Black Ivy & Cultural Appropriation

The book comes out December 7th. Written and edited by Jason Jules, Art Direction and design: Graham Marsh.

Ok so I have not read the book.  I am working off of the marketing materials, so this is not a review of the book per se.

On the other hand it is not often one gets the double dip of quoting Elvis to make an intellectual point AND being asked for an encore.

From the website (and this whole thing including capitalization and grammar is directly quoted):  BLACK IVY:  A Revolt in Style charges a period in American history when Black men across the country adopted clothing seen by many as the presence of a privileged elite and made it their own.  From the Oxford button-down shirt, the hand-stitched loafer, the soft should three-button jacket, and the perennial military repp tie – these otherwise conventional clothes are instilled with an approach so revolutionary that you’ll never be able to see them in the same way again.  … From the most avant0garde jazz musicians, visual artists and poets to the most influential architects, philosophers, political leaders, and writers, BLACK IVY explores, for the first time ever, the major role this particular style of clothing played during this period of aspiration and upheaval and what these clothes said about the people who wore them.

There are things I object to – strongly – about the represented premise of the book, and we can walk down that road (gulp) in a second, but first this.  YES.  This is exactly what the style was intended to do.  By the subjects of this book, but also by the Cornell Freshman, ’55.   You can remove the word “Black” from the title and still make a very cogent point.  Ivy was a revolt in style, period.   I love that Black men were able to catch the wave, that is what the wave was created for.  It does not in any way diminish the cultural revolution that the subjects of the book led, and led bravely, some at risk of their lives, to say that one of the tools they used was a style that had that mojo to begin with.

That point made, the subjects of the book help us get our head around what cultural appropriation is, and what it isn’t.  Here, from the book:

Sonny Rollins with Benny Golson and Thelonius Monk, Harlem, 1958


Sidney Poitier in the 1967 British classic To Sir With Love


From The Guardian: Martin Luther King and other activists take a knee for a moment’s prayer before going to jail in Selma’ Alabama, 1965, after they were arrested on charges of parading without a permit. More than 250 were arrested as they marched to the Dallas County courthouse. Ivy League clothing was an intentional counterpoint to the revolutionary agenda and the dangers the civil rights activists faced every day.

Is this appropriation?  Hell no.  This is brilliant.  There’s a difference between appropriation and brilliance.  Appropriation is theft of that which does not belong to you and the subsequent use of whatever you stole without the application of dignity.  Brilliance is adopting a style that allows for both contemplation, action, and performance, and using it as part of your message.  I cannot speak intelligently to the precise message that the subjects of the book were sending, you would have to ask them.  Or maybe read the book.  Again, haven’t read it, not recommending it, not not recommending it.  But while I cannot speak precisely to the message that the subjects of the book were sending, I can speak very precisely to the message that I received when I see these images, think about this movement.  That message is:

I respect myself, and I smartly, peacefully, but with insistence ask that you respect me too.  These clothes look good on both of us because guess what – there is no difference between us at the root.  We are one, we should be acting like one, we have not been acting like one, so I will start with myself and treat myself with the dignity and respect that I insist you treat me with.  I will earn your lasting respect through delivery of my gifts be they what they may, but I will start the conversation on no less than equal footing.

If all that the style that we love ever did was help that message pass itself along, we will have accomplished great things.  The passing of that message is not appropriation, it is deliverance.

Appropriation is another matter entirely.  I am so so so so bored of the I-know-it-when-I-see-it means of definition, so I will take a stab at defining cultural appropriation.  To me, it is the use of the product of a culture without respect or dignity to make profit or point.

The nature of culture almost prohibits appropriation, but we in our Constant Big Ask have found a way to mangle that.  Culture is the kitchen door of a restaurant – it swings inward so that we bind, unite, relate, and commune.  It swings outward so that we represent, expand, express, and improve. uses this image of Baby-You’re-A-Firework Katy Perry to illustrate cultural appropriation:

NOT cultural appropriation but really hard to dance in.


