Boy, I want to go to college. Alas, I’ve already gone, and even if I hadn’t, being that I’m nearing thirty years old, “leading a college life in one’s thirties would be way too late.” That observation comes from a no less authoritative a study of university life and style than Take Ivy, but still, we must make certain allowances for temporal and cultural distance. First, the book deals exclusively with life and style at the “Ivy League” schools of America’s East Coast. Second, it originally came out in 1965. Third, the men who wrote it, Teruyoshi Hayashida, Shosuke Ishizu, Toshiyuki Kurosu, and Hajime “Paul” Hasegawa, all come from Japan. These may seem like considerable stumbling blocks for many in the market for this sort of book — I myself actually have more experience with Japan than with anything on the East Coast, let alone with the year 1965 — but the final product nonetheless raises a burning desire within me to grab my penny loafers, lacrosse stick, and sweatshirt emblazoned with my graduation year and confab with my chums on the quad.
“I spent my high school years picturing myself on the campus of an Ivy League university, where my wealthy roommate Colgate would leave me notes reading, ‘Meet me on the quad at five,’” wrote David Sedaris. “I wasn’t sure what a quad was, but I knew that I wanted one desperately.” The quartet of trad enthusiasts who put together Take Ivy presumably felt a similar, if better-informed, quad-related longing. When my time came to file college applications, I couldn’t have told you which schools made up the Ivy league beyond Harvard and Yale, and anyway, articles had reported for years that undergraduate education at those two wasn’t what it used to be. Having grown up on the West Coast cultivating a fear of what I assumed to be the Ivy League’s formidable wealth, daunting application standards, and harsh social judgment, I swallowed that line whole. While Take Ivy’s candid, idyllic shots of the then-distinctively garbed students of Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Pennsylvania, Columbia, Dartmouth, Brown, and Cornell don’t make me wish I had applied to those schools back in 2002, they do make me wish I had applied to those schools back in 1965.
We should feel grateful that this project, tasked with documenting that time and place, is a Japanese one. Working toward a definition of the style it simply labels “Ivy,” the book announces an expectation: “In order to entirely understand the spirit of ‘Ivy,’ you must appreciate and master all aspects of American East Coast culture.” So dictate the rigors of Japanese enthusiasm. To go by its major cities filled with thousands of tiny bars, eateries, and bookshops, each fixedly devoted to the reproduction and perfection of a single aesthetic, Japan displays an unparalleled capacity for appreciation and mastery. And though eighteen-year-old me had wishfully written off the Ivy League as a superficial choice, a pricey shell of its former self, Japanese enthusiasts better understand the importance — possibly the all-importance — of surface. “Appearances are reality,” Donald Richie wrote of Japan in his classic travelogue The Inland Sea. “The mask is literally the face, and the cynic can find no telltale gap because none exists. [ … ] Reality is only skin deep because there is only skin. The ostensible is the truth.” Or as a longtime British expat there told me, “You want to know who the artists are here? The ones wearing berets.” It only sounded like a joke.
If you want to know who the Ivy Leaguers are, according to Take Ivy, they’re the ones clad in school colors and varsity jackets, lovingly polishing their VW Beetles and vintage Packards, listening intently to their folk and jazz albums (the title puns on the Japanese pronunciation of Dave Brubeck’s hit, “Teiku Faibu”), and cramming desperately in hundred-year-old libraries. They look and play most completely — they fully assume and internalize the role of — the well-born East Coast college student. “Though I will leave it up to historians to evaluate his accomplishments to mankind,” one of the authors writes of Harvard man John F. Kennedy, ”I take this opportunity to stress that he certainly lived the ideal life of an Ivy Leaguer.” But no image of J.F.K., on campus or off, appears in these pages. Photographer Teruyoshi Hayashida captures only anonymous, unaware Ivy leaguers, though ones ostensibly possessed of an exemplary look and bearing. Readers used to Western men’s style coverage might see in these pictures sartorial self-expression, youthful personalities in a highly romanticized setting outwardly manifesting themselves as Ivy dress. But it makes for a worthwhile exercise to, at the same time, consider Take Ivy's assumption that style choices make the being as much or more than the being makes the style choices.
