Jason Jules and The Making of Black Ivy Style

It is a rare event when a volume arrives that distorts our understanding of fashion as effectively as “Black Ivy: a stylish revolt”, Which will be released in the United States in December. Many of the images assembled in the volume of the coffee table may be familiar – including iconic documents from the civil rights movement and images from magazines featuring literary idols like James Baldwin and the covers of influential jazz albums from the heyday of Blue Note Records – but it wasn’t until Jason Jules brought them together in one place and under one heading that a clear theme and thesis emerged.

In Mr. Jules’ account, the adoption by generations of black men of dress codes originating from a white Ivy League elite may have initially been a natural inflection point in the arc of the evolution of men’s clothing. Yet it was also a conscious development, with a strategic agenda that went far beyond the obvious goal of looking good.

In two recent phone conversations from Paraguay and London, where he has homes, Mr. Jules, a fashion insider who considers Steve Urkel, a nerdy preppy character on the ’90s sitcom “Family Matters,” his style model , spoke of the trip that deepened his understanding of the Black Ivy style.

Guy Trébay: Jason Jules, you have a crazy resume, starting with your introduction to magazine writing when you sent iD a stick-shaped fashion article you drew in grade school and they published it.

Since then you’ve been promoting PR and clubs, working with Soul II Soul and Jay Kay of Jamiroquai, consulting for brands like Levi’s and Wrangler, and being a ubiquitous presence on menswear blogs, Instagram and Tumblr. .

I think of you primarily as a stylist, but here you are with a provocative book examining the historical relationship between black men and what is considered to be the dress uniform of an elite white Ivy. How did you get there

Jason Jules: I’ve always been in that particular style and look, even before I knew his name was Ivy. When I was 4 or 5, I was watching a Fred Astaire movie – 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 mom that I wanted to dress like Alastair, and she had no idea what I was talking about. Who is Alastair? I was extremely short-sighted as a kid – I still am – and I got the idea that Fred Astaire was Alastair.

GT: Hope that cleared things up for her. Still, I’m not sure how that explains your journey towards understanding the Black Ivy style.

NOT A WORD : For me, the understanding of Black Ivy came organically. As I got older, I began to make connections between style and its contexts and began to understand how clothing could have meaning, how things could be adopted and redefined to serve a purpose or program.

GT: You mean, in a sense, acts of appropriation, to use a heavy term?

NOT A WORD : Yes and no. There is a clear parallel between the heyday of style Ivy during a time when it dominated men’s clothing in the 60s and the growth of the civil rights movement. I had few preconceptions when I started my research, but as I went along I started to notice how the movement’s main activists seemed to have invested in some version of the Ivy style. . It struck me that it wasn’t just about fashion. It had very little to do with fashion, actually.

GT: Do you mean it was strategic?

NOT A WORD : If we recognize that the Ivy style is the outfit of a cultural or social elite and maybe people wanted to be seen as equal to anyone in the United States, then yes. It makes perfect sense to adopt this style. I’m not suggesting that anyone was naive enough to believe that to dress was to be dressing. Still, you can see in this adoption of a very traditional associated uniform, say, Harvard or Yale – a look steeped in heritage and history and one that has those clear modernist ties – a strategy that might be appealing to activists. .

GT Are you saying the optics have duplicated? The style had a fashion base and a political purpose.

NOT A WORD : It was both. Of course, people wanted to look good. But adopting the Ivy style was all about the desire to be seen as equal and not let special biases and barriers stop you from doing so. I think it’s a bit like dressing rockabilly to walk into a rockabilly club. There was also an implicit challenge, of assumptions about who can own a certain style.

GT: In a sense, he took the codes of the dominant culture and twisted them.

NOT A WORD : One thing I’m trying to say in the book is that, without the black activist cutoff, we probably wouldn’t see Ivy League clothing as interesting or cool right now. And it’s cool, very cool.

