Editor’s Note: ALL of the illustrations in this article were done by the author, ZG Burnett. – JB
By and large, the Ivy closet was the first gender-neutral safe space. Since the founding of the Seven Sisters, students were snapping up their brothers’ and boyfriends’ clothes to wear in the secluded comfort of the quad. As time progressed and society loosened up a bit, women wearing what was traditionally menswear became the norm. Today, elegant ambiguity is highly prized, and much of the Ivy woman’s wardrobe is modified men’s clothing. In addition to the quality and timelessness of these styles, they’re also comfortable and versatile. Many are event-ready despite, or perhaps because of, declining dress codes, and can be made more or less feminine depending on your inclination. ‘Radical’ may not be the first word that comes to mind regarding the Ivy woman, yet we have always and continue to dress for no one but ourselves.
Waxed Cotton Jacket
Call it our tough exterior shell. Waxed cotton jackets are Ivy women’s all-weather friends, even in a summer squall. Slim, unlined silhouettes are currently the trend, however a roomy cut allows for a detachable quilted liner, a sweater, a shirt, and sometimes a concealed flask. Large exterior and interior pockets are a plus, eliminating the need for a pocketbook. The best will develop a weathered look, even after repeated waxings. My beloved Barbour Beaufort, bought from Charles Street’s defunct North River Outfitters in Boston, has served me well in six different countries. Although this brand is the original, waxed cotton is waxed cotton. If you’re doing it right, the jacket won’t stay pristine but will last a good long while.
Collared shirts are genderless Ivy essentials which give the appearance that one has it together. Women often have trouble finding blouses that don’t pull at the bust, but the current market includes plentiful sizing, as well as made to measure shirting. Oxford cloth button downs are sturdy and washable, an all-season favorite since the late 1940s when Brooks Brothers introduced pink Oxford cloth button downs for women. Despite what may be a years-long search for the right fit, women are lucky that we can bear our full arms in summer without reproach. Sleeveless collared shirts are professional and pretty, suitable for the office in silk or traditional shirting materials, and great for casual wear in madras or printed fabrics. Hang-drying can help prevent wrinkles, but in more serious cases a steamer is preferred. I abhor ironing.
Breton Striped Shirts
A relaxed alternative to a collared shirt, many Ivy women possess an abundance of striped tops. First introduced in 1858 as the naval uniform for Northern France, the Breton striped shirt normally consists of 21 stripes that represent each of Napoleon Bonaparte’s victories. It also makes one very easy to spot when drowning, or on the other end of a casual garden party. Not part of the trad Ivy canon, the Breton stripe shirt has nonetheless become a modern staple. It can be worn on its own, or as a layer. A few brands claim to be the original, and thick woven cotton shirts are the most worthwhile. Best of all, the Breton stripe shirt alerts onlookers to the fact that you may have watched one or two French films, or maybe even lived in Paris for a semester abroad. Oui.
Dare to venture into an Ivy woman’s walk-in closet, and you may confront her greatest pride and her greatest shame: shelf upon shelf of plush sweaters in every size, from every decade of the twentieth century. It’s the pattern and the material that matters, not that it’s a Large from the boy’s section or an Extra Large from the Men’s that doubles as a dress in the colder months. Two types of sweaters that you’re bound to find are lambswool and cotton. Wool can be spun in so many miraculous ways, from Norwegian knits to Aran Fisherman sweaters. The goal is ultimate warmth. Cotton sweaters have been more difficult to come by of late, at least in the roll neck variety. These are wonderful for late Spring and Summer when it’s cold in the air conditioning but balmy outside. If you find a good brand, buy them in every colorway before they’re discontinued. We won’t tell anyone.
Our legs were assaulted with the introduction of the ‘Skinny cut’ leg. ‘Boyfriend fit’ is one thing, ‘Straight leg’ is quite another, and few benefit from the skin tight chinos encasing our lower halves. I once owned cords that had zippers on the cuffs to let my feet through, never again. Don’t even get me started on ‘Low Rise.’ Cotton khaki or navy chinos are still the most classic and comfortable of all casual trousers, and aren’t nearly as susceptible to trends as their extravagantly priced workwear cousins, denim jeans. Giving ourselves some room to breathe has become popular again, an odd turn of events in our favor. Critter pants are still difficult to source in smaller sizes, and navy blue gets dusty quickly. No matter, they’re meant to be worn and almost everything washes right out of them.
Despite an Ivy woman’s inclination towards androgyny, sometimes we enjoy dressing up and feeling a cool breeze. Like shirts, skirts are particularly subjective when it comes to fit. Too long can be frumpy, while floor length can be elegant in the right material and setting. Mini skirts may suit one woman well and be absolutely scandalous on another. Knee-length or just above the knee is a neutral zone that flatters every body type. Cotton or cotton blend linen skirts are even cooler than shorts in warmer weather, with the whisper of a hem adding some allure to our errands. In the cooler months, tweed pencil skirts keep our precious behinds toasty when layered atop a thick pair of stockings. Not as effective as a pair of wool trousers, of course, but we can’t all be Katharine Hepburn.
