The Arguably Eternal Style of JFK


On this long holiday weekend we revisit this 2013 post, which is dedicated to longtime reader RM.

* * *

Earlier this month the Dallas Morning News did a style tribute to JFK. There’s plenty to nitpick in the story, including the awkwardly oxymoronic line that Kennedy’s style influence is “arguably eternal,” but there were a few parts I thought interesting.

First off is this 1958 quote referring to “Brooks Brothers couture”:

“This night, Jack Kennedy — the young Eastern millionaire with the Harvard accent, the Brooks Brothers couture and the egghead ideas — had them standing on their chairs, whistling and shouting.” — Cabell Phillips, The New York Times, July 13, 1958

Later, the author paints this terse picture of Kennedy’s off-duty style:

 Off-duty, Kennedy’s style was as refreshing. His upper-class, Ivy League life before Washington meant growing up wearing that echelon’s staples: tweed sports coats, Shetland wool crew neck sweaters, brightly colored polo shirts, khakis and loafers.

Then we get this quote:

“He never looked shabby. It was his culture to dress better than he had to.”

 But the next part is most interesting as it reflects Main Street clothiers’ appropriating of the Ivy League Look during the heyday:

Said Derrill Osborn, the former vice president of men’s tailored clothing for Neiman Marcus: “Being a student of the Ivy League period, which took hold during John Kennedy’s three years as president, I can attest [it] was a great moment in clothes.”

“We copied him,” said Osborn, then a menswear buyer in New York for Saks Fifth Avenue stores. “I sold Ivy League by the carloads. It was really about the adoration the youth had with Kennedy and the Beatles. It was the early ’60s.”

Saks had long catered to the student population in college towns, but surely never sold Ivy by the carloads except during the heyday, which, like JFK’s Camelot, was fleeting. — CC

54 Comments on "The Arguably Eternal Style of JFK"

  1. How is “arguably eternal” awkwardly oxmoronic? “Arguably eternal” means that there is sufficient evidence to argue that JFK’s style influence is eternal.

  2. Wimpy phrase. Claim it as eternal or choose another word. Don’t call it eternal but then concede that the point is arguable.

  3. Hardly wimpy. Claiming that is eternal would sound like unsubstantiated advertising language. “Arguably eternal” suggests that there is evidence for the assertion.

  4. Hard to overestimate Jack Kennedy’s influence on the dress of college students at that time. So many of us chose to dress better than we had to because of his aura. We had nothing to do with fraternities, football, or prep schools, but we emulated his arguably influential style.

  5. Jeff Jarmuth | March 28, 2013 at 9:52 am |

    JFK’s the most stylish POTUS–ever. I don’t know how anybody can argue with that. I can’t imagine him taking style cues from anybody, especially college kids. He wore the same kind of clothes his entire life…you’ll find him wearing a Lacoste alligator polo in the mid-30s when they first were introduced. He always favored soft-shouldered silk tweed sport coats from Chipp, and he developed the more casual black tie-look way before others did. There’s one period in the late 40s and early 50s when you see him wearing some pretty hideous double-breasted suits that look like they’re from Macy’s, but, hey, it didn’t last, and anyway he had to fit-in with working-class Irish guys who had no sartorial clue whatsoever to get their votes.

  6. Philly Trad | March 28, 2013 at 10:24 am |

    “Effortless American Elegance”:

  7. Mitchell S. | March 28, 2013 at 10:54 am |

    In John F. Kennedy on Leadership: The Lessons and Legacy of a President, by John A. Barnes, Peter Lawford is said to have advised the young Senator Kennedy to eschew button-down collars. “Looks Juvenile,” he said.

  8. I go with TR or the original GW as best dressed POTUS-nothing like those pince-nez on TR or the silk suits and dress swords of Washington. . .preppiest? GHWB was a Squeeze man, correct?

