Take Ivy

by by Chris Cohen

In November of 2008, a reprint of a slim, obscure Japanese photo book incomprehensibly titled Take Ivy sold on eBay for over $1,400; similar copies sold for nearly that much as they became available. The book featured hazy, idyllic photographs of early 1960s American Ivy League life and Japanese text that, to western eyes, only underscored the mystery of it all. Published in Japan in 1965, Take Ivy was a fashion book based on a series of photographs by the magazine photographer Teruyoshi Hayashida. It was intended as a guide for style-conscious young Japanese, for whom dressing like upper class Americans represented a form of rebellion from post-war starched white school uniforms. In that spirit, Take Ivy included instructions for assembling a wardrobe that wouldn’t be out of place on College Hill in 1964. If it seems strange that a recommendation to own fourteen oxford cloth button-down shirts could ever be construed as rebellion, remember, times have changed.
In the years since 1965, the book became a cult classic in certain American menswear circles (hence those stratospheric eBay prices). Frank Muytjens —awarded Best Young Designer by GQ for his work turning J. Crew into a menswear juggernaut—has openly discussed his obsession with the book. Mark McNairy, the former Design Director of the venerable clothing store J. Press (clothier to Bill Clinton and Bush the elder), recently mentioned to The New York Times that the book’s photographs were an important design inspiration - that is, until he needed funds to buy his wife a new handbag and, seeing the high prices commanded on eBay, gave in to the temptation of quick cash.
The hype surrounding the book was propelled in recent years by the Internet, culminating when John Tinseth of the blog The Trad scanned a copy he had purchased through a Japanese proxy and posted the book’s contents in full. Though this did much to break down the mystique of the book, physical copies of Take Ivy still only appeared on the bookshelves of a clothing obsessed, deep-pocketed cult. But this is the case no longer: noticing the online hype, powerHouse, a small New York publisher of art and fashion books, purchased its publication rights and oversaw its translation into English. The first print run sold out even before the official release, and as of September 1, 2010 Take Ivy is available for $25 from American bookstores or as an “accessory” from J. Crew.
The clothing presented has a distinct appeal to a contemporary reader with any interest in what is now called “classic collegiate” style. It’s a mélange of tweedy American and postwar casual: plaid shorts with brown loafers and white tube socks, tweed blazers paired with high-water khaki pants. The students wear their Sunday best with a certain sloppy charm and look ready for a sail on rainy days. It’s “preppy” before that word came to entail pink and green polka dots and equestrian themed shirt logos. It might be the quality of the photography, but I’ve never seen a plain grey Brown sweatshirt look so dashing.
The recently translated text is not as dazzling as the photographs; when the writers visited Brown, they note that “the green grass of the school grounds glistens.” Their observations regarding crew practice are limited to “Training is no bed of roses”. Indeed. However, there’s something oddly charming about the strange tone and vocabulary of the translated Japanese: it emphasizes the outsider status of the writers, and makes the impenetrable ’60s campus style somehow more accessible. Many of the style cues present in the book—ties left lightly askew, loafers worn ratty rather than shined, pants hemmed just a little short—served to separate those in the know from everyone else. The Japanese authors dispense with this sort of pretension by making note of even the most mundane details: they marvel at the sloppiness of the students, for example, remarking that “wearing shoes without socks is one such uncouth practice” common to Ivy Leaguers.
A comparison with the current state of campus styles is tempting and inevitable. Here at Brown today there’s a fashion-focused set that seems to have taken the lessons of 1964 and run with them (see: chunky glasses, ankle grazing pants). This is an easy, but ultimately incorrect comparison: Take Ivy is concerned with the average rather than exceptional student, and with a prevailing style rather than up-to-the-minute fashion. There were probably beatniks in black turtlenecks smoking cigarettes on Faunce steps in 1964, but they’re nowhere to be found within the book. While there isn’t really a monolithic collegiate style these days, it’s hard to argue that the flip flops, t-shirts, and hoodies that abound on the contemporary campus are aesthetically preferable to the idealized vision of uniform “classic collegiate” presented in Take Ivy. Frankly, college looked better in 1964 than it does today, if Take Ivy is your only reference.
As appealing as the off-kilter wording and stylish photographs are, I’m left uneasy considering the cultural implications of the book’s newfound popularity. It shouldn’t come as any surprise that you have to hunt to find black faces, and that women are only to be seen in the role of archetypal girlfriend. The contemporary reader would be well served to note their absence if nostalgia for the “good old days” threatens to overwhelm. Only the members of an elite group are presented in Take Ivy; in this sense the book is, like the most uninteresting yacht-and-cocktail-with-sunset Tommy Hilfiger ads, simply a fetishization of money and privilege. Worse still, the privileges of these students extend beyond class: these students represent the country’s educational elite only through exclusion on the basis of religion, race, and gender. It’s tempting to argue that Take Ivy is only admired on an aesthetic basis, but the fact is, the aesthetics of the book stem directly from the cultural position of mid 1960s Ivy League colleges. It is near impossible to parse appreciation of the clothes of young rich white men and adoration of their culture. The fact that these students were the product of all manner of privileges and exclusions underlies the most mundane details of the book: it’s why the blazers fit perfectly, why the grass is so green and why the library is perfectly clean and still.
Even “classic collegiate,” the label retroactively applied to the clothes highlighted in the book, is itself is a specious description. Ivy League students only dressed as described in the book for a brief moment in the late 50s and early 60s. Before the postwar period, a self-respecting student would have been ashamed to come to class in short pants, and in a matter of years, high-water khakis, chunky glasses, and penny loafers had become tragically uncool, the domain of poindexter stereotypes, not the nation’s elite young men. In a manner reminiscent of the cabaret in Weimar Berlin or shootouts and train robberies in the so-called Wild West, Ivy League campuses in the early 60s have created an aesthetic that is more powerful in contemporary remembrance than cultural import at the time.
The power of the aesthetic lies in its ability to evoke simpler, more pure times: clean cut Ivy Leaguers stylishly but unselfconsciously sporting classic fashions made in the US seems to hit all the right buttons, making Take Ivy a showcase of authenticity. Contemporary popular culture cries out for the authentic in the face of ironic and short-lived trends: the nostalgia unearthed by Take Ivy fits in neatly next to the current popularity of vinyl records, “craft” beer and local food. But a second look reveals that the book has a dubious case in that regard. It’s not an anthropological study, but a guide to help mimic the particular “Ivy” style of the photographed students. It was created by Japanese writers with little stake in creating an authentic and impartial account of their subject. Even the object of the recommended mimicry, the ’60s Ivy League, is itself a sort of fantasy world: as we have seen, it’s very shape was determined by systematic manipulation based on class, race, and gender.
A quick review of fantasy-driven magazine ads and theatrical fashion shows, however, reveals that so much that is appealing in clothing is in fact based on fantasy. These fantasies—in Take Ivy and otherwise—often indulge in the unethical and inauthentic. Thinking aesthetically without considering its basis, may, however, be unavoidable when dealing with clothing; it would be quite a burden to be forced to consider the cultural implications of your attire in front of the mirror every morning. In that case, if the particular fantasy of Ivy League authenticity is your thing, Take Ivy is an excellent guide for determining how many oxford cloth button-down shirts it’s appropriate to own.

Chris Cohen B’64 is unavoidable when dealing with clothing.