For devotees of The Ivy League Look who live in 2017 but who aspire to buy clothes in 1957, there are two pieces of technology that can help. While the best option is a time machine, it is unfortunate that they are still notoriously unreliable, as any number of movies illustrate. The second option is eBay.
Living in London has many advantages, but finding clothes that could have been sold by the Harvard Co-op during the Eisenhower Administration is not one of them. Thus regular eBay searches are necessary, and I recently came across a jacket that ticked all the Ivy boxes; made in the early 1960s, corduroy, three-button, olive green, patch pockets, natural shoulders, no darts. Sadly, the size was wrong: it was a six-inch chest.
Turned out that it was an early piece of clothing for Barbie’s eternal boyfriend, Ken.
Ken and Barbie were perhaps the first manufactured celebrity couple, but they were still less plastic than are many modern stars. Barbie was described as a “Teen-age fashion model,” while boyfriend Ken’s tagline was “he’s a doll,” a nice joke by the Mad Men which a few of the more sophisticated kids may have appreciated.
The Wikipedia page for Ken reveals that the Mattel toy company had first produced Kenneth Carson in 1961, three years after they had introduced Barbie. This made me curious: would Ken have dressed in the Ivy League Look in the early ’60s? An Internet search very quickly produced the website kenhesmydoll.com and the answer was yes. In his first five years, Mattel gave Ken several outfits that could have come from Brooks, Press or any campus outfitter of the time.
I do not know if Ken was marketed for boys (as GI Joe was two years later) or for girls or for both, but it is wonderful to think that there was a time when you could sell dolls’ clothes to children by stressing a natural-shoulder suit or a tie in “Ivy stripes.”
In this outfit, “Ken chooses Ivy colours for a Sunday drive in the country with Barbie.” I am not sure about black oxfords with that outfit, but he is still better dressed than most men are today.
In 1964, Ken is a Big Man on Campus in his corduroy suit.
Still in 1965, Ken is a journalist and his dress is a little more groovy, but not offensively so.
By 1963, Barbie and Ken’s popularity resulted in the production of paper cut out dolls with a wide choice of outfits. Here, Ken can change out of his camel topcoat, sack suit and pinned club collar and put on his impeccable summer tuxedo.
In his essay “The Rise And Fall Of The Ivy League Look,” Christian Chensvold assigns 1967 as an arbitrary date for the end of Ivy. Ken’s clothing choices back up this statement entirely, as a look at some of the outfits that Mattel gave him in 1966 shows.
If there is a narrative to go with Ken’s 1966 outfits, perhaps it is that he graduates from college and tours Europe, seeing the sights while wearing his tweed jacket. He returns home and dons his gray poplin suit for a summer job, perhaps as an intern at The Sterling Cooper Advertising Agency. By the winter he is a full-time employee, warm in his navy blue tweed topcoat as he strides up Madison Avenue. However, the beginning of the end of Ken’s Ivy period is signalled by Ken-A- Go-Go, presumably Mattel’s belated response to the Beatles Invasion two years earlier.
As the 1960s started to swing, Ken seemed to go into a period of reflection. According to a remarkable list of everything that he ever wore on manbehindthedoll.com, no new fashion clothing was produced for him in 1967 and 1968. There was never a Hippie Ken (shoes not included) or an Anti-Vietnam War Protester Ken complete with inflammable draft card.
By 1969 however, Ken was shopping for clothes again, but by now his purchases were Austin Powers rather than Ivy League, as evidenced by that year’s shagtastic Guruvy Formal outfit. Kenneth Carson’s Ivy period was well and truly over.
Ken’s post-Ivy years saw both his personal and sartorial life in a constant state of flux. On the emotional side, it seems that he could not commit to Barbie. Not possessing genitals may have been a factor, but, even if he had the appropriate equipment (perhaps sold as a separate accessory), Barbie had a similar condition, thus producing an impenetrable problem.
Happily, by 2011 things had come full circle. To celebrate his fiftieth year with Mattel, the company went into the back of Ken’s very full closet and found his 1964 Victory Dance blue blazer outfit which they rereleased together with a doll moulded in a 1961 style body, though some felt that a more realistic older man physique would have been appropriate.
Sadly, Ken’s return to Ivy was not to last, and at the present time he is as addicted as he ever was to changing popular culture and high fashion, while his relationship with Barbie remains unclear. However, it is difficult not to admire a man who was born in the 1940s but who can today be part of a boy band and get into his fifty-year-old blazer. Go Ken! — TIM KOCH