In honor of Election Day, Ivy Style presents the second in its series of articles from the vaults of Time magazine. For this one, commentary is provided by a Washington insider writing under the pseudonym Taliesin.

Traditional Ivy style is rarely exhibited by the most visible Ivy League graduates: politicians.

For instance, George W. Bush (Yale, Harvard) and Barack Obama (Columbia, Harvard) are never seen wearing sack suits, button down collars, or regimental striped ties.

So when and why did establishment Ivy Leaguers abandon the Ivy look?

Goodbye to Wing Tips,” a Time article from 1973, captures the mood of an angry public that no longer wanted to see its leaders in traditional clothing. In the middle of Watergate, the establishment look — “three-piece Yale-gray suits, white shirts and club ties” — started to become a liability, and wilder, newer styles came to be seen as evidence of credibility — or at least as the absence of taint.

This, at least, was the contention of John T. Molloy, the “Dress for Success” author and wardrobe consultant. As America reeled from the political scandal that would force President Nixon’s resignation less than a year later, the article notes that “the more conservative the costume…  the shadier the image.”

Thirty-five years later, it’s unlikely that the Ivy League Look is associated with disrepute. After all, some of the heroes of Watergate wore sack suits, such as Elliot Richardson (pictured above in a photo by Richard Avedon) and Archibald Cox.

It’s harder to say if the look still conveys snobbishness, or instead has become a fashion option without class or establishment connotations. Today’s politicians almost uniformly prefer the boardroom executive look — strong-shouldered suits, spread-collar French-cuffed shirts, and tastefully plain neckties — as the way to convey reliability and seriousness.

It is this latter trait that Ivy items such as whale ties, red trousers and rumpled oxford-cloth shirts probably lack in the eyes of the average voter. Indeed, the Ivy look seems to occupy an unusual position between the extremely casual, denim-and-fleece clothing of most Americans, and the dressy executive style favored by politicians. This is a paradox, as many items of Ivy clothing come across as both too fashionable and too old fashioned, too casual and too dressed up. It is therefore understandable that risk-averse politicians and their image consultants would shy away from such uncontrollable and conflicting messages.

And yet, Time notes that even as the political establishment self-destructed, all was not lost for the Ivy League Look. Molloy advocated basic Ivy staples to enhance Senator Ted Kennedy’s credibility: “short hair parted on the side, blue blazers and gray flannel slacks, loafers and preppy ties.” The style, handled correctly and executed in its most basic terms, could still convey both seriousness and innocence in the darkest days of Watergate, and it most certainly can do the same today.

This is not the case for the clothing that, according to Time, sought to replace it:  “the mod suit with wide lapels and nipped waist worn over a pastel-patterned shirt.” — TALIESIN

Editor’s note: For more on George W. Bush’s uneasy relationship with his alma mater, including his eschewing of sockless Weejuns in favor of cowboy boots, see this Time article from 2001.

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