Back to school: taking a look at the Ivy style

Rugby Ralph Lauren Fall 2010

The beginning of September brings along a tad of nostalgia for that back-to-school feeling. And even now I love that atmosphere surrounding the start of a new school year, with everyone, pupils, students and grown-ups alike, returning to their work, with the summer holiday and vacations over. I thought it was a good time to have a look at the Ivy style.

Tommy Hilfiger campaign Fall 2013

Ralph Lauren campaign


It is one of America’s great contributions to global style. What began as a look that emanated from the US’s top colleges, encapsulating the unique academic fashion of the era, the Ivy League style soon gained popularity way beyond the American borders, reaching the wardrobes of men all over the world and casting a long shadow on menswear in the 20th and 21st centuries. Although it was at its peak in the ’50s and ’60s (to which Hollywood actors played their part by elevating the Ivy look to the rang of cool, defining a quintessentially American male dress code for a new generation of movie audiences), the look dates back from the 1920s-1930s.

Brooks Brothers, a leader in the American menswear since the 19th century, helped define the original Ivy fashion, along with Gant. It was in the 1980s that Ralph Lauren and Tommy Hilfiger took on the style and started to bring their own contribution to the revival of the look, which continues throughout this day. They started with the origins of tradition, but created a modern day prep.

richard phibbs vanity fair italia january 2011-3

qualcosa di prep - richard phibbs vanity fair italia january 2011-2

Qualcosa di prep-richard phibbs vanity fair italia january 2011Something preppy-richard phibbs vanity fair italia january 2011-1

Rugby Ralph Lauren

But what is it that has ensured the collegiate fashion an enduring appeal over decades? It’s its ease and tradition combined with innovation that has won over generation after generation. It’s smart, perennially stylish and it has a lot of personality. It’s classic. In its heyday, the preppy style reflected the belonging to an elite class, to a select club everybody else dreamed of being part of and that requested a dress-code of a certain formality.

It was the look-book of “the classic American hero: well-rounded and approachable, happy and healthy. If he’s beautiful, he doesn’t know it,” says Michael Bastian, designer of Gant by Michael Bastian. Those days, the Ivy look reflected the aspiration to the young man ideal – intelligent, handsome and athletic – and a way of living: “real men in real environments, wearing things beautifully with individual characters,” according to Patricia Mears, deputy director of the Museum at FIT (Fashion Institute of Technology). It’s that quality that I love so much about American fashion: real clothes for real people. Today, however, I think that the Ivy League style has lost much of its original meaning and that it’s more about fashion.

Ralph Lauren Blue Label campaign Fall 2003 Bruce Weber

Ralph Lauren campaign 1988

Ivy Style - Photo by Stephen Ward

Although I would like to see a different kind of revival of this look as well, I am thankful to fashion for making it democratic and universally approachable. I have a thing for all the timeless elements of this classic style: crisp button-down shirts, tweed blazers, school crests, wool vests, penny loafers, polo shirts, letterman sweaters, varsity jackets, rep ties, chinos, striped jumpers, madras pants, Shetland pullovers. I love to see them on men and I love to see them reinterpreted for women. Take any two pieces of the ones enumerated above and they will give individuality to your personal style. “Inspirational, exuberant and comfortable, clothes that mix formality with casualness, propriety with colour and tradition with utility” (Patricia Mears). I have already dug out my letterman striped cardigan and oxford shoes and I can not wait to start wearing them again this autumn.

Rugby Ralph Lauren Fall 2010-1

Vogue-Paris-Terry-RichardsonJohann Urb by Bruce Weber for Ralph Lauren campaign 1995

I am ending this blog post with a couple of book recommendations I’ve been longing to add to my collection. The first one is Take Ivy, by Teruyoshi Hayashida, an influential study of elite Northeastern American campuses published in 1965 in Japan, and which for years was a cult item among fashion insiders, until it was finally released in English in 2010. The second one is Hollywood and The Ivy Look, by Graham Marsh and J.P. Gaul, which takes a look at how ‘Ivy’ established itself as the epitome of Hollywood style between 1955 and 1965.

photos: 1,13-Rugby Ralph Lauren Fall 2010 campaign / 2-Craig McDean for Tommy Hilfiger Eyewear Fall/Winter 2013 ad campaign / 3,11-Polo Ralph Lauren Fall 1988 ad campaign / 4-Craig McDean for Tommy Hilfiger Fall/Winter 2013 ad campaign / 5-8: Richard Phibbs for Vanity Fair Italia, January 2010, “Qualcosa di prep” editorial styled by Arthur Sales / 9-Rugby Ralph Lauren ad campaign / 10: Bruce Weber for Ralph Lauren Blue Label Fall 2003 ad campaign / 12-Stephen Ward for GQ / 14: Terry Richardson for Vogue Paris / 15: Bruce Weber for Ralph Lauren ad campaign 1995

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