What is French Ivy?

Monday, May 31st 2021
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By Tony Sylvester

“A few years back, I posted a photo of Paul Weller on my Instagram (above). It was taken in 1984 in his Style Council era, where much to the consternation of the Mod faithful, he was constantly tinkering with his attire - alienating the core fans that stuck rigidly to the tired-but-true Mod-revivalist formula. 

It’s a candid snap of Paul en route to the Band Aid single recording. Hair slicked back, he wears an oversized herringbone DB coat with patch pockets, nonchalantly fastened at the lowest button. Dark selvedge jeans are rolled ankle high to reveal white socks with tassel loafers. A college scarf tossed over one shoulder adds Oxbridge élan.  

I remarked that he was in “full French Ivy”. Based on the subsequent conversations, it seemed the term was not as familiar as I had anticipated. Perhaps it still isn’t, and perhaps, digging into the history would be interesting. 

I first heard the expression ‘French Ivy’ in the early 2000s in a completely different context. 

It was there on the pages of those mysterious Japanese publications like Men’s Club and Free & Easy, with their occasional smatterings of English. Just one of those terms like ‘Dad’s Style’ and ‘Rugged Ivy’ that seemed to make a sort of visual sense, without need for further translation. 

The looks the term accompanied seemed to recall a style of dress I’d witnessed growing up in London, around the same time as the Weller photo above. 

In my first excursions into the West End, alongside the postcard punks and other subcultural icons of the day, one of the more eye-catching looks in Covent Garden and the King’s Road was a relaxed style of dress that consciously mixed the traditional with the Bohemian, the well-worn with the modern. 

The vintage Meccas of Flip and American Classic provided faded 501s and big raglan-sleeved overcoats, which would then be complimented by newer offerings of chunky shoes, argyle socks and polo shirts. The result was a look that created a route from the dominant ‘casual’ terrace-boy styling that had taken over the suburbs of Greater London where I lived, back to the continental cool of 1960s Soho. 

This is the look I see in my mind’s eye when I imagine the old J Simons shop near Drury Lane - with its Bass Weejuns, Paraboots and BD Baggies button-downs, filling the pale-wood fittings next to curated second-hand sack jackets and London Fog raincoats. The combination was never fully explained to me, it just ‘was’. 

With the express aim of demystifying this look, its context, and particularly its Japanese origins, I spoke recently to W David Marx, whose superlative Ametora (Basic Books, 2015) gives a pretty definitive account of the rise of post-war menswear in Japan.

The book’s subtitle ‘How Japan Saved American Style’ demonstrates how big an influence Marx believes Japan had. And on concepts as well as clothes. One of the biggest takeaways from the book for me was how not only clothes, but the terms used to describe them, move and morph once divorced from their original context - creating not only new looks and styles, but even new terminology in turn. 

For example, the word ‘Ivy’ itself no longer strictly meant the clothing worn on the campuses of elite American universities. For the Japanese reader, it was a more general shorthand for traditional clothing. This is similar to the way the Japanese word Sebiro, meaning a business suit, is a direct translation in Kanji of ‘Savile Row’. The specific, original term takes on a more fluid, general meaning. 

“In the 1960s, Ivy was sold as a very particular American look, more refined than the brasher Hollywood and jazzland styles,” Marx tells me. “But when Ivy saw a revival in the late 1970s, it became a bit more flexible, generally meaning a casual, traditional style.” 

This is where it gets interesting. Because now the term was less strict and dogmatic, it could be affixed to other words to describe looks utterly removed from the East Coast collegiate context.

First up was British Ivy: basically what the Sloanes and Young Fogeys of Thatcher’s Britain were decked out in, a little bit Charles and Di, a little bit Brideshead Revisited; ‘Anglo-prep’ if you will. 

