Editor’s Note: I don’t agree with everything in here. But I can disagree respectfully. I did, however, want to take any opportunity, including the one that Mr. Charles Bellinger kindly offered me, to trumpet the message of inclusion, gate-opening, and cultural relevance. The Classics Are For Everyone. – JB
JB recently posed a question to me: In this day and age, to what extent or degree is Ivy culturally relevant?
Here’s the thing, its not nearly as aesthetically relevant as it could be and its because some of its most ardent fans and practitioners are too damn gatekeeperish. From a cultural standpoint, the direction it is headed is “Subset of Preppy that 3 friends who like tweed jackets follow.”
It doesn’t have to be that way though. There’s a huge sartorial and design legacy that could be tapped if we took a more holistic approach. That being said, it seems wise to follow the advice of 20th century literary mastermind Missy Elliot and work it by putting it down, flipping, and reversing it.
In spring of this year (2022 for you future readers perusing my acclaimed reprints long after the Ice Capshave melted and people have bought ocean side property in Harrisburg, PA) Ralph Lauren released a collection inspired by America’s renown HBCUs. It was fantastic. It was fresh. It was the most fun I have seen out of PRL in a decade. Then I read the comment sections online.
For those of you who don’t know what an HBCU is, it’s an acronym for Historic Black Colleges and Universities. The dividing line for a lot of racial issues in America is the Civil Rights Act of 1964. To be considered an HBCU you had to exist prior to then and there are currently 101 of them. That’s approximately 3% of the institutions of higher education in America. Most were established in the South after the Civil War (Cheyney in Pennsylvania being an antebellum exception) and were the foundation of black education and research and the bedrock of that community’s middle class and elites for nearly a century.
For Ralph Lauren to do a HBCU inspired collection, as the saying goes, a Big Deal. I implore anybody that can go into Google Images to look at all the photos from the early to mid-20 th century on these campuses. The style is good. It’s a masterclass in design and detail and it still feels alive and relevant today. So PRL dropped a collection that took that spirit, they flipped it, they reversed it and they made something special that popped and had its own taste. It felt fun and alive. Then…the comment sections. The comments under each ad and article on places such as Facebook seemed to have just as much disdain as praise. I can not recall the last time a Ralph Lauren posting was rife with such disdain and dog whistles and gate keeping.
For each post, there seemed to be some surly, salty malcontent referencing some picture of John Smith and Bob Richards and G. Eneric Whiteguy from a campus at Harvard or Yale circa 1946-1965. It didn’t matter than in many ways the cuts and cloth were quite similar. It mattered that the purists had settled on a default that was different only in degrees from the original inspiration. God forbid something from then be brought into the present. Let alone something that wasn’t inspired by the WASP establishment of a country that for so long as forced others into separate communities and groupings and looked black or brown or just a little funky.
This is to say nothing of the legacy of the Seven Sisters colleges. Opportunity was few and far for women to receive decent higher education in this nation for a very long time. Bryan Mawr, just outside of Philadelphia, featured Katherine Hepburn as an alumnus. Barnard and Wellesley are some of the most difficult universities to gain admission to in the entire nation. Radcliffe College was so Ivy, that in 1999 Harvard outright absorbed it.
These colleges were all created to provide women with the equivalent of an Ivy education. From a quality standpoint they were and are just as good and are often far more selective. From a cultural standpoint you run the gamut of Hepburn to Martha Stewart. It’s a tremendous legacy of influence on style, design, art, and literature. Aesthetically speaking, a snapshot of any of these campuses from the so-called Ivy Heyday shows just as much taste and is similar enough but still slightly different. Its relatable but still its own thing.
The thing is that Ivy aficionados often like to live in the Heyday Years. Shoehorned somewhere between1954 and 1967. The clothing is always just so and the aesthetic even more. Without variance the photo sare often of men, white young, often the benefactors of legacy admissions or if they were lucky, the GI Bill. The mid-20 th century opened a lot of avenues for people who may not have been straight white guys, but the Ivy League was, and is, still elite. That’s fine. Personally, I don’t think elitism is necessarily bad. To be the best at something is to be, by its very nature, elite. Sports, food, fashion, politics or career, there will always be a top echelon. Not a single person or institution will ever be fully equal in quality or talent nor should they.
Yet, the erstwhile purists of Ivy aesthetics seem to hew to an extremely narrow window of propriety inform and function. Photos from Ivy league campus across the broad swath of the 20 th century wonderful clothing and style and design. Each era a different iteration of what the peak of accessible elitism could be. This is exactly why Ivy, left to its most ardent traditionalists is doomed to be just a footnote in the broader world of Preppy style.
For whatever one says about the “Preppy Handbook” or preppy styled adherents, they leave room for ridiculous madras shorts all the same as Saville tailored blazers. There’s a far more egalitarian notion that Prep is its own lane but its plenty wide enough that you can stay init and still have some swerve. Men and women, black and brown faces, weird, queer or boringly strait-laced all can and do have a place to express themselves there. Its more open and far less rigid. In many ways it’s become the sartorial Big Tent Party for those who prefer a more polished Anglo-American aesthetic. Prep school kids can go to Harvard, but they might as well go to Berkeley or Howard or Bryn Mawr.
If Ivy is to ever thrive on its own in our era, it needs to be more expansive. The aesthetics of HCBUs and Seven Sisters colleges, especially during the first half of the 20th century, is much closer to those of the Ivy league than just a bunch of prep school twerps in plaid shorts driving around in their daddy’s hand me down Lexus. If we were to view Ivy as being inspired by the original Ivy League but actually being the epitome of what we expect from the highest levels of our institutions and how we as a society place our selves in relation to contributing toward the elevation of those principles we might just see something relevant and fresh and modern with deep, bold roots drawing from the best of all the voices that never had a seat at the table and had to make their own spots to eat.
If Preppy is a style than Ivy must be a Sensibility. As an aesthetic it should be the focusing lens of refining our adornments to the best lived in and cherished traditions of the institutions that enrich our communities and embolden our brightest. It must be presenting oneself ennobled in the finest of uniforms we craft for ourselves and the intimations we pursue in the quest to bring our inner selves into alignment with the world we hope to enrich.
One last thing, people need to drop the gatekeeping and stop being puritanical about this stuff. The Puritans sucked. England kicked them out for being a bunch of party poppers and as soon as they landed in America, they ate all the Native’s food and banned Christmas. Don’t be
like them. Nobody likes a bore.
– Charles Bellinger