Women’s Ivy: An Anthropological Look At Clothing

Editor’s Note: It is with great excitement that we post the first of Sarah Cooney’s series Women’s Ivy, which will appear every Wednesday. Sarah’s blog is Fewer And Better, and she can be reached at SarahCooney@Ivy-StyleMediaGroup.com

I had an assignment in college that began as a burden and ended up being one of the most thought-provoking experiences of my life. Studying Anthropology, I was required to take a number of cultural anthropology courses despite a focus in archaeology. One of my professors set us an assignment—to keep track of everything we wore for a month. We had to create a spreadsheet and write how/where we acquired what we wore, how much we spent, where it was made, how often we wore the items, what we were doing when we wore that outfit—and at the end of the month, submit an analysis of our style, our shopping patterns, and what our clothing said about us. I’ve never been able to get dressed the same way again.

This assignment shaped a good deal of my life. Instead of applying anthropological thinking to other cultures, I started thinking about my own life and culture through that lens. Why do we dress the way we do? Why is there such pressure on our culture to constantly be consuming, to be searching for the next thing, to feel like we’re missing out if we don’t have the latest fashions? Why does a sale seem to equal a compulsion to purchase something, because otherwise we’re missing out? (Hint: 99% of the time, we’re not–and that’s why the item is on sale to begin with!)

At the beginning of the pandemic, I started taking stock of my life, as I think most people did. What was important to me? How did I want to spend my time and expend my mental energy? What physical possessions did I really value? I started sorting through my things. I have found it difficult to remove belongings from my possession in the past, so I came up with a set of criteria to do so. At the end of the first round of this process, I felt so much lighter—both physically and metaphorically. I started making choices more deliberately. I noticed patterns in what I kept in my wardrobe and what I donated. A clear theme emerged: timeless, comfortable clothing that can take me anywhere. In short, Ivy style.

A “from where I stand” photo (a style circa the 2010s age of lifestyle blogging and one I particularly love!) featuring my work uniform–grey flannel trousers, Belgians, Shetland sweater, and my mother’s Burberry trench.

To me, Ivy style has always been inclusive. It’s a great uniform and a great leveler. You don’t have to wear expensive handmade shoes or custom shirts; you can pick up something at your church’s opp shop or wear a sweater you inherited from your grandmother. It’s a true mix, with the underlying notes being timelessness, quality, and deliberate choice. It’s a choice to dress well; I’ve always felt that dressing nicely shows respect for yourself and respect for others. That doesn’t have to feel formal or stuffy. The same base outfit (mine being cords, sweater, loafers, OCBD, pearl earrings) can work for church or school drop-off or spending time around the house or an outing with friends. It works. It’s not going to look dated in ten years or twenty or fifty. I have photographs of my grandparents from the 70s and 80s wearing clothes that I’d wear today—and, in a few cases, actually wear.

At the end of this taking-stock process (or at least the first round of it; I have a sense that this will be a lifelong project), it was very clear to me that I care far more for quality over quantity. Three well-made sweaters will last me much longer than twenty fast fashion ones I’ll forget about next season, and they’ll have much more meaning to me, too. I love that I get to wear the Fair Isle sweaters my grandmother and her best friend bought on trips to Bermuda. I love that I get to wear the same shoes my mother did when she was my age, working in the same building where I have my office now. There’s a pleasure and a connection to the people that I loved who are no longer with me; a new sweater, however trendy, can never replace that.

The author’s mother in her Burberry trench coat, travelling abroad in the 1980s

I look forward to sharing my thoughts—and hearing yours!—here on Ivy Style on Wednesdays! Feel free to drop me a line at sarahcooney@ivy-stylemediagroup.com, and you can find me on Instagram @fewerandbetterblog or on my blog.

Sarah Cooney

47 Comments on "Women’s Ivy: An Anthropological Look At Clothing"

  1. James H Grant | March 8, 2023 at 8:49 am |

    It is quite apparent that Ms. Cooney has way too much common sense for this forum. –JHG

    • Mitchell Baird | March 8, 2023 at 10:05 am |

      I would like to think that the followers of this site share or are open to Ms. Cooney’s ideas. I’m afraid that the same cannot be said for those members of the Facebook group, who use that group as a showcase for their narcissism, rather than as a forum for sharing ideas.

