Tales From The Twilight: Dressing At The Height Of Western Civilization

prep boys

This is the latest installment in our occasional series on the fall of the Ivy League Look in the late ’60s. If you’d like to share your memories, use the contact button above.

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I was born in 1952, so I was 15 in 1967. A friend of mine says the height of Western Civilization was 1965 and we have been going downhill since.

Although I didn’t attend a New England prep school, the one I did attend was as close to one as anything Kentucky had to offer. Set in the middle of a college campus, it was originally designed to train teachers. It was private, tuition based, and exclusive for the region. We copied the dress of the college students who surrounded us. They, like most Southern college students in the ’60s, copied the Ivy League style. We didn’t have Brooks Brothers or J. Press, but we had some excellent local men’s stores who catered to the college crowd.

Gant oxford-cloth buttondowns, Shetland sweaters, khaki slacks — not chinos in the South — and Bass Weejuns were de rigueur. In the springtime, bright yellow or green “go to hell” pants were worn by the brave and the bold, usually with a bleeding madras shirt. Denim was not allowed and neither were shirts without collars. The locker loops on the Gant shirts were in constant peril of being pulled off by a young lady who fancied the wearer. Polo coats or stadium coats, London Fog raincoats, and Baracuta jackets were the accepted outerwear. Blazers, tweed, camel hair or linen jackets and three-piece suits were required attire for the regular dances. Formal occasions called for a tuxedo or dinner jacket.

The Beatles cracked the facade with that hair. I was the first rebel to have long hair. It was fall of 1968 and it just came over the top of my ears. Scandalous. Next came our spring senior trip to New York. We stayed in the Edison Hotel, which was a rat trap at the time. It did have the benefit of overlooking the theater where the original cast was performing “Hair.” I stayed up all night watching the ticket booth and made sure that I was the second in line for the standing-room-only tickets. After seeing the show, there was no avoiding the desperate urge to go down to Greenwich Village and buy the biggest elephant bellbottoms that I could find. I did have the good taste to get them in a wide-wale corduroy and have them cuffed. Back home they caused quite a sensation when I wore them to school, and the dress code just went to hell after that. Mea Culpa.

I went to Colorado College that fall, a school that was once known as a prep school with ashtrays, where Ivy style was adhered to more stringently than back east where it came from. But the times they were a-changin’.  While I still dressed the part for rush parties, and on the debate team, and whenever going out to eat at the Broadmoor or the Antlers, daily wear had shifted to wrinkled chambray shirts, bellbottom jeans, sneakers (Keds), and a down parka.

After college I went to work as a TV reporter in Nashville, Tennessee. Back to suits and ties, but we all wore polyester because it took a licking and kept on ticking. Besides, you really couldn’t tell the difference on TV. Leisure suits and winged collars made a thankfully brief appearance. Gradually my wardrobe began moving back to its roots. Tropical wool suits, rep ties, and collar-pinned shirts reclaimed my closet. Top-Siders magically reappeared on my feet whenever I had on a Lacoste polo.

Next stop was medical school. My buttondowns, khakis and rep ties became a little shopworn during these long years when I couldn’t afford to replace them, but they always did look a little better that way. We were expected to look professional. Thankfully, I had been brought up in the way.

Now, nearing the end of my career, I have come full circle. I wear Mercer shirts, O’Connell’s Shetlands, Bills Khakis and a Hardwick Navy blazer, two-button because it’s too damned hard to get a 3/2 roll in the South. My charcoal grey suit comes out mostly for funerals and weddings these days. I still love a tweed jacket when it cools off. This Sunday is Easter, and it will be warm enough down here that I plan to wear a brand new seersucker suit (outgrew the old one), a navy grenadine tie, red surcingle suspenders, and my 43-year-old pair of slightly dirty white bucks.

I will feel like a million dollars, but I will be one of only a few who still understand. I’m OK with that. They may come around yet. — MR

PS: I have been reading Ivy Style for some time now, but have never participated in your comments section. I was encouraged by your invitation, and hope I have provided you with something useful. It has been pleasant to reminisce. Thank you for all the pleasure you have given me by helping me recall and understand better the style of which I am so fond.