Put This On readers may mostly concern themselves, despite the authors’ warning not to, with these students’ clothing. Beyond the strange prevalence of white sweatsock, often exposed between madras short and dark loafer, you could now wear much of what Take Ivy documents onto a college campus, if not every day, without raising an eyebrow. Surely this has something to do with college campuses, at least across most of America, having since become stylistic free-for-alls where few choices could raise eyebrows, and indeed, unbending adherence to the Ivy wardrobe might mark out a modern student as eccentric. But from this vantage, we see that the 1965 Ivy leaguer’s crisply causal way with chinos, button-downs, and branded university merchandise has become timeless and even placeless enough to disperse through the rest of society. Anyone can wear Ivy now. This counterbalances the studied blandness some may come away from this book feeling afflicts the style, due in part to the wearers’ deadening, if expected, lack of diversity. Take Ivy sees, with only rare exceptions, a white world, pale even by that standard. Countless ethnic studies theses will surely be written on the fraught dynamic between this white-bread crowd and the fervently admiring Japanese gaze.
But most of the text simply reads, in the current decade and the first to see Take Ivy published in English translation, as a touching elegy for a subculture now seemingly hollowed out. “We envy them,” the authors write of their Ivy Leaguers, “for they are tackling their college experience, one of the most precious and glorious times of their lives, with youth and energy.” Every soon-to-be undergraduate today hears the same about what awaits them, but those pronouncements ring piously where Hayashida, Ishizu, Kurosu, and Hasegawa’s words exude an almost embarrassing sincerity. Having washed up myself on the campus of UC Santa Barbara aghast at the saturation of pajama pants and flip flops — and those just on the ladies — I can’t help reading the carefully insouciant styles examined here as emblematizing the last era when, built upon false verities and unearned privilege though it may have been, an American college education could not be taken lightly, when even gentleman’s Cs, afternoon drinking, and casual dress demanded a kind of mastery. The Ivy League’s heyday has gone, but its styles remain surprisingly viable today. Whatever our station in life, we fail to incorporate them into our 21st-century wardrobes at our peril, and we’ll find no more earnest or evocative primer for the task than Take Ivy.
Colin Marshall hosts and produces Notebook on Cities and Culture and writes essays on literature, film, cities, Asia, and aesthetics. Follow him on Twitter @colinmarshall. To buy Take Ivy, you can find the best prices at DealOz.
I relish the menswear enthusiast’s life for a number of reasons, the first and foremost being that we get less homework than women’s wear enthusiasts do. This very idea may strike you as ridiculous, especially if you keep up with Put This On and countless other sites like it, but remember: they strive, often frantically, to keep up with an ever expanding breadth of garments, accessories, lines, and designers. One lady’s wardrobe may well include dozens, or even hundreds, of each. The menswear enthusiast plunges into something much narrower and deeper. We go down, you might say, a historical hole, digging our way toward the origins of the fifteen or twenty items we wear with the utmost regularity. Chinos, tweed jackets, button-down shirts, aviator sunglasses, Chuck Taylors: the versions we own today have undergone minor changes since the models’ invention, whereas women’s clothing, by comparison, endures regular and thoroughgoing revolutions. But boy, how much you can learn about those minor changes, let alone about the inventions themselves. “A minute to learn… a lifetime to master,” went the old Othello slogan, and the same applies to the game of men’s dress.
Much of our early menswear education comes from popular culture, often in minute-long flashes. Josh Sims’ Icons of Men’s Style takes some time, if not a lifetime, to offer a bit more mastery on 52 particularly timeless, universally recognized items, most of which got their break from twentieth-century American popular culture. Gregory Peck appears on the cover wearing aviators; Tom Cruise, encased in Top Gun gear, occupies a full page doing the same. An image of Jimmy Stewart dominates the chapter on tweed, as one of Ronald Reagan dominates the chapter on the sweatshirt. A shot of Michael Jackson shooting Thriller illustrates the wearing of loafers. The text cites Steve McQueen nine times, four of them with pictures. Magnum P.I., you’ll feel relieved to hear, makes an appearance as well. Sims writes up a scattering of items now rarely seen in the United States — the Barbour jacket, the Breton top — but tends to stick with what we’ve seen on the bodies and in the hands of American film stars, musicians, athletes, and politicians. Yet given the considerable influence of midcentury Americana on the rest of the world, a certain internationalism remains.
