Curious about Ivy League style? Here’s everything you need to know about the sartorial mores of the old Northeastern set.
I have a distinct relationship with Northeastern US culture, giving me an anthropological perspective. I was born and raised in West LA. But, my parents are staunch Yankees, both Yale legacies from Connecticut. Naturally, we went back often — camp, Christmases, debutante balls, the Harvard Yale Game.
Early on, I noticed that Northeasterners dress differently than Beverly Hillers do. It’s partly weather-related, but more than that, at least in my parents’ circles, it emanated from the Ivy League universities sprinkled throughout New England.
Still, it took me stepping foot onto an Ivy campus (Harvard, to my parent’s chagrin) to understand the how and why of Ivy League clothing styles. Here’s a 101 on the matter.
A Brief History of the Ivy League Style
The Ivy League is a collegiate athletic conference founded in 1954. They’re some of the country’s oldest and most prestigious universities, all on the East Coast, mostly in New England.
These universities include Harvard, Yale, Princeton (the Holy Trinity), Columbia, Brown, Dartmouth, Cornell, and Penn.
So what is Ivy League style exactly? First, you don’t have to be an Ivy alum to incorporate parts of it into your wardrobe. It’s a smart look, but you don’t have to be that smart to pull it off.
Sure, the Ivys are highly selective, but that’s just one component of an aesthetic that implies a specific lifestyle. After all, non-Ivys like Stanford and MIT are even more selective than certain Ivys, but they aren’t associated with this lifestyle.
Essentially, the Ivy League style is a clean-cut aesthetic rooted in tradition. However, this style isn’t as formal as many previous styles.
It incorporates sporty components to ground formal attire and elevate everyday wear. Ivy style was popularized in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s on these Northeastern campuses and was famously documented in the Japanese book Take Ivy. It’s generally trend-resistant, featuring straight and relaxed lines.
So, a full three-piece navy suit with a solid tie and oxfords? Trad. That same look, but replace the formal vest with a cable-knit sweater vest, the solid tie with a club tie, the oxfords with loafers, and the suit pants with sensible khaki-colored chinos? Ivy.
Remember when I said the style should imply a certain lifestyle? Well, the sweater vest is reminiscent of vintage tennis clothing, and the club ties with an association with a sporting club. The chinos and loafers up the casual factor.
You want pieces that imply leisure and specific kinds of sports (tennis over basketball, rugby over wrestling). Think about the sporting attire associated with the British countryside and East Coast America — that’s the direction you want to go in.
Ivy Style: Incorporating Sporting Attire Into Everyday Wear
Consider clothes from the following sports:
- Polo and equestrianism, in general
What if you don’t play any of these sports and don’t want to look like a wannabe? First of all, you should wear whatever makes you happy!
Second, remember that Ivy League style has a vintage-esque quality. Rugby players these days are more likely to wear technical jerseys anyway.
The long-sleeve, two-button, collared rugby shirt as we know it is retired in that sense and can be worn by anyone who likes the style. The same goes for cable-knit v-neck cricket sweaters, low-profile white
Moreover, a hunting jacket is a practical piece of outerwear for anyone, regardless of whether or not you’re heading to a shooting party at your grandfather’s Connecticut estate. The same goes for riding boots, tweed flat caps, and waxed jackets in general.
So, instead of a super casual t-shirt, jeans, and sneaker combination, consider the following:
For a smart casual situation, maybe a date at Russell House Tavern, try this combination:
Any sports coat will do if the rowing blazer is too loud for you.
Another direction you can go is choosing pieces with similar silhouettes to sporting clothes. This allows you to accommodate different climates, too. A heavy rugby shirt might not be ideal while you’re in Nantucket in the middle of July, but a light-colored terry popover shirt has a similar aesthetic effect.
Take this warm-weather combination, for example:
And for a cold-weather outing, try this:
- A quilted hunting-style jacket
- Oxfords with button-down collars (which is more casual than a button-up)
- A cable-knit v-neck cricket sweater
- Lined chinos
- Duck boots if you want to go rugged, or chukka boots if you want a more streamlined silhouette that doesn’t compromise the overall sporty look
You’ll notice a good balance of clean lines and sportiness, as well as tempered colors and the occasional dandier accents, which leads us to the next topic!
Ivy Patterns and Colors
Ivy style is based on specific old American aesthetics rooted in old British sensibilities. In fact, Ivy aesthetic is just a casualized version of styles associated with the Ancient universities of Britain.
