Ivy in London

By Alex Roest

Although the story of how the Ivy League style fared in the British capital is inextricably bound with that of the early 60s Modernists it’s also to do with that British preference for some cultivated eccentricity. After all it’s just a handful of enthusiasts still sporting the natural shoulder style these days in Britain, purchasing their beloved gear through the internet mostly, apart from the obligatory visit to J. Simons in Covent Garden every once in a while that is.

How it all began remains a bit of a mystery (legend has it that the influence of GI’s during and after the second world war was a starting point) whilst apparently the biggest influence came via films such as e.g. Sweet Smell of Success, Breakfast at Tiffany’s or Love With The Proper Stranger. This soft American style people noticed via the flicks obviously didn’t just appeal to certain clued up kids, it also spoke volumes to young adults with a somewhat broader outlook one might even call metropolitan. The attitude was very much geared towards New York City anyway i.e. it was all about travel and wider horizons and building a secret world of your own. So what you did when donning those Ivy League clothes was basically that you broke away from what your parents wore in a nice and subtle way and simultaneously distanced yourself thoroughly from the teenage fashion crowd.

The often mentioned fusing of IL with continental styles was in fact no more than a phase Modernists would go through. There was an element of going with a certain style for a period and then moving on. Afterwards people went their separate ways, some of them in search for a more unified look and concentrating on Americana and the IL style in particular. Moving away from the Mod thing meant concentrating on having a more solid suit style created via bespoke tailoring (probably mixing and matching that with things like Arrow shirts from Austin’s and shoes from Raoul and later Saxone loafers). Hence losing the flash element of trying to outdo one another that had been prevalent in previous years. The hair varied from short to a grown out college-boy with a high-ish parting. Of course it wasn’t like everybody with a good sense of style was inevitably involved with being modern anyway as there were always those who wanted to stay clear of fads. In many cases people would be music lovers in the true sense of the word though i.e. they tended to have a liking for what they regarded as ‘the real thing’, so the sounds would preferably be somewhat obscure. You wanted to avoid what was seen as ‘common taste’ one could argue.

One of London’s original Ivy fans sporting a suede zipper jacket with a knit collar most of his cohorts were sporting as well at the time (‘67/’68).

Early Modernists have always stressed the importance of jazz album covers but it’s very likely a slightly overrated factor when viewed within a wider scope. One could think of the young professionals shops like Austin’s and Cecil Gee would have been aiming at in this respect for instance. Those people would very likely have been more interested in the fashion shoots that appeared in e.g. Esquire magazine, making it another wonderful source of inspiration through the 60s until the early 70s. Lots of shoots seemed to be entirely IL based although not in terms of colour and context and of course the adverts were great. The standout amongst these was for Gant shirts. A full page spread with four separate photos showing the details : button-down collar, locker loop, third collar button etc. Another source was the TV series The Naked City, the tweed overcoats worn by the NY cops in the series being a good example of that. The Andy Williams and Perry Como TV shows are also worth a mention.

So the overlapping aesthetic (of being cool ) might be the preference for standing out, albeit not in a showy way. The fact that you had the clothes and no one else did was total one-upmanship to begin with. Obviously the TNSIL style was very typical and decidedly un-British, so it was pretty exotic in that ‘grass is always greener’ fashion we’ve come across in ‘The French Cut’ essay, too. Soft shoulders, no waist suppression, the hooked vent and even the use of different materials when compared to the traditional British choices made it all look subtly and wonderfully subversive in those people’s eyes. The look was still very conservative and unthreatening in a way, but the interesting thing is that the people adopting it in London would not necessarily fit that description.

Part of the appeal of the Ivy League style in England has to do with a certain playing with the language of conservatism. Those who had adopted the style wanted something as easily wearable and acceptable as classic English style, but something more interesting than that. Something less obvious than just a ‘straight’ blazer or tweed jacket. Something more creative even, perhaps.

And so in that way they could fly under the radar – They could be themselves, yet not stick out like a sore thumb.

- Passing for straight in the nine-to-five world whilst still being ultra hip to those who could recognise the code of their clothes.

The look also appealed to a lot of people in the creative industries where it was seen as truly modern and all about moving ahead. It was a very ‘Professional’ style for all the new progressive professions: Graphic Designers, Advertising Executives, Commercial Artists and even Fine Artists took up the style.

It was American & America was to be the future. Democratic, Meritocratic, and always moving on. Well… that was the dream back then anyway.

That the English wearers of the style were progressives there is no doubt. No true English Conservative would wear Ivy in England. The English have their own Conservative wardrobe and supporters are in fact a bit suspicious of foreign styles.

So the perception of the Conservatism of the Ivy style in England is in a way a con-trick perpetrated on those who can’t ‘read’ clothes.

The subtlety of the playing with the expectations of what a suit wearer is like in England that the Ivy style allows you over there goes way over the heads of most people.

The main shop to import traditional American clothes into the UK was Austin’s on Shaftesbury Avenue. By today’s standards it was a rather dowdy place, the interior not unlike the J. Press shops however. Dark wood, rows of suits on rails, glass topped display cases and a couple of Jewish salesmen.

