One of my favorite blogs, Ivy Style, just completed a five part series on the rise and fall of “the Ivy League look.” It’s largely for people who are interested in the history of men’s style (particularly classic American style), but if you are, this is a great, great piece.
Ivy Style Exhibit Coming to FIT: Sept. 14th - Jan. 5th
If you haven’t already heard, The Museum at FIT in New York City is hosting an exhibition on the classic American “Ivy League style.” The exhibit, simply titled Ivy Style, will show the development of the look over three distinct periods: the interwar years of the 1920s and ’30s, the post-war era to the end of the ’60s, and the style’s revival from the ’80s to present. In the first period, the interwar years, American clothiers Brooks Brothers and J. Press took classic English pieces such as tweed jackets and polo coats, and appropriated and modified them for young men in elite East Coast colleges. After the second World War, the “Ivy League look” started to disseminate across the United States. OCBDs, khaki chinos, and penny loafers were adopted by a much larger, more diverse population, including working class GIs and jazz musicians. Finally, after a period of dormancy in the 1970s, Ivy League style started to see a revival, from the ’80s until today.
The exhibition will be on view from September 14th until January 5th. The museum is also running its annual fashion symposium on November 8th and 9th. This year’s talk will be connected to the Ivy Style exhibit and will feature speakers such as Bruce Boyer and Christian Chensvold, as well as other scholars and designers. We’ll publish info on that symposium as the date approaches, but for the time being, we encourage you to check out the exhibit.
For those not lucky enough to be able to attend, know that a more in-depth study of the Ivy League look will be featured in the accompanying book, also titled Ivy Style. It will contain essays written by the museum exhibit’s curator, Patricia Mears; scholars such as Dr. Peter McNeil, Dr. Christopher Breward, and Dr. Masafumi Monden; and leading menswear writers Bruce Boyer and Christian Chensvold. Boyer and Chensvold, in my opinion, have written (and continue to write) some of the best material on classic men’s style, and I’m really looking forward to reading their new project. You can pre-order it now on Amazon.
The Charm of Tassel Loafers
I really like tassel loafers. I’m wearing a shell cordovan pair now with brown sharkskin trousers, a dark green v-neck sweater, light blue oxford cloth button-down shirt, navy over-the-calf socks, and a dark reddish-brown alligator belt. With clothes that are a bit too fully cut, tassel loafers can look a little fuddy duddy; with clothes that are too tight, they can look overly hip. Somewhere in the middle, I think, is where they look best.
Tassel loafers came into being in the post-war period of the 1940s, right when tweed jackets, Shetland sweaters, and penny loafers dominated prep schools and Ivy League campuses. As college students graduated, they wanted something as comfortable as their slip-ons, but were a bit dressier and more sophisticated for their new life in the business world. It was around this time that an actor named Paul Lukas came back from Europe with a pair of oxfords. They had little tassels at the end of their laces, which Lukas thought made them look more lively. So he took them to a couple of New York shoemakers to see if they could make something similar, and they in turn took the job to Alden. The company’s president at the time, Arthur Tarlow, came up with tasseled loafers and they were an instant success. That makes Alden’s model the original, and Paul Lukas the first man to wear this style of footwear. You can read more about this wonderful history in this article by Bruce Boyer.
Tassel loafers come in a variety of colors and leathers. The most common is brown calfskin, but the ne plus ultra is the reddish-brown shell cordovan that comes from Chicago’s Horween Tannery. Shell cordovan has the particularly good quality of holding the color burgundy well. In calf, burgundy can sometimes look cheap, but in horsehide leather, it absolutely glows.
As for where to get them, there are probably a dozens of versions on the market. I’ll only cover a few. As mentioned, Alden’s is the original and its history as the classic makes it hard to beat. They also make a similar model for Brooks Brothers. The main deviation is the piece of leather that’s added to the heel cup. From England, we have Crockett & Jones’ Cavendish and Edward Green’s Belgravia. Crockett & Jones also makes a shell cordovan version for Ralph Lauren called the the Marlow, and it has a slightly more unique shade of shell cordovan brown.
My own pair is Allen Edmonds’ Grayson. It’s quite similar to Alden’s, but it has a higher vamp, which is the part the shoe that covers the top part of your foot. I thought it looked slightly better this way, so I bought a pair in shell cordovan. I couldn’t be happier with the purchase and recommend them highly.
