I stumbled across these Ivy Look out-takes the other day - illustration and copy resonating with the values and aesthetics of a very different age. We got lots of those Galey & Lord ads in the book, but there are so many more we could have used. The copywriting in these ads is just so good - concise, descriptive, witty, and ever so slightly camp. ‘For presiding at the grill or other casual functions…The Patio Shirt…Of Fall-weight cotton…in deep tones’. Perhaps this is simply the old adage about two countries divided by a common language, but to my ears this all sounds rather….arch?
Self-indulgent nostalgia here folks, of interest perhaps to those, like me, who take an obsessive interest in Ivy League clothes. The pictures above are of me, and my main Ivy-Mod, Mod-Ivy, Mod-Ivy-Modern Jazz-Northern Soul, comrades, Mr Isaacs and Mr Hubert Swaine. The pictures are 25 years old and capture us at the stage of our first collective full-on ‘Ivy Crush’, so this was a big time for Anglo-American eyeglass frames, side-partings, the beloved shetland crew-neck, vintage half-lined hook vent jackets from Flip or American Classics, plaid cotton flannel button-downs (Geoffrey Scott!) from J.Simons and, well, everything else from J.Simons. Some of us hung around there so often they ended up giving us a job. On the mantelpiece there above my ‘ghetto (Richmond) blaster’ I can spot a new Japanese jigsaw puzzle I had just bought called ‘Campus Friends’ - truly a sign of how sick we all were. But here’s the sickest part - I wish I still had it now…
Two hours in Clissold Park, North London, yesterday. A sunny day, which of course offered the unappetising spectacle of desperate Brits shedding clothes with indecent haste in an attempt to feel sun upon their pallid, palsied skin. Bucking this trend two young Lusophone women arrive wrapped up a way I have observed before as typical of estranged Latinos. For them in London it is always mid-Winter and they are draped in scarves, ponchos, hats and gloves. They succeed in transcending the pure functionality of their dress by wearing large, attractive sunglasses. With concern I note they are carrying a guitar and I begin to brace myself for the almost inevitable tuneless bash through banal pop tunes. My head beginning to cloud with apocalyptic imagery I foresee the arrival of opportunistic young men bearing cans of cheap lager and the eventual descent into that oft-observed classic London drunken Sunday afternoon in the sun dystopia. But then the ponchoed one begins to pick at the strings, sans plectrum, and effortlessly conjure the pure melody of bossa nova. Can she really be playing Antonio Carlos Jobim’s Aguas de Marco with such ease and authenticity I ask myself? But then her friend begins to harmonise with her and there they are, the spirit of Rio circa ‘62 finding its way out in the most incongrous of settings. What followed was a performance of the best of the Gilberto-Jobim songbook, that wonderfully introspective, thoughtful and melancholy batch of songs. I am reminded again of my theory that a lyric can be an interesting extra dimension in a given piece of music but that words are largely superfluous and add little to music’s ability to touch the soul. I do not understand a word of Portuguese yet love to listen to it being sung in these bossa nova songs. It is the sound of this most mellifluous of languages that I am lapping up, not what is being said. It makes perfect sense to me that bossa is best played by just a guitar with a human voice because the Portuguese voice has its own long vowel sounds, its unique rhythms and inflections. I once heard Norma Winstone sing a translated Waters of March and the magic was gone. Spoken English is flat and barren and snuffs the life out of music rooted in a different experience. When I hear bossa nova, the great stuff these women were playing in the park, I am aware again of how stripped back, austere and abstract is the sound. It has that cool, low, unapologetic, unsmiling groove about it, placing it perfectly within the context of other contemporaneous cultural shifts taking place in Brazil in the late 50s and early 60s - the buildings of Oscar Niemeyer and the great neoconcrete abstraction of paintings like Milton DaCosta’s In Red (above) from 1961. Largely written off these days as ‘lift music’ or easy listening, bossa nova, for me, is forever associated with the pure expression of the best modernism.
Mid-1950s Napoli. I shan’t be getting over to Italy this year, much to my chagrin, and seeing this picture on another blog reminded me of the joy of being there. Next year, next year….magari!