Despite our catalogue-ready surroundings, Ivy women are often largely unadorned. This excludes women known for possessing an extensive jewelry collection, or those who show support for local artisans by buying their most outlandish creations and rotating them at each cultural benefit in the area. Just a few pieces will do for the everyday, and it’s less likely that you’ll lose them somewhere.
- Pearl studs– Whether they’re natural, cultured, freshwater, or from J.Crew, pearl studs generally look the same to the untrained eye. Not as flashy as diamonds, they’re suitable for any occasion and can be dressed up or down. Pearls are mostly formed by nature, and they don’t catch on clothing. Replacements are easily sourced if they do. White or cream tones are the standard, but there is a wide range of natural pearl colors if you’re feeling daring.
- Watches– Instead of digging out a phone and clicking it open to see too many notifications that we plan to avoid anyway, seeing the time on one’s wrist is far more convenient. Watches are functional accessories that give one the illusion of looking put together at all price points. The metal needn’t match your other jewelry, unless you’re like me and everything must always match. There’s a supposed clout to heavy, oversized watches that I don’t understand, and I favor a face that doesn’t swivel around on my delicate wrist. I switch between a small Timex with interchangeable canvas straps and a vintage tank found in an abandoned jewelry shop.
- Rings– Two’s a crowd, three’s a party when it comes to rings. Only wear a class ring if you truly love your alma mater or it’s from a family member who has passed on. It shouldn’t be the anchor of your personality. A signet ring is preferable, not one of those overpriced plastic gem creations they’re hocking to high schoolers. Other rings are typically discreet, and seldom taken off. Cocktail rings should be reserved for cocktail parties. Engagement rings and wedding bands are the exception.
Pocketbooks and Totes
The ideal purse, handbag, or pocketbook fits everything a woman needs to go about her day. The contents of one’s bag vary widely enough to warrant a separate article. While some may be content with the minimal contents of a simple leather crossbody bag, others may need the comfort of a medium or large tote for overflow. Many use totes as their primary bag, either the classic from L.L. Bean or a graphic canvas tote they received for free. Depending on your social circuit, these may be one in the same. We all have a large stash of souvenir totes, as well. Leather totes are also an option, and the best will be your companion for life. Monogramming is all right by me, and most leatherworking companies offer it for a minimal charge, if not for free with purchase.
In addition to your daily sunscreen application (at least 35 SPF), a hat or sunglasses are key to preventing sun damage to your skin and eyes. Because excessive makeup isn’t quite in the Ivy woman’s rotation, protecting our largest organ from skin cancer and early signs of aging is even more important. There’s been a recent dad cap renaissance in the market, and these are worn to even greater effect when taken from one’s actual father– well broken-in and bearing his company logo or some long past event. Others are simply baseball caps, collectible alternatives to graphic tees. If hats don’t suit you, faux tortoiseshell sunglasses can be found just as easily and go with anything. The theory of expensive sunglasses is that one will take better care of them, but you know yourself and whether or not this is a sound investment.
An Ivy woman has things to do. Some women can accomplish anything in four to seven inch heels, but that usually takes practice and calf strength we haven’t had since undergraduate sports. Others couldn’t wait to kick off their penny loafers and step into a pair of pumps sure, and indeed intended, to raise their mother’s eyebrows. Yet it’s not an everyday look unless you have a podiatrist in your Contacts from age 35 onward. Loafers are indeed the staple, as are boat shoes for when white tread is required. Canvas sneakers are the more active choice, as they’re less likely to fly off in an embarrassing but charming encounter somewhere on the coast. Ballet flats provide almost no support for the feet, but they increase the cuteness factor of any outfit by at least 25% percent. Yes, I have those numbers, and no, you cannot view that kind of proprietary data. Shoes are perhaps the most important part of one’s wardrobe, as we spend more time in them than any other article of clothing. Resoling a solid pair is always worth the expense, and reputable makers will offer that service at the same benches from whence they came.
- ZG Burnett
Well done–a mirror for smart (in both senses) women, and a guide for the men who admire them.
I appreciate this guide for women! I’d like to hear more about women’s Ivy shoes and watches.
Very nicely written article, and a useful one from a man’s point of view, especially for those who enjoy shopping with their female partner. My wife will be impressed with my new found knowledge!
I add my praise to the comments above and also want to note what a talented illustrator Ms. Burnett is.
This article is exemplary in every way. The illustrations and the touches of humor add to its charm as well as is usefulness. The author has done a real service.
Love seeing the occasional woman dressed in attire like this! Wish more did in 2021. Timeless and just so flattering, regardless of one’s gender or how one presents.
