It is a rare event when a volume comes along that skews our understandings of fashion as effectively as “Black Ivy: A Revolt in Style,” which will be published in the United States in December. Many images assembled in the coffee-table volume may be familiar — including iconic documents of the civil rights movement and magazine pictorials featuring literary idols like James Baldwin and the influential jazz album covers from the heyday of Blue Note Records — but it was not until Jason Jules assembled them in one place and under one rubric that a clear theme and thesis emerged.
In Mr. Jules’s telling, the adoption by generations of Black men of sartorial codes originating among a white Ivy League elite may initially have been a natural inflection point in the arc of men’s wear evolution. Yet it was also a conscious development, one with a strategic agenda that extended well beyond the obvious goal of looking good.
In two recent telephone conversations from Paraguay and London, where he has homes, Mr. Jules, a fashion insider who considers Steve Urkel, a preppy-nerdy character in the ’90s sitcom “Family Matters,” his style paragon, talked about the journey that deepened his understanding of Black Ivy style.
Guy Trebay: Jason Jules, you have a wild résumé, starting with your introduction to magazine writing when you sent a stick-figure fashion feature you’d drawn in grade school to i-D and they published it.
Since then you’ve done P.R. and club promoting, worked with Soul II Soul and Jay Kay of Jamiroquai, consulted for brands like Levi’s and Wrangler and are a ubiquitous presence on men’s wear style blogs, Instagram and Tumblr.
I think of you primarily as a stylist, yet here you’ve come along with a provocative book examining the historical relationship Black men had with what is thought of as the sartorial uniform of a white Ivy elite. How did you get here?
Jason Jules: I’ve always been into that particular style and look, even before I knew it was called Ivy. When I was 4 or 5, I was watching a Fred Astaire film — there was a whole series on British television at the time — and I sat with my nose almost against the screen, mesmerized.
When we went shopping later, I told my mother I wanted to dress like Alastair, and she had no clue what I was talking about. Who is Alastair? I was extremely nearsighted as a child — still am — and I got the idea that Fred Astaire was Alastair.
G.T.: I hope that cleared things up for her. Still, I’m not sure how that goes toward explaining your journey to an understanding of Black Ivy style.
J.J.: To me, the understanding of Black Ivy came about organically. As I got older, I began to draw connections between style and its contexts and began to understand how clothes could have meaning, how things can be adopted and redefined to serve a purpose or an agenda.
G.T.: Do you mean, in a sense, acts of appropriation, to use a loaded term?
J.J.: Yes and no. There is a clear parallel between the peak of Ivy style during a period when it dominated men’s wear in the ’60s and the growth of the civil rights movement. I had few preconceptions when I began my research, but as I went along, I began to to notice how the main activists in the movement seemed to have invested in some version of Ivy style. It struck me that it wasn’t just about fashion. It had very little to do with fashion, in fact.
G.T.: You mean it was strategic?
J.J.: If we recognize that Ivy style is the attire of a cultural or social elite and that people may have wanted to be seen as equal to anyone in the United States, then yes. It makes perfect sense to adopt that style. I am not suggesting anybody was so naïve as to believe that dressing it was being it. Still, you can see in this adoption of a very traditional uniform associated with, say, Harvard or Yale — a look steeped in heritage and history and that has these clear modernist connections — a strategy that might be attractive to activists.
G.T. Are you saying the optics did double duty? The style had a fashion basis and a political goal.
J.J.: It was both. Of course, people wanted to look good. But the embrace of Ivy style had to do with a desire to be seen as equal and not to allow particular prejudices and barriers to prevent you from doing that. I think of it as being a little like dressing rockabilly to get into a rockabilly club. There was an implicit challenge too, of assumptions about who gets to own a certain style.
G.T.: In a certain sense it was taking codes from the dominant culture and torquing them.
J.J.: One thing I’m trying to say in the book is that, if it wasn’t for the interruption of the Black activists, we probably wouldn’t be seeing Ivy League clothing as interesting or cool right now. And it is cool, very cool.
