Ken C. Pollock wears fine shoes today, but there was a time when he held his Bass Weejuns together with duct tape.
Of course, that was for style, not because he was impecunious.
Born in Birmingham, Alabama and raised primarily in Roanoke, Virginia, the son of an immigrant from Belarus and a small-town Alabama girl of Austrian descent, the 67-year-old, Atlanta-based attorney has worn the Ivy League Look since he was a student at New Orleans’ Tulane University from 1959-1965.
In the above photo, taken with his fraternity brothers in 1962, Pollock is top row, second from left. (Talk-show ringleader Jerry Springer is top row, second from right.)
Pollock is known in Tradsville for his perspicacious observations shared on various forums, as well as for an essay in 2004 in which he says he took terms commonly used in the past — Traditional Natural Shoulder Ivy League — and coined the acronym TNSIL. “I may have been the first to coin the acronym,” he says. “I had never seen it used by anyone else.”
Ivy Style spoke with Mr. Pollock about traditional style through the decades, from his college days during Ivy’s heyday, to the decline of the look in the ’70s (“the grimmest period”) and the 21st-century era of menswear blogs and forums.
Ivy Style’s conversation with Mr. Pollock will be posted in two installments. Readers will especially want to stay tuned for the rousing finale, in which Pollock reveals the staggering size of his wardrobe.
IS: In your essay, you write that you don’t like the term “preppy,” which has become virtually meaningless today. Why did you coin the term TNSIL?
KP: When I was young, we called it Ivy League clothing. Preppy was never very commonly used. People on the forums use “trad” a lot, which has its origins in Japan. TNSIL seemed to me the most complete definition, both historically and style-wise, because the most prominent thing about the clothing is the jacket’s natural shoulder, and it was first commonly worn at Ivy League colleges. The pants-maker Corbin used to use the term “Natural Shoulder Trousers,” which I thought was amusing. They had no pleats, and of course were designed to go with natural-shouldered jackets.
IS: What motivated you to write your essay in 2004?
KP: Before the creation of the Ask Andy Trad Forum, a couple guys who were younger than me tried posting a lot about the history of that type of clothing in the main forum, and I thought I had more experience with it than they did. They had all heard of stores like Chipp, but had very little experience with them, and didn’t seem to know J. Press before it was taken over by the Japanese.
The term I use, TNSIL, refers to something that goes back to the end of World War II. It had very broad appeal, starting with a certain American blue-blood elite, and was picked up by first the Ivy League college kids, and then pretty much the entire college community. When it started to die out, it was probably best preserved in the South, and has remained stronger there than anywhere else.
IS: What was your everyday dress like in college?
KP: We had pretty much a uniform, just like college students have today with their t-shirts, cargo pants and flip-flops. Then it was Weejun penny loafers, which had to be as decrepit as possible, often held together with duct tape. We wore thick white woolen socks by Adler. On the label it said “Do not bleach,” so of course we all bleached them. It turned them a sickly yellow color, and that was standard.
Then we wore khakis or chinos, but the kind we tried to find were not the better brands like Corbin. There were a couple of companies that used to make them for the Army in World War II. They were only $5.95 and had a rough quality to them, and developed a lived-in quality quicker than a better brand of khakis.
Then most of us wore university-striped Gant shirts and Baracuta jackets. For dressing up, we wore a gray herringbone jacket and a thick, heavy-silk club tie.
IS: What was the idea behind the decrepit shoes?
KP: It was like the phrase Boston Cracked Shoe, referring to shoes that are beyond repair. We were looking for a lived-in, Old Money look. The worst thing you could do was look like you’d rushed out and bought new clothes. We tended to wear our shirts pretty rumpled, too. The whole goal was to look like you weren’t trying too hard, but were naturally brilliant, and it went over into clothing.
Weejuns were a very unconstructed shoe, with no steel shank, and I especially had the problem that they stretched so badly. When I bought a pair that fit, after six months they shimmied around so much they wore holes in the heels of my socks. Eventually I had to buy them a half-size too small, but that way you limped for the first six months. It was real agony. So you had the choice of suffering at the beginning or suffering at the end.
IS: What are the Southern differences when it comes to this style of dress?
KP: Southerners have always been much more into seersucker. I would imagine that college boys from elite Southern families, who might have gone to Harvard or Princeton, brought back the desire for the Ivy League cut with them, but adapted it to Southern cloths like poplin, seersucker and madras.
Another thing we always loved when I was young was chinos and especially corduroy embroidered with things like frogs and golf balls. We really liked them because they were bright colors.
IS: Tell us about your alma mater.
KP: Tulane, along with Vanderbilt and Duke, were and still are very different from other Southern schools. They were private, expensive, and two-thirds of the student body was from out of state. There was always friction between them and the cities and states they were in. They were thought of as rich Yankee snob schools by the locals.
For example, my classmates included Jerry Springer, Bruce Paltrow, Paul Michael Glazer and Anita Connick (Harry Jr.’s mother). All were from New York and all happened to be Jewish, attending school in a state with a 1.4 percent Jewish population.
IS: In ’65 you got out of law school and had to start wearing a suit and tie to work. What did you wear?
KP: A lot of Norman Hilton and Southwick. But the problem was that right after I started working, the clothing went into decline. The hippy era and the Peacock Revolution pretty much destroyed Ivy for the majority. It was the beginning of the end for the Ivy League Look.
IS: What’s it been like to watch the steady decline in quality and availability of traditional clothing since your college days?