From that same article, Dr. Kelly H. Chong, professor and chairperson in the department of sociology at the University of Kansas,defines cultural appropriation as, “The adoption, often unacknowledged or inappropriate, of the ideas, practices, customs, and cultural identity markers of one society or group by members of another group or society that typically has greater privilege or power.” In fashion, for example, cultural appropriation, as explained by actor and activist Amandla Stenberg, “occurs when a style leads to racist generalizations or stereotypes where it originated, but is deemed as high fashion cool or funny when the privileged take it for themselves.”

Ok, but that is not what Katy Perry is doing.  Cultural appropriation is not simply “dressing like.”

But here is the thing that makes me the craziest about cultural appropriation and its misuse.  It steps on self-expression.  I tell you a joke, you laugh.  You go home, tell your husband the joke.  Maybe you are funnier, maybe you aren’t, maybe you are just making dinner conversation because maybe you just like the joke.   Culture is a means for us to become more ourselves, and restricting its product to its inventors diminishes its glory.   Of course when used in a power struggle, or even in the representation of a hierarchy, or without earning its meaning , cultural appropriation is the product of a weak mind.  And it happens frequently (this poor fellow didn’t make the war this headdress was the medal from):

This guy is the Wikipedia example of cultural appropriation but even more unfortunate, he has named himself PC Bro.

Culture is meant to be given, not taken.  But since you rarely wrap and unwrap culture, LIKE IVY, it requires a value system to develop discernment.  I’m a Buddhist.  I couldn’t care less if Steve my Greek Orthodox doorman wears prayer beads because he likes the way they look or it makes him think he has a chance with the Bikram instructor who lives on 4.   But those are my sensibilities, derived from sitting on a mat for hours a day until the crazy got in a box.  Cultural appropriate isn’t the sole province of the creator, but the creator has a voice.  Which is why cultural appropriation is so difficult.  The creator has a voice, but so does the user.

What’s the answer?  Well, not to get all Ivy about it, but the answer is values.  For me and my life, Ivy values.  If culture, in the case of Black Ivy it is fashion, is used with dignity and a righteous message coupled with excellence in thought and result, it is nearly impossible for anybody to accuse anybody of appropriating anything.





26 Comments on "Black Ivy & Cultural Appropriation"

  1. Didn’t think a place on the internet existed where one could find a nuanced take on a hot-button topic like appropriation. I was wrong. Love the work you’re doing here, my man. Love this website.

    Thank you! – JB

  2. Of course the book isn’t depicting “appropriation,” which by the definition you provide is “the adoption… of the ideas, practices, customs, and cultural identity markers of one society or group by members of another group or society THAT TYPICALLY HAS GREATER PRIVILEGE OR POWER.” The thesis then is that the book’s subjects are doing the opposite, claiming the signifiers of a more powerful group. I take your point that Ivy Style ostensibly already included Black people. Maybe in theory. But the ways in which is was a “revolt” in the mid-Twentieth Century were rooted in the context of WASPdom; wearing a button-down shirt and loafers with a suit is only rebellious if you’re cognizant of the “proper” way of getting dressed. The first Black students didn’t graduate from Princeton until 1947. How’s that for Ivy values?

    Hi Maxwell. A few notes? First, that was ONE definition I provided. The other was my own. I don’t think anybody used the word “claim” either. My point wasn’t that Ivy already included Black people. Not at all, actually. My point was that Ivy itself, no matter who had it on, was a bit of a revolt. So there was momentum. Not sure why you use quotes around proper, unless it has some connotation for you. I’ve never said Ivy was the proper way to dress, it isn’t even the only way I dress. Oh, THAT I have said. And as far as 1947, you have identified a facetfor yourself of the problem we are already aware of. I think that’s good. – JB

  3. For me, the problem with cultural appropriation is original sin. Who appropriated from whom?

    Back to my joking Tex-Mex analogy from the other day, I could point out to the purists that one of Mexican food’s key spices, cumin, is native to the Eastern Mediterranean (or thereabouts) and was brought here by, I would guess, the Spanish. This takes us into a tedious, pointy-headed debate that the KU professor — who seems to have the answer before the question is asked — probably preaches about to snoozing students dreaming of keg stands.

    Much more importantly, focusing on these trifles means that violent or dehumanizing discrimination receive far less attention than they deserve.

