The term “Ivy League” in reference to sports wasn’t coined until 1933 by a sportswriter Stanley Woodward, who said, “A proportion of our eastern ivy colleges are meeting little fellows another Saturday before plunging into the strife and the turmoil.” Woodward had apparently been in conversation with Caswell Adams another sportswriter for the New York Tribune, who was referring to the fact that certain campuses, such as Harvard and Yale had buildings with ivy climbing up the walls. In tribute to the local foliage these schools had “Ivy Day” festivities and Princeton had an “Ivy Club.” Over time the media adopted the term, Ivy League, to refer to older colleges or to schools dating back to the colonial time but only those of the northeast. A recent book by Jerome Karabel, The Chosen. The Hidden History of Admission and Exclusion at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton, written by a Berkeley scholar who examined the “Ivys” with a rather cold and jaundiced eye. In contrast to today when it is difficult to be accepted to one of these exclusive schools–unless one is a “legacy” or the offspring of someone rich and famous–until the 1920s, these universities accepted all comers. The reason for the open policy was that the private schools, such as Groton, Andover, and St. Paul’s and so on provided a certain kind of “classical education,” meaning that students learned Greek and Latin, and not so incidentally came from privileged wealthy families. The idea was to funnel these special young men from the private schools to the private universities to preserve the class and its dominance. 

But somehow, as Karabel reported, too many Jewish students had slipped in–possibly because of early twentieth century Jewish wealth–and by 1918, the Deans of these now invaded universities met to determine how to meet this menace. Various tactics were deployed, from limiting the number of men admitted to questionnaires demanding data on family background to admissions interviews. Most astonishingly or perhaps not, the bulk of those admitted were legacies, while the very smart (Jewish) were limited to 10%. Therefore, at the time when this study of clothing style begins, the 1920s is also the time of a deliberate plan to maintain a homogenous student body of Anglo-Saxon Protestant white males of a certain class. Everyone else would be excluded. Those who attended the Ivy League schools in the 1920s were precisely the wealthy students who could afford to experiment with new but expensive and exclusive clothing that would set them apart and mark them as belonging to an upper class elite that traced its roots back to the landed gentry of England. 

In her article, “The Inter-War Years and the Birth of the Ivy Style,” Patricia Mears wrote “No other university defined  Ivy Style as fervently and as beautifully as Princeton in the 1920s and 1930s. More than the other Ivies, Princeton was the keenest advocate of WASP elitism. Before World War II it had the most homogeneous student population., somewhere around 80 percent of students were either white, protestant men who came from wealthy families and were graduates of elite private schools. Although it lay part way between New York City and Philadelphia, Princeton was more geographically isolated that its rivals, Harvard and Yale. Its campus was situated in a rural environment, surrounded by acres of bucolic farmland. Most other Ivy League schools were in, or at least near to large mid-sized cities. (Only Dartmouth was remote, but its deep woods campus gave the school a rugged texture, rather than the more aesthetic feel of Princeton). As such, Princeton relied more intensely on its internally crafted society, in particular its stratified and mannered “eating clubs” which were created in lieu of fraternities. These clubs and the university’s social structure were regulated by students, as the university administrators took a decidedly “hands off: approach. Finally it was the most politically conservative of the Ivy League universities. Princeton was, as G. Bruce Boyer notes, “the most Southern school in the North.” The blend of wealth, manners, and aristocratic social construct proved to be the breeding ground for the creation of the elegant Ivy Style.  

What made the style a hallmark for the 1920s was not just its elite origins but, perhaps more importantly, the fact that the new casual clothes were adopted by young men with no ties to the War or to the lives of their fathers. The fact that the campus of Princeton was, in those days, isolated, like a British country estate, meant that the students had the opportunity to create their own “brand” of clothing without outside influences. However, as Deirdre Clemente pointed out, the upper class seclusion of Princeton was off set by the fascination of the press with these fashionable young men. “The many upper and middle-class white students were in the best position to push convention, and early in the century, Princeton led the way..the press sold Princetonians as the arbiters of men’s collegiate fashion–even as middle class students at Cal and Penn State developed their own interpretations of casual style. In 1931, an article in the Saturday Evening Post explained, ‘Harvard starts almost no young men’s style. Yale starts a few. But the collegiate spring styles of the United States are likely to be worn home by Princeton students for the Christmas holidays.’ Princeton men proudly proclaimed that they ‘made it a custom to under–rather than over–dress,’ but colleagues at Harvard accused them of feigned nonchalance..Whether their casual style was orchestrated or authentic, the students of Princeton in the first decades of the century were instrumental in redefining the American man as youthful..” 