30 Comments on "Tales From The Twilight: Dressing At The Height Of Western Civilization"

  1. Marc Chevalier | May 22, 2016 at 1:50 pm |

    My friend says that the height of Western Civilization was just before Rousseau got published. I don’t disagree.

  2. Exactly. It’s been all downhill since “The Social Contract”!

  3. Wm. Alexander | May 22, 2016 at 2:10 pm |

    I too went to a private prep school in Kentucky, and nearly all of us spent summers up east, so all of us dressed the way we were used to dressing- Brooks Brothers, Lacoste, LL Bean, et cetera. Our school had a pack of beagles and horses, and our weekends were spent beagling or fox hunting, even if most students lived at home (the dorms were a recent addition and only housed about 25 students). Best school I could’ve gone to that wasn’t up east.

  4. White Pinpoint | May 22, 2016 at 2:43 pm |

    @MR

    It’s not all the difficult to find a 3/2 roll in the South; the truth of the matter is that many of us have grown up and realize that a two-button blazer looks as good as, if not better than a 3/2 roll. Yes, we did call them khaki slacks, and many of us still do.

  5. rvpress59 | May 22, 2016 at 2:57 pm |

    Ivy Style at it’s best via Kentucky. Marvelous recollection.

  6. Very interesting article on the evolution of men’s fashion.

  7. Those pictures–that’s a scene at a Southern liberal-arts college game day. Or on the way a KA mixer with Tri-Delts. And it’s a safe guess this is how the young gents at McCallie and VES look most days of the week. The abiding derision for the South among non-Southerners acknowledged, certain aspects of life below the Mason-Dixon remain positively splendid. “Standing athwart history yelling ‘Stop!'” and all that. Tradition!!

  8. MR, well done! Your first contribution is a dandy, no pun intended!! Thanks for the memories!

  9. I think African Americans (and women for that matter; as well as any other non-white group that benefited from immigration reform in 1965) the assessment that “the height of Western Civilization was 1965 and we have been going downhill since”. This seems, at the very least, like a myopic perspective.

  10. ooops! “African Americans…would disagree with the assessment….” 🙂

  11. Mark Russell | May 22, 2016 at 6:42 pm |

    @modcalifivy

    To quote Edward R. Murrow upon being criticized by the New York Times:

    “You may be right.”

  12. @modacalifivy

    Of course we all anticipated that point of view.

  13. Pietro Bruno | May 23, 2016 at 4:39 am |

    Christian,

    I liked your coinage “lastest”: a portmanteau of “last” and “latest”, I gather.

  14. @modacalifivy

    What immigration reform took place in 1965, pray tell?

  15. I wish I could say we all dressed that well at McCallie (late 90s/early 00s). I think my class was the one that made the administration institute a “solid colored shirt” rule by pushing the limits of the dress code with a lot of ugly plaid shirts with mismatched ties (thus they can’t help but automatically look better these days). More than a few of my classmates always dressed like it was laundry day (which, let’s face it, it rarely was). I dressed a little better than that, but I’m sure the fit of my clothes was way off, considering the times. Nonetheless, we were still dressed better than our peers from other local schools.

  16. The Hart–Celler Act of 1965 marked a radical break from the immigration policies of the past. Previous laws restricted immigration from Asia and Africa while it gave preference to northern and western Europeans over southern and eastern Europeans.

  17. @Pietro

    Thank god I have you guys to catch these things.

  18. I was also born in 1952 but public school educated and a private college in southeastern Ohio have a similar timeline. I have a cousin who was a few years older and who I looked up to and who dressed in the Ivy league tradition and I copied his style until college when I wore the occasional bell bottom pants and army jacket (but no leisure suits).After college wore Johnny Carson polyester suits for the same reasons mentioned by MR.

