Some things get lost in translation — academic jaron, for example — but not the buttondown shirt.
Settle in for a lengthy read courtesy of Nathaniel Weiner, Ph.D. candidate at York University and his paper “Transatlantic Translations of the Button-down Shirt,” which appears in the journal TranscUlturAl.
Here’s the article’s opening, as well as relevant passages pertaining to the Ivy League Look:
The button-down shirt is an icon of at least two nationally-determined fashion traditions: The United States’ ostensibly upper-class Ivy League style and Britain’s ostensibly working-class subcultural street style. This article explores how the button-down shirt has been translated in these different national contexts. I will use Roland Barthes’ notion of ‘fashion narrative’ to elucidate the close relationship between the button-down shirt and the ‘national imaginaries’ of the United States and Britain. I will first discuss the origins of these two fashion narratives and explore the links between them. To illustrate the lasting impact of these fashion narratives, I will then compare the modern-day publicity materials of two shirt companies closely associated with the button-down shirt in their respective national contexts…
The button-down shirt plays an important role in the Ivy Look, a less tangible fashion narrative that brings the button-down shirt into the American national imaginary. Along with chinos, penny loafers and sack jackets, the button-down shirt was at the heart of the Ivy look (Marsh and Gaul 48-50). The Ivy Look is often interpreted quite literally as the garb of the elite American Ivy League colleges. Colin McDowell describes the look as “well-bred” and analogous to Saville Row, making it out to be the clothing of the American aristocracy (97). The recent Ivy Style exhibit at Manhattan’s Fashion Institute of Technology also emphasised the look’s elite origins (Weiner 96- 100). In his 1965 essay ‘The Secret Vice’, Tom Wolfe described how:
At Yale and Harvard, boys think nothing of going over and picking up a copy of Leer, Poke, Feel, Prod, Tickle, Hot Whips, Modern Mammaries, and other such magazines, and reading them right out in the open. Sex is not taboo. But when the catalogue comes from Brooks Brothers or J. Press, that’s something they whip out only in private. And they can hardly wait. They’re in the old room there poring over all that tweedy, thatchy language about “Our Exclusive Shirtings,” the “Finest Lairdsmoor Heather Hopsacking,” “Clearspun Rocking Druid Worsteds,” and searching like detectives for the marginal differences, the shirt with a flap over the breast pocket (J. Press), the shirt with no breast pocket (Brooks), the pants with military pockets, the polo coat with welted seams—
….and so on and on, through study and disastrous miscalculations, until they learn, at last, the business of marginal differentiations almost as perfectly as those teen-agers who make their mothers buy them button-down shirts and then make the poor old weepies sit up all night punching a buttonhole and sewing on a button in the back of the collar because they bought the wrong damn shirt, one of those hinkty ones without the button in the back.
It is true that the Ivy Look has its roots in the elite prep schools and universities of the East Coast of the United States—this narrative of privilege and affluence formed a powerful fashion narrative into which consumers bought in. However, by the time of its mid-1960s peak, the Ivy Look had become mass fashion for American men (Mears “Ivy Style: Heyday of the mid-century” 96). It was also popular in the black community, especially among musicians (Boyer 137; Marsh and Gaul 122). “Ivy Style’ came to refer to both a campus and post-collegiate look during a period in which college had become much more accessible as a result of the GI Bill and the subsequent expansion of postsecondary education. As such, the Ivy Look was closely bound up with The United States’ post- war national imaginary of classlessness, democratisation, technological innovations and lifestyle improvements.
The Ivy Look’s popularity waned in the late 60s and with its incorporation into ‘prep’ during the 1980s, it again became a symbol of privilege (see Birnbach). This return to American aristocratic narratives can be seen most clearly in the branding of Polo Ralph Lauren, a company started by a former Brooks Brothers employee (Mears “Ivy Style: Revival and Renewal” 148). With the shift to a post-industrial economy, the national narratives of democratization and increased living standards with which the Ivy Look had been associated are by now a thing of the past (Harvey). Nevertheless, stores like Brooks Brothers and J Press, online mail-order companies such as Land’s End and L.L. Bean and the cultish devotion of a hard-core of followers have ensured the survival of Ivy Style as The United States’ unofficial national dress.