You’re Simply Being Out Gamed

by Long Nguyen

From Ivy Style to the Elite Vanguard
Last October, on a bright and unusually warm Indian summer day, I found myself in the middle of Princeton Stadium—a posh, open-air coliseum built in 1998 on the grounds of what I remembered as Palmer Stadium during my years at the University. That day, the stadium was packed. Orange and black flowed from the seats as the Princeton Tigers took the field against their archrivals—the Harvard Crimson.

Just after two minutes into the fourth quarter, the Crimson lead 34-10.  Disappointed at the Tigers’ disjointed performance, I felt like I was watching a New York Jets game. Then, from beneath the rubble, the Tigers’ starting quarterback Connor Michelsen scored a touchdown on a 29-yard pass. And in the final minute of the game, with Michelson sacked, injured, and benched, the Tigers put the second string quarterback in the game to score their last touchdown. Princeton had come back! It was Harvard’s first loss in 15 games.

After the game, I walked around the campus, elated, the victory sweet on my tongue, like a ginger chew from Chinatown, revisiting the many places I had been so familiar with. Not far from the university store, on University Place, was Lockhart Hall, where I had lived as a freshman. Nearby were each of the residential halls: Cuyler, Holder, Hamilton, Madison, and Pyne, with their vast courtyards, stone archways, and Gothic towers. As I walked, I recalled the green ivy crawling along the sides of Stanhope Hall and the old lamps that adorned the walls of Firestone Library. Boys and girls lounged fabulously on the stone steps of the buildings, reading the classics, discussing economics and the events of the day. I felt at home. Everyone was gorgeous.

Football rivalries aren’t the only tradition that stem from the elite colleges of the East Coast. At the turn of the twentieth century, students at these institutions wore proper attire throughout their academic careers. As an integral part of the socioeconomic and political order at the institutions, students entering Princeton or Harvard were naturally expected to dress the part. That meant having a scrupulous wardrobe consisting of traditional English fine-tailored suiting and eveningwear. Daytime dress was restricted to the sack three-button, single-breasted suit of tweed or cotton, button-down shirts, and leather loafers. For supper, formalwear was expected.

What the Ivy League students wore in the 1910’s became the precursor for a long-lasting style that has continued to evolve. The ‘preppy look,’ now dominating modern-day fashion, is perhaps America’s greatest style export, despite once having been strictly confined to the students of Ivy League campuses.

Once the domain of the rich and aristocratic private university students, Ivy League campus fashion was revived in the early 80s when designers like Ralph Lauren and Tommy Hilfiger launched their respective companies. With an affinity for the pre-war student wardrobe and an uncanny ability to transform this established style into the look of premier international brands, Lauren and Hilfiger helped take the prep from Ivy League hallways onto runways. Since then, Ivy style has taken a similar leap from the shelves of the elite to stores like H&M.

“With the recession and the explosion of celebrities trying to be fashion designers, good fashion was being pushed aside with this advent of commercialism. I was looking at pictures of menswear from the early 20th century in America, particularly photos of young men from the Ivy League colleges. The Ivy style represented everything that is in fashion today: it was modern, well proportioned, sporty, and, above all, elegant.  Most crucial is its ability to be elegant and to feel comfortable at the same time,” says Patricia Mears, the deputy director at the Museum at FIT—New York’s Fashion Institute of Technology—who curated the Ivy Style exhibition on view this fall.

The exhibition is divided into several vignettes encompassing the various experiences of Ivy campus life—a dorm room, a Gothic building courtyard, a classroom. It includes 60 outfits and memorabilia spanning across three different time frames: the period after World War I, the 50s and 60s, the revival period in the 80s and today. The show emphasizes the roots of Ivy style, the historically elitist wardrobe of young men from the 20s and 30s: navy blazers, sack suits from Brooks Brothers, the oxford button-down shirt, letter sweaters, and the beer suits Princeton students wore over their suits for drinking parties—as well as modern interpretations from Lauren, Hilfiger, and Thom Browne.

“As more Americans went to college following WWII, the Ivy look became more democratized and former soldiers benefitting from the GI Bill brought new elements like cotton army chinos into the staple, transforming Ivy into collegiate style. The Japanese have borrowed and perfected the Ivy look since the mid 60s and many American designers base their work on the collegiate look,” Mears says of the recent resurgence of Ivy style.

“The style has a youthful and optimistic spirit that speaks to a wide range of people. The collegiate style is timeless. Classic pieces like navy blazers and Oxford shirts can be reinterpreted to create a unique and modern look that still feels rooted in preppy heritage,” says Tommy Hilfiger. “My designs have always been inspired by preppy heritage and tradition. We’ve pioneered the preppy look over the years, always with an unexpected twist that makes the designs modern and exciting. Each season we find new ways to update classic pieces that reinforce the lifestyle at the core of the Tommy Hilfiger brand,” Hilfiger adds. “Innovation is part of the style’s essence; it’s the idea that you can take one piece—like the navy blue blazer or collegiate sweater—and wear it in an original way to create your own look. The preppy look has gone global; countries and cultures around the world are putting their own unique stamp on prep!”

Ivy style has continued to evolve as men, now, are increasingly looking at fashion and style as an essential component of their lives. And because designers can interpret the style on their own terms, they aren’t limited in what they can do. Designers like Michael Bastian present a hyper masculine and overtly sexy style that has transformed prep with its tightly cut silhouettes and heavy emphasis on the male physique.

“Ivy style has such an impact on men’s fashion because it was truly uniquely American to the world. The style has endured because it's based on a classic ideal,” says Thom Browne. “I also start from a classic ideal in my approach to design and I take that ideal and interpret it differently every season.”

Mr. Browne’s shrunken silhouette of shortened jacket sleeves and cuffed above-the-ankle pants demonstrate how a designer’s particular interpretation has thrust Ivy style from its elitist roots to the mass market and now to designer, avant-garde fashion.


This article originally appeared in Flaunt Issue 123 – The Nether Issue.