If you’d like more affordable options, consider Loake’s Lincoln and Meermin’s 101381. Both come in around $175, but Meermin has the added advantage of being able to do special orders. If you’d like to get a pair in shell cordovan or suede, or made from a different last or sole, they’d be happy to make you a pair for a small surcharge. I have a pair of their made-to-order shoes and couldn’t be more impressed with their value. To order, read this buyer’s guide and then go to Meermin’s website. My only comment on that guide is that you should ask Meermin for sizing advice; don’t just assume.
Tassel loafers aren’t anything I’d call “an essential,” but they’re certainly very enjoyable to wear. If you work in an environment that lets you get away with more casual footwear, try wearing a pair of these with a wool sweater and corduroys, or maybe a checkered tweed and flannel wool trousers. Both will carry a great sense of American style that’s both casual and sophisticated.
Understanding a Suit’s Silhouette
It’s common to hear people describe a suit’s silhouette in terms of its nationality. Suits are described as being American, British, or Continental. The first is either a sack or modified sack silhouette; the second said to be built up with military shoulders and have more waist suppression; and the third said to be a bit slimmer and feature “natural shoulders”. This is roughly correct, though it stays truer for some countries than others. Jesse, for example, did a wonderful job of describing the traditional American style of suits a few months ago. His description really works for America because of how large J Press looms in our sartorial history. For a country like Italy, however, it can be a bit more diverse. For example, a Neapolitan jacket can be very different from a Roman one, and some would say that Naples itself is also too heterogeneous to categorize. Thus, it can be useful to break down the silhouette of a suit into parts and not just think of them nationally. By doing so, you can better understand what you like or don’t like about a particular suit, and be better equipped to find one that best fits your personal sense of style.
At the most basic level, a suit’s silhouette can be said to be either structured or soft. A structured suit will be made with a stiffer canvas and have a more built up, padded shoulder. A softer silhouette will, naturally, be made with a softer canvas and have a thinner layer of padding. A related issue, though not exactly the same, is the shoulder’s expression. A shoulder can be roped, natural, or bald. The first will have a prominent ridge at the shoulder seam that runs along the crown of the sleeve. The second will have a very light ridge, but run flat. The third will have a knocked down shoulder seam and very low profile. Jeffery Diduch did a great job of explaining the differences between shoulder expressions here. The takeaway is that while some expressions may be associated with specific styles of construction - for example, the bald shoulder with a softly constructed, unpadded shoulder line - they don’t necessarily have to go together. They’re two separate elements that work in concert with each other to make up what we see as the shoulder, which in turn gives us the impression of a structured or soft silhouette.
The minimally padded, softer silhouette is more popular these days, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you should wear it. One of the important lessons taught by Alan Flusser is that we should dress to our body types, not what happens to be fashionable. A friend of mine in San Francisco, for example, has a very round upper chest, as well as round, sloping shoulders with prominent blades. In a soft Neapolitan jacket, he looks like an gorilla, but in something more structured and with a nipped waist, he looks athletic and handsome. As always, it’s best to try both of these styles on and be objective about how you look in each.
The other important aspect to a suit is how lean or full it is. In the most basic sense, this is about how close the suit sits to your body. Unfortunately, the trend of slimmer fitting clothes has led men to be single minded about this subject, but a better understanding is more nuanced. We can think of the suit in three parts - the chest, waist, and skirt (the skirt is simply the part of the jacket that hangs below the waist).
A lean chest will be shallow while a full chest will either be swelled or draped. A swelled chest will be fuller all around and look a bit more sculpted. A draped chest will have large, vertical folds of excess cloth that “drape” along the jacket’s edges, near the armholes. I made a post about drapes and swells at my other blog some time ago, and you can see illustrations of it there. The two often go together, but they don’t have to. You can have a swelled chest, for example, with no drape.
Similar to the chest, the waist can be nipped or left loose, and the skirt can hug the hips or be left a little full. These will create either a leaner or fuller silhouette, depending on how you combine these constructions.
The “lean and clean” look is what men’s fashion magazines have been pushing for years, and probably what has been most popular with men for decades. This silhouette will sit closer to the wearer’s body in all three sections. A fuller silhouette is less popular, but I think unjustly so. I don’t just mean the dartless American sack suits here, either. Anderson & Sheppard, for example, makes a fuller chest that gently billows out a bit. I find the effect more masculine, heroic, and elegant. I once read Michael Alden compare someone’s “lean and clean” suit to an overly skinny runway model that needed more “meat on her bones.” Setting aside my slight discomfort with talking about people’s bodies in this way, his description spoke well to how I feel about these kinds of silhouettes in general. Of course, this is all a matter of personal taste and style, but I find fuller suits to have more depth and elegance, and be infinitely more interesting. Not that everyone should share my taste, of course, but I do think that most men should consider fuller suits more.
