Ivy Is Elegant. Are You?

Is lipstick on a pig Ivy?

I refer you to some Ivy reference points.  Davis. McQueen.  Kennedy.  Poitier.  Bush.  Astaire.  O’Rourke.  You can wear what they wear.  You probably own some of what they wear (except maybe Bush’s latter day socks – which were the apex of elegance but easier to pull off once the helicopter leaves the White House front lawn and lands in Kennebunkport).  But you know when you see it, on some people, something is still missing.

Ok, a word on Bush’s socks.  Taken by themselves, they are… (this is such an obnoxious word) whimsical.  Taken as a form of self expression earned from a lifetime of dignity and service and achievement, they are elegant.  See?  Ivy is inside-out.


Click on the picture, it’s a history of President Bush’s socks.

The list of positively-oriented adjectives for a traditional lifestyle is short.  There are plenty of two way streets.  Staid.  Conservative.  Old school.  Even the word traditional itself when used to describe… traditional… can go either way.  For men, with regard to Ivy fashion, there are two that are surer bets on communicating what positivity.

Well-dressed (ok, two words, with a hyphen I think, see how hard this is?) and elegant.  Even elegant can go in a different direction if you let it.  Can one be casual and elegant?  (Hells yes but there are differing schools of thought.  One of those schools is wrong, but there are differing schools of thought for sure.)

Of the two though, I default to elegant more than well-dressed.  Because it conveys more of the person.  A tippy leaking infested shack can be well painted.  I know people like that, so do you.  Tippy.  Leaking.  Infested.  But well dressed.  I don’t know anyone who is a tool, who is also elegant.

Ivy is elegant by my definition.  I look at elegance as a combination of aesthetics and comportment.  The difference between Don Knotts (LOVE Don Knotts btw) and Fred Astaire isn’t all that much in terms of body type.  But we don’t use the word elegant to describe Don Knotts, even though, not a bad dresser.


Click on the picture of Mr. Knotts to learn about this suit, which was apparently a thing.

But you would use that same word to describe Astaire, who gets so overworked on this site I am not even bothering with a picture.    What’s the difference?  It is not the clothes.  It’s the comportment.

Ivy, like elegance, is driven from the inside out.   The declare Ivy without elegance is to be a poseur.  I spelled that right.  That is part of what I love about Ivy Style.  It is CSI: Wherever blue light that makes it way easier to see the stains.

What are some of those stains?   A partial list, for your consideration.

  1. Name dropping.  Of anything.  You may speak your credentials once, if and only if they are relevant.  They are ALMOST NEVER relevant.  Your school, your family’s school, should be evident from the way you carry yourself.  If it isn’t, going to your school was a waste.
  2. Complaint as  form of elevation.  Complaining about things has the unfortunate wake of the assumption that the complainer could do better.  Which is ALMOST NEVER the case.  Complaining conveys that you have a higher standard and that others simply aren’t there.  But what it really says is that you have too much free time and are spending it whining instead of pulling plastic from the ocean.
  3. Toffee-nose.  Everybody knows that condescension is the mark of an ass.  Being toffee-nosed is more insidious.  It is more of the “bless your heart” variety.  Ivy Toffee-nosing is most often born from the fact that the offending noser is older, and thus understands a tradition better.  Age is an opportunity that so many of us mess up.
  4. Self-absorption.  The most Ivy people I know are reluctant to talk about themselves (unless it is their profession – it is my profession – but in my private life I hate pictures of myself and talking about… me).  The most Ivy people I know would rather hear about you.  In a supportive and affirming way.
  5. Dismissiveness.  One of the core values that we talk about here is the respect for and value of intellectual capital.  Dismissiveness is the exact opposite.  It is intellectually lazy.  Not finishing a debate is losing it.
  6. A lack of service that doesn’t come with stature.  What I mean is, the inability to do good without posting a picture of yourself doing good.  I have a great Paul Newman story.  I was friends with a therapist (Columbia, ’75 – see, THAT was NOT Ivy) who was seeing a guy in the middle of a divorce.  The guy is driving the Taconic Parkway.  If you aren’t from these parts, the Taconic Parkway is where James Bond would shoot chase scenes if he were Dutch in the 1700’s.  It is harrowing.  Anyway, the guy is driving the Taconic and starts crying so hard he can’t focus and so he pulls over, gets out of the car, and is crouched down hugging his knees crying when he feels a hand on his shoulder.  He looks to the side and sees a sports car pulled over next to his, he looks up and sees Paul Newman saying, “You okay buddy?”   THAT’s Ivy.

Appreciation for hard work is Ivy.  Hard work is Ivy.  Hard work is not limited to a career.  Parenting if done right is hard work.  Relationships if done right are hard work.  Softball if done right is hard work.  And introspection, if done right, is hard work.  It is worth taking a look at one’s self to see if any of the above, or any of the list you have have, reveal themselves.  If they do, and you can rid yourself of them, you get closer to elegance, which is Ivy.


19 Comments on "Ivy Is Elegant. Are You?"

  1. Gary S. Glazer | May 4, 2022 at 9:47 am |

    Superb article-no further comment is appropriate or needed.