“And then it went a bit weird with ‘French Ivy’," Marx continues. "It was specifically used in around 1982 to describe the preppy look of young conservative French boys from good families. This acted as a bridge from Ivy and Preppy to more sophisticated Euro styles that took over in the mid-1980s.” 

For documentary evidence on this, seek out Thierry Mantoux’s BCBG: Le Guide Du Bon Chic Bon Genre (Hermé, 1985), the French answer to Peter York’s The Sloane Ranger’s Handbook and Lisa Birnbach’s The Official Preppy Handbook

Like those earlier books, it takes a tongue-in-cheek stroll through the rarified tastes of the more well-heeled denizens of Paris - where they like to holiday, what they name their children, and most importantly for us, how they dress. So there is your Lacoste polo, your JM Weston 180s, your Charvet ties, and indeed everything from that bastion of taste, the sadly long-gone department store Old England.

BCBG is a strictly ‘Right Bank’ affair - sensible, conservative and refined - in stark opposition to the other Gallic school of style ‘BoBo’ (Bourgeois-Bohemian), its more showy Left Bank cousin.  

It wasn’t just clothes from French companies that defined the look, however, either at home or in Japan. In fact one of the most enduring icons of Americana owes at least some of its Japanese popularity to the French. “The Japanese obsession with 501s exploded in the early 1980s, in part because French and Italian guys were all wearing them,” says Marx. “They became popular in Japan as part of that French aspiration rather than rugged Americanism.” 

So what does this all mean for the contemporary gentlemen? I’d suggest that the Weller look - also pictured above, as he is observed by incredulous Mods - is as snappy, timeless and stylish now as it was 37 years ago. 

The pairing of a polo shirt with sports coat or overcoat feels particularly relevant in this post-Covid era. The Sea-Island cotton ‘Isis’ style from John Smedley is a good pick: easy fitting, classic and still made in the UK. Alternatively, a clean and simple cotton-piqué number like Rubato's new generously cut Tennis Shirt

Sturdier, chunky footwear in the vein of the aforementioned 180 Penny loafer from JM Weston (below), or the Golf and Demi-Chasse models, paired with thicker, slouchier socks, like the WigWam Model 625 in ecru (sold by Beige Habilleur) add a good grounding to the look. 

Elements like these, plus a lot of the more idiosyncratic details of Weller’s look have swung back into vogue recently, thanks in no small part to the team behind French magazine L’etiquette.  

Six issues old, and now available in English as well as its native tongue, L'etiquette is a biannual ‘Guide to Men’s Clothing’, focusing less on fashion and more on the personality and character of clothes, and the men who wear them.

The mix of casual and refined, luxury and utility, old and new gives off the same confidence and esprit as French Ivy. In fact one of the people who reached out to me about the Weller post was the magazine’s editor-in-chief, and now creative director of DeFursac, Gauthier Borsarello. 

“I had no idea about the term until you talked about it!” He laughs. “But I know the look, I think it started when American brands started to become important in France, in specialist stores like Western House/Hemispheres (the forerunners to Pierre Fournier’s cult brand Anatomica). When mixed with classic French (ultra boring but perfect) tailoring, it created this new look.” 

I wonder if this means that it is less about French clothing, and more about the way you wear them? “Precisely,” he concurs. “I think it is casual clothes worn in ‘a French way’. It is the art of the mix. French Ivy happened because France became more open to other cultures - the post-war period and the cultural blending it brought. It could not exist without the UK and the US.” 

This is the first guest contribution from Tony Sylvester, who many will know for his writing, styling and own brand. For those that don't, he is @toneloki

Pictured below: French Ivy looks, from L'étiquette

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Henric

Wow! What a great read to start the week. Being introduced to historical menswear subcultures are always interesting and inspiring. I just recently read David Marx’s Ametora and picked up the first copy of L’etiquette in English a few weeks ago, so the references in the article really resonates with me. Thank you so much for this Toni!