Every writer on Princeton stressed the isolation of the “swamps of New Jersey,” with high brick walls ad iron gates guarding the campus and its Gothic buildings. Cars were not allowed on campus until 1927 and the students spent the majority of their time on the cloistered campus, cut off from the rest of the world. In her article, “Making the Princeton Man. Collegiate Clothing and Campus Culture, 1900-20,” Deirdre Clemente noted “..with Princeton, as its many steps, open lawns, and campus hangouts were the perfect locale for watching other students. Amid constant scrutiny, upper class men were determined to bring newcomers into the fold via monitoring and harassment for actions or attire deemed inappropriate..”As Clemente pointed out, “The insularity of the campus, the self-regulating and elite nature of the student body, the importance of extracurricular activities such as sports, and the widespread acceptance of sportswear shaped an environment where clothing took on heightened meaning. The strict social hierarchy created and enforced by students for students did much to create a standard style for the public image of the Princeton man. The image was heralded and endorsed by mass-circulated magazines and clothing manufacturers who borrowed the University’s name for everything from shoes to shirt collars.” 

These styles or mode of dress developed at Princeton were quickly translated by the press and then the clothing manufacturers who scouted the campus just as fashion houses watch “street fashions” today. Brooks Brothers and other firms for men’s clothing were well aware that if they did not keep up with what was going on at Princeton, they would not be able to attract or retain young men as customers. Brooks Brothers had been watching the campus and before the War was already importing and popularizing the latest trends to the middle class customer. Through mass marketing and merchandising, the middle class male of a certain age now had a way to dress that was uniquely young, of his own generation. The new clothes were either adapted from sports clothes, such as golfing outfits, or were simply moved off the playing fields into everyday life. 

Sweaters, preferably the Fair Isle knits, flannel pants, often tennis whites, corduroys, rugged country clothes, knickers from golfing and hunting, white bucks from cricket and sneakers from tennis. Even the blazer, which today is considered formal wear, especially if it is double breasted, originated with the British Navy, adopted by yachtsmen and then by rowing crews. The blazer had to have a crest on the left hand breast pocket, preferably a family crest or the crest of your university, complete with your class year. A cotton blazer was a more casual alternative for summer wear and its bright color and strips did not make it into the workplace, although the crested blazer became standard business attire. The young men did not wear the bowler hats of the fathers or the top hats of their grandfathers. Usually, they were bareheaded and sometimes wore straw boaters, also from English sports. The young man’s father and grandfather would have worn pre-War suits with matching pants and jackets, but the new style mixed and never matched suit elements. 

Later, this Ivy Style became renamed “Preppie Style,” but that is not an accurate name of origin simply because in prep schools every student must wear a uniform. But some of the familiar elements, such as the school’s blazer and warm sweaters worn over shirts were carried over into the college campuses on the East Coast. Items imported to the college level would be those that reinforced the snobbery and elitism of a prep school as signifiers of being superior in wealth and status, as signifiers of belonging to a certain class. In other words, since campuses, even Princeton, did not have uniforms, it was necessary to create another kind of “uniform.” This Ivy Style or Preppie Style was created out of elements present only at the most elite and privileged sites and served the purpose of sending signals to outsiders of exclusive knowledge attainable only by those who wore the Ivy Style. 