It’s similar, in a way, to the way gay activists wore conservative, Ivy League-style clothing, because on the one hand there was a real need to be successful, and yet the act of being successful. dressing this way was undertaken with a sense of irony. It was as if they were saying, “You think of what you have is so precious and valuable. Let me take it and show you how it’s really done.

GT: Strangely enough, this is the fundamental premise of vogueing. Some people misunderstand it and consider it an imitation. But if you’ve spent any time around the kids’ prom – and I’ve got a lot of them – you see it for the incredibly sophisticated review it is.

NOT A WORD : The guys at Black Ivy weren’t necessarily doing a review. Yet at the same time, their adoption of the Ivy style wasn’t meant to be comfortable for the mainstream culture. It had elements of, “I will surpass you and surpass you for the simple reason that, unless you use your language, I am invisible.” There is always this question of how to make yourself visible.

GT: This is evident in your choices of artists and writers who feature in the book. Many of them have chosen, albeit in a distinctive way, to adhere to the establishment’s dress codes. James Baldwin can look incredibly stylish in his Ivy outfit. But for you, it’s remarkable that he chose those things and not, say, the more extravagant styles you might have seen on one of his contemporaries like Iceberg Slim.

NOT A WORD : It was a protective coloring. The photographers, the artists, the literary ensemble believed that it was the only garment they could wear. This is how intellectuals would dress. It’s not like someone dressed Baldwin. He chose what he wore and he used his wardrobe as a show of belonging and a show of his power.

GT: Don’t you think he just felt like he looked trendy and cool in his sheepskin coat, Brooks Brothers suits, desert boots?

NOT A WORD : As these individuals evolved, their style language developed. I had a super casual conversation recently with a friend, a middle class white man, and he was basically saying that the reason a black person in the 1960s dressed this way was just because they wanted to. imitate a successful white person.

I do not agree. Before we can fully express through language everything we aspire to be, we need our clothes to fulfill the function of making us socially readable. People read themselves from pictures. We build a story about each other from what we see.

GT: But the jazz musicians you focus on didn’t particularly need to be seen through the prism of the establishment, do they? Still, you immerse yourself in how jazzmen have embraced the Ivy style wholeheartedly. There is a section of the book devoted to what we’ll call the Blue Note look. These guys were playing some bold new music, and yet some of them dressed like they were working in an insurance office. The juxtaposition is part of what makes these album covers so cool and is certainly at the heart of why designers have created entire collections based on this look.

NOT A WORD : I really think everything has been considered to the most granular extent. There is a story about how Miles Davis hung out with the musicians of Blue Note, long before “Birth of the Cool”. The other musicians convinced him to ditch the polished clothes he wore and buy a suit with wide shoulders and peaked lapels, the kind of hipster clothes that riff on stuff you might see in the movies. of Hollywood gangsters.

GT: But it didn’t last long. Like Malcolm X, Miles quickly migrated to that other uniform so drastically at odds with his own sweeping plans. Davis was making radical music and radical Malcolm politics and yet for a long time he dressed in an overly conservative way that worked as a sort of cover-up.

NOT A WORD : Both were hyper aware of the black stereotype, and they dressed in reaction to it. One of the things that made me think of a common tale around the Ivy style was the famous story of Miles Davis walking into the Andover store in Cambridge, Massachusetts – it was during a jazz festival – and allegedly converted into a only shopping session in the Ivy look.

The way the story is presented, Miles walked in as an everyday jazzer and released this shining example of the Ivy League style. Yet Miles grew up wearing Brooks Brothers clothing. There was no time to drive to Damascus. Her father was a dental surgeon. This part of the story is awkward for a pat tale.

GT: And he proceeded to make it a lot cooler…

NOT A WORD : Every style idiom has to adapt and change. The prevailing view considers it true that these people asserted the supremacy of the culture whose clothes they adopted. But it’s not that. This group – civil rights leaders in particular – were trying to change the establishment while asking the fundamental questions: “Who says this is yours, and who says I can’t have it and can’t redefine it?” other items i want? Who owns America, anyway?

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