  2. Mitchell | May 4, 2022 at 9:55 am |

    Well said, JB.

    Not to be dismissive, but I used to say that only porn magazine publishers, pimps, and strip club owners wear bit loafers.

    As I have matured, I have become more accepting of style eccentricities, including bit loafers.

    I purchased my first pair of bit loafers at age 49, and I must admit that I love them. They look especially elegant on an older gentleman, as depicted on the photo of the former President.

  3. Don Knotts’ suit appears to be Donegal tweed.

    I, too am a fan of Mr. Knotts.

  4. Old Bostonian | May 4, 2022 at 10:15 am |


    You, sir, are both elegant and eloquent.

  5. Hardbopper | May 4, 2022 at 10:20 am |

    2. “Complaining about things has the unfortunate wake of the assumption that the complainer could do better.”
    I will admit that my complaining that it is virtually impossible to obtain archetypical made-to-order/made-to-measure/bespoke (I dislike that word) tailored sport coats and suits is not Ivy. Why? Because I could not do better even if I worked at or owned my own shop. Why? Because we do not own the archetype templates/patterns, do not have permissions to purchase the choicest fabrics from overseas, by-the-yard/meter, and we do not have “tailors” with the historical knowledge, skills, abilities, or willingness to build the product to specifications. It’s not a matter of money. No-one can do it; the factories are closed, out of business. No-one will even claim that they can do this anymore.
    So, while determination is a virtue, complaining, the inability to accept reality, is a vice.

    6. “A lack of service that doesn’t come with stature. What I mean is, the inability to do good without posting a picture of yourself doing good.”
    I think this is called “virtue signaling”.

  6. Many companies encourage ‘complaints’ as they say they can gauge customer satisfaction that way me thereby improve. However, if you wish your complaint to be heard and taken seriously make it a solution-based complaint. As they say, never go to the CEO with a complaint. Go to him with a solution. You are more likely to find a sympathetic ear that way. In my view being a democrat with a small d allows one to say something is good when it is and it equally allows one to complain about it when it isn’t. That is not un-Ivy.

  7. Bill Stephenson | May 4, 2022 at 2:25 pm |

    Outstanding article! Maybe it would be possible to add being able to carry on a meaningful conversation. Takes time and observation to learn. The summary of your fine list would be that the end product is understated elegance.

  8. Where are the socks with the presidential seal? Those are really elegant.

  9. Over Easy | May 4, 2022 at 3:12 pm |

    Bless your heart.

  10. Hardbopper | May 4, 2022 at 3:16 pm |

    Sample Solutions for consideration:

    1. Samuelsohn, and English American i.e., H. Freeman, each hire a bona fide tailor and apprentices to do custom orders for walk-in customers “factory direct”.
    2. Maybe a group other than the establishment H. Freeman give it a go. Maybe they call themselves Southwick.
    3. These apprentices familiarize themselves with the “old” style that they don’t like because they’ve never seen it before, or because we’re all Europeans now.
    4. These apprentice tailors learn the American style from the Japanese if need be.
    5. Establish small, discreet, low overhead, “factory” shops, M2M only, in bigger metro areas, say select NFL cities, or college towns maybe.
    6. Buy the “old” BB sack suit patterns from Southwick and Martin Greenfield etc.
    7. They make available cloth from Fox Bros, Harrisons, etc. and/or allow customers to walk in with X # yards of their own.

  11. You’re making lots of points and they’re kinda-sorta connected (I expected a final elaboration of/upon elegance but then you took the turn to/toward hard work. Hard work is very good indeed as virtues go, but I know plenty of elegant people who don’t work very hard–sometimes because they just don’t have to) and I can appreciate where I think you’re going with all this. Sort of–and I type “sort of” in the least condescending way possible.

    1. Actually (and perhaps sadly according to some), making reference to one’s alma mater matters–a lot. A whole damned lot–IF your alma mater has a strong alumni network (great for getting jobs and internships) and/or your alma mater is considered good. Don’t overdo it, but in Richmond this works brilliantly: “My W&L years were among the best of my life”– even a few times. It’s HOW you say it. HOW.

    2. I agree about complaining, so I what I try to do (as best I can) is accompany a complaint with ideas, solutions, and/or suggestions. It’s worth noting the delicious irony: complaining about complaining…is, mmm…yeah, complaining.

    3. Toffee-nose? Hadn’t heard that one. Hmm. Well, I’d agree that condescension is a no-no, but some of the most elegant people I know have a tough (even if just a modicum) of haughtiness. Not off-the-charts hubris, mind you. Just a smidgeon of haughtiness. Actually, now that I think about it, it’s at least a little bit charming. Not a lot, mind you. A little bit. I admire the facial expression of a man who knows damned well (‘by God!’) what the hell he’s talking about.

    I concur abut self-absorption and dismissiveness …but let’s be careful not to confuse the robust sharing of thoughts, ideas, perspectives, opinions, and/or suggestions with self-absorption– or dismissiveness. If someone’s ideas are better than mine, I’m all ears. I’d like to hear them. I want him/her to share– even if they (initially) sound like …complaints.

