John F. Kennedy in SI, 1960

I was going through the garage of an estate sale this morning, and happened upon this old issue of Sports Illustrated. It’s from 1960 (the ad on the back references NBC’s coverage of “The NFL Championship Game”), and then-President-Elect John F. Kennedy on the ocean at Hyannisport.

For you prep fetishists, it’s close to perfection, but it’s a lovely lesson for the rest of us, too. Not much more than a blue polo, khakis, some canvas topsiders and a cotton sweater (or a tweedy sportcoat) are enough for the future president to look stunning.

Ivy League Style in 25 Items Or Less

There’s a lovely new book called Ivy Style based on the Ivy Style exhibition at the Fashion Institute of Technology. I’ve been reading it, and besides the glorious illustrations and vintage advertisements featured throughout, one of the things that struck me was G. Bruce Boyer’s description of a college wardrobe in the Ivy era. What’s remarkable about it is that with some very modest tweaks (white bucks aren’t exactly standard issue these days), it could fly for most young men even today, fifty years later.

Six shirts, three white and three blue, and two or three pair of khakis would do the job. In cooler weather, a Shetland crewneck sweater in any color was added. A pair of brown penny loafers and white tennis sneakers (possibly a pair of white or tan buckskin oxfords) constituted the acceptable range of footwear. For outerwear, a cotton gabardine balmacaan raincoat (always tan), and a stout duffel coat (in tan or navy) were all that were needed, although many men also had a cotton gab golf jacket, also in tan… everyone had a tweed sports jacket (Harris or Shetland) and/or a navy single-breasted blazer for semi-dress, and a gray flannel suit for dress. Summer semi-formality was assured with a seersucker or tan poplin suit, some had madras sports jackets, for the more formal occasions a dark gray or navy tropical worsted suit. A half-dozen ties (regimentals, foulards or dots), and the necessary compliment of underwear, socks, pajamas and handkerchiefs filled out the basics.

That’s a pretty solid capsule wardrobe. Sadly, no crazy boating blazers, beer suits or raccoon coats.

Ivy Style at the F.I.T. Museum

I’m headed out of New York this morning, having taped a few episodes of Judge John Hodgman, enjoyed a San Francisco Giants World Series victory, ordered a few shirts from my friend Carl, and attended WFMU’s Radiovision conference. I didn’t have a lot of free time on this trip - blame the baby - but I did make time to visit the Fashion Institute of Technology Museum and their lovely exhibit Ivy Style.

Among the sights:

  • Some stunning tartan sportcoats by Jeffrey Banks, the former protege of Ralph Lauren, author of several menswear books, and sole African-American contributor to the exhibition.
  • Some delightful Berk slippers, featuring a pair in crescent moon and star theme which match some I bought for my wife recently.
  • Ralph Lauren outfits pieced together from collections 30 years apart, but sharing a near-perfect aesthetic symmetry.
  • A Thom Browne Ivy-inspired suit featuring a spiked crotch.
  • Some genuinely gorgeous bleeding madras in shorts, coats, and everything else.
  • Some amazing information about a Princeton tradition, still extant, called the Beer Suit. Derived from workwear, it was clothing made to be worn by seniors while drinking, to avoid ruining the good stuff. They look a bit like a painter’s outfit, with graduation years and slogans stenciled on. After graduation, the suit was worn to reunions until the 25th reunion, when one could finally wear a class jacket - usually (by the looks of it) a crested blazer.

If you’re in New York, don’t miss the exhibition, which is free. And don’t forget the symposium, which is in just a few weeks.

Over the weekend, the Styleforum user ChetBakerSings managed to thrift this Chipp sack coat. Not only is it both insane and amazing, it might also look familiar - it’s currently featured in the Fashion Institute of Technology’s Ivy League exhibit. That’s a thrift score.

Over the weekend, the Styleforum user ChetBakerSings managed to thrift this Chipp sack coat. Not only is it both insane and amazing, it might also look familiar - it’s currently featured in the Fashion Institute of Technology’s Ivy League exhibit. That’s a thrift score.