    YES to the last sentence. I mean, the rest was good too, but I agree that people can get caught up in the nebulous and avoid the elephant. – JB

  4. The Internet, especially so-called “social” media, has become an almost nuance-free place where it is very hard to have a coherent and complex discussion about anything. It is impossible for someone well-intended to account for every single caveat to their point, which immediately puts them in peril. Of course, there is no actual nuance when it comes to racism, only subtlety of form. I applaud the effort of this post to distinguish between what has nuance and what has only different degrees of subtlety. No doubt it overlooks some critical caveats that someone will decide means it’s non grata, but it is a noble and well-intended effort. I look forward to this book coming out.

    Thanks. I think? – JB

  5. I didn’t notice this at first, but one of the authors is Jason Jules, who is something of an ivy style icon from the UK. I am certain that readers of this blog have seen photos of him in campaigns for Drake’s and the like. He also made a documentary about J. Simons. This man knows his stuff. His involvement in this book is a major selling point for me and should be for anyone.

  6. For those who haven’t seen this. It came out some time before the book:

  7. I for one will definitely be buying this book. Anything that Graham Marsh does is guaranteed to be beautifully designed. I own all his previous endeavours that have been Ivy/Jazz related. Typically you get the benefits of someone who is both a highly experienced art director and also passionate/knowledgeable about Ivy Clothes.

  8. This is a difficult topic that I believe you have addressed with sensitivity and courage. I’m a middle aged gringo and I have decided to mostly listen and learn as best I can about race and gender. But I do have a couple of points; I’ve read some history and history is a continuous list of horrible things done to “the other.” It’s little wonder that people are raw and sensitive given the facts of history. My other point is that beneath the facade of race and gender we are all one. All of our spiritual teachings tell us this. The work we need now is putting this teaching into practice.

    Yesterday I went to the thrift store. Folks must be cleaning out the closets. I got a classic everyday blue blazer. It fits nice. It has years of wear left. Three bucks! There is loads of stuff I left for you.

    Thank you Grant! For the kind words and for leaving some thrift. – JB

  9. My Greek Orthodox doorman’s name is Theo. He wears really wide peak lapels, Beatle-boots, and funny hats. I think he’s trying to appropriate Antonio Fargas.

    🙂 – JB

  10. Breach of Protocol. I will try not to do this again. You guys are the ones to resolve my punctuation confusion. My confusion stems not from commas with conjunctions as stated yesterday, but from commas and use of the word “that”. Here is an example from a commentary: “Jesus implies that, if one truly knows God, he will also live that way as an effect of his intimate relationship with God.” The comma comes after the word “that”, but it is not spoken that way. When spoken, we pause slightly before the word “that”, implying that the comma comes first. So what up with “that”? Thank you for the self-appropriated indulgence.

  11. We sure the doorman isn’t wearing an Orthodox Christian Komboskoini Chotki?

    We are not sure at all, now that you mention it. – JB

  12. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.

  13. Frederick J Johnson | December 2, 2021 at 1:47 pm |

    Back in 1963, living in New Haven I discovered J. Press, Rosenberg, Barrie Ltd all about the same time. I decided I liked the clothes and general style and adopted it and wear this look still; god only knows what I wore before this. I had no idea that this style was not for black young men and that dressing this way might be some sort of “cultural appropriation”. I just liked the clothes. Nor do I recollect some sort of revolt going on in dressing this way or really noticing or caring who else was wearing this “Ivy” style of clothes. I just liked the clothes..

  14. It is a well-established historic fact that the necktie was a Croatian invention. So a rhetorical question based upon that definition: does the wearing of a necktie by a non-Croat qualify as “cultural appropriation” by corollary? If so, as an American whose grandparents immigrated to this country from what is now Croatia, I can feel safe knowing that I have not appropriated the use of a necktie – my conscience is clean, but I now open myself up to being charged with other appropriations instead. But I take no issue with anyone who chooses to wear a necktie because as stated by @Basic Trad, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.

    As we’ve witnessed in today’s society, absurd tribalism rapidly becomes a slippery slope. Perhaps as some have said, they just like the clothes and everyone can be content with that. Also as @whiskeydent aptly points out regarding injustice, maybe there are bigger fish to fry.

