Re-Tweed: The Return of Ivy League Style

Posted on January 11, 2016

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Tweed commemorates classic Ivy League style and yet when Amory Blaine, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s titular character from This Side of Paradise offers an opinion of the style he aspires to, it’s a pedigree he erroneously tars with a broad stroke.

The tweed sport coat, emblematic of Ralph Lauren Purple Label.

The tweed sport coat, emblematic of Ralph Lauren Purple Label.

Tweed’s Timeless Elegance

“I think of all Harvard men as sissies. All Yale men wear big blue sweaters and smoke pipes, while Princeton boys are “lazy and good looking and aristocratic”.” – Amory Blaine, This Side of Paradise

Indeed, the lifestyle of the Ivies is one to be plenty admired- education and learning on par with Plato’s academies, the large fields populated by elite young men at the height of intellectual discourse: philosophy, politics, vino, whiskey and certainly: gentlemanly elegance.

The sport blazer and polo coat may be de riguer attire for the young academic but the Tweed jacket, a staple of the professorial fraternity is donned by none but the most confident of undergraduates on campus (lest they be mistaken for teaching staff) and essentially, a staple of the Ivy wardrobe when off campus.

Tommy Hilfiger built a name for itself on the back of Ivy league style.

Tommy Hilfiger built a name for itself on the back of Ivy league style.

The Tweed blazer is an area where Brooks Brothers have made a name for themselves but in the history of menswear itself, no other look has seen subtler evolution than that of Ivy League Style. The preppy look birthed from the loins of lush greens (literal as well as financial) of New Haven and Cambridge are a curated style that is definitively American while avoiding the God awful association with that other American-sartorial invention: business casual. Instead, madras shirts, weejun loafers take centre-stage on the quad and as a cultural artifact, a symbol of not just money-ed heritage but also that in between two World Wars, something of aesthetic value can remain.

Albeit an icon of the wealthiest, most exclusive schools of white male Protestant America, Princeton was birthplace to some of the United States’ most brilliant captains of industry but also fashion – the Shetland suit, the crested blazer, V-neck sweaters and saddle shoes; have you ever wondered about the pedigree of the modern sports blazer? You got, it came from the best Southern school (please pardon the topical political humour, Princeton is deeply conservative) in the North.

This Tweed overcoat from Kiton's Fall Winter 2016 remains the author's travel favourite.

This Tweed overcoat from Kiton’s Fall Winter 2016 remains the author’s travel favourite.

Shaped by early Fashion pioneers like Douglas Fairbanks and the Duke of Windsor, the 20s and 30s were the era of the gentleman athlete. The blazer came to thoroughly symbolise Ivy Style but naturally, the proud members of the (Sons) and Daughters of the American Revolution would have no choice but to recall their heritage- that of Britain, as a garment worn by the rowing clubs in Cambridge. In 1825, the outfit, so named by the flaming red cloth from which the garment was hewn was an iconic look and like the culture of scholarship, so came the vintage looks from Oxbridge aristocracy- tweed jackets, double breasted coats (inspired by the wait coats from Brit field teams).

Thus descended the “rules of style” – the mark of a gentleman included the proper wardrobe populated with several suits and at least two for formal dinners. Shetland herringbone, it was touted, conveyed “the right mixture of conservatism and individuality”.

Yet, for the aristocratic bearing required for the day, the after hours are dominated by the seersucker lounge robes and velvet embroidered loafer (sadly misappropriated by Hefner) and then when it came to a ritzy night out on the town, the raccoon overcoat. Yet, for its pervasiveness and iconography, it never entered the cultural zeitgeist. That is until 1944 where the GI Bill sent army veterans into the Ivy Leagues and with the new mass market clientele, the social cachet and awareness required for ‘regular’ retailers like J. Press and Gant to eventually sent up “university” collections to push flannel suits and penny loafers.

Will we see a return to the gentleman athlete as pictured here in Tommy Hilfiger's Fall 2015 collection?

Will we see a return to the gentleman athlete as pictured here in Tommy Hilfiger’s Fall 2015 collection?

Founded by a Jeweish-Lithuanian immigrant in 1992, J. Press has seen some ups and downs but its call to fame began at Yale, as one of the most successful purveyours of university couture, it perfected the Ivy look: natural shoulders, cashmere sport coats, glen plaid, mohair and of course Tweed. As the war veterans began graduating in scores, the aesthetic followed the men into the growing middle class and became a staple of the 1950s dress code (that is until America rebelled against it).

As a trend, it languished for 30 years and it’s renaissance was heralded not by J. Press but by Ralph Lauren with his oxford button downs and chinos. Since the 1980s, Ralph Lauren’s saddle shoes became the dress choice for Wall Street bankers and trust fund kids, with it, a name for the revival, “prep style”. To be “preppy” no longer signified private schools and the Ivies, it became visual nomenclature for ‘tradition’.

If Ralph Lauren can be considered father of the revival, Michael Bastian is the wunderkind new draftee to the movement, taking traditional tailoring techniques and cuts and giving them a contemporary update: cable sweaters and blue corduroys.  Perry Ellis too combined classic tweed with a high fashion twist; cumulative efforts eventually transforming trend into a herringbone visage of classic elegance (though one might ignore the Cosby-esque Fair Isle vest at no real sartorial risk).

Today, prep style or Ivy style is peddled by most menswear labels from Tommy to Thom and in these troubling times, it remains a comfortable reminder of new money, old traditions and a return to simpler days of yore.

Jonathan Ho is Founder and Editorial Director for The Millenary and this was a contributed article for The Monsieur.com

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Posted in: men's style