Somewhere in Time: The Politics of Style

Traditional Ivy style is rarely exhibited by the most visible Ivy League graduates: politicians.

For instance, George W. Bush (Yale, Harvard) and Barack Obama (Columbia, Harvard) are never seen wearing sack suits, button down collars, or regimental striped ties.

So when and why did establishment Ivy Leaguers abandon the Ivy look?

Goodbye to Wing Tips,” a Time article from 1973, captures the mood of an angry public that no longer wanted to see its leaders in traditional clothing. In the middle of Watergate, the establishment look — “three-piece Yale-gray suits, white shirts and club ties” — started to become a liability, and wilder, newer styles came to be seen as evidence of credibility — or at least as the absence of taint.

This, at least, was the contention of John T. Molloy, the “Dress for Success” author and wardrobe consultant. As America reeled from the political scandal that would force President Nixon’s resignation less than a year later, the article notes that “the more conservative the costume…  the shadier the image.”

Thirty-five years later, it’s unlikely that the Ivy League Look is associated with disrepute. After all, some of the heroes of Watergate wore sack suits, such as Elliot Richardson (pictured above in a photo by Richard Avedon) and Archibald Cox.

It’s harder to say if the look still conveys snobbishness, or instead has become a fashion option without class or establishment connotations. Today’s politicians almost uniformly prefer the boardroom executive look — strong-shouldered suits, spread-collar French-cuffed shirts, and tastefully plain neckties — as the way to convey reliability and seriousness.

It is this latter trait that Ivy items such as whale ties, red trousers and rumpled oxford-cloth shirts probably lack in the eyes of the average voter. Indeed, the Ivy look seems to occupy an unusual position between the extremely casual, denim-and-fleece clothing of most Americans, and the dressy executive style favored by politicians. This is a paradox, as many items of Ivy clothing come across as both too fashionable and too old fashioned, too casual and too dressed up. It is therefore understandable that risk-averse politicians and their image consultants would shy away from such uncontrollable and conflicting messages.

And yet, Time notes that even as the political establishment self-destructed, all was not lost for the Ivy League Look. Molloy advocated basic Ivy staples to enhance Senator Ted Kennedy’s credibility: “short hair parted on the side, blue blazers and gray flannel slacks, loafers and preppy ties.” The style, handled correctly and executed in its most basic terms, could still convey both seriousness and innocence in the darkest days of Watergate, and it most certainly can do the same today.

This is not the case for the clothing that, according to Time, sought to replace it:  “the mod suit with wide lapels and nipped waist worn over a pastel-patterned shirt.” — TALIESIN

16 Comments on "Somewhere in Time: The Politics of Style"

  1. Great post. I had no idea that HR Haldeman was so trad or ivy or whatever.

  2. Elliot Richardson-A great pic of a great public servant.

  3. Great article, I wish I had written it. You deftly capture the perceived conundrum of classic Ivy League dress: to casual to be formal and too “elitist” to be office-worthy.

    I think though, that the look, recently popular for it’s more showy and iconic side – plaids, whales and bright ribbon belts – is starting to grow up and be seen as a real workplace/senate office alternative. Think of it; a J. Press Harris Tweed jacket, bow tie and flannels being considered “alternative.”

    Anyway, great writing.

  4. I recall seeing something on the outside of a downtown San Francisco men’s store circa 1973 that supports John Molloy’s point: a metal sign reading Hart, Schaffner & Marx followed by a scrawl of painted graffiti reading “Nixon’s best friends”

  5. Poison Ivy Leaguer | January 11, 2019 at 8:57 am |

    A little trivia — Nixon’s suits were made by H. Freeman & Son of Philadelphia.

  6. Poison Ivy Leaguer | January 11, 2019 at 9:09 am |

    Today’s “unnatural” shoulder jackets aren’t nearly as noticeable as they were when the heyday if Ivy began in the early 50’s. For example, take a look at Desi’s jackets in “I Love Lucy”.

  7. Great piece! You’ve deftly put your finger on the current state of Ivy Style in American politics. Hope you keep contributing!

    Your final link to the 2001 Time article on President Bush is broken. Could you kindly repost a working hyperlink? Thank you!

  8. “…the absence of taint.” hehehe

  9. Vern Trotter | January 11, 2019 at 11:32 am |

    Just received my J Press sale e-mail. Shaggy Dogs on sale are only $245!!!. Had to count mine again: only 14 left after giving several away recently. I have been buying them since the late 1950s. I’ll suffer and make do with what I have for the rest of my days. Maybe there is a Shaggy12 step program here in NY; there is one for every other addiction.

  10. @Verr Trotter The $245 price tag is not the sale price; that’s full retail this season. I’ve been waiting for them to go on sale so I can pick one up. I’ve been checking with each “Winter Sale” email they’ve sent, but alas, I suppose they’ve been popular enough that Press doesn’t feel the need to discount them quite yet.

  11. A touch of Ivy might not be such a bad idea for a candidate. Give the idea they’re thinking on their own about appearance, and not just being presented by handlers. Except for Trump’s bar stripes, when do you see something than other than a solid tie on a politician these days?

  12. Jonathan Wertheim | January 11, 2019 at 6:54 pm |

    @ NCJack – Biden.

  13. NCJack:
    If those solid ties were navy grenadines, one could hardly do better.

  14. @Mazama,
    HSM: one more Jewish contribution to American men’s style:

  15. Robert | January 12, 2019 at 12:25 am |

    I think people still have the image of bright greens and pinks being worn by preppy bullies in 80s pop culture, as well as connotations of grandparents and the pretentious. If Ivy/Trad/Preppy etc could shed these images, I believe more people would be drawn to it.

  16. Wow, I wrote that piece more than 10 years ago! I’m glad is still going strong and I’m proud to have been an early participant.

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