By Harold Wilson
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Black Ivy — how black men subverted the style of the white rich

When the Civil Rights movement and US black art forms combined, it sparked a fashion revolution— now recorded in this photo book
Issue 2788
Two young black men in mix Ivy League style clothing with workwear

Two young men in Los Angeles, in 1967, a year after the Watts Rebellion riots, mix Ivy League clothing with workwear (Picture: Bill Ray/The Life picture collection/Shutterstock

In the mid 20th century the world’s preeminent superpower became the engine for culture, and an art form US blacks had championed for two decades—jazz.

At the same time the US was convulsed by agitation for Civil Rights and anti-war protest. This art book matches that upswell of protest with the changing way that US blacks clothed and carried themselves.

Garments sold by East coast outfitters, Brook Brothers, were the epitome of sartorial distinction and handsome understatement. Its clientele were men of wealth and political office, moneyed college undergrads, boardroom execs and golf club associates.

US blacks weren’t simply copying the trappings of acceptability. This wasn’t an inferiority complex let loose. It was a paradox. These clothes and styles of dress were adopted and adapted with added intent.

It was a wardrobe that demanded respect. No longer could you sneer “boy” at its adult wearer but instead address its snappily clad owner as “man”.

A particular favourite among many great images here is the unforced simplicity of Billy Taylor. Relaxed and cross legged by his piano, it is hipness distilled.

Taylor is pictured in a narrow leg light blue suit and striped tie. He was “all geek god like and cool, looking every bit the jazz intellectual that he was”. His most famous composition “I Wish I Knew” (How It Would Feel to Be Free) could be regarded as the anthem of the Civil Rights Movement.

It was said that jazz maverick Thelonious Monk had a hat for every tune. Undoubtedly, a Monk performance was as unorthodox as his head dress. But few would match this Monk aesthetic called “cool”.

His performance in Bert Stern’s 1959 film, Jazz on a Summer’s Day cemented that legacy.

Jazz musicians Benny Golson, Sonny Rollson and Thelonious Monk in classic Ivy League suits

Jazz musicians Benny Golson, Sonny Rollson and Thelonious Monk in classic Ivy League suits

Black Power leader Stokely Carmichael/Kwame Ture is pictured on an outdoor makeshift stage. He dons a trench coat and sports jacket with one hand sunk into his pocket. From his body language you just know this dude has serious issues to impart and demands, you listen up!

There was an underlying shabby chic-ness to the apparently uncoordinated dress sense of playwright Leroi Jones.

The awkward combinations of knitwear, tab-collared shirt and bashed-up corduroy pants was more like the unspoken uniform of librarian or geography teacher. His play, Dutchman, was written when mixed marriages were illegal and setting eyes on a white woman could get you lynched in the South.

It opens with a white woman eye-balling a black man on an empty New York subway. In the back and forth sexual tension, she challenges his tilt at assimilation, “Three button suit! What right do you have to be wearing a three-button suit? Your grandfather was a slave, he didn’t go to Harvard.”

In the movies Sidney Poitier was Black Ivy personified. In lead roles, To Sir with Love, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner and In the Heat of the Night Poitier got to represent the new, ­professional black male.

He also showcased the wardrobe that accompanied it—blazers, slacks, shiny sharp pointed shoes. The book is an ambitious attempt to make sense of the shifting way the black American male was seen, and in turn saw themselves. It’s done with ­diligence and craft.

But it would be remiss not to note that Brooks Brothers has questions to answer about its past.

Documents have surfaced that purport to show that the business grew wealthy on the back of black plantation slavery. Critics have noted the company’s attempts to recover payments owed from its Southern “work employers”—a by-word for slave owners.

In 1853, Brooks Brothers was among a group of businesses that published “The Tailor’s Appeal”—a petition over outstanding bills from Southern merchants.

Black Ivy—A Revolt in Style. By Jason Jules and Graham Marsh. Reel Art Press.

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