The adherence to sports derived clothing was likewise a statement of affluence. Only certain elite sports were referred to—not baseball, the game of the masses, but yachting and tennis and polo with its distinctive shirts, the past times of those who could afford expensive sailing vessels and build tennis courts on their estates. But the transference of games to fashion had another message—we young men have inherited wealth and don’t need to work. We can play. In fact, in contrast to our assumption that those who attend Ivy League schools are smart and hardworking and deserving of their position as students, in the 1920s, the students were sons and grandsons of former students. Their qualifications were limited to being a socially desirable WASP with no particular interest in college as a place to study. College was a place to enjoy independence beyond prep school supervision and parental guidance; college was a four year stay making the right kind of friends with people of your own kind, increasing and reinforcing your isolation from the lower classes or the wider public. The physical isolation of Princeton was emblematic of the social isolation of a class that floated above in a cloud of desirable glamour, yearned for by writers such as F. Scott  Fitzgerald (Class of 1917). It was ironic indeed that these carefully coded outfits filtered down to the “lesser Ivies” and to universities as far away as the West Coast.

But the Ivy Style was not so easily copied. If one were in the know, it was possible to spot the authentic outfit through small detail known only to the initiated. Did the coat have the proper number of buttons, were the pants faded enough, and, of course, there was the attitude of the wearer, something that could not be copied or imitated. One had to be born with the recognizable air of nonchalance or casualness of self-assurance that was a product of being from a class of such privilege that the man who wore the Ivy Style was unaware to men and women of other classes. To those from the outside who came to an Ivy League campus such as Princeton, it was the aura that surrounded the products of the prep schools that was daunting. The way of walking and talking, the casual way in which a disparate collection of sporting clothes were thrown together with such assurance acted like a social barrier that was difficult if not impossible to penetrate. As Anu Lingala
explained it in the article, “The Origin and Evolution of “Prep” and its Socioeconomic Relevance:” “Even when middle class students were admitted to the schools, they were often unable to assimilate properly into the collegiate culture. As addressed previously, university life was not primarily rooted in academics but rather focused on social connections and networking, consistent with the role of colleges as an extension of the WASP prep school mentality. Those students who were working their way though school could not forego their studies in favor of sports practice or parties, as did the wealthier students, and were actually anxious to succeed academically. Thus, those not involved in Old Money society were at a distinct social disadvantage in college life. Tensions grew between the overwhelmingly upper class student population at these elite universities and the minority of middle class “grinds” who had infiltrated their precious campus. The college environment became driven by a desire to prove one’s social prestige that permeated the campus through clubs and organizations that ranged from the school newspaper to sports teams to fraternities and secret societies. These groups became indicators of status and vehicles for social stratification of the campus..” 

One of the most widely copied fashion from Princeton was the raccoon coat. This rather absurd fad emerged in 1928, one that would spell the demise of countless raccoons: the Raccoon Coat. Apparently, the craze began with a strange fascination for Davy Crockett, who apparently once killed an unfortunate raccoon, and a song, inspired by the historical incident and a Raccoon dance. The lyrics of “Donin’ the Raccoon” (1928)went:

College men, knowledge men,
Do a dance called raccoon;
It’s the craze, nowadays,
And it will get you soon.
Buy a coat and try it,
I’ll bet you’ll be a riot…

The full length all fur Raccoon coat became a craze, designed to be worn at football games, keeping the owner warm and furry. Fortunately, for the raccoon population, the Depression ended the decade long fad, although the wealthy still wore the huge and hairy coat well into the 1930s. The long fur garment may have been as silly as the songs and dances it inspired, but, as the famous photograph taken by James van der Zee in Harlem suggests, wearing the raccoon coat, the new man stood out, he made a statement. The Harlem setting for the photograph of 1932 is an indicator of how far the Princeton styles traveled and how deeply these fashion statements penetrated American culture. Far removed from Princeton, the raccoon coat signified a collegiate education and indicated a membership in an elite group. The floating signifier of the Ivy Style arrived at Harlem and became a statement of arrival by Cadillac to the American dream. 

The Ivy Style was also a form of “anti-fashion,” in that the clothes were so sporty and so informal and so defiantly young. The destination of the anti-fashion statements was not just the middle class through Ivy Style men’s haberdasheries such as J. Press but also older men. The young men of the 1920s inevitably grew up but were unwilling to change their style. At some point in the 1930s, the Ivy Style became “traditional” and was worn as business attire by mature men. The Second World War interrupted the spread of the style into the middle class and towards the older man, but in the 1950s, the Preppie look roared back, once again replacing military uniforms. 

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed.
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