Alistair Findlay (original London Ivy-ist)- I was introduced to the Ivy style by a couple of faces called Roger Westcott and Mick Bowman from Edmonton, North London. I felt at the time that this was what I’d been searching for and that it was completely right for me ; a kind of epiphany, if you like. Smart, unobtrusive, different, slightly subversive and hip. This must have been 1961 and I shopped at Austin’s regularly until the mid 70s. During the early days I once overheard the manager, being rather more abrasive than his more avuncular colleague, saying to a somewhat doubtful customer : “The material’s crap, but look at the fit.”

Most of the stock came from the US, although some of it was made in Canada. The suits, jackets and trousers were from anonymous makers but the shirts included Arrow and Enro, the latter being the better quality, more expensive brand. As a matter of fact The Rolling Stones’ drummer Charlie Watts was there every Friday night, Georgie Fame and Eric Clapton were also customers.

Alistair Findlay wearing an Austin’s own label Shetland tweed jacket, mtm trousers from Glicker, a tailor in Hendon, NW London, an Arrow (US) ocbd with black knitted tie, Clarks desert boots. Raincoat is a black fly-fronted single-breasted Burberry.

Obviously obscure black sounds were important to many in those days because of the very fact they were being imported. This attitude applied as much to the records as it did to the clothes. So the black and white photographs on the backs of records sleeves played a significant role still. It was pretty hard to piece together all the clues to work out what the clothes actually were though- the picture were so small. Shirts were button-down but high collared, ties were slim and often knitted and equally slim were the shoulders on the jackets of the musicians. They would have this lack of definition about them, these jackets just hung on the wearers and they had this deliberate slouch on them that just oozed an effortless cool. Copies of Town, Esquire and Down Beat magazines helped to bring the details into focus.

Another thing that helped (especially when considering the fact that places like Austin’s, Cecil Gee and later The Ivy Shop were never cheap to purchase from) when we’re talking imported clothes is when you had family living in the US, or one could have friends bringing back stuff from business trips. In turn, people who lived there would be interested in English threads so swapping certain items would be an interesting option as well. Shops like Brooks Brothers were of course also pretty expensive so when you (or an acquaintance for that matter) eventually visited the US you could always get decent lookalikes of what they sold in little side street places as the look was still common across the board until the early 70s.

More close to home, as mentioned before, The Ivy Shop in Richmond catered for the people who stuck to the idea that something wasn’t style when one could spot it easily. The alleged notion that some of the older, smarter dressers who went there were somehow leading the way in a fashion sense is pretty questionable though. The slightly conservative (and at the age of 16 still tribal) kids who purchased their shoes and shirts from The Ivy Shop were in fact worlds apart from the more sophisticated dressers I’d say. Who would any self respecting ‘geezer’ into the style want to emulate but an abstract image of the ‘all American’ guy ? Basically what one wanted was to just look good and attract the opposite sex (assuming you were also ‘straight’ in that respect, which of course isn’t always the case in real life). Now this may probably sound to gross a statement, but it does capture an attitude towards which no one really is a stranger, simple as that. Mature, clever or cool would all be fitting adjectives whatsoever. The 842 Ivy League haircut is being worn with a solid coloured cardigan or a sleeveless V-neck and a high collared button-down shirt. Blue jeans (minimal turn-ups optional) or Sta-Prest trousers are worn slightly short and cut close. Socks are always dark (not white); red is cool, dark is usual. Solid coloured suit jackets may also be worn with jeans or Sta-Prest. Heavy longwing American brogues are the preferred shoe, then smoothies and only then loafers.

The simplicity of the haircut in combination with an outfit such as described above kept on resonating with people of all vintages interested in classic style, ever since the ‘Boom Years’. Its basic message is that one comes across as pretty casual when dressed up and still nice and smart when dressed down, but always in a relaxed manner. Of course The Look is far from prominent these days but there will always be a hardcore of Ivy fans consisting of clothing savvy ex-Mods, Jazz Buffs and Hipsters alike. The most important factor, however, is that the style transcends borders and has an everlasting appeal on those in search of ‘something smart but a little more interesting’.

Alex Roest

Thanks to Alistair, Chris, Jim, Mark and Patrick.

  1. — Russell Street    Dec 29, 14:59    #

    A real slice of English sartorial / social history here. Thanks, Alex.

  2. GSTAG    Feb 27, 13:21    #

    The perfect article ! Thanks.

  3. — Puritian Son    Mar 1, 14:28    #

    Funny how a weird subculture of Englishmen take up an American style for elites.

  4. — Russell_Street    Mar 17, 10:29    #

    Interestingly, when the Ivy style was taken up in London it was no longer elite in America – It was the great leveler. It had had elite associations before and was to have them again, but at the point that England first really encountered this style it was a very ‘Everyman’ look in the US with the style available at all quality and price points across America. It was just The American Look – A Look for everybody.

  5. — Tom    Jun 5, 05:26    #

    Very interesting, thank you!

  6. — TBJ    Jun 16, 16:11    #

    A great read – Thanks

  7. — John buckwell    Nov 12, 16:42    #

    My first il suit and roll collar shirt from austins.where can we buy those shirts now Brooks brothers are ok but not quite the same.

  8. — jack purvis    Aug 9, 01:35    #

    And the place to have your hair cut was Lujo’s run by Lew and Joe. THE place for a college boy style.

    Great article. Thanks.

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