NY Times Magazine: Whit Stillman & the Song of the Preppy
Some fascinating meditations here (as in Stillman’s films) on the cultural values of the prep (and close cousin the WASP). Certainly an interesting compliment to our piece with the Lo Heads, whose aesthetic is in dialogue with preppy aesthetics.

NY Times Magazine: Whit Stillman & the Song of the Preppy

Some fascinating meditations here (as in Stillman’s films) on the cultural values of the prep (and close cousin the WASP). Certainly an interesting compliment to our piece with the Lo Heads, whose aesthetic is in dialogue with preppy aesthetics.

“The unpadded shoulders, the three-buttoned long and boxy coat, the too-short, thin pants, and the thin ties with striped buttoned shirts in dark colors—well, I suppose this may go very well with some personalities but it’s not for me. To me, all such look like TV producers. Maybe they want to.”

Fred Astaire on the Ivy League look

(via ASW)

Cornell, 1948
via Greensleeves to a Ground

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. 

What Is Traditional American Style?

Our most recent video, Tradition, features a conversation with Jay Walter, a true-blue American style traditionalist. The American aesthetic is largely a creation of the mid-20th century, and after some years of being maligned, it’s being re-evaluated at the moment, as “Ivy League” style (a close variant) has its moment.

Above are two men in tailored clothing. In black and white, we see a customer at J. Press in the mid-20th century. In color, we see a contemporary photo of Patrick Grant, proprietor of Norton & Sons, a Savile Row tailor. Each of these guys is wearing an outfit that couldn’t be more emblematic of their nation’s signature styles.

Difference to note (pictured and unpictured):

  • The American suit features what’s called a 3-roll-2 buttoning arrangement. That means that there are three buttons on the front,but only two are openly visible and only one is intended to be used. The third (top) button rolls under the lapel. This is a classic button arrangement for suits of any nation, but it’s particularly vital to the American look. The English suit is in a classic English configuration: a narrow double-breasted.
  • The shoulders of the American jacket are soft and nearly unpadded. This is called a “natural shoulder,” and it’s comfortable and casual. Contrast this with the built-up, strongly-shaped shoulder on the Savile Row suit.
  • The American jacket lacks darts (folds, sewn into the fabric for shape) on the front. Most continental jackets have a dart on each side, running from about nipple level to the waist. This gives the jacket shape over and above the shaping permitted by the side seams. The classic undarted American coat is called a “sack,” because, well, it’s sack-like, rather than following the countour of the front of the body.
  • The classic American jacket has a single vent in the back, often a “hook vent.” The hook vent, a J. Press innovation, is cut wider at the top (giving it a hook-like shape) to prevent awkward splaying. An English coat is typically double-vented (sometimes called side-vented), which helps prevent splaying. Sometimes it’s unvented, in the style of the “golden age” of men’s style, the 1930s.
  • Pants in the classic American suit are, as Jay Walter described in our piece, typically flat-front, rather than pleated. They often have plain fronts as well. Generally, this is a simpler, more relaxed style.

There are of course other difference in the aesthetics - Americans have a predilection for button-down collars, even sometimes wearing them with suits, for example. The knit tie is a particularly Ivy League aesthetic. Belts are favored over braces, and loafers, especially penny loafers, are beloved.

The end result is a distinctive, American aesthetic. The shape is youthful. Because it lacks darts, the jacket falls straight, rather than emphasizing the shoulders and chest and narrowing the waist. The goal here is to attain the slim, straight body of the 20 year old, rather than the strong-shouldered, broad-chested body of the Powerful Man favored on Savile Row.

Of course, this style is just as much associated with an insurance salesman in Muskogee as it is with a young Bobby Kennedy. On the hefty man these youngsters of the 1950s and 60s became, the look has a different effect. The shapelessness and weak shoulders of the look can make a heavy man look, for lack of a better word, dumpy. Still: it is classic, comfortable and proudly American.

What’s important to remember is that a suit’s silhouette isn’t an absolute value, following exactly the curves of the body. There are choices about what to emphasize, what to de-emphasize, what to build up and what to slim down. These are informed by individual aesthetics and cultural tradition. I hope this will help you make informed choices for your own wardrobe.