    The Paul Newman story is encouraging, and I’d like to think 99% of us would pull over to check on someone who, prostrate on the side of the road, appears to be in a state of genuine distress. Good Samaritanism and all that.

  12. “Not finishing a debate is losing it.”

    Not sure about this one. Sometimes the best and wisest course of action is to walk away from a debate. Remember this?–George H.W. Bush looked down at his watch during a debate. (He was sharing a stage with Perot and…Gore?). He was maligned for being dismissive and rude. Even condescending. But I understood. The debate had grown boring–tedious. He wanted to walk away from that debate. Sometimes, when the debates are less-than-informed, walking way is wise.

    This is a tad awkward, but… Bush lost the election. – JB

  13. * touch, rather. as in touch of haughtiness. Like, say, Teddy Roosevelt, JFK, and WFB Jr. That sort of vibe.

  14. Even more awkward:

    pretty sure he didn’t care.

    Oh, and it was Clinton, right? What a circus that campaign/debate season had become.

    Losing an election, when done with elegance and ennui and panache…is, to borrow a phrase,


  15. Could not be more in agreement on the subject of elegance. Yes indeed. Had you taken the lipstick-on-a-pig image to the next level (and you could’ve–we’ve seen your writing)–well, this, and I’m now speaking subjectively and personally, is where I’d love to see you take this site. Stick with elegance, above all else. Try, to borrow a phrase, for elegance. You’ve a Pelagian streak, JB. This is admirable. So, (my sense is) you’re tempted to make Ivy about a lifestyle grounded in all of these higher, loftier (nearly divine?) virtues and the virtuous (“Hard work is Ivy”; “Honesty is Ivy”; “Working out and eating right is Ivy”; “Jimmy here, whose entrepreneurial and fitness-minded, is Ivy”…).

    My time is drawing nigh because a fella can only wax complimentary about Norman Hilton, Mercer & Sons, and Aldens for so long. But I’d invite you to deliberate upon the direction you were headed at the beginning of this piece. Is Ivy about anything except elegance?–more specifically, the elegance of natural shouldered gents who, decades ago, set the standards we’re still trying to live up to. For all the exemplary, noble, upstanding stuff you’ll be tempted to declare Ivy, I really-and-truly contend you’re on the right track with elegance. Keep trying for elegance.

    Talk of horse bit loafers and floral prints and probably Nantucket Red-shaded-god-damned-everything will follow here at I-S. You’ve an audience to maintain and grow, and heterogeneity is merited for practical reasons. But please keep coming back to real deal: the old Southwick ads, the Washington & Lee Calyx (yearbook) circa 1967, and Cary Grant during the ‘Walk Don’t Run’ era: the uniquely Ivy rendition of elegance.

  16. Thank you J.B. for sharing the word “elegance” and your thoughtful essay. I would like to add understated to that – understated elegance. Also grace, kindness, humility. All words that convey similar qualities. I’m not sure Barney Fife employed each of those or any; but he was one of the best characters on one of the best shows ever. Each episode has a lesson.

    And I’m not sure those characteristics are unique to “Ivy” or have anything to do with Ivy or any other background. For many, it was just the way you were brought up. And then there are a lot of elegant people that are DBs of the highest rank.

    But when I do think of understated elegance I think of Cary Grant, JFK, Bobby Jones (the golfer) amongst others. Look at this clip of Cary Grant accepting his Honorary Oscar. (Skip to 2:45 to avoid Fran Sinatra at his most DB self) Grant is in the spotlight but deflects the accolades to many others. (I like his elegance better in Indiscreet and North by Northwest) Cary Grant Oscars: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R0Zijgn-c9w

    Red Fay’s book on his friendship with JFK “The Pleasure of His Company” is terrific. JFK was not perfect but you’d love to be his friend. Look at pictures of JFK at a ball game looking up for a foul ball like a kid. You felt he was just a good guy. When asked if he would be a liberal or a conservative JFK answered “I would hope to be responsible”. How the mighty have fallen.

    Jack Nicklaus once spoke of Bobby Jones as someone who possessed a warmth and a grace and a charm that left one happy just to be in his presence. Who amongst us wouldn’t want that tribute?!

    When players walk on to Centre Court at Wimbledon they walk under this passage from Kipling – “If you can meet with triumph and disaster and treat those two imposters just the same”. I fail at that almost daily but it’s a great goal and I can’t think of anything more eloquent or elegant.

    We don’t need to identify as Ivy or anything else to have these qualities. We can just be a good human being.

  17. Harkness Tower | May 5, 2022 at 12:06 am |

    Understated elegance does not include bit loafers, crayola-colored trousers and blazers, or pink shirts.

    Are you really gonna make me dig up pictures of Astair in… all of those? – JB

  18. Expat Yank | May 5, 2022 at 1:44 am |

    Bravo, JB.

  19. Harkness Tower | May 6, 2022 at 1:11 am |

    Astaire was elegant, but bit loafers, crayola-colored trousers and blazers, or pink shirts are hardly understated; overstated, if anything.

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