      • John Burton | March 8, 2023 at 5:22 pm |

        Sorry if you had a bad experience there, it is thriving and I encourage you to give it another chance. And make sure you are comparing apples to apples. The FB group IS about the members. The site is about a HIGHLY curated discussion. Which, btw, your contributions are important to. I have really drilled down on who can comment, and it has actually increased engagement. So go figure. THANKS

    • I appreciate the compliment but look forward to contributing here 😊

  2. Old School | March 8, 2023 at 10:12 am |

    I’m already forward to the next column from Ms. Cooney. Her observations are already my cup of tea.

  3. Ms. Cooney’s sensibilities and philosophy hit home for me. We can only constantly accumulate material things for part of our lives. There comes a point where one’s possessions start getting in the way. It is prime time for me to figure out what is of value, and what is not. I am looking forward to this lady’s future posts!

    • Thank you so much! I don’t think minimalism for minimalist’s sake is necessary, but I do want my possessions to have true meaning to me. It’s been an interesting journey and a profound shift in thought to consider my belongings in this way!

  4. Happy International Women’s Day to all.

    A woman’s perspective on menswear is much needed.

  5. Hardbopper | March 8, 2023 at 12:30 pm |

    Your mom looks great in the trench coat. Does the lining zip out? Button out? If so, have you worn it that way? What length of coat is most versatile? Why? I have found driving, and sitting to be uncomfortable wearing a coat. Is this why there are car coats? Remember hat and coat rooms?

    • Charlottesville | March 8, 2023 at 1:11 pm |

      Hardbopper – Those of us who still wear hats and overcoats coats too long to hang on the back of a chair recall coat check rooms with a wistful sigh.

    • @Hardbopper: This trench falls to mid-calf and it does have a wool lining that has a zip/button combination. I do wear it with the lining in warmer winter weather. For a trench, I do use it in inclement weather, so I prefer a longer length. I do think that car coats are a crucial part of a wardrobe and mine is missing one! I’m spending much more time in the car lately so I’ve been trying to find a good one to add to my wardrobe. Post to come, if I find a suitable option! I do remember hat and coat rooms and I’m glad there are still some in existence!

  6. Charlottesville | March 8, 2023 at 1:07 pm |

    Bravo, Sarah. “It’s a choice to dress well; I’ve always felt that dressing nicely shows respect for yourself and respect for others.” So true. I wish more people would make that choice.

    Your mother’s (and your) style is very much like that of my wife, and the picture (in Paris?) could have been taken of her on one of our trips in the 90s, as far as clothes and attitude go. And I love that you have clothing from your mother and grandmother. My wife has a cashmere sweater of her late grandmother’s that pairs perfectly with a flannel skirt or cords. We look forward to more of your columns.

    • Thank you so much, Charlottesville! Yes, I believe this photo was taken in Paris though it was in the “Luxembourg” section of my parents’ photo boxes, hence the simple “abroad” caption. I cherish the pieces I have from my mother and grandmother! It’s wonderful to give them new life (and they are, on a whole, of much better quality than contemporary equivalents.) I look forward to hearing from you both on future columns!

  7. Excellent post; thank you.

    My husband,now 78,purchased a Burberry raincoat at Boyd’s St. Louis in the 70’s. Later, he took it to Burberry’s in London for replacement of a missing button and addition of a button-in wool lining. He’s just passed it on to our statuesque daughter, age 41. Big smiles all around.

  8. malcolm Wolcott | March 8, 2023 at 2:13 pm |

    Sarah, you have it right, the grey flannels, the Begians and the swearter,along with the Ferragmo or Hermes serve around you neck is the standard of what I think are the best dressed women in the World of Florence,Italy. So classic and a tailored look never goes out of style

  9. I’ll echo previous commenters, Sarah. Well done, and I am most eager to see the ideas you share next week. The photograph of your mother echos that of my own late mother and maternal grandmother, both of who — I failed to realize as a teenager and twenty-something — were very stylish in an ivy/trad/classic way (as were their husbands).

