He Looked Like He Sounded: CC On WFB For NRO

Following the First World War, the male wardrobe modernized, and elements of the Ivy League Look fell into place one by one, creating signifiers that would identify in-group from interloper to this day. These included a jacket cut with natural shoulders, three chest buttons, and an undarted front; pleatless trousers with turn-up cuffs; and crewneck sweaters in hearty wool, in lieu of cardigan sweaters in delicate cashmere. Add to the formula argyle socks, white bucks or penny loafers (an instant hit in 1936), knit and regimental ties, and that most princely of topcoats, the polo coat, a double-breasted, patch-pocketed mobile blanket spun from the tan-colored down of cud-chewing dromedaries. The style became so smart that periodicals such as Esquire kept their eye on the college men of Yale and Princeton as closely as they did on the matinee idols of Hollywood.

The Second World War interrupted the growing influence of the look, which didn’t even have a name yet in the popular lexicon. And after nearly a decade of the drapey, inelegant style of the postwar years, the East Coast Establishment look burst into national consciousness in 1954 through a Life magazine photo spread entitled “The Ivy Look Heads across the U.S.” The Ivy League Look reigned for the next 13 years as smart attire for everyone wishing to broadcast conservative good taste, from young actors such as Paul Newman and Anthony Perkins in studio publicity shots to Madison Avenue advertising executives, until the counterculture revolution turned it from hip-to-be-square to straight-up square practically overnight. And there, in this twilight realm wedged between striving middle-class and Old Guard establishment, it has remained.

Which brings us to Buckley. He was certainly no stylist, lacking the natural dash of a blue blood arbiter elegantiarium such as A. J. Drexel Biddle Jr. But, and perhaps more important, he was possessed of that certain je ne sais quoi that philosophers of style have spent centuries seeking to dissect. With his disheveled coiffure, asymmetrical four-in-hand knots (the architecturally balanced Windsor considered an affectation among men of his class), and languid patrician drawl, he looked exactly like he sounded. Not merely a Gstaad-skiing, harpsichord-playing, sesquipedalian-spouting character from the pages of John Cheever or Louis Auchincloss but something with vaster imagistic reach: say, the patriarch in one of those multi-page, narrative ’80s Ralph Lauren photo spreads in the pages of Architectural Digest.

You can find the piece right here. — CHRISTIAN CHENSVOLD

25 Comments on "He Looked Like He Sounded: CC On WFB For NRO"

  1. Richard E. Press | January 7, 2019 at 7:37 pm | Reply

    For God, for country, for Yale and for Christian Chensvold. Boola boola,

  2. That piece was sublime. Chen’s, your writing is playful and informative. A rare combination indeed.

  3. Is WFB himself going to comment? I haven’t seen his commentary around Ivy-Style in some time, and his presence is missed…

  4. And we never saw Bill fully dressed with no socks! He was best smoking a cigarillo, exhaling on liberal guests. No, I jest.

  5. The old Firing Line episodes have been made available. Many of them, anyway. The confirm that, with the exception of the rumpled button down and repp tie, he was not a devotee of Ivy.

    Pictures of his brother James (Jim) reveal a stalwart commitment to narrow lapeled 3-button sack suits (and tweeds) — throughout the rough waters of the 1970s and 80s and beyond.

  6. Richard E. Press | January 8, 2019 at 10:21 am | Reply

    S.E. Brother Jim was a J. Press stalwart throughout his life.

  7. I would say Bill was more of an Ivy Style dresser than JFK but not as much as brother Jim.

  8. Charlottesville | January 8, 2019 at 11:22 am | Reply

    Great piece, Christian. Bravo! As I recall, in one of his books or articles, Mr. Buckley stated that he had, at the urging of someone (possibly his wife) purchased a bespoke suit but couldn’t see any appreciable difference between it and his much cheaper, off-the-rack mainstays. Crooked tie, wrinkly collar and slouching posture all say that he really didn’t care that much about clothing, but he had a natural and very American style that is quite rare these days.