Gary Mitchell

Everything has a name eh….. I sometimes wonder which named category my dressing style would fall into, and then I quickly stop wondering. Find your style, embrace it and forget the label.
Although I could be wrong of course.

Eric

To be truly cynical we’d call it French ivycore.

Gary Mitchell

Well possibly, probably, ok definitely but the label thing for the style or how a person dresses is something I don’t agree with unless he/she is part of an identified group and wearing a uniform. I have dressed (without the white socks) as Mr Weller (in this outfit) for near 30 years (since my grandfather died and I inherited the tweed coat) and to be labelled as a ‘style’ would irk me, its only the clothes I wear. We all, of course, have opinions and I don’t pretend to be correct in all things….but I know I am not French Ivy by influence or accident. I meant no offence or to be argumentative by the comments, I just don’t agree the label thing.

Philip Mann

Labels help selling things. Full stop. Gary has the sensibilities of a gentleman in this regard. He refuses to fall into that particular trap.

Philip

No need to thank me. They certainly fire one‘s desire. I’m as susceptible to that as the next man. But the result of the process is usually a purchase. Sometimes not the one you actually want or need. They have crafty little people now and their job is called branding.

Philip Mann

P.s. Undeniably some labels have substance i.e.: Ivy Style (North-American Campus wear of a certain period) or Neapolitan Tailoring (Suits that are cut with jackets rather than coats, i.e. things that leave your rear end partly exposed and are hence unsuitable wear for gentlemen). What irks me are labels that are created before the style or movement they denote.

Philip Mann

Again no need to thank me. To give you the first example that comes to mind: the 80s term Yuppie was coined after the fact to identify a marketable group. I will come up with a more precisely style related term to aid your thought processes. My perception of Neapolitan tailoring is a to me very accurate perception of the silhouette of these suits. It might not sound accurate to you but if you compare it with the Ivy-line or indeed the line of a classic British suit (Huntsman being an obvious example but even an Anderson and Sheppard coat will be longer than a Neapolitan one) your gauge might gain proportion.

Philip Mann

P.s. Correction: before the fact re Yuppie. But as I say will try come up with a more relevant example…

Philip

I‘m sure I‘ve been somewhat hyperbolic in describing the sartorial products of Bella Napoli. But I find hyperbole is sometimes useful to make those all important nuances visible. Personally I like a long coat; mostly to balance my big head;) You‘ve just posted a beautiful (Neapolitan?) navy summer suit on Instagram… Re: Terminology: I‘d say Yuppie is a bit of both. A social phenomenon is identified and from then on exists in full force and becomes marketable. I think it was Lacan who said that things only exist if we have a word for them. The power of language is easily underestimated in these image-heavy times…

Philip Mann

I suppose my original point was that these terms are often created by marketing professionals or ” trend predicters” in order to then become a commercial tool. Successful people who live in capital cities have existed decades if not centuries before the coinage of ‘Yuppie’. Not true of course of terms like ‘Minet’ or ‘French Ivy’ or even ‘Mod’ which are sub-cultural terms and aid the desire to belong to a tribe however exclusive (arguably such a desire is not that of a gentleman though who prides himself entirely on his individuality) .. what would interest me on the other topic is a discussion of the nuances within the ‘natural shoulder’: Ivy versus Anderson& Sheppard versus Neapolitan. I understand the A&S coat is cut on the bias but I am not fortunate enough to own such a coat, so I can’t verify the nuances. If such a post already exists I’d be obliged if you point me to it.

Philip Mann

Ahh, thank you for enlightening me re the Sheppard’s shoulder. My last English tailor furnished me with the info I mentioned possibly in a vain attempt to stop me from deserting ‘hard’ to embrace ‘soft’…re the ‘gentleman’, dressing well is indeed part of the conglomerate: politeness, courtesy, civility. The gentleman in the conventionally understood sense ( i.e, by birth) dresses for his peer group as much as the Mod dresses for his. The ideal of the gentleman though wishes him evolutionarily evolved from any tribal affiliations. but that is indeed a discussion that extends beyond the parameters of our present one.