  9. JFK’s style was as effortless and natural as Fred Castleberry’s is contrived and affected.

  10. Harvard accent? I did not know that Harvard had an accent.

    I also agree with d bloom, GHWB w

  11. Arguably, arguably is a meaningless modifier that ought never be allowed to appear in the final copy.

    It’s said that JFK eschewed hats because of his hair and his head shape, or because it made him look old. While fedoras flatter nearly everyone, there are those few oddly shaped noggins that are immune to the sartorial magic of a fedora. Perhaps JFK thought that his was one such melon, and decided to be Hatless Jack as a result.

  12. GHWB was a stone Prep. He had his uniform (not unlike WFB) he wore it and paid little attention to being a clothes guy. Clothes did not make the man in his book. The man in the clothes made the man.

  13. The man could wear the jacket, because he was the real deal.

  14. My votes go to both JFK and GHWB as the best dressed, in this order.
    Worst two Clinton and Obama.

  15. GHWB definitely had cooler clothes and I think Bobby dressed better than his brother, but neither had his good looks which makes all the difference in the world.

  16. Mr. Boyer on the late President Kennedy and his style:

  17. @ Jeff Jarmuth – You said, [JFK] had to fit-in with working-class Irish guys who had no sartorial clue whatsoever to get their votes.”

    Is that what you really believe? If so, that comment demonstrates a lack of class.

  18. Roy R. Platt | March 29, 2013 at 6:55 am |

    As to any style being eternal, although none of us will know how much of Ivy Style will still be around in 400 years, we all know how much of what we are going to wear today (or wore yesterday) was worn by King James VI 400 years ago.

  19. Jeff Jarmuth | March 29, 2013 at 10:17 am |

    Apologies to Thrift Store Preppy. I am sure that there were/are some working-class Irish guys who display great taste. I was only cribbing JFK’s own sentiments about how it was often awkward for him to canvass for votes in the district. Richard Reeve’s biography has some very funny stories about this very fact…

  20. President Kennedy’s personal style and its influence on my classmates and me (graduates of Central Catholic High School) is, even in hindsight, undeniable. Our school, being in Pittsburgh, did not necessarily identify with the bold colorful madras of our East Coast counterparts in the mid to late 1990’s, but the tweeds, knit ties, and Oxford cloth button downs were a de facto uniform as were Kennedy-esque wind-mussed side-parts. We knew the value of presentation to the community, but never let the clothes speak over us. Such, I have always believed, is the benefit of a signature. The wear-it and forget-it nature of a few finely-made pieces is something I learned during my formative years, and something I remember slightly more fondly than Frost poetry and Latin class.

  21. Not sure why it would have been awkward for JFK to appeal to working class Irishmen, since his father was born and raised one before building the simulacrum of WASP aristocracy that became the Kennedy Dynasty.

  22. Jeff Jarmuth | March 29, 2013 at 2:41 pm |

    Brookline accent, posh schools, Daddy Joe worth $50 million when a dollar was a dollar, etc. You apparently haven’t spent much time in Revere. In all candor, neither have I. But an afternoon’s stroll will give you a good flavor of what JFK meant…

  23. A.E.W. Mason | March 29, 2013 at 10:39 pm |

    Now that’s a picture of great and courageous figure. I see Jack Kennedy is also in the picture.

  24. Buttoned Down | March 29, 2013 at 11:35 pm |

    @A.E.W. Mason

    Generals are a dime a dozen, but we only had one JFK, our last President with class.

  25. A.E.W. Mason | March 30, 2013 at 2:01 am |

    @ Buttoned Down

    I don’t know whether generals are a dime a dozen, you could be right. LeMay distinguished himself long before he became a general (and also after, largely responsible for creation of the Rand Corporation). One need only read about his actions and conduct as group commander of the 305th Bomb Group (8th Army Air Force, England) during WWII to understand his remarkable courage and creativity. He was not only respected but also greatly admired by the men who flew with and served under him.

