style.
Staying in Palm Beach, we next visit a polo match shortly after the conclusion of play and make our way to the car where Laddie Sanford, an experienced champion, takes a load off. This photo is not so much significant for the clothes themselves, but for two other reasons. First, the sporting lifestyle that was such a huge part of both the upper and upper-middle classes. This lifestyle is where many of the clothes came from, and no single better sport embodies that more than polo. Secondly, this individual photo is responsible for launching hugely important marketing campaigns from both Tommy Hilfiger as well as Ralph Lauren. It is also said this photo was an important early influence on Lauren when he was just starting out with Polo.
Moving still south we land on Jamaica. This fellow is dressed in head-to-toe Go To Hell. While this photo represents the less practical side, we can look at the details. Loafers (without socks), check. Cuffs, check. Three buttons (middle done up, top folded), check. Natural shoulders, check. A look saying “I can wear this while still maintaining respect and taste, how about you?” Check.
And finally we arrive in Acapulco, where a man can be seen sporting a popped collar underneath a cashmere v-neck sweater. While other looks in the book might not be exactly Ivy, this one is textbook. An outfit that posses practicality, timelessness, and the ability to cross classes surely deserves commemorating.
To say the look that these socialites, these counts and countesses, these fifth-generation Bostonians with summer houses in Maine were wearing was the same as the Ivy League look would be a stretch. However, there are many obvious parallels. For example, the practicality of the clothes. While some clothes might, on the surface seem rather garish, for the environment they were in, they made sense. We also see the parallel of casual elegance, of brimming confidence with a slight air of aloofness. Those that wore the Ivy League Look during the heyday, the sons of doctors and bankers on elite college campuses, knew they were doing pretty well and things to come looked pretty promising for them, and along with that notion came an intangible conviction to their walk, even to the way they styled their clothes. And if that crowd had their fair share of confidence, those that Aarons photographed must have been teeming with it: the way they posed for the shots, the way their ascots fell ever-so-effortlessly. And finally, there’s the connection of the details. The cuffs in the pants, the single strand pearl necklaces on the ladies, the madras Bermuda shorts and penny loafers, the natural-shouldered jackets. Just like the practitioners of the Ivy League Look, those in the upper class had a set of rules to follow, and, again similar to those dressing in the Ivy style, sometimes it was more fun to break the rules.
Many argue that this class of people and this way of life have vanished. I would disagree. While is is impossible to deny that things have certainly changed since the jet-set lived their lives of privilege one step removed, perhaps one step above, the rest, I would argue that they, like everybody else, just became victims of changing times and changing ways of life.
I come from a town where equestrianism is the supreme activity, where the wealthiest family in town drives a 10-year-old Volvo station wagon (and so do about 50% of the rest of the residents), and where Aarons once photographed some fifty or sixty years ago. So maybe my vision is distorted or biased, but it seems to me that the class that was once looked at as being so much above the rest that it was impossible to get into their circles has not gone away so much as they have come back down to earth a little bit. Rather than vacationing in Newport and the Connecticut coast, Kennebunkport and Bar Harbor, they vacation in Siesta Keys or Malibu. Rather than playing tennis in all whites, they don the bright colors that the professionals can be seen sporting. Rather than sending their kids to Groton School or Milton Academy where their fathers went, they might opt for the less expensive, closer to home prep-school, or maybe even a public high school. In other words, the upper class that was once so different from the rest, are becoming (and have become) more and more like the rest of us.
That is not to say that there aren’t any left of those that live their lives in a different reality; I can speak from years of first hand experience that there are. It just seems that what remains of their once-flourishing culture is now experienced by an infinitesimally more small group than fifty some odd years ago.
And so, just like the lifestyles and culture, there are very few that remain stewards of the look of this bygone era. Be it the Ivy League Look and preppy style; whether it’s showing up to a company party wearing a blue blazer and Go-To-Hell pants, or walking your golden retriever wearing a turtleneck under a chamois shirt, the vestiges of the look remain relevant in everyday life. Whether that number is higher than those experiencing the lifestyle once reserved for the top of the top, well let’s just say that the looks of this era have stood the test of time better than taking a flight to Gstaad to have an alfresco picnic on the alps. — TREVOR JONES
Trevor Jones is from Hamilton, MA, and a student at Salve Regina University in Newport, RI. In 2017, he photographed, wrote and designed the coffee table book “The Cape Ann Region.”