Stephen

A good read on a sunny (British) Bank Holiday Monday morning. This is a new term to me. Very interesting and illuminating article – nice pictures too.

Peter Hall

I was looking at the Sunspel/Paul Weller collection and he seems to have stuck to his inspiration. The collection sits very nicely into this style.

Philip Pearson

Definitely black shoes. You also need to reference the ‘Drugstore Kids’ of Paris in the late 60s.

Emm

Yes , La bande du drugstore, LA référence :
https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=8mjOpJFGKco
Enjoy.
Other link, at Husbands : the true « bande du drugstore » …
https://husbands-paris.com/bande-du-drugstore/

Emm

DRUGSTORE
“Minets: fake beatniks, dandies hating everything French – the drugstore gang is above all anti-yéyé. “Jean Monod, Les Barjots, 1968.
The term “minets” appeared around 1965 and referred to young Parisians who were fond of English culture. High school students from Janson de Sailly or students from Sciences-Po who listen to The Who and Animals. At a time when music was omnipresent and constantly evolving, the kids only listened to English pop or soul. Among these young people, about fifty spent every Thursday afternoon at the Champs-Elysées drugstore. These young people form “the drugstore gang”.

Stephan

Lovely read, thanks! Ever since I heard the term a couple years back I had a glimpse of an image in my mind, having seen those men even nowadays in Paris. This article helps define it. It’s a relaxed ‘haute école’ chic, and really an expression of Ivy dressing philosophy the French way. It reminds me now of this older gentleman I photographed in Paris in 2016 I think, who for me embodies this style. Attaching here – thanks for the new option, Simon!

26217D2B-7A18-408B-AD14-0BBA3D3D56D3.jpeg
Anonymous

Very informative post, thank you. Perhaps a couple of years ago, I had read a piece on French Ivy (the only piece I have seen), but if I recall correctly, it focused more on the individual looks. I also believe it was written by someone relatively young (perhaps still a college student) and I think the comment was that he was unique among his peer group, but embraced the style regardless.

I appreciated the comprehensive historical references (a visual might have helped with the initial continent and decade hopping!) and the provision of sources so everyone could go full on French Ivy by the end of the week. I think the idea that “it is casual clothing worn in a French way” really sums it up. Interestingly and practically, it also seems to be an approach that in its simplicity is ageless especially when you look at the J.M. Weston ad – that is, it can be worn from ages 20-80.

Gary Lung

Hi Simon, as a faithful reader of Permanent Style, I have a difficult decision. I work in a Japanese company that requires suits or menswear uniform combo, with tie for F/W and without tie for S/S. I am planning on buying a pair of loafer that fits the dress code. Do you think the pair in link down below that have dark aubergine color can serve as a black loafer to go with navy/charcoal/mid grey suit?

https://www.edwardgreen.com/shop/shoes/piccadilly-nightshade-antique-calf-184-last.html

764AF631-46A3-4349-A55F-E2BA849F1C01.jpeg
Gary Lung

Thank you for the reply, Simon.
So far I have a dark brown suede penny loafer as my only loafer so you can tell I’m struggling.
It comes to my mind that how about a cordovan loafer? Do you think sort of burgundy color will work with navy/charcoal/mid grey suit? Cheers.

Paul

This article is why I like PS so much.Exploring different sub-cultures and incorporating them into one’s own style.Ivy,Savile Row,Mods,Rockers,Riviera chic,Italian style-all can be found on Simon’s website and as always the emphasis is on the very best.

Gerald

What a fantastic read! „French Ivy“: It always reminds me of the Style Council´s „à Paris“-period of 1983. Great style. Great records. My starting point into the art of dressing and into the love of Modern Jazz.