    Kennedy? Deeply and dangerously flawed. Yet I confess I like him more as I get older; perhaps because the longer I live the more accepting I am of the weaknesses in us all. He was surely a steadfast anti-communist. I agree he exuded class and also that quality of it appearing as is if all came to him effortlessly. But was it superficial? It’s been my experience that to Irish-Americans who take their Catholicism seriously, he was a person entirely without class, irresponsible and sexually reckless. A mountebank, really. They called him “mattress-Jack.” Well, the poor guy must have had women offering themselves to him all the time. I can’t say I could have resisted.

  26. The Boston working class have always voted for the candidate the machine tells them to, much like the deceased in Chicago. 😉

  27. @Jeff: Never disputed that the Kennedys were and are rich–and by hideous means, too. Their ugly roots here in America often lurk just below the sheen of their adopted aristocratic surface, typically revealed by a public embarrassment like drug and spousal abuse, or occasionally murder. It’s just hilarious to think that Jack Kennedy couldn’t appeal to working class Irishmen. If he could not, it was because he did not want to, because they had more in common with him than the Kennedys would ever admit.

  28. He Is Risen | March 31, 2013 at 5:13 am |

    For those readers of this site who think that civilization is a matter of whether collars are lined or unlined or whether shirts are must-iron or non-iron, please return with me tomthe days when we were concerned wıth real civilization:

  29. “Laws and principles are not for the times when there is no temptation: they are for such moments as this, when body and soul rise in mutiny against their rigour … If at my convenience I might break them, what would be their worth?”
    ― Charlotte Brontë, Jane Eyre

    “No evil dooms us hopelessly except the evil we love, and desire to continue in, and make no effort to escape from. ”
    ― George Eliot, Daniel Deronda

    Wedding vows are the most important promises most people will ever make in their lives. Anyone who is unable to keep them shows himself to be of low character, a liar, and a cheat.

    JFK had many good qualities. Fidelity and trustworthiness were not among them.

  30. Libertarian | April 1, 2013 at 12:19 pm |


    Truly amused by your comment on wedding vows. Extra-marital intercourse and fidelity to one’s spouse are not mutually exclusive in the year 2013.

  31. “Libertarian,”

    The truth is unaffected by passing trends. Cheating on your spouse is, by definition, reprehensible.

    Also, you might consider investing in a good college dictionary. If you were to do so, you could look up “fidelity” and see that “extra-marital intercourse” is incompatible with it.

  32. Libertarian | April 3, 2013 at 8:26 pm |


    Cheating on one’s spouse is not a matter of putting x into y.

  33. I would modify that to read, “cheating on one’s spouse is not exclusively a matter of putting x into y.”

  34. His tastes were informed by Hollywood and not-exactly-WASPy corridors of the world. I can’t feign surprise that he didn’t affect Britishisms, sartorial and otherwise. I dare say there was an abiding resentment of the clipped-consonanted Saltonstalls and Lodges whose veddy English (even if Low Church Anglican-Puritan) grandpa-PAs settled New England.

    The year ’round tan, the obsession with youthfulness (“vigah”, by God), the fashionable togs (“Ivy”? Seriously?). it’s all so…well.

    That he was a “style icon” for some–not in dispute. Isn’t his favored jacket style (heavy on taper and shoulder) the inspiration for the Brooks Brothers “Fitzgerald”? Yuck.

  35. One Brief Shining Moment

  36. There is more than meets the eye here. Taken May 2, 1962, this photo appears to show two serious-minded men who worked well together. But a little more than five months later (October 16–28, 1962), Kennedy and LeMay would be at odds during the Cuban Missile Crisis.

    Through the entire 13 days, “Bombs Away” LeMay argued for an all-out attack on Cuba, and Kennedy repeatedly rejected his plans. LeMay refused to consider that the Russians would fire the missiles at America if attacked. Eventually, Kennedy decided on the naval blockade, and it worked. Nuclear war was averted and the missiles left Cuba. LeMay called it a defeat.