    But sometime around 1980 the light switch was turned back on and I went back to the button downs, khakis, boat shoes, tweeds, etc

  19. Yes, FJW, western civilization was granted a brief reprieve in 1980. Unfortunately, some of us did not see the light and tried to re-live the previous 13 or so years. It was shortly after that retail died in my neck ‘o’ the woods. In 1980 I purchased ,OTR, a blue flannel blazer with swelled edges, etc. Now, I can’t even find a MTM shop that knows what that means.

  20. S.Singleton | May 23, 2016 at 1:54 pm |

    @Wianno85
    Thanks for the details. After 51 years, I now know who was to blame.

  21. Charlottesville | May 23, 2016 at 2:02 pm |

    MR – Terrific reminiscence. I am bit younger, but recall the 60s clothing of my older brother and the utter downfall that we all saw in the early 70s. Thankfully, like you, a few of us returned to sanity. I recall the late 70s and 80s as fairly classic in my circle, although the world at large never got back on track after 1968 or so. Based on old photos, movies, magazine ads, etc., I think roughly 1958-63 was the golden age for both men’s and women’s clothes, although it didn’t fall apart all at once. I wish I still had the hand-me-down olive/brown Harris tweed sport coat and paisley ancient madder tie circa1968 that I inherited from my brother. Now he wears standard Jos. Bank like just about everybody else, and I have to special order or make a pilgrimage to J. Press in Washington or NY. As a fellow southerner, I’m also looking forward to breaking out my seersuckers, madras plaids and white bucks soon. Keep up the tradition!

  22. It seems to me that almost all of these stories share a similar theme of “coming back to my roots/returning to my upbringing” theme right around what would be late 70s or the early 80s for a lot of these guys. I wonder if this would have happened had the 80s not been the preppy decade. Of course, we’ll never know, but it’s an interesting thing to ponder.

  23. Charlottesville, did you happen to know the Rev. Canon Bruce Weatherly or his son, also an Episcopal priest?

  24. Charlottesville | May 24, 2016 at 1:43 pm |

    Daniel – I did not have the pleasure of knowing the Rev. Canon Weatherly or his family. Although he lived in Charlottesville for some time up to his death a few years ago, he attended a different Episcopal Church from my own and as far as I know our paths never crossed. Still, it’s interesting that you have a local connection. I understand that his son John is in Alexandria, Va. Were you by any chance at school or in the Army with John?

  25. No but Mr. Weatherly baptized me, was gathering documents for wedding preparation and found a lovely typed letter from him in the envelope with my baptismal certificate, checked online to see how he was doing and was sad to see he passed a few years ago. Small world!

  26. “khaki slacks”

    Adding “slacks” to the list that began with “frat,” “bro,” “limo,” and “tux.”

  27. Charlottesville | May 25, 2016 at 10:11 am |

    And congratulations to you, Daniel, assuming that the wedding preparations are your own. At 35 years and counting for my own marriage, I highly recommend getting hitched.

  28. You are right. 1965, The year I graduated from law school. However, unlike you and being a bit older, my tastes became largely fixed then. This remained so even though I went to NY and saw “Hair” in 1969. My own hair style never changed, even though there is far less of it now. I may have moved from Weejuns to Alden penny loafers, from Gant and Troy to Mercer, from Norman Hilton to Samuelsohn or Savile Row bespoke, but I still try to do my best to honor the best traditions of 50+ years ago.

  29. Mark Russell | May 29, 2016 at 12:15 pm |

    Wish I hadn’t been an Ivy prodigal, but am glad to hear that you had better sense.
    Our tastes run along the same lines. My suits are Samuelsohn. Just bought a replacement pair of Alden LHS shell loafers. I’m sure they will be able to bury me in this pair.
    Who do you use on Saville row?

  30. Ken Pollock | May 30, 2016 at 9:09 am |

    Actually, no one for quite a while, as I have gotten priced out. Fallon & Harvey was my best bet for a while, but Keith Fallon passed away very young. I thought his clothing was nearly equal to the things I have from Anderson & Sheppard and Huntsman. I also have some stuff from Kilgour and Davies, which I like less well. I still constantly wish that Samuelsohn, which could do it, would exactly replicate Norman Hilton’s Hampton and West End models.

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