Red, white, and blue, as well as colors adjacent to them like burgundy, cream, and navy, tempered with neutrals like browns and tans, are good.
And, of course, in the most literal sense, Ivy colors are always welcome. Take note:
- Harvard’s colors are crimson, black, and white
- Yale’s colors are blue and white
- Princeton’s are orange and black
- Columbia’s are blue (a lighter one than Yale’s) and white
- Brown’s are red, white, and, of course, brown
- Cornell’s are grey, white, and red
- Penn’s colors are red and blue
- Dartmouth’s are forest green, white, and black
Notice a lot of reds, whites, and blues? Also, notice hunting-related colors like orange and green. Unsurprisingly, Ivy League colors are inextricably related to the stereotypical Northeastern lifestyle.
Other important colors and patterns include:
- Prince of Wales Check
- Nautical stripes
- Nantucket red
- Light pastels
- Tennis whites
Ivy Style: Keeping Casual in Suiting
I know that the idea of the deal-closing, hard-working business school graduate has become linked to the idea of the Ivy League. However, the real flex in these circles is leisure.
As such, unless you’re strictly required to be absolutely formal, you might want to temper any suit with casual pieces — the sportier, the better.
The broken suit is basically the uniform of the Ivy League. Almost every teaching fellow I worked with did the navy-jacket-khaki-chino combo or something adjacent to it.
Here’s a good example:
- Navy university blazer
- White or light blue button-up
- Silk club tie
- Light grey wool pants
- Brown bit loafers
You can go for khaki chinos instead of wool pants to make it even more casual.
If it’s a special occasion, say the first day of classes at Harvard or a wedding in Nantucket, you can even go for one of the louder Ivy staples: The Nantucket red pants.
On cool spring days, you can add a blue pastel cable-knit vest to really up the prep factor or a cashmere pullover.
Here’s a broken suit example for colder weather:
- Navy double-breasted sport coat
- Cable-knit turtleneck sweater (in brown, navy, or winter white)
- Brown tweed pants
- Leather brogues
If you absolutely have to go full-suit formal, incorporate textures where you can; a knit tie or adding a v-neck cashmere sweater vest are good examples. Also, go for loafers over lace-ups and browns over blacks.
The “Rules” of School Gear
Again, I’m a big proponent of wearing what you want.
In the strictest sense, though, two kinds of people can wear a Harvard pull-over: Someone who attended Harvard and someone who’s a legacy of Harvard.
A third category is someone married to a Harvardian. Though in the same way, one earns a title by marrying a peerage member, this person often wants to tread carefully when flashing that title.
But again, you do you.
School sweaters, jackets, polos, and ties are fun on-the-nose ways to incorporate literal Ivy style into your outfits. They also add a youthful vibe because of their inherent academic component.
Any old baseball cap is a go-to casual piece of headwear. A vintage Yale baseball cap, on the other hand, is a prompt example of Ivy style.
Remember when I mentioned the importance of casualizing your suits when you can? In the past, I’ve worn my school sweater underneath a full suit tieless and topped it off with low-profile white
There’s nothing wrong with just a touch of irreverence. Again, Nantucket Reds and Madras are good examples.
Ivy League Style Clothing Essentials
Here are some pieces associated with Ivy styles. You want clean lines, nothing too stuffy, as well as sports associations and vintage vibes when possible:
- Sport coat
- Polo shirt
- Dress shirt
- Oxford shirt
- Rugby shirt
- Nantucket reds
- Madras shorts
- All cardigan styles, from light cashmere to heavily-woven shawl cardigans
- Cable-knit anything (sweaters, cardigans, vests, turtlenecks)
- Hunting jacket
- Varsity jackets and school attire in general
- Boat shoes
- Duck boots
- Low-profile white
And while style is more important than brand, here are some clothiers often associated with Ivy League style, as well as ones purposefully emulating and shaping it:
- Brooks Brothers
- Ralph Lauren
- LL Bean
- GH Bass
- Tommy Hilfiger
- Vineyard Vines
- Rowing Blazers
Final Thoughts: Is Ivy Style Still Relevant?
I’ve never seen Ivy League aesthetics ever really go out of style. And in fact, it manifests itself in interesting ways.
In the late ‘90s, hip-hop fashion included oversized Tommy Hilfiger pieces, including sweater vests and primary colors. The late aughts saw neo-prep bringing brighter colors into Ivy style, post Gossip Girl. In the 2020s, TikTok introduced new audiences to the old-money aesthetic trend.
As with any classic approach, there are always ways to make Ivy League style your own.