Should Sims have titled his book more precisely? Not if you account for the publishing industry’s addiction to the sound of the definitive, and for the striking endurance of the elements of men’s style popularized in America forty, sixty, eighty years ago. A name like Icons of Mid-Twentieth Century American Men’s Style says little, in this light, that Icons of Men’s Style doesn’t. But the London-based author doesn’t fail to give his own land its due. “Perhaps simply because of the mysterious, fate-like process that culminates in ‘cool,’” he writes in the introduction, “it was the items in this book that captured the imagination.” The periodic bursts of British influence felt across the twentieth century appear here in articles like the polo shirt as worn by Paul Weller, and the German-conceived Doc Martens as worn by “punks goths, grungies, hard mods, and, most notably, skinheads.” A mid-seventies Mick Jagger models a perhaps unexpected inclusion, the Panama hat; that era’s David Bowie, the lonely alien of The Man Who Fell To Earth, does the same for the particularly non-American duffle coat. Sean Connery’s James Bond looms over the chapter on the dinner suit, an inclusion so obvious that my eyes passed over him on the first few trips through the book. Only the final page, on the necktie, delivers the Duke of Windsor; without him, can a menswear book really qualify for the category?
But these litanies of famous names and well-known items make the project seem more comprehensive than it is, or intends to be. Sims has, no doubt, produced an odd beast: neither purely instructional nor purely referential, too deliberately written for a photo book but too richly visual for a straight-on text. It delivers perhaps too much information for the menswear neophyte while not quite enough for those of us who thirst for design and historical detail. Well-meaning relatives will no doubt hand many of us copies as Christmas presents, and they won’t have made an entirely inappropriate choice. As hard a time as I have pinning down what I’ve learned from the book, I also know that it hasn’t taught me nothing (a common enough practice in menswear writing), nor has it misled me (an even clearer and more present danger). It has, shall we say, reminded me: reminded me of the menswear stalwarts I’ve yet failed to add to my wardrobe, reminded me of how those I do own have been best and most prominently worn (the way Steve McQueen wore them, in most cases), and reminded me to think clearly about the fascinating process of how, exactly, something ascends into what Sims calls “menswear canon.”
Also neither fish nor fowl when it comes to formality, Icons of Men’s Style places the dinner suit and the sweatshirt fewer pages apart than you’d think. Page 177 displays no fewer than thirty Rolex watches; on page 178 appear nine humble, weathered, decal-emblazoned Zippo lighters. Sims briskly explains the details of the Zippo’s stealthy but nonetheless impressive design evolution just as he does the (on reflection) almost garishly overt engineering and branding of the Montblanc Meisterstück. He’d have us to turn the same interested eye toward one of Tom Selleck’s shirts from Hawaii as we would one straight off Jermyn Street. Agnostic toward refinement, he reflects both the best and worst about the liberating American influence on men’s style. We’ve all felt this liberation when mixing a tailored blazer, say, with a polo shirt, work boots, and worn khakis whose pocket contains a Dunhill Rollagas, to assemble from the book’s collection what today seems a relatively tame combination. Such freedom of dress brings great potential for victory — and for that mysterious “cool” — but much greater potential for defeat. Hence the need to periodically, indeed rigorously, ground oneself by checking in with the most enduring garments, objects, design elements, and actual men. In other words, with the icons.
Colin Marshall hosts and produces Notebook on Cities and Culture and writes essays on literature, film, cities, Asia, and aesthetics. Follow him on Twitter @colinmarshall. To buy Icons of Men’s Style, you can find the best prices at DealOz.
We Got It For Free: Vintage Menswear
I spent my after-dinner hours last night flipping through a copy of Vintage Menswear, which was delivered to me courtesy of Laurence King Publishing. This large-format, full-color book highlights some hundred-and-fifty pieces owned by Douglas Gunn and Roy Luckett. Together, the two have been buying vintage men’s clothing for about thirty-five years, and their collection now occupies a kind of half-museum, half-retail space in London called The Vintage Showroom.