Moving on to the last dimension, a suit’s silhouette can either be elongating or widening. There are many aspects to this. An elongating suit will have a lower buttoning point. This will draw longer vertical lines along the suit’s lapel, which in turn will make the wearer look a bit taller. It may also have a higher gorge. A suit’s “gorge” is often conflated with the lapel’s notch, but it’s actually the seam that connects the jacket’s collar to the lapel. More or less the same, but still slightly different. Italians tend to make suits with a higher gorge than their British counterparts, and Neapolitan and Sicilian tailors make them higher still.
A widening silhouette will have wider lapels and perhaps extended shoulders. In today’s single-mindedness about suits, this may sound unappealing, but it’s worth reminding that many Neapolitan suits, which so many people are in love with nowadays, often have widening silhouettes.
In the end, all of these aspects can be combined in a number of ways to create an overall silhouette. One of the most elegantly dressed men I’ve ever met wore a softly constructed suit with a bald shoulder. His jacket had a fuller chest, nipped waist, and tight skirt. His trousers had a slightly higher rise and the legs were fuller than what more “fashionable” men wear today. They were still slim and flattering, however, and they created a nice line going from his jacket to his shoes. What he wore matched not only his body type, but also his personality and character. As a man, he was every bit as elegant as his clothes, and what he wore expressed him as a full human being, not as a clotheshorse.
As you look at pictures of well-dressed men, try dissecting each of these parts. You’ll develop a more refined understanding of suits and become more sensitive to how they can make an impression. Perhaps most importantly, you’ll be better equipped to purchase suits according to your body type and sense of style. Maybe you like lean, structured suits, or maybe you don’t, but you won’t know until you understand how to look for them.
Pictures taken from The Armoury, Permanent Style, The Sartorialist, Mister Crew, Rubinacci Club, and a few others I’ve unfortunately forgotten. This article also owes a lot to Michael Anton’s original article on the same subject at the London Lounge, so many thanks to him for that.
Plackets and Pockets: Know the Details
For classic men’s style, expressions are often in the tiniest of tiny details. Closed eyelets on shoes express formality, cuffs on trousers express casualness, and structured shoulders give a sense of rigidity and authority.
The details of a button up shirt are just as expressive. The length of your collar points, shape of your collar, and cut of your cuffs all hold certain meanings. I’ll cover those some other time, but today I’ll discuss something you may not have considered - plackets and pockets.
A placket is that extra piece of material at the front of the shirt where the buttonholes are placed. It’s usually created by folding the shirt’s material onto the front, or by sewing a separate piece of material onto this area. This design not only helps give support and strength to the opening of the shirt, where most stress is placed, but it also creates a visual center when the shirt is buttoned. Most shirts you’ve seen (and almost certainly the one you’re wearing right now) have plackets.
The alternative is the French front (also known as the “plain center”). Here the material is folded to the underside of the shirt so that it’s not visible. It is then secured by the stitching on the buttonholes.
There’s no right or wrong way to choose between these details, but you should know what effect each will have. Getting a shirt without a placket or pocket, like the shirt above, will look cleaner, and since simplicity tends towards formality, it will also be dressier. A shirt with a placket and pocket, then, will conversely be a bit more causal.
I also find that shirts without plackets and pockets look more Continental European, while shirts with these details look more American. As such, you should choose shirts that most accords with your personal sense of style. I happen to favor shirts without them, as I like dressier, tailored Italian clothes, but someone who likes a more casual American style should get shirts with these details.
However you choose, note that some shirts should be made in certain ways. An oxford cloth button down, for example, is inherently casual and very American, so I think it looks best with a placket and pocket. If you want it to be even more American, you get the pocket with a flap, like this. This design detail was invented by J. Press and has since been strongly associated with the trad/ Ivy League crowd. Again, it’s all about knowing what these details mean and choosing accordingly.
American Style: My Inspiration
Jesse wrote a great post last week about American style. As he noted, much of this style has been shaped by J Press and the traditional Ivy League culture. It’s a tradition that he explored, actually, in his latest video (which I’m sure you’ve seen five times over, like me).
Like everyone else, I’ve geeked out over at The Trad and Ivy Style, and was very excited when Take Ivy was rereleased. But more than any of those, there is nothing that gives me more inspiration for American style than Art Kane’s famous photograph, "A Great Day in Harlem." Indeed, as much of a Europhile as I can be sometimes, the style of old jazz musicians, pre-1968 or so, will always remind me that American style can compete with the best of them.