    Sometime later, American intelligence confirmed that the Russian officers in Cuba were authorized to fire the missiles at the first sign of an American attack. The 21 missiles would have killed millions of Americans and plunged us into WW III.

    Kennedy was right, and LeMay was dead wrong. Sometimes, it takes as much courage to avoid a war as it does to fight one.

  37. The mention of “Brooks couture” in the old post above reminded me of a line from an obituary that I read last week:

    The article quotes a classic description of Mr Anderson as having “the look of a man who was born in a Brooks Brothers three-piece suit”.

  38. Richard Meyer | September 4, 2017 at 6:46 am |

    So pleasant to read anti-Irish Catholic screeds four years after the original posting. But some of the comments above are accurate, including those of the culture promoted by the White House then (Casals etc.)-although mostly corresponding to the First Lady’s taste, to be sure. For those of us of college age during Kennedy’s presidency- Republicans and Democrats alike-JFK’s style was the one to emulate (although some of the Ivy Style commentators I’ve seen were likely partial to George Wallace). Please keep the very good posts on male style- Andover Shop, George Frazier, Chipp, J Press and all-and lose the political snark.

  39. terrryoreilly75 | September 4, 2017 at 8:58 am |

    Hear, hear Mr. Richard Meyer.

  40. Mr. Meyer, when you say “JFK’s style was the one to emulate,” what do you mean? His manner (mannerisms) or taste in clothing? Both?

  41. I disagree with an earlier comment that Kennedy was the most stylish president, ever. Truman had him beat, easily. Just look at the old pictures and do a little reading about him. He really know how to wear clothes.

    (I’m implying that “Ivy League” is not a perfect synonym for “stylish,” and I think many of you would agree.)

  42. Good to hear from you, whiskeydent.


  43. FDR, infirmity notwithstanding, personified elegant style.

  44. No question, FDR was the all time best dressed man in the Oval Office. No one close as far as elegant style. His choice of a wife he regretted.

    Was saved from drowning by Humphrey Bogart’s father, an MD. Later he had HB released from a USN WW1 brig when he (FDR) was Under Secretary of the Navy. Bogie had been AWOL.

  45. Meant to mention,but forgot; it happens a lot lately. When FDR died in April 1945, selected to be a member of the military honor guard from Warm Springs, Georgia, to Washington DC, was a young US Army enlistee from Ft. Benning, old friend William F. Buckley Jr.

  46. Henry Contestwinner | September 7, 2017 at 2:34 am |

    “anti-Irish Catholic screeds,” Mr. Meyer? Surely nothing in the posts above rises to that level. We have one commenter claiming that JFK dressed down to pander to working class Irish, and another saying that practicing Roman Catholics had low regard for the adulterous JFK. These comments are hardly worthy of such disapprobation—unless, of course, you subscribe to the school of thought that veritable saints such as JFK and Obama are above criticism, and the only people who would be so base as to criticise them are bigots and racists.


  47. I winced at the final comment, conflating Kennedy and the Beatles. The ’60s were really several different mini-eras. Kennedy’s assassination ended one of them, and the arrival of the Beatles in North America three months later began another.(After that, the release of the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper album inaugurated a third. Some things, like Vietnam and the civil rights struggle, overlapped all three eras, in different permutations.) As far as style goes, while the Beatles’ early moptop style had some points of contact with early-60s “Kennedy style”, it was English and really very different. As the headline for this post implies, it was the English mods (and of course the American and British jazzers) who really picked up the Ivy style.

  48. Interesting article: “How JFK Taught America How to Dress”:

  49. Henry Contestwinner:
    Please show me a bigot or a racist who doesn’t criticize JFK or Obama.

  50. Henry Contestwinner | September 13, 2017 at 3:24 pm |

    Palio, are you saying that everyone who criticizes those two are bigots and/or racists?

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