The book’s 304-pages are divided into three sections: Sports & Leisure, Military, and Workwear. Each section shows fifty or so odd garments, almost all from the early- to mid-20th century. Some are particularly interesting. Take, for example, what seems to be a boldly striped boating blazer in the Sports & Leisure section. On closer inspection, instead of two crossed oars embroidered at the chest pocket (as is common on boating blazers), we see a pair of boxing gloves. It turns out this is a “university boxing blazer,” and was worn at a time when boxing was considered as much of an upper-class sport as a working-class one. “Pugilism as a noble activity for gentlemen,” the book’s author writes. An undergraduate student recognized as a local hero for his sporting accomplishments would be allowed to wear this lively blazer around campus. Much more impressive than the campus-store bought sweatshirts and sweatpants that college athletes (some Olympians) wear today.
Another interesting story comes from the book’s Military chapter, which shows a seemingly ordinary pair of black boots. These were designed by Christopher “Clutty” Clayton-Hutton, a technical advisor to the British War Office during World War II. During his service, he designed “escape and evade” pieces for British airmen, including bicycle pumps that concealed torches, buttons that concealed compasses, and silk handkerchiefs that would secretly double as maps if you knew how to look at them. For these particular boots, Clayton-Hutton constructed the “top section” so that it could be easily cut away with a sharp blade. With the sheepskin-lined “shaft” gone, these hefty boots were transformed into plain oxford cap-toes. This allowed British airmen shot down over enemy territories to pass unnoticed among the civilian population. Very clever, I thought.
There are many other wonderful stories like these, but admittedly, much of the book also only superficially describes the clothes shown. Descriptions of game pockets, Ventile fabrics, and various fastening devices might not present anything new to people already familiar with clothing design. At times, I wished there was more written about the social histories behind the clothes shown. Still, even for such sections, I found it fun to just look at the pictures. I’m not romantic enough to say that these things, with their patinas and patches, “tell a story,” but they certainly inspire story making. I enjoyed flipping through, thinking about the sporting, fighting, and working men who wore these garments, and imaging the kind of heroic lives they led (entirely made up in my head, of course).
Vintage Menswear has a listed price of $50, but goes for a more appealing $31.50 on Amazon. At that price, I think this can be a nice addition to a personal library, particularly for people who appreciate workwear, vintage clothing, and men’s clothing design.
Laurence King Publishing has a nice video promoting the book, which you can view here.
For all its relevance to their interests, I wonder how many menswear enthusiasts would, or could, sit down and read this book. Despite coming in the same thickness and glossiness as many standard menswear books do, The Men’s Fashion Reader has no dressing advice to offer, nor does it concentrate exclusively on the history, development, or mechanics of men’s clothing. It does contain a great deal of analysis, delivered in the form of 35 separate articles on everything from dandyism to the Japanese adoption of the western suit to the rise and fall of the Men’s Dress Reform Party. And indeed, any man who takes an active interest in what he wears will find dozens upon dozens of fascinating pages — embedded, alas, within hundreds of academic ones.
Here I use the word “academic” mostly by its neutral definition, “of or pertaining to a college, academy, school, or other educational institution, especially one for higher education,” but not without an eye toward the more pejorative ones. “Of purely theoretical or speculative interest,” “excessively concerned with intellectual matters and lacking experience of practical affairs” — these charges often stick. McNeil and Karaminas make no bones about their book as a product of the academy, for the academy, and a quick glance across online collage syllabi reveals that professors do indeed assign it. Yet its relatively lush printing, complete with two sections of color plates showing off eighteenth-century finery, midcentury California leisurewear, and the unconventional fashion choices of Japanese youth surely makes it one of those burdensomely expensive, beer money-eating pieces of required reading. A peculiar hybrid, this book: its form keeps it from quite belonging on the student’s bookshelf, and its content keeps it from quite belonging on the well-dressed man’s.
Several of its articles, to be fair, do supply just the kind of knowledge that even clothing-oriented fellows tend to lack. Many of them have a reasonable enough command of the evolution of menswear, though only back to the twenties or thirties, and mainly in the Anglosphere even then. Deep historical and wide cultural knowledge of men’s style being something of a rarity, the average reader would do well to spend time with The Men’s Fashion Reader's first section, “A Brief History of Men's Fashion,” which features such articles as John Harvey's “From Black in Spain to Black in Shakespeare;” David Kuchta's “The Three-Piece Suit,” which traces the seventeenth-century emergence of just that; and even Olga Vainshtein's “Dandyism, Visual Games, and the Strategies of Representation,” which reveals a wealth of information on how nineteenth-century dress became twentieth-century dress through the framing device of opera glasses, lorgnettes, and other such vanished male accessories.