    Yeah man, I see it this way too, for the most part. – JB

  15. I am very much looking forward to this book and look forward to an actual review of it rather than more thoughts on cultural appropriation, which has been discussed to death in general and isn’t really applicable to the premise of this book, as you’ve suggested. One minor quibble with the Katy Perry image, though. Whether you want to call it “cultural appropriation” or just good old fashioned racism, the image is highly offensive not only to me, but to many in the Asian community. She is adopting traditional dress to reinforce painful and grossly outdated stereotypes about Asians and their perceived docility and sexual compliance. I agree that a lot of the concerns about cultural appropriation are, in general, overblown but this sort of fetishization is unfortunate to see given Ms. Perry’s huge platform. I think presenting it here uncritically as example of something that is “NOT cultural appropriation” very much misses the mark if we intend to have a nuanced discussion.

    Hi Kent! We are not the only two to disagree about Ms. Perry. As it turns out, she wears kimonos a lot, red carpets, home, etc. There are of course many in the Asian community who are not offended. Here, from the Today Show:



    That said, I can see your point of view, which is why this subject is so challenging, and why, although you feel it has been talked to death, it should probably still be discussed. The more we talk the more we learn, on all sides of a problem. You have talked enough when you have learned enough. – JB

  16. John – my remark about inclusion was in reference to your phrasing “I love that Black men were able to catch the wave, that is what the wave was created for.” I just think that’s an oversimplification when discussing a style that was borne out of an institution that didn’t exactly welcome Black members until relatively recently. If you were not an old money elite whose parents took you to Brooks Brothers when you went off to college, you had to make a conscious decision to dress like one. (That is what I mean by “claiming.) Maybe that seems like a nitpick, but when you say you have strong objections to the premise of the book and the idea that Black men wearing the uniform of the white elite may be revolutionary in some way, I think it bears repeating that they were probably not exactly invited to do so. And it’s not just 1947 of course; Berkeley Breathes wrote an interesting essay on Black student groups at Columbia in the late 60’s – the time period highlighted in the book I think? – that digs into the tensions around assimilation that still existed then. And still does!

    I also think you misunderstood my reference to “proper” dress, which was not meant to imply that Ivy was “proper” but rather that what was ostensibly revolutionary about Ivy in the first place was (among other things perhaps) the way it played around with pre-established conventions.

    Anyway, if I may make an unrelated suggestion, if you want to foster dialogue here (and I think you do) a commenting system that allows threads/embedded replies would be useful.

    To continue the discussion, with you on the thread thing, coming in the site redesign. The FB group is great for that in the meantime. Onward. To clarify for you, I wasn’t oversimplifying, I wasn’t simplifying, heck, I wasn’t even describing in totality. Here. Say you go to a restaurant and you drive up and you notice there is ample parking. And you say to whomever you are with, “Hey, there is ample parking.”

    That is not a review of the restaurant.

    Second, I DID say I had objections to the book. I DID NOT IN ANY WAY SAY that I had an objection to the idea that “Black men wearing the uniform of the white elite may be revolutionary in some way.” I understand this is a loaded subject. I didn’t have to write about it. I could have reviewed my Duck Head cords. Oh wait, I have to publish that. Anyway, I knew when I wrote the piece that this phenomenon would occur – that someone who has had a different experience than mine would probably bring a different energy to the piece and say that I said something I didn’t say. Here is what I did say about Black men wearing Ivy: It does not in any way diminish the cultural revolution that the subjects of the book led, and led bravely, some at risk of their lives, to say that one of the tools they used was a style that had that mojo to begin with. That’s what I said. That’s what I say. And it is a bit of a walk between your characterization and my exact sentence.

    Finally, there are certainly assimilation issues. There are always assimilation issues. I don’t know if you have in laws or not. I don’t know if you have ever had to have dinner with them. But if you do and if you have, you know there are always assimilation issues. But watch – it does not diminish them to articulate that they exist. We must be very careful not to ring the warning bell when a subject is broached. We must wait until a breach. Broach vs breach. See what I did there?

