Review: Black Ivy: A Revolt in Style

The other day I watched the 1967 classic film In the Heat of the Night at a local movie theatre. It’s one of my favourite films and throughout the entire movie, I was awe-struck by Sydney Poitier’s style. In the film, Poitier consistently wears a sharp three button grey suit, white oxford shirt, and a blue and red repp tie. The look is subtle yet refined, a suit of armour against oppression. The line from the character Harvey Oberst who questioned Poitier’s character, Virgil Tibbs, saying “why are you wearing a white man’s clothes?” was especially poignant as I continued watching the movie and analysing the style. 

I was thrilled when I learned that Black Ivy: A Revolt in Style was released in late December 2021. The book combines my two favourite hobbies: menswear and history. This book focuses on a particular area of interest for me, being, the impact of the civil rights era of the 1960s and its effect in African-American artistic expression. I also felt that as we near the end of Black History Month, a celebration of this book’s message is due. I hold a degree in history that focused heavily on African and African-American history, which has led to my lifelong passion for art that reflects the expressions of the civil rights era. Style is no exception. Black Ivy shows us that style can be used as armour to act for change. 

The book, whose cover shows us the classic photo from Miles Davis’ 1958 album Milestones, opens with an essay from Jason Jules. Jason Jules is a London-based independent writer, editor and creative director from the UK. He is also the main model from Drake’s of London. He covers how “Black Ivy” isn’t just about clothes,, it’s “an untold story about style. A revolt in style.” What I love about this line is that I read it as “[a] revolt in style”, which, to me, encompasses the ideals of adopting the style that at a time, symbolized the white elite and using it to demonstrate equality by rewriting its very own sartorial codes. It’s clear that Julian’s intentions of the book are to show how Black Ivy’s revision of the Ivy look took something inherently elitist and turned it into “something heavily coded and intentionally revolutionary.” It’s easy to assume that Ivy style still remains to be that of the elite, but what we have seen in sartorial revisioning of Black Ivy or Ametora are distinctive in themselves and that diversity in style is constantly evolving and consistently revolutionary. 

The introduction is followed with an essay titled The Birth of Cool by Graham Marsh. Prior to Black Ivy, Marsh was the co-author of The Cover Art of Blue Note Records: The Collection. This book is a collection of record sleeves produced by the celebrated Blue Note record label. These record sleeves themselves are a gold mine of Black Ivy variations and style influences. In regards to Black Ivy, Marsh’s essay covers his experiences as a British “Mod” in the early 1960s with the style’s emphasis in which “the importance of being imported applied to the clothes as much as the music.” For him, this led down to a passion for modern jazz, “plus a side order of Ska and Blue Beat.” For Marsh, the lasting impact of Black Ivy for him started and ended with the Modern Jazz Quartet. 

Black Ivy guides you in eleven genres: In Literature, In The Arts, In Music, In Film, In Schools, In The City, In Civil Rights, In Marches, In Politics, In Sports, In Advertising. The book features such Black Ivy idols as Ted Jones, Ralph Ellison, James Baldwin, Charles White, Miles Davis, Lee, Morgan, the Modern Jazz Quartet, John Coltrane, Art Blakey, Malcolm X, and Sidney Poitier. This is only a small selection of the Black Ivyists from the book, but it does show you the extent of this movement. The photos in the book are remarkable but the descriptions of the looks are lacking. The descriptions assume the reader is aware of the sartorial rules that define Ivy style, rather than introducing the rules that the Black Ivyists redefined. I can understand that anyone buying this book has a basic knowledge of Ivy style, but an actual breakdown of the look’s most common traits would have been helpful as a reference guide. For example, the description of Sydney Poitier’s look in To Sir, wIth Love states, “Wearing the perfect Ivy jacket complete with patch top pocket and repp tie in the film To Sir, with Love (1967). GM”  Although I understand how to decipher the look of Black Ivy, a description like this assumes the reader knows why a repp tie is quintessentially “Ivy.”  Furthermore, the suit worn by Poitier is a sack suit, a staple in Ivy style that could have been defined. The book’s visuals offer a plethora of style references for the Ivy enthusiast like myself, but I would have liked to have seen a bit more dedication to defining the terms of Ivy clothing. 

I would also like to note that being particularly interested in this era, there are a few more Black Ivy icons I would like to include as extensions of this book’s features:

  1. Harry Belafonte: The singer, songwriter, activist, and actor is surprisingly mentioned in Black Ivy but is not featured with a caption as a civil rights and style icon. You can easily see Belafonte’s implementation of Black Ivy from his attire at the 1963 March on Washington. Wearing a sack suit, repp tie, and white oxford in the photo with Sydney Poitier below I feel it’s a missed opportunity to not include such an iconic civil rights leader in a book meant to tell this untold story. For more examples of Belafonte’s style, check out the album cover of Belafonte at Carnegie Hall to see his beautifully casual yet refined oxford leisure shirt. 
  2. Max Roach: Jazz Drummer and bebop pioneer. Throughout the 1960s you can see many implementations of Black Ivy style in Max Roach’s album covers along with commentaries on the Civil Rights movement. I would recommend listening and looking at We Insist! Max Roach’s Freedom Now Suite, The Max Roach Trio Featuring the Legendary Hasaan, and Drums Unlimited. My favourite Max Roach visualisation of Black Ivy is the cover of Drums Unlimited. Max’s horn rimmed glasses, black polo shirt, and brown pullover sweater echoe many of the images of the Modern Jazz Quartet in Black Ivy. 
  3. Thurgood Marshall: Former Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States. There’s a subtlety to Thurgood Marshall’s look in the 1960s that echoes many of the photos in the In Politics section of Black Ivy. His horn-rimmed glasses, grey suits, and patterned ties are timeless classics. I was expecting to see Marshall in this book. 

I’ve seen some reviews that say Black Ivy is too biographical. It does give longer captions on specific icons, but overall it could have used slightly more biography to add some historical context. However, the point of this book is to show Black icons and their style, not to give a history lesson. Personally, that’s something I would enjoy but it would distract from the purpose of the book. Black Ivy shows how Black leaders in their field used the style of the white elite to redefine and break down the race barriers through Ivy style. No matter what field interests you, anyone who’s interested in viewing the implementation of this counter-hegemonic style will enjoy this book’s visual representations. This book is a documentation of how Black Ivy came to be and why these leaders paved the way for a diversified Ivy style and continue breaking down the barriers of its traditionally white and elite connotations.


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