KP: It’s been sad and distressing. In the early ’70s, it became very hard to get any of it. Even Ivy League manufacturers started widening their lapels and tie widths. I did get some of it, then threw it away seven years later. It was the grimmest period, as far as trying to get clothing. Today may even be grimmer, as far as fewer people wearing the kind of clothes I wear, but there are a few suppliers like Southwick and Polo.
I wear a little Ralph Lauren Purple Label, but right now most of my suits are either Brooks Brothers’ Golden Fleece or Samuelsohn. I do go to Savile Row sometimes and have things custom made. I go to Anderson & Shepherd and Henry Poole, and have them make the stuff more Americanized, with more of a natural shoulder.
IS: You often lament the decline in variety since Ivy’s heyday.
KP: It’s a lot harder for me to find the traditional clothing that I really like. There’s such a limited amount, and nobody is really inventive anymore. It’s not a dynamic clothing now. Brooks and Press just turn out the same thing year after year, so I’ve moved into more English clothing for variety. I’d gotten used to much, much more variety because manufacturers had been selling to such a large market. I still don’t understand why Brooks Brothers has to turn out the same gray herringbone sportcoat for the last 50 years, when they could put a blue windowpane in it to vary it a little bit.
IS: When you say it’s not inventive, what would you like to get that you can’t?
KP: The most inventive person was Sidney Winston at Chipp. He was the one who invented, or at least took to the logical extreme, patching, such as with madras and tweed. I’m sure O’Connells and Cable Car Clothiers have been doing the same thing for 50 years, but there’s no reason why you can’t be more inventive.
IS: The last five years have been interesting with the growth of the menswear forums and blogs. You’ve been a fan of good clothes for a long time, so what have you made of this Internet phenomenon?
KP: I’ve learned an enormous amount. It’s also been extremely reassuring: I feel much better about myself because I’ve learned there are scattered around the world a couple thousand people like me. Before I felt like such an oddball.
IS: For your style, or for your obsessive collecting?
KP: The obsessive collecting probably — or the extraordinarily great interest in it. In fact, on the fanatical scale, I’ve found I’m pretty much only middle-of-the-road. There are a lot of young guys like Marc Grayson and manton that are more fanatical, just extreme nit-pickers and so obsessive and anal-retentive. I’m stunned by the detail they know, which is much more than I do. There are shoe experts and shirt experts, and you wind up learning a little bit from each one. It’s been extremely interesting.
IS: What’s your take on the ’80s preppy trend, and the trads centered around Andy’s forum today? Are these things at odds with the original Ivy League Look, or do they simply mark an evolution, albeit one that some may see as inferior?
KP: When the Ivy League Look had mass popular appeal, a strong foundation was laid. “The Official Preppy Handbook” in the ’80s, and what’s remained current today, have their foundation there, but only maybe one-third of the broadness, and far less popular appeal. It’s more like a rather narrow uniform, and the color range is so narrow now compared to what it used to be. Even with the rebirth of “trad,” they haven’t gone far enough to where they’re wearing olive herringbone suits. Ralph Lauren is probably at least 50 percent responsible for saving the look at all. But I wonder if it will exist forever.
IS: Tell us about the size of your wardrobe.
KP: I’m only burdened with 260 suits. I usually pick out about 30 for fall and 30 for spring. But this way I’m only wearing a suit once every four years! I also have 1,700 neckties, 200 pairs of shoes, and 500 shirts, half of which are too small for me.
IS: What shirt manufacturers do you like?
KP: Mercer is the only one with a soft collar, not lined and not fused, with the proper roll. Also Brooks Brothers, and I have a lot of English shirts from Turnbull & Asser and Harvie & Hudson.
IS: What’s the pleasure you get out of having that much clothing?
KP: Gosh, I don’t really know. I guess it’s just another hobby, like everybody has. I enjoy looking at it and taking care of it, and can’t really say too much more. It wasn’t all that intentional; it just sort of happened.
IS: What do your friends and colleagues think? They must notice that you never look exactly the same from day to day.
KP: You’d be surprised. Nobody notices or cares.
IS: Because your clothes are so similar? Because you have 85 identical blue suits?
KP: No, the suits are different from each other, and I gather more criticism than praise. A couple months ago I went to a party right from work, wearing my suit, and all the other men were wearing jeans. The owner’s wife came over and asked “Ken, why are you dressed in such a conformist manner?” I said, “You think I ought to wear jeans and a plaid flannel shirt?” And she said, “Yeah, that’d be a good idea.” Be a non-conformist — just like everybody else.
IS: So even for a man of your age and success, there’s an expectation of just being sort of mediocre.
KP: Right. It’s astonishing the changes. The necktie has really disappeared. At Atlanta’s largest, 600-lawyer firm, they only wear ties in court. I never thought that would happen.
IS: How do others react to your dress, not in terms of formality, but in terms of style?
KP: I hear, “You dress so old,” a lot. I’m noticed more positively when I wear my Savile Row stuff. I’ve noticed for 30 years, for example, that no network news anchor wears a button down collar shirt. The second-rank people like George Will can wear them. I think they believe that ordinary people recognize the button down as being somehow connected with old-fashioned Harvard/Yale people, and they’re trying to dress more for a mass audience.
IS: Do you think that’s the issue of contention when people react negatively to your style? In other words, is it that you look old fashioned, or that you look elitist?
KP: It’s a little of both. For someone 40 and younger, it’s that I’m fuddy-duddy. For someone older, it’s that I’m elitist. They’re old enough to remember the kind of people who wore this stuff, and it does have the Ivy League connotations.
IS: What does your wife think of all this?
KP: I guess she thinks there could be worse pursuits. I’m not into drinking, gambling or other women. I don’t even have a Porsche. — CC