The Syllabus finally emerged from its Easter slumber by taking in two cultural highs yesterday. At the Hayward Gallery I basked in the glory of Dan Flavin’s fluorescent light, the whole Light Show assembled there a tonic after the relentless grey of an English springtime. Rendered human again by synthetic nature I ventured down to John Islip Street SW1 to take in the tribute to Dobells jazz record shop at the always interesting Chelsea Space gallery. There I met up with those masters of Vintage Ivy Hardy & Johnson, and Mr Richmond Hill, all living, breathing examples of sixty-something natural shouldered elegance. The cud was chewed about the death of the Thatch, rhythm and blues and all issues hooked vent-related. I wasn’t just there for a plastic beaker of warm Chenin Blanc and chit chat, Dobells had touched my life towards the end of its life when it briefly relocated to Tower Street in Covent Garden. I remember it being rather austere, and quiet, but the large crowd of ageing hipsters at the launch made me think I had probably missed the shop’s glory years when it was on Charing Cross Road from 1946 to 1981. Superficial of me I know to admit this, but it was always their carrier bags which left the greatest impression, and it was nice to see a range of these great designs dotted around the exhibition space.
Unlikely I know to think of the cultural significance of a shop that sold wooly jumpers. But then perhaps you haven’t heard about a place there used to be called Westaway & Westaway, which was on Great Russell Street, opposite the British Museum. For a time it was one of those under the radar spots where you could always find precisely the correct gear, in particular that perfect shetland crewneck sweater, in a range of great colours. Long a staple of the Ivy look, the humble shetland increasingly became something of a fashion event in the mid to late ’60s. As Herb Lester note in their charming and well informed guide to 1960’s London, Wish You Were There, Westaway & Westaway was “much loved by French visitors, and those who emulated them”. The look was to wear them skin tight, always seeking out small jumpers two or three sizes under your actual size. Mr Glyn Callingham, an Ivy Fifth Columnist, infiltrated this world of classic knitwear, working here for a spell before going on to manage Ray’s Jazz Shop and co-author The Cover Art of Blue Note Records. He is pictured above in all his natural shoulder splendour.
On a whim I hopped on the 149 bus today which took me down the straight as an arrow A10, that old Roman Ermine Street thoroughfare, towards the magical world that lays just north of the City in Londinium Orientem, as Aulus Plautius almost certainly didn’t call it. I wandered in the style of Baudelaire in my London Fog raincoat and tweed cap down streets now teaming with the energy of bright young things (with trust funds) remodelling this part of the city along Prenzlauer Berg lines. Enjoy Redchurch Street now folks for I estimate you have about a year left before funky independent becomes bland and corporate. On this I’m probably already too late - no doubt the scene long ago shifted to somewhere unlikely, like Edmonton or Croydon. The flat grey light, rendered atmospheric by a faint mist, led me onwards towards Brick Lane, always charming by day and unbearable when Anglo-Saxon drunkenness descends by night. By now I realised I was close to my favourite London restaurant, with absolutely no competition, which lay just around the corner, reachable via the unimaginably beautiful network of old Spitalfield streets behind the Hawksmoor church.
I recommend all readers should visit St.John Bread and Wine before 11am when it is virtually empty, allowing you space to think and read, and to cherish what makes this place so unerringly correct. Superlatives jump around in my head when I think of St.John, but the one thing which I feel underpins everything they do is intelligence. How often do you visit a place and think, well if only they didn’t serve me like that, or have that music on, and why have they got such a naff menu with three thousand choices on it etc.. Well at St.John the staff have dignity and poise. There is efficiency without pomposity or servility. Their food and drink is rooted in a kind of progressive traditionalism, as is the whole stripped back, rather ascetic feel of the place. Plain white walls, black serif type, simple tables, chairs and tableware and worn out parquet flooring. The absence of vulgar luxury and purist concentration on flavour and experience is rare in a top London restaurant. This plain, square white room restores me, as did their sublime hot cross bun this morning. This is how good St.John is - a humble little hot cross bun, but executed with such effortless, unfussy perfection one is made aware of the beauty of such utter simplicity.
Some yearn to walk in the mountains, to see the horizon and the stars, to inhale pure, unsullied air; but this is where I sup, where I find my sustenance - in London. I drink it all up every day and am renewed.
”I was a mod – it’s the only youth cult I’ve ever actually been a whole hearted member of. The great thing about mod was that it was a very snobbish movement. We went to a club in Manchester called the Twisted Wheel – it was the mod club of the country. We used to get people from all over. It was the first place I heard soul music. You never heard any guitar music there – it was all Stax, Motown, Memphis Horns, Booker T and the MGs. Guitar solos not allowed. Strict dress codes, no guitars. At the Twisted Wheel, by 1965, you didn’t actually call yourself a mod any more. People in Burnley called themselves mods, people with targets on their parkas. We called ourselves “stylists” – and shoplifting was the big national sport of the stylists. You’d go to John Michael and pinch things – £80 sunglasses. It was a full time job. Food wasn’t high on the agenda, there was no hip food. You blew your wad on cloth, not even records.”