What a welcome and well-written post. The artful illustrations are a great touch. The first sentence, I think, offers an interesting insight that could be explored further still. Practical ivy style is not just a boys’ club. Thanks for this post.
Business today has taken me to the campus of William and Mary. Man buns, what I understand are called slide shoes, sweat pants (it’s 84 degrees), purple hair and ass showing short shorts, Che t-shirt….wait, a lovely girl in a sun dress and light cardigan just rode by on a bike. This place has changed 180 degrees since the 80’s when my very preppy W&M girl friend and I would picnic on the grounds in front of the governor’s palace. Miss Burnett’s outfit was the rule not the exception. Sorry, had to vent.
Very well done. Thank you!
I hope that Ms. Burnett will grace this blog with more of her delightful illustrations.
This is a great primer and very useful for those who want to dress in a simple yet elegant way.
Will — I hear you. My wife still often exemplifies the style, although often with a completely unnecessary, semi-apologetic, “I looks so preppy today.” Not at all, I think. Would that more women dressed this way.
And blessings on the sun-dressed bike rider in the cardigan. It has been a very long time since my aunt went to Mary Baldwin College, in the days when students were forbidden to leave the campus without a hat and gloves, but sundresses, Shetland and Fair Isle crewnecks, cardigans, flannel and tartan skirts, cords, khakis, and oxford shirts were still de rigueur there in the 80s.
Love this article
Those were the days:
Wonderful article, Zoe, and I hope there’s more to come. While I would appreciate seeing more women wearing more of everything you described above, the wristwatch is perhaps the most rarified item on the list. Even more so if you’re one of the “young fogeys” wearing it on a striped grosgrain strap like I always do (I’m 34). The “smart watch” is rapidly supplanting the mechanical watch even amongst people who otherwise tend to dress Ivy. On the other side of that coin, however, spotting someone wearing a mechanical wristwatch on a grosgrain strap is now a highly accurate barometer of identifying others in the tribe.
Way to goë, Zoë!
Like stepping back in to college. Good one. And helpful. Any guy among us with an Ivy or preppy wife, or girlfriend should also appreciate this piece around gift occasions. Surprised to see Espadrilles not listed, or add-a-beads, both of which were all the rage with sorority girls when I was in college.
Terrific! So well written. Takes me back to my early 60’s college years…
Great meeting you in the Big Bagel!
Was the omission of the blazer / sport (odd) jacket intentional?
Could I add a few items? Polo shirts, cotton turtlenecks under crew-neck sweaters, and strands of pearls (single or triple). I am also partial to the Barbour quilted jackets, especially the Bedale (equestrian) model. Navy blazer with grey pleated skirt or grey flannel slacks. Brogues on women are cute, if hard to find. Bermuda shorts. A full-length, taffeta tartan skirt is smashing for the holidays.
I forgot the Bean Boots.
Also twin sets.
The best ladies watch in this oeuvre is the Cartier Tank.
Great to get input from the actual consumer!
Your women’s Ivy/Prep collection is a useful guide to many men who might be unaware of its components and how they combine for the appropriate look. Thanks for the charming illustrations.
YES to Teri’s comment. Last week I caught sight of a woman, maybe early 30s, wearing a navy blazer, full-fitting gray flannels, blue ocbd, and tassel loafers. Superb.
Very Annie Hall / Kate Hepburn/ 1985-ish Brooks Brothers.
Wow, thank you so much for the kind words, everyone! Overwhelmed.
@S.E.– Not intentional, however women casually wearing blazers/sport coats/odd jackets are rare outside of an advertisement or an office these days, especially anywhere beyond a city. To increase this percentage, I have a large collection in rotation. For a basic primer, the complexity of a good women’s jacket is a bit deep. It warrants further scrutiny and perhaps its own writeup.
@Teri– All excellent additions, thank you! I’ll certainly take them into account when writing future articles. Each deserve their own categorical study.
@ZGB Would love to see you write about Ivy grooming: hair, makeup, perfume…
@Teri– Consider it added to the list 😉
My wife and I thank you for this excellent primer! Keep it coming please. Cheers!
How about a list of some reliable manufacturers?
@RKate – First and foremost, I recommend buying secondhand or vintage clothing. Poshmark, Depop, ThredUp, there are so many great sites out there where high quality but lightly used women’s clothing by the brands we know and love can be sourced. Some of my favorite pieces are from manufacturers I never knew of before, which I found by using the desired material as keywords. The Shetland sweater pictured above is a recent example.
Too many of my favorite brands to list here have successively let me down over the years, whether for environmental, ethical, or product quality reasons. Women’s fashion is especially treacherous territory if you care about how a garment is made and who made it. However, I’m compiling a list of a few good eggs still left out there to cover individually at a later date.
Great article – kudos ZGB!
Well done ZGB.
Historically one must give credit to Max Raab for women’s Ivy clothing in the 50s, 60s and post counterculture of the early 70s. He founded the The Villager and JG Hook brands.