Editor’s note: I didn’t edit this at all, not a stitch, but I will tell you my favorite sentence comes at the end. “And much the same could be said of Ivy, which breathes easiest and wears best when it worries least.” Thanks to Robert Archambeau for the submission!
Ivy style has fostered some great looks—the three-roll two, the OCBD, the Boston cracked shoe. (Well, perhaps the greatness of that last one is up for debate). But one thing is never a good look: anxiety. And if you follow discussions of Ivy Style, you won’t go too far without seeing anxiety creep in. Comments like “I don’t know if this is Ivy, but…” or “I know the pants here probably don’t count as Ivy…” signal uneasiness, or at least the sneaking sense that someone out there may be ready to shout the speaker down for the perceived sin of a quarter-zip sweater or a fabric with a too-high count of artificial fibers.
One way to think about this fashion anxiety is to turn our eyes to one of the Western world’s great students of Zen, the late British writer Alan Watts. It’s not that Zen itself has some special connection to Ivy style, at least not as far as I know—though there is something about both Zen and Ivy that captures the Japanese imagination. Rather, it’s that we can learn something about different approaches to Ivy style by looking at Watts’ essay “Beat Zen, Square Zen, and Zen,” the first version of which appeared in 1959.
Watts saw that a version of Zen had taken hold among people associated with the Beat Generation—Alan Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, and (more seriously) Gary Snyder. Calling this “Beat Zen” or “Hip Zen,” Watts noticed that it was different from other types of Zen by virtue of how it was worn with a bit of defiance and more than a bit of self-regard. Hip or Beat Zen always put its hipness on equal footing with its Zen, and was, in Watts’ words, “always a share too self-conscious, too subjective, and too strident to have the flavor” of traditional Zen. The Hipster who embraced Zen did it in part out of a desire for special distinction and special attention, defying norms and breaking with the majority culture not just out of a yearning for enlightenment but out of a desire to stand out.
There is certainly something analogous to Beat Zen out there in the Ivy community. Since the term “Beat” is tied so specifically to the literature of the Beat Generation, let’s call it Hip Ivy—an interest in herringbone, cardigans, and rep ties that, however much it stems from a love of workmanship and aesthetics, comes with a big dose of desire for social distinction, of standing out in a crowd. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing (Watts though Beat Zen was legitimate in its way) but it can sometimes have an anxious quality, trying hard to attract attention in a way the original wearers of Ivy style did not. The real masters of Zen, says Watts, “didn’t brag about it and set themselves apart as rather special.” Perhaps this is true of the masters of Ivy as well.
Square Zen was, if anything, more fidgety than Beat Zen. Square Zen is all about rules and the appeal to authorities. It is, writes Watts, “a quest for the right spiritual experience, for a satori which will receive the stamp of approved and established authority. There will even be certificates to hang on the wall.” Only under the stern supervision of the masters, and with scrupulous adherence to the correct texts, do the adherents of Square Zen feel confident that they have followed the true path.
Square Ivy is evident wherever we hear the claim “that’s not Ivy!” followed by a reference to that holiest of canonical texts, Take Ivy—or to a photo of, say, the Princeton class of 1964. It’s an approach that prioritizes existing canons of taste over innovation, which is viewed with as much deep suspicion as athleisure. The Square Ivy community does not see a company like Rowing Blazers as a fresh breeze from the future blowing through the quiet glade of Ivy, but as a growing murmur of heresy.
Alan Watts found much to admire in the masters of what he called Square Zen, but in the end, he found its anxious adherence to artificial rules limiting. Traditional Zen, he says, was never fussy about rules. Zen is wu-shih meaning “nothing special” or “no fuss”—but fussiness is part of both Hip Zen and Square Zen—Zen becomes fussy both “when it is mixed up with Bohemian affectations,” and “when it is imagined that the only proper way to find it is to run off to a monastery in Japan or to do special exercises in the lotus posture five hours a day.”
Here, in the idea of un-fussy ease, is where we come to the profound connection between Zen and Ivy. What could be more Ivy than a little nonchalance in the unselfconsciousness of the frayed cuff or collar, of the scuffed shoe leather or the worn-in comfort of a reliable old blue sport coat? Lacking a certain laid-back attitude, Zen, says Watts, will be “either beat or square, either a revolt from the culture and social order or a new form of stuffiness and respectability.” Both of these could be good things, but neither of them followed the main path of Zen. And much the same could be said of Ivy, which breathes easiest and wears best when it worries least.
- Robert Archambeau
Robert Archambeau first took an interest in Ivy style when he noticed he fit in the clothes his father wore as a young professor at the Rhode Island School of Design in the early 1960s. He is now a professor himself, teaching English at Lake Forest College.