    The only time I saw his brother Jim up close, I was sitting at counsel table as a fairly junior lawyer, and he was on the bench wearing a black robe. I was too nervous to notice what little I could see of his other clothing, but am glad to hear that he was a lifelong patron of J. Press.

  9. I would like to ask about the use of the phrase ubermensch, which outside of it’s Nietzschian concept, is used to describe Nazi ethno-superiority (in contrast to untermensch). I object to it’s use specifically as Nietzsche’s ubermensch is an unachievable goal, meaning no person can be described as one. This leaves a reader to draw the conclusion that Buckley is ethnicity superior, or at least forces the reader to hark strongly on facist ideology. I feel this is highly inappropriate for a publication like the National Review, or any publication really. Even if not meant in the way it was taken I still object in the strongest of terms.

  10. RoarLionRoar, I read that as sarcasm although I assume you were serious. I admit I had to search the term and the quick description I read described “superman.” You are reaching.
    Great writing Christian.

  11. @S.E., The old Firing Line episodes “confirm that with the exception of the rumpled button down and repp tie, he was not a devotee of Ivy”? You should cast your net wider than that before making such a blanket statement.

  12. Matthew M Robare | January 8, 2019 at 3:25 pm | Reply

    Buckley’s wife, Pat Taylor, was considered very elegant and fashionable. She was inducted into the International Best Dressed Hall of Fame in 1975.

  13. @RoarLionRoar
    Oh dear. I should think that someone who attended or identifies with that estimable university at 116th Street and Broadway in the City of New York would know the difference in use between “it’s” and “its.”

  14. How about something on Michael Dukakis? Talk about preppy–to this very day.

  15. Jonathan Wertheim | January 8, 2019 at 5:18 pm | Reply

    S.E. – hear hear!

  16. @VEA – hogwash. At the time of the Civil Rights Act’s passage, Buckley was using National Review to denounce George Wallace and those that stood against it. In fact, he changed his opinion on the issue before many Democratic legislators. You’re repeating the laziest of ahistorical pot shots.

  17. Jonathan Wertheim | January 9, 2019 at 12:12 am | Reply

    ^ This is actually true. WFB did a lot of moral shuffling about his record on this, but this summary is actually accurate.

  18. @VEA — “Of the thousands of pictures available online of WFB, more than roughly half show him in clothes that are anything but ‘Ivy'”…If you go to the candids in his sailing books you will find quite a different story. I knew the man and saw him with some frequency during 1984-86. When not wearing a suit his uniform was khakis, button-down, and Shetland sweater. It’s true he didn’t give two shits about clothing and the older he got the less he conformed to the Ivy norm (not unlike GHWB), but that is almost more appealing — cf. Bruce Boyer’s “English country house look.”

  19. Is it possible that WFB, like all humans, was a complex creature who dressed both badly and well at various times in his life? Only the stars can tell us…

  20. “To wit, a menswear authority has confided in me an apocryphal yarn in which Buckley’s suit coat was once taken in a gesture of hospitality by someone curious enough to succumb to the temptation of checking its label. Said marker indicated neither bespoke origins on Savile Row nor even provenance of the Brothers Brooks but instead the modest department store JC Penney. It was an everyman’s suit, as worn by an ubermensch.”

    These are awfully convoluted turns of phrase.

  21. Mike Dukakis was really Ivy in the tank wearing the helmet. Preppy indeed!

  22. Jonathan Wertheim | January 11, 2019 at 6:52 pm | Reply

    @ Vern – he’s worn 3/2 jackets and OCBDs more consistently than GHWB or WFB ever did.

  23. @Jonathan– True. I lived in the People’s Republic for 25 years. Mike has always looked nice and is an Ivy dresser.

  24. As a non-white it always amuses me the, er, obsession some have over public racists. It’s like they followed every word of the racist and waited their time – like a long time – to spill their indignation. I mean, it’s the same pattern every time it appears here on this site.

  25. Always funny to see VEA eviscerate a poorly constructed/ innacurate argument. Better luck next time, Mr. Twardzik.

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