The book’s contributing professors, honorary associates, and fellows seem condemned by research specialization to write through these sorts of intellectual pinholes. Non-academics may find themselves put off by some of the article titles that result: “Consuming Masculinities: Style, Content, and Men’s Magazines,” “A Tale of Three Louis: Ambiguity, Masculinity, and the Bow Tie,” “American Denim: Blue Jeans and Their Multiple Layers of Meaning.” More legitimately frustrating are the frequent citations of high-profile theoreticians rendered unintelligible by decades of intellectual isolation in the academic humanities. I suspect little of it means anything to a man who simply wants to dress more consciously.
What a shame, since The Men’s Fashion Reader contains so many edifying stories of men dressing consciously. The flamboyant but (for his time) aesthetically chaste nineteenth-century dandy Beau Brummell makes several appearances, as he should. And we can all learn much from the book’s accounts of how certain style pressures operated in 1930s Oxford, of the choice men of the Meiji Restoration faced between traditional and Western dress, of industrialized tailoring permanently opening up sartorial options for all social classes, and even of the supposed “great masculine renunciation” of display and beauty in clothing. While some of the material reads rather bloodlessly, the book’s inclination toward gender studies actually contributes to some of its most immediately fascinating and illuminating sections, which examine the patterns in deliberate, visible male homosexual dress — the habitués of the Vince, John Stephens, and John Michael men’s shops of midcentury London; the mustachioed, work-shirted “Castro clone” of San Francisco; the one and only Liberace — before the widespread acceptance of male homosexuality itself. I can’t say the same of the readers my own professors made me buy.
If I didn’t know the name Alan Flusser, I’d still trust Dressing the Man by virtue of heft alone. Its size, shape, and weight could deal serious damage, although those cumbersome qualities keep me from carrying it around to test in a street fight, and even if I could easily carry it around, would I? I don’t mind learning how to dress in public — we always have to, in some sense — but it feels somehow inappropriate to reading a big, shiny book on how to dress in public. Then gain, if you’re going to learn how to dress that way, make it with a big, shiny book by a guy like Flusser, who dressed Michael Douglas for Wall Street and, more importantly, appeared in the sixth episode of Put This On's first season (as well as an interview minisode).
But does this one rise above its closest-looking relative in publishing, the coffee-table book? All the lush, often page-filling photography of the Fred Astaire, the Duke of Windsor, and Luciano Barbera, not to mention the jaunty vintage illustrations, makes you wonder. After so many school years of bloated, distraction-laden textbooks, my alarms sound at the sight of splashy chapter-opening spreads, fonts a little too large, lines set a little too far apart, or boxes which may or may not enclose information. The aesthetics of Dressing the Man outshine most educational publishers’ strongest design efforts, but a confusion of purpose remains: is this an analysis of the best men have worn, or a primer for those who need to know how a shirt works? Reaching for both audiences, the book generates a certain friction: experienced dressers will wonder why they’re opening fold-out sections showing which fabrics are which, while learners like myself will, buoyed by how nifty they find those fold-outs, proceed to mire themselves in a discussion of dinner jacket trousers versus full-dress trousers. (Something to do with stripes.) Flusser includes a glossary to help us find our way home, deepen the feeling of textbookishness though it may.
Hence my suggestion that the next edition be titled something like Permanent Fashion: Theory and Practice. Flusser introduces this concept, which should ring familiar to longtime Put This On followers, with an explanation born of a paradox. “Menswear has enjoyed three decades of unprecedented growth and freedom to configure and reconfigure the sartorial tastes of several generations,” he writes, “yet there are fewer genuinely well-dressed men now than before. There has been nothing permanent about recent fashion.” He roots his proposed alternative as deeply as possible in the era between the World Wars, noting that, despite the “considerable economic tumult for America,” this time produced, regardless of wealth or class, “the best-dressed generation in the twentieth century.” This opens the door to 21st-century man’s standard objection: he fears looking like an octogenarian on his way to a costume party. But the book’s images seem curated to dispel just these reservations; who, even today, would laugh a Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. or a Leslie Howard out of the room? (Even the Howard wearing an unflatteringly narrow collar in a photo Flusser uses as a negative example commands respect.)