    Here is where we agree, and let’s see if that is a starting point for us here. I did understand what you meant by proper dress. Your words were “the proper way of getting dressed” not “a proper way of getting dressed.” So I understood that, I just disagree with it. But we both agree that Ivy was a manipulation of a style to make another style. What I love is that the practice of style moves the markers down the field a bit. Style matters. So that’s good. – JB

  17. Old Bostonian | December 2, 2021 at 10:00 pm |

    “Ivy was a manipulation of a style to make another style.”
    Please clarify.
    Thank you.

    Hi – How Ivy happened was that students modified traditional styles to create their own. None of the elements of Ivy began as Ivy. Except the Princeton Beer Suit, maybe. Rather, Ivy is a conglomeration of other styles into a fresh one. – JB

  18. John – I guess I’m just not clear on your point then, unless it’s more or less just “Ivy Style was already cool” – in which case I agree! But then, I still don’t exactly understand your main objection to the book, and whether it’s an objection to the book itself, or the press release, or some notion of appropriation, because those things to me seem not essentially similar, but they seem to me to be all mixed up together in your critique. Your writing style is a bit free-associative, as I’m sure you’d be the first to admit! But I don’t think it’s fair to suggest that I’m “saying that you said something you didn’t say” or “ringing a warning bell when a subject is broached.” The dialogue is good. I’m simply trying to parse your meaning and I may disagree with parts of your analysis – not the fact that you’re discussing the topic.

    Anyway, I think this is very well said: “the practice of style moves the markers down the field a bit.” Amen.

    Hey sorry, busy few days – ok, lemme see. Yes, my point was that Ivy Style was already cool – and that was also my objection – which you are completely right about, was lost in free association. All good points, taken. THANKS – JB

  19. Appropriation yes, cultural appropriation no.
    What was being appropriated was Ivy style, not Ivy culture.

  20. Minimalist Trad | December 5, 2021 at 12:04 am |

    Virtually all of Ivy style is the result of “appropriation”:
    The khaki and Madras from India (via the British Isles), the regimental stripe tie, Oxford cloth, flannels, tweed, and navy blazer from England, and the loafers from Norway. (For the youngsters among us: “Weejun” is a shortening of “Norwegian”).

  21. Philly Trad | December 5, 2021 at 1:56 am |

    Black Ivy was indeed a revolt in style–a revolt against the prevailing Black style of the time.

  22. I’m not sure what the black style of the time might have been. I was not yet born but I think traditional clothes were the style of the time for everyone.



  23. It’s pretty funny to me that some of the most intelligent and textured cultural analysis online today is found at a site dedicated to a clothing style. Though of course, it has always been much more than that.

    I LOVE THIS – May I quote it? – JB

  24. This seems like an interesting subject for a book and one which I’d enjoy reading. I can relate to the basic premise (although not entirely seeing that segregation and open casteism were commonplace at that time). I grew up as a minority in a sea of Waspdom. As a youth I wore the “uniform” because it was expected and I wanted to fit in. As a teen I rebelled against the uniform subbing ripped jeans for khakis etc. Only now as an adult do I see the power in the uniform and it’s ability to set a level playing field (a touch of nostalgia doesn’t hurt). The words “ I respect myself, and I smartly, peacefully, but with insistence ask that you respect me too,” really tell the tale. A policeman/woman encountering a dark skinned man dressed in the manner of Mr Poitier will react differently than if I were dressed in sweatpants and a jersey. This is a result of one’s unconscious bias. We all have them. Men like Miles were telling the world “We too are good enough.”

  25. Matthew MacLeod | December 7, 2021 at 10:39 am |

    I’m not a big fan of the concept of “appropriation.” Cultures don’t own their customs. There is respect and disrespect. Feel free to adopt aspects of another’s culture but do so with respect. I’m a white man who grew up in the Midwest. I love Ivy style and have adopted it in various ways over the course of my life. I didn’t inherit it from my family, at least not directly. In that sense perhaps I share something important with the black men of the 50s and 60s highlighted in this book: the freedom to be the man you want to be.

  26. Jonathan Mitchell | December 8, 2021 at 9:36 pm |

    We adopt and we adapt.

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