    Mom once said to me, when I was about 18 or 19 and fully into the depths of 1980s commercial hard rock and heavy metal, “You know, if you would cut your hair and dress better, your life would be very different.” How right she was as it turned out. I finally got with the program at 28 and haven’t looked back.

    Kind Regards,


    • Thank you so much, Heinz-Ulrich! I think my previous comment was lost in the ether, so I wanted to re-respond here (and it may show up)! Something I truly value about Ivy/trad/classic style is how timeless it is. I look forward to hearing your thoughts on future columns!

  10. Both of “whom”. . . (Argh!)


    • See, I caught that, but then assumed I was in error and you had the usage right.
      And then I saw your follow up. 🙂

      And hey, it’s nice to know there’s another person here who styled themselves after a rebellious music scene in a past decade before finding the ease (and creative potential) in Ivy. I leaned into the goth stuff, myself. But we all (hopefully) grow out of those times. …I still like black a lot more than most people on here, I’m sure. But I make it as Ivy as I can.

  11. Sarah, love the F&B blog and looking forward to seeing your posts here was well!

    What would you say is the quintessential style/material for Belgians for women?

    • Thanks so much for the kind words, Dave!

      I am hardly the expert on Belgians as I only have two pairs, one black suede and one brown leather (although I can tell it is just the start of a lifelong collection!) I find them both practical in different ways. I favor the black for more formally-dressed days and the brown for more casual, around-town days. I would say it depends on the lifestyle. I’m planning on another leather pair for my next purchase, but I would love a velvet pair for evenings and cocktail attire events!

  12. MacMcConnell | March 8, 2023 at 10:04 pm |

    Just guessing. The Burbeery trench has leather covered buckles and brass D-rings on the belt. The pockets have button flaps. There is a kick pleat with a button tab in the back. A storm flap and hooks at the throat. If it hits you mid-calf it’s the original WWI model. That means your mom is way cool. 😉

  13. This is a beautifully-written first article here. Thanks Sarah — your writing always helps center me when I tend towards overshopping. Caught in a retail-therapy loop? Just read something by Sarah @ Fewer & Better. You’ll save money and feel a deeper gratitude for the things you already love to wear.

  14. Expat Yang | March 9, 2023 at 5:26 am |

    Excellent article Sarah, and I look forward to your next.

  15. Thanks, well stated, and, again, welcome.

    “Why is there such pressure on our culture to constantly be consuming, to be searching for the next thing, to feel like we’re missing out if we don’t have the latest fashions?”

    Fast fashion, cheaply made and aesthetically fickle, serves as proof of a society adrift—way out at sea, without oars. The answer to your question is a combination greed and philistinism. Culturally and spiritually speaking, poison. Anglophilia-inspired anachronism, especially the handwoven and bespoke, is the most remedial of all antidotes. I’ve come across.

    Keep “standing athwart history, yelling ‘Stop!’” Cheers.

    • Exactly! A very insightful comment and also an antidote I’ve found. Next week’s column includes a women’s knitwear company that definitely fits the bill. I look forward to hearing your thoughts!

  16. Lost me when you brand checked your trench for no reason.

  17. Philologue | March 10, 2023 at 9:32 am |

    A quote from a recent post on the Ivy Style Facebook group: “I think I have nearly every tartan available, mostly LL Bean Scottish Flannel.” That sounds like the opposite of Ms. Cooney’s approach.

  18. But custom shirts are a lot of fun. And worth the $.

    • Definitely agree with that! I just want to make the point that a custom shirt is not a requirement for Ivy style. I often buy my husband made-to-measure shirts from Sid Mashburn for special celebrations!

  19. Belgians/cashmere/Burberry combo is very urban chic–cosmopolitan. Similar to the ‘Barbour People’ vibe. Less American rustic Ivy; more Anglo/Euro Americanish. It works.

  20. 1. I had a trench coat in college. It was way too bulky with lining in, and with no place to hang it, when I out grew it, I went with much grungier options.
    2. Then I was issued one. Again, very bulky, and it was torn when getting off of a bus, making it unserviceable.
    3. I would like to try again. So I’m considering layering a cardigan under a Donegal or Harris tweed for warmth, with a trench coat, sans lining, only for protection from wind and rain. Workable?
    4. How does one clean a trench? Damp washcloth?

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