Tales of a ‘Radical Conformist’: J.P. Gaul on Ivy Style

G.P. Gaul

J.P. Gaul

One of the most exciting titles in Yale’s Autumn season is the exhibition catalogue Ivy Style: Radical Conformists, a beautiful book that traces the origins and diffusion of this enduring and classic fashion. Here blogger and fashion expert J.P. Gaul (co-author of The Ivy Look) discusses how he came to be enthralled by this wonderfully distinctive style.

Article by J.P. Gaul

You know that thing when you learn a new word or a new concept and then all of a sudden you begin to spot it everywhere? What had been invisible becomes omnipresent. I suppose that’s the essence of education – knowledge opening things up, literally bringing things to life. Well that’s how it was for me with Ivy.

Funny things started to happen; watching the news on came George Bush, Dubbya’s rather well-dressed father, and instantly I see the roll of the collar on his button down shirt and his natural shoulder jacket. You find yourself analysing old pictures of JFK, and before you know it the ‘American President’, those of the past and the present, become style icons. Their clothes jumped with meaning thanks to the de-coding skills I had acquired, the acquisition of which was not always straightforward. We forget now how hard it could be to get the right information in the pre-internet days ; you had to do a lot of digging. Google has made us all lazy and has eliminated much of the fun of the chase. As a teenager in the 1980s heavily into image and style I had vaguely heard of ‘Ivy League clothes’ but nobody was able to shed light on what these clothes actually looked like. Misinformation was commonplace. For a while a tailor who was making rather vulgar shiny mohair suits for me (I was only 19) put me on completely the wrong track by saying Ivy League was a kind of shadow stripe in the cloth.

Good old-fashioned printed media eventually helped me out. In an interview with Peter Meaden, first manager of The Who and an early exponent of the power of image and marketing in pop music, he talked about kitting out his boys in “Canadian-cum-American Esquire Ivy League jackets – natural shoulder line y’know? Peter (Townshend) wore an Ivy League jacket with buck-skin shoes. They bought their own Arrow shirts, and button-down collars, comfortable, Oxford collars you know?”. To me this all sounded improbably exotic and fascinating. Meaden referred to ‘Esquire Ivy League’ by which I believe he meant the hugely influential men’s magazine Esquire, founded in 1933 and still with us today of course, but in its golden period, from about 1950 until 1970,  a great proponent of ‘the Ivy look’ that ran features and ads on various elements of the style.

Fortune smiled on me, and my fellow devotees of the cloth, the day we found a rather whiffy pile of old Esquires from the 50s and 60s lying forlornly in the corner of a Chester antique shop. This was a magnificent find, a stash from a different age, which provided us with all the visual evidence that the Ivy League look was, indeed, as compelling and multi-faceted as we had anticipated. Looking back today at some of these magazines, still in my possession and now handled with curatorial delicacy, they really are wonderful documents of the time with fantastic art design, typography, photography and feature writing. There was an energy and confidence in the modern that strongly chimed with us.

Perhaps it’s because of my own experiences, as a British outsider in love with a ‘foreign’ style, that the approach of the Ivy Style book particularly appeals. The notion of ‘radical conformism’ perfectly echoes the way my friends and I saw ourselves. What could be more subversive than to turn up at an all-nighter dressed like the vice squad in tab collar shirts, knitted ties, white shorty rain coats, half-mast trousers and heavy wing-tip brogues? We weren’t out to look rich, or rebellious, or even that strange. More we wanted to look striking and different and rather unfathomable.

The key elements of Ivy style – the button-down shirt, the narrow-shouldered ‘sack’ 3-button jacket, the penny loafers and the heavy brogues, are all such strong, simple designs, form following function, and modernist to their very core. Miles Davis saw this, so did Gerry Mulligan and the Modern Jazz Quartet. The meaning of clothes shift as they cross borders, both geographically and socially, and the conservative mutates into the radical. The Bass Weejun penny loafer, one of the great design items of the 20th century, was no doubt a great shoe for strolling around the privileged halls of the Ivy colleges, but I can personally testify to its qualities as the ideal shoe to wear when sliding across talcum powder coated northern soul dancefloors – radical conformism in action!

J.P. Gaul is the co-author of The Ivy Look: Classic American Clothing (published by Frances Lincoln). J.P. Gaul also blogs at The Syllabus and you can follow him on Twitter

Ivy Style: Radical Conformists

Ivy Style: Radical Conformists

More about Ivy Style: Radical Conformists

Many of the most familiar sartorial images of the 20th century can be traced to the prestigious college campuses of America. The “Ivy League Look,” or “Ivy Style,” was once a cutting-edge look that for decades led the evolution of menswear. Far more than a classic way of dressing, Ivy Style spread beyond the rarified walls of Harvard, Yale and Princeton to influence countless designers.

Focusing on menswear dating from the early 20th century through today, this elegant book (which accompanies an exhibition at the Fashion Institute of Technology, New York), traces the main periods of the look: the interwar years when classic items, such as tweed jackets and polo coats, were appropriated from the English man’s wardrobe and redesigned by pioneering American firms such as Brooks Brothers and J. Press for young men at elite East Coast colleges; then from 1945 to the late 1960s, when the staples of Ivy Style—oxford cloth shirts, khaki pants, and penny loafers—were worn by a new, diverse group that included working-class students and jazz musicians; and finally the current revival of the Ivy look that began in the early 1980s.

Ivy Style celebrates both high-profile proponents of the style—including the Duke of Windsor, Steve McQueen, Paul Newman, and Miles Davis—who made the look their own, and designers such as Ralph Lauren, J. McLaughlin, Tommy Hilfiger, Michael Bastian, and Thom Browne, who have made it resonate with new generations of style enthusiasts.

Images from 'Ivy Style'

Images from ‘Ivy Style’

Ivy Style: Radical Conformists is available later this year from Yale, and can be pre-ordered now.

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