Back in 2013 I wrote a 9,000-word essay on the Ivy League Look which I’m honored to say Alan Flusser considers “definitive.” As far as meta-analysis goes, I haven’t had much to say since then. However, perhaps the time will soon come for an addendum.
In “The Rise And Fall Of The Ivy League Look,” I used a morphological approach based on the concept of growth, maturity and decline drawn from years of study of cultural decadence. Books like Spengler’s “Decline Of The West,” Gibbon’s “History Of The Decline And Fall Of The Roman Empire,” Brooks Adams’ “The Law Of Civilization And Decay,” and salacious diatribes such as Max Nordau’s notorious “Degeneration.” I argued that Ivy went through a “golden age” from roughly the ’20s until World War II, when it was exclusive and aristocratic. The period 1954-67, to which we refer here as the heyday, marks the silver age of widespread popularity. The expansion of the style to all parts of society — with Miles Davis getting outfitted at The Andover Shop (which inspired me to start this website), and the role Jewish clothiers had in shaping the style, something I’ve sought to articulate here— provide a fascinating glimpse into the diverse tapestry of American life.
One could say the bronze age encapsulates what remained of the Ivy in mainstream culture through the dark years of the ’70s and the preppy revival of the ’80s. Over the past few decades Ivy/preppy fashion, like virtually all cultural expressions, has been in postmodern pastiche and remix mode. But there may still be more to the story. Since writing rise-and-fall essay, I’ve spent much time studying the cycle of the ages according to the ancient Greeks, or what is known as the doctrine of the yugas in Hinduism. According to these concepts, there are not three stages of birth, maturity and decline, but four, in accordance with natural law as reflected in the four seasons as the earth orbits the sun, and the four phases of the moon: waxing, waning, new and full.
So after the bronze age comes the age of iron, in which, according to Hesiod, “affection among brothers becomes rare.” (An extended passage from Hesiod can be found at Trad Man here.) In order for the lifecycle of anything to be complete, it must eventually become the exact opposite of what it was originally. So if the Ivy League Look was the uniform of the Eastern Establishment in the 1930s, the smart attire of those who wished to join said establishment (or at least take its style cues from it) in the 1950s, and the mufti of relics, style tribes and “lifestyle choice” since 1990, then the final stage of the Ivy League Look would be one in which its chief virtue is that it is worn by men who are the opposite of the men who wore it at the beginning of the golden age.
This week the website Medium published a piece entitled “J. Crew, Rowing Blazers, And The Decline Of Prep.” It’s not very well written (Medium is a publishing platform where anyone can post), but it makes points that I begrudgingly felt were worth grudging upon, being illustrative of this tumultuous year of 2020.
Prep style as a signal of wealth ($$) in America is fading, though. As an ideal, prep is alive, and Rowing Blazers proves this. But there’s a difference between J.Crew and RB. Here’s the difference. Rowing Blazers can repurpose prep + ivy style as an act of rebellion against wasp-culture, classism — legacy wealth in America. Just look at their recent SS2020 campaign. Younger audiences crave this sense of identity in their style. It’s genius.
Polo wasn’t meant for hip-hop culture. So they took it and made it their own. As an act of rebellion to the American dream. The same applies to J.Crew and Rowing Blazers. Both are aspirational. One is ironic. The other is not. Their issues run deep, and while there may be a number of solutions they conjure up to save the business, adaptiveness must be one of them. Because while the world is evolving, they aren’t. And that’s where J.Crew struggles.
The salient quote is the one stating that the chief appeal of Ivy/prep style for the young (at least the fashion-conscious ones, as opposed to the young fogeys) is not that it’s traditional but that it’s subversive. The clothing’s relation to the WASP culture that gave birth to it is not continuation or preservation, but something more akin to a slap in the face. And, according to cosmic law, a slap that should be expected. “Karma’s a bitch,” as the saying goes, and Kali, the Hindu goddess who rules the fourth and final age of chaos and inversion, wears a necklace made from the severed heads of men and goes around sticking out her tongue.
A comment on Medium article reads:
Current preppy style requires a certain American gentry classicism, but not at the expense of of being totally out of touch. That’s the secret sauce: Sort of like sticking it to the establishment by dressing establishment, but in a totally new, socially relevant and distinctive way.
But why bother wearing establishment clothing in order to be anti-establishment? In other words, why make a fashion statement that is a negation of one thing rather than an assertion of something else? That’s easy: because the clothes are so damn appealing, in spite of, or even because of, where they come from.
The image above, incidentally, is from J. Crew’s website earlier this summer. The outfit on the left is pretty classic, though its appeal likely depends on who’s wearing it. — CC