The Man in the Ivy League Suit

In previous columns, I’ve been delighted to share memories of the Ivy heyday together with my family’s history and decades at J. Press. Here’s my virgin column penned in 1955 while a freshman at Dartmouth. Entitled The Ivy Look, the article appeared in DART, the school’s humor magazine, and was co-authored with Art Zich, who later became a foreign correspondent for Time-Life and associate editor of Newsweek. Pictured alongside is the original artwork that accompanied the story. Hope you enjoy it much as we did knocking it off 64 years ago with multiple cans of ‘Gansett beer.


 “Who is that fellow in the Ivy League suit?” It’s being whispered on campuses everywhere and not without reason. With the resurgence to conservative dress, people are finding it difficult to tell one friend from another. What’s more, it’s getting so that people can’t even tell themselves from each other. The social implications of this situation are obvious when one considers brushing your teeth or borrowing a necktie from someone, who, when you return it, turns out to be yourself.


The problem is not a new one, however, as members of the turn-of-century classes will admit once they have admitted they are members of the turn-of-the-century classes. The well-known “Ivy Look” had its beginnings at New Haven in the days when McKinley was president, starting the day McKinley was shot. Students usually purchased their clothing from small, modest shops, and for this reason “Ivy Look” tailors made little or nothing. Gradually, however, there emerged the distinctive, sophisticated attire of the Ivy Leaguer (in many ways similar to the Texas Leaguer, the Bush Leaguer, and the Real Eager but much more distinctive, of course).


The most popular outfit in those days was the custom-tailored suit, so-called because it was the custom to tailor the suit so you couldn’t afford it. The custom-tailored suit gave way to the ready-made suit, which in turn gave way, but could be held together with safety-pins. Other popular “Ivy League” numbers are the Summer (summer expensive and summer cheap), the Gasuit (to be worn by people with head colds), and the bridal suite (ten dollars a night and breakfast in bed with coffee and rolls).

The first important change in the manner of “Ivy Look” dress after 1900 was the arrival of the “odd jacket” or sport coat, worn with “slacks” so-called because of the condition of your wallet after purchasing. The “sport coat” is named after the good sports who were the first to wear it; they were later stoned to death. Today it is not uncommon to see Madison Avenue executives in the same campus tweeds that were popular during their own college days.


There are arguments concerning just what constitutes the “Ivy Look.” The originators are specific. Conversely, the specifiers are original. Carefully nurtured peak is the rule. The coat of the true gentleman must consist of unpadded shoulders, padded wallet, three-button high notch lapels, and deep hook vents to let in hot and cold air. The back-strap on the trouser back is preferred being superior to the back-strap on the trouser front. The belt should be worn as high as possible, leaving none of the trouser visible above the beltline, let alone the person inside of them. Sox should be supported by garters, while garters should be supported by muscular calves. If muscular calves are not available, any form of livestock will do just as well. Shoes should be of sturdy English cut, heavy enough to keep feet out of the elements and fast enough to keep the wearer out of reach of the creditors.


Only a few varieties of shirts are permissible, and naturally, those with sleeves are preferred. The rule for college-correctness dictates button-down, round, or English tab. When confronted with the tab, it is always smarter to allow the other fellow to pick it up. The button-down demands a button on the back and pleated backs are mandatory. The wearer who has a pleated back, to begin with, is thus ahead of the game. The prescribed daytime shirt color is blue on Oxford, bowling on the Green, and drinks on the house. White is proper for evening wear unless you are spending the evening in the tub.


There is a wide choice in the selection of ties. Although some Ivy Leaguers look down on challis, a good many challis look down on Ivy Leaguers also. The exquisite foulard is always permissible, coming as it does from the French word which means “artistic fool.” It goes without saying that the hard and fast rule of the Ivy Leaguer is his insistence on the four-in-hand knot. A Windsor knot, according to our sources, is strictly gauche, and should only be worn by gauchos.

Dark-colored suits are the usual rule, but a clever blend of light and dark coupled with the right tie and a sheepish grin can often lend the needed sophistication, creating the illusion of correctness. When one feels he is correct enough, he may hand himself in to be marked. Brown is still the most stable color in sport coats, and also in stables.


The cloth put into the finest of the Ivy League suits is invariably imported from the British Isles. Recently the trend has been toward the importing of the British Isles. The cloth is usually produced on the antique spinning wheel of a Scotsman whose ancestors have been weaving for generations as a result of producing antique Scotch.


The “Ivy Look” will be seen throughout the East this fall. The question remains: “Who is the man in the Ivy League suit?” It’s his roommate from Exeter.





1 comment

Pondering the meaning of the “Ivy look”, I came across this clarification full of wit in its prose. Nothing more need be said in an attempt to render a literary illustration of just what that true American sprezzatura will be wearing. Brilliant.

James Chrosniak September 02, 2020

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