We could draw our aesthetic ideals from worse times than the one when Astaire and the Duke of Windsor stood astride the world. Not only did they take pains with what they wore and how they wore it — Astaire to the point that he could wear a necktie as a belt, the Duke to the point that he could combine five different patterns and introduce suede shoes to the American continent — but neither were particular Adonises. Dressing the Man does contain gloriously composed shots of the Cary Grants and Gary Coopers of the world, but there’s infinitely more instruction in the way that, balanced by the elegance and distinctiveness of their dress, the royal’s befuddledness and the dancer’s goofiness don’t count against them. For those still unconvinced, Flusser includes the likes of Jean Cocteau and the current Prince of Wales, eccentrics who, in their immaculate and intricately personal habiliment, surely transcend mere handsomeness.
“How is it that after almost three decades of unprecedented fashion consumption, so few capable practitioners of this masculine art form have been bred?” Flusser asks. “If dressing well were simply a matter of donning the latest designer duds or owning an expensive wardrobe, fashion nabobs would be in abundance. My quick response is that learning how to dress well is much like trying to build a classically beautiful place to live. No amount of professional decoration or priceless furnishings will ultimately make much of a difference if the floors or walls that they are to adorn rest on a shaky foundation.” Safest, then, to build that foundation according to long-standing principles than to those dreamed up last Fashion Week. This notion’s strongest distillation comes in a Brooks Brothers quote in the glossary: “Today’s peacock is tomorrow’s feather duster.”
This steady-handed, unreconstructed rigor should comfort even the Palo Alto tech worker worried about showing up to the startup dressed for fox-hunting. That man should only skim the late chapter when Flusser ventures into the free-for-all of post-Bubble “business casual.” Writing in 2002, Flusser avoids even acknowledging the era’s squarest-toed excesses, but it’s tough to imagine the suggested near-monochromatic combination of severely buttoned polo shirt and corduroy jacket standing the test of time. Dressing the Man's value lies in its Platonic-sounding axioms of cut, fit, and color, especially as regards harmonizing your wardrobe's coloring with your own. “As a medium-contrast complexion, Trevor enjoys the most latitude of any type…” Maybe that's what I'd rather not read in public. But then, the ladies have understood and expertly exploited this sort of knowledge for centuries. We've got to catch up however we can.
Colin Marshall hosts and produces Notebook on Cities and Culture. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall. To buy Dressing the Man, you can find the best prices at DealOz.
Please Welcome Colin Marshall!
I’m pleased to announce that we have a new contributor here at Put This On.
Colin Marshall hosts and produces Notebook on Cities and Culture and writes about various cultural issues on his blog. In the past, he’s hosted and produced Barely Literate, a podcast book club, as well as The Marketplace of Ideas. He will be contributing book reviews here every once in a while, and the first review, which is on Alan Flusser’s Dressing the Man, will be published later today.
Colin is a wonderful and engaging writer, and we couldn’t be happier to have him onboard!
* Photo taken from JohnsNotHere
Put This On: A Conversation with Alan Flusser
In this special micro-episode of Put This On, we present a conversation with menswear expert Alan Flusser. Flusser has written the seminal contemporary American texts on getting dressed: Style & the Man and Dressing the Man. He’s also helped create a menswear iPhone app called BeSpeak. He runs Alan Flusser Custom in Manhattan, and famously dressed Michael Douglas for the film Wall Street. While Alan’s worked as a designer of ready-to-wear and has worked closely with tailors for decades, his work at the shop is as neither a designer or a tailor - he’s more like a consiglieri, guiding men towards their best appearance.
Alan’s expertise features heavily in our next episode of Put This On, but we thought we’d take this opportunity to introduce you to one of menswear’s great treasures.
It’s On eBay
Men in Style: The Golden Age of Fashion From Esquire
I checked this book out of the library when I was in high school. Then I lost the damn thing. Had to pay its replacement cost. Now it’s out of print and costs $200. I lose on all counts. Amazing book, though.