It’s similar, in a way, to how gay activists wore conservative clothing, Ivy League style, because on the one hand there was a real need to pass, and yet the act of dressing that way was undertaken with a sense of irony. It was as if they were saying: “You think of what you have as so precious and valid. Let me take it and show you how it’s really done.”
G.T.: Funnily enough, that is the fundamental premise of vogueing. Some people misapprehend it and think of as imitation. But if you have spent any time around the ball children — and I have a lot — you see it for the incredibly sophisticated critique that it is.
J.J.: Black Ivy guys were not necessarily performing a critique. Yet at the same time, their adoption of Ivy style was not meant to be comfortable for the dominant culture. It had elements of, “I’ll outdress you and outstyle you for the simple reason that, unless I’m using your language, I’m invisible.” There is always this question of how one makes himself visible.
G.T.: That comes clear in your choices of artists and writers that feature in the book. Many of them chose, albeit in a distinctive way, to conform to the establishment dress codes. James Baldwin may look fantastically stylish in his Ivy gear. But for you it’s notable that he chose those things and not, for instance, the more extravagant styles you may have seen on a contemporary of his like Iceberg Slim.
J.J.: It was protective coloration. The photographers, the artists, the literary set believed that was the only clothing they could wear. That’s how intellectuals would dress. It is not like somebody dressed Baldwin. He chose what he wore, and he was using his wardrobe as a demonstration of belonging and a display of his power.
G.T.: You don’t think he just felt he looked hip and cool in his shearling coat, his Brooks Brothers suits, his desert boots?
J.J.: As these individuals evolved, their style language developed. I was having a super-casual conversation recently with a friend, a middle-class white guy, and he was basically saying that the reason a Black person in the 1960s would dress this way was simply because he wanted to imitate a successful white person.
I disagree. Before we can fully articulate through language all that we aspire to be, we need our clothing to serve the function of making us socially legible. People read each other based on images. We build a narrative about each other from what we see.
G.T.: But the jazz musicians you focus on had no particular need to be seen through an establishment lens, did they? Yet you delve into how jazzmen took wholeheartedly to Ivy style. There is a section of the book devoted to what we’ll call the Blue Note look. Those guys were playing audacious new music, and yet some of them dressed as if they worked at an insurance office. The juxtaposition is part of what makes those album covers so cool and is certainly central to why designers have done entire collections based on that look.
J.J.: I really do think everything was considered to the most granular extent. There’s a story about how Miles Davis was hanging out with the Blue Note musicians, though before “Birth of the Cool.” The other musicians convinced him to drop the polite clothing he’d been wearing and get a suit with the broad shoulders and peak lapels, the kind of hipster clothes that riffed on stuff you might see in Hollywood gangster movies.
G.T.: But that did not last long. Like Malcolm X, Miles migrated quickly to this other uniform so starkly at odds with his own radical projects. Davis was making radical music and Malcolm radical politics and yet for a long time dressed in an exaggeratedly conservative way that functioned like a kind of camouflage.
J.J.: Both of them were hyper-aware of the stereotype of Blackness, and they were dressing in reaction to that. One of the things that made me start thinking about a common narrative around Ivy style was the famous story of Miles Davis going into the Andover Shop in Cambridge, Massachusetts — this was during some jazz festival — and allegedly being converted in a single shopping session to the Ivy look.
The way the story is presented, Miles went in as an everyday jazzer and came out this shining example Ivy League style. Yet Miles grew up wearing Brooks Brothers clothing. There was no road-to-Damascus moment. His father was a dental surgeon. That part of the story is inconvenient to a pat narrative.
G.T.: And he proceeded to make it far cooler …
J.J.: Every style idiom needs to adapt and change. The mainstream view holds as truth that these people were affirming the supremacy of the culture whose clothes they’d adopted. But it isn’t that. This group — the civil rights leaders, especially — was trying to change the establishment while at the same time asking the fundamental questions: “Who says this is yours, and who says I can’t have some and can’t redefine it and include whatever other elements I want? Whose America is it, anyway?”