When William F. Buckley published God and Man at Yale in 1951, a social and sartorial trend was ascending on the horizon, and when it reached its twilight, Buckley would be remembered for yet another personal achievement, a style icon in the fashion firmament.
The Ivy League Look, as it came to be known, traced it origins to the turn of the century, when American gentlemen shed their frock coats and detachable collars and began donning “lounge suits,” such as the Brooks Brothers No. 1 Sack Suit, and the soft, rolling button-down-collar shirts the same clothier introduced in 1900. Buckley’s beloved and bedeviled alma mater became an epicenter of the gradually germinating style, thanks to the haberdashers who took the Brooks blueprints and began offering their own versions, to save the college community from having to trek down to New York. Nearly all of them were Jewish, with names such as Arthur M. Rosenberg, Fenn-Feinstein, and the most celebrated (and still operating), J. Press, which opened its doors in 1902.
Following the First World War, the male wardrobe modernized, and elements of the Ivy League Look fell into place one by one, creating signifiers that would identify in-group from interloper to this day. These included a jacket cut with natural shoulders, three chest buttons, and an undarted front; pleatless trousers with turn-up cuffs; and crewneck sweaters in hearty wool, in lieu of cardigan sweaters in delicate cashmere. Add to the formula argyle socks, white bucks or penny loafers (an instant hit in 1936), knit and regimental ties, and that most princely of topcoats, the polo coat, a double-breasted, patch-pocketed mobile blanket spun from the tan-colored down of cud-chewing dromedaries. The style became so smart that periodicals such as Esquire kept their eye on the college men of Yale and Princeton as closely as they did on the matinee idols of Hollywood.
The Second World War interrupted the growing influence of the look, which didn’t even have a name yet in the popular lexicon. And after nearly a decade of the drapey, inelegant style of the postwar years, the East Coast Establishment look burst into national consciousness in 1954 through a Life magazine photo spread entitled “The Ivy Look Heads across the U.S.” The Ivy League Look reigned for the next 13 years as smart attire for everyone wishing to broadcast conservative good taste, from young actors such as Paul Newman and Anthony Perkins in studio publicity shots to Madison Avenue advertising executives, until the counterculture revolution turned it from hip-to-be-square to straight-up square practically overnight. And there, in this twilight realm wedged between striving middle-class and Old Guard establishment, it has remained.
Which brings us to Buckley. He was certainly no stylist, lacking the natural dash of a blue blood arbiter elegantiarium such as A. J. Drexel Biddle Jr. But, and perhaps more important, he was possessed of that certain je ne sais quoi that philosophers of style have spent centuries seeking to dissect. With his disheveled coiffure, asymmetrical four-in-hand knots (the architecturally balanced Windsor considered an affectation among men of his class), and languid patrician drawl, he looked exactly like he sounded. Not merely a Gstaad-skiing, harpsichord-playing, sesquipedalian-spouting character from the pages of John Cheever or Louis Auchincloss but something with vaster imagistic reach: say, the patriarch in one of those multi-page, narrative ’80s Ralph Lauren photo spreads in the pages of Architectural Digest.
By the time of the Reagan administration, the Ivy League Look had been reborn as “preppy,” and it has been through several further stages of reincarnation. To borrow from Walter Pater, it has been dead many times, and learned the secrets of the grave. The advent of digital media has certainly aided in prepdom’s immortality, dragging WFB by a silver cord into the style pantheon. Over the past decade and a half, Internet message boards, blogs, and social-media apps have reproduced his image for sartorial purposes countless times. The shots of Buckley in fitted beige crewneck sailing, and riding his scooter down Park Avenue, are so deeply ingrained in the collective unconscious of style aficionados that the number of men who can instantly recall these images would shock you, and probably would have terrified Buckley. As aloof from the whims of fashion as one could possibly be, he ironically immortalized himself in this, yet another area of human accomplishment.
It would be remiss of me to pen this paean without at least one delectable anecdote of just how aloof WFB was concerning the matter of clothing. He was either so disdainful of worldly attire, or else so confident in his ability to lend brahmin gravitas to anything he donned, that he was willing to stoop to the sartorial equivalent of a humble No. 2 pencil. To wit, a menswear authority has confided in me an apocryphal yarn in which Buckley’s suit coat was once taken in a gesture of hospitality by someone curious enough to succumb to the temptation of checking its label. Said marker indicated neither bespoke origins on Savile Row nor even provenance of the Brothers Brooks but instead the modest department store JC Penney. It was an everyman’s suit, as worn by an ubermensch.
Although America witnessed a preppy revival less than a decade ago — spearheaded by things such as Ralph Lauren’s now-defunct Rugby brand, the publication in English of the 1960s Japanese picture book Take Ivy, and an Ivy League Look exhibit at the Museum of the Fashion Institute of Technology — the style press is reporting that another one is already upon us. This one is being driven by things such as Japan’s interpretation of American Ivy style (itself an interpretation of English country-gentleman and Oxbridge style), along with an irreverent preppy-streetwear crossover, in which once-exclusive sartorial signifiers are democratized by the marketplace even further than they have been for the past four decades, so as to better reflect a multiethnic, gender-fluid America.
As Buckley opined in 1951, God was once as steadfast a presence at Yale as Ol’ Blue’s old stones. So too was the dignified attire worn by Buckley and his mid-century classmates. The spirits of both the Divine as well as of patrician preppy style still exert their influences, however diffuse, over New Haven, as well as the rest of American life, even if, with each passing year and fashion cycle, we grow farther from them both.