Perhaps, at 48 years old, one shouldn’t still find this sort of stuff engaging, but I do. Like John Cooper Clarke, quoted and pictured above, I remain a working class snob, struggling to resist the pressure to conform to bourgeois notions of normality. Let’s strip away all the stuff that really matters, but is rather dull, like housing, education and health, and keep it simple - when it comes to clothes may the Lord keep me safe from the Satan Boden and his followers in West London in their rugby shirts (collars turned up) and sensible value for money Timberland shoes. Mod has always been about subversion of upper class dress codes, understanding then fetishising elements within a given style to produce your own version of it. I cringe at the term stylist, such an overused word with dreadful modern associations, but perhaps the best expression of the stylist mentality described by JCC is that an individual defines his own look within a given framework. So given that criteria I am prepared to put my head above the parapet and declare “I am a stylist”. There, I said it. Now don’t mock…
John Cooper Clarke is of course in danger of becoming too popular, which is not a particularly mod thing to be. He now tends to function as a kind of relic of a long-forgotten type - the bright, articulate, individual, sharp and slightly confrontational working class Northerner. I met him in John Simons clothes shop a few years ago : “I come here for the ties”, he said, “one size fits all”. Clocking me in full Ivy drag he drawled “You look like a regular here”. Like all mods he was wearing his 1960s wash and wear Ivy League jacket with the top button done up, lapels all skinny and bent out of shape, a bit like him. He’s in his mid-60s now and he still cares. Once a mod, always a mod I guess. Or make that stylist…
A few years ago if you tapped ‘Ivy League’ into the search box on eBay all that turned up was a load of dodgy records made by a dodgy band with dodgy haircuts. Try it now and you’ll see how that term has caught on as shorthand for a 3 button jacket or a button-down shirt. One hates to boast but maybe that little Ivy Look book I did a few years back has helped the process along, if indeed this wider ‘awareness of Ivy’ is something to be celebrated at all which it probably isn’t. Unless that is you want to shift some schmutter and it seems there are plenty of folk out there who do, and have gone on to start their own clothing labels. Good luck to them I say, even if one or two have invented back stories of such fantastical invention they’d make dear old Bradford Dexter Bagg blush.
One of the new breed is a young chap from Brighton called Henry Fitzgerald who has generously allowed me to road test one of his Fitzgerald’s Clothiers button-down oxfords in the foul streets of North London. Was it just my imagination or were the 40-something dads in their £350 selvedge really checking out the generous collar roll on my new shirt? Were the fair maidens of North16 holding my gaze just a little too long as the deep blue of the shirt rendered my skin tone a gloriously honeyed Clooney mocha? For a few moments it felt that way. Henry has based his shirt on fine original source material, a great old Sero ‘The Purist’, the Ivy classic that for years was the default stock shirt choice in J.Simons. They used to be flat-packed in that very plain, unfussy old American way. Solid, functional clothing piled up high, a mass of university stripes, plains and patterns, confident and unapologetic in their simplicity. Quaker Ivy - there’s an element of that in the style is there not? Henry has captured the spirit and shape of the Sero superbly well. Especially good after one wash, the unlined collar bends in all the right places, and the body shape is traditional but not billowing. Personally I’m a fan of that Brooks nightshirt vibe, but many aren’t and they’ll like this shirt. It has the whiff of 1964 about it, without the associated malodorousness one often encounters with vintage. There’s bells and whistles too - back-button and locker loop and lovely real shell buttons. At £120 they’re justifiably expensive, being made in England of excellent materials. You can pay twice more for rubbish and half of that for outsourced tat. The website link above will be the way to buy them, but it won’t be live for another couple of weeks. I believe this is cause for celebration, for The Purist is reborn!
I ought to have done my research on the Cosby sleeve. The sleeve designer and photographer on I Started Out As A Child was a rather famous figure in the design world called Ed Thrasher. He made his name later towards the end of the 60s and then throughout the 70s designing sleeves for rock gods, all of which leave me absolutely cold. This Cosby album was his first design when he joined Warner Bros in 1964. So first time lucky for Ed I believe. Very little in his output captures my imagination apart perhaps from this charming Harold Betters cover from 1966. The pictures of BC on the back of the sleeve are pure mid-60s clean cut Ivy League. The shaved parting, the shirt, the lapped seams - 1964 must have been a wonderful year to go shopping.