Pierce

As a frenchman (well, half-french), this article is perfect. This elegant and sofisticated style worn with the quintessential French mix of arrogance and nonchalance. The writing is so compelling, you really feel the passion and research ! Looking forward to reading more !

Isak

Hi Simon,

Are you aware of an English translation of the BCBG book?

Gab

Right between preppy and poshy. Upper-class without any aristocratic connotation.

David

Very interesting. I always took this look to be an evolution from the mod era and I certainly remember the ‘Drugstore Gang’ from visiting Paris in the ‘60s albeit I wasn’t aware it had been given a name ! It’s amazing how much music influenced style back then and how everything seemed so fresh. In the U.K., this was a look that was very much propagated in Newcastle Upon Tyne by the late, great Marcus Price through his fabulous boutiques. Of course it was all inextricably linked to music and the city’s ClubAgoGo was just about the coolest place on the planet to hang out. ‘The Animals’ were the house band. Ferry and Sting were frequent visitors and Bob Dylan even popped into see Marcus and bought a jacket. Halcyon days my friends…halcyon days !

RM

It’s a bit Samuel Beckett in white socks and loafers then.

Craig

Any style that embraces black shoes, especially black casual shoes, is fine in my book. In my mind this is a more urban, smart take on the usual Ivy.

S. Brent

I was at Uni in France in the late 80’s/early 90’s and this style of dress was popular. Never had a name for it. After returning to the States, did grad school at a proper Ivy for the full experience (educationally and sartorially). Great memories.

Tim

Loved this! Great piece and it is always fun to see the connections and departures. Fantastic job Tony!

Michael Byc

This was a phenomenal article. I would love it if someone would be able to put together a list of French menswear traditional stores/items! It’s so easy to find information on US and UK merchants, but those French ones, besides JM Weston, seem to elude.

CDBP

Fun article and on target.
For those who want an insight into this style, Berteil is a reference.
Berteil Paris
It should be noted that their clothing is not exciting and is consciously devoid of any extremes of style. In that sense it is comparable to J Press.

Gerald

To get a bit of vibe of mystical “French Ivy” have a look at the social media of Meilh Paris.

Dan

Hi Simon , I really enjoyed this article ! I read the comments and it did make me consider my own journey to where I am now . I did ask myself if we are we still on the youth culture journey but just older with more disposable income and from whatever we’ve evolved from , footie casuals , jazz funk casuals , northern soul , Balearic raver ,mod or whatever we perceive ourselves to be , there’s always been a look that can be associated with a scene or movement and with that there’s usually a name . Within the Ivy fraternity, there are a few sub ‘ ivy’ cultures and there’s been much overlap between them which is great . We can identify the internet as the main vehicle that has helped to keep alive and spread the style of the mid 20th century and the attached ‘label’ can definitely help us to determine the styles origin , period and even what the main influence is , which in this instance is French Ivy , which incidentally was what I put into my search engine . Personally I’ve always thought of this as black JM Weston 180 moccasins , Lacoste pique shirt and lots of navy.
Is style the way , we make our look individual , a fashion to follow , to belong to something or a way to feel superior ? To not want to have a name ascribed to something starts to sound a bit ‘object neutral’ . It reminds me of a line from the film The Life of Brian ,” Yes we are all individuals “. which is said by a large crowd all together. The chances are , however individual we feel , there is someone who likes the same/similar clothes, and shares same/similar interests. We also express our values through identity. How about Italian Ivy ? Or Riviera Ivy perhaps ? Gianni Agnelli , the incredibly wealthy Italian industrialist has influenced many men over the decades by spreading his style and there have been and still continue to be ,many Agnelli style clones . For instance he wore the Ivy Leaguers favourite, Brooks Brothers button down shirts unbuttoned and had his own interpretation of the USA east coast style . Which is sort of what we all do isn’t it ? Interpret a style . People do get get caught up on labels I suppose and take it far to seriously, but it is what it is , just costume . And costume is for entertainment .