Nobody’s sure where the term originated. One story holds that in 1935 eight college athletic teams—Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Cornell, Dartmouth, Brown, Columbia and the University of Pennsylvania—decided to form an exclusive football league. Another account roots the appellation in 1933 when New York Herald Tribune sports writer Stanley Woodward used the term “ivy college” to denote these proud old schools where Hedera helix grows on the stone walls. Whatever its lineage, everybody knows what Ivy League means today—those eight, proud universities that epitomize academic excellence and, more often than not, East Coast establishment snobbery.
But Ivy League has yet another, lesser known, utility—one made plain by the 1962 and 2013 ads shown here: It’s a handy, slap-on tradition (easily evoked with a few key props) that can take an ordinary clothing brand and give it the rarified air of a Fitzgerald novel. “If you’ve been accepted into an Ivy League school, you’ve achieved a level of success that few people can claim,” said Ashley Rosenbluth, senior director of marketing and business development for Landor Associates. “By associating themselves with something with this cachet, Woolrich and Tommy Hilfiger are elevating their own brand status.”
Or trying to. What’s especially ambitious about both of these ads is that neither brand in question is particularly exclusive or Ivy League-ish at all. Woolrich founder John Rich started out selling wool socks from an oxcart in the logging camps of Pennsylvania in the 1830s, giving the brand a core following among hunters and trappers. Tommy Hilfiger’s neo-preppy threads debuted in 1985 and have been dogged ever since by accusations of ripping off Ralph Lauren. (Who, it must be said, has been dogged by accusations of ripping off “real” Ivy League brands such as Brooks Brothers and J. Press.) But never mind. So long as no brand can lay exclusive claim to khaki pants and V-neck sweaters, anyone can do the Ivy look—not just brands, but we shoppers, too.
Rosenbluth pointed out that the irony in these ads is also the engine that makes them work. They offer an easy entrée to a world that, in reality, has very few members. “Only about 8 percent of applicants to Ivy League schools actually get in. But having that association, in the form of Ivy League dress, makes you appear as if you belong,” she said. The tactic is especially effective with the Hilfiger ad, which eschews the vapid boosterism on display by these Woolrich boys in favor of an image that’s part homage, part parody. “Lampooning it makes it all the more appealing because Hilfiger has its own take on what Ivy League should look like,” Rosenbluth said. “These people are confident, smart and doing their own thing.”
Which means that you can, too. And nobody needs to know that you didn’t get into Harvard.