The Genteel
April 12, 2021


Ivy Style has been the bloodline of American menswear. Photograph courtesy of Fashion Institute of Technology.

Whether you have old money, new money or no money, admission into the Ivy League is a prized accomplishment. But the fabled lands of Princeton, Yale, Harvard, Dartmouth, Columbia, Brown, Cornell and University of Pennsylvania weren't always so inclusive (many would argue they still aren't). 

The formerly all-male institutions were well-known for their discriminatory admission policies, secret societies and yes, dress codes. Ivy Style, a new exhibit at New York's Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT) speaks to the latter, profiling a century's worth of American men's fashion. Specifically, the show takes a thought-provoking look at the style of menswear that arose from America's most prestigious campuses in the 1910s to dominate the menswear aesthetic throughout the 20th century.

Ivy Style chronicles the influential
menswear style that emerged from
America's most prestigious campuses.
Courtesy of Fashion Institute of Technology.

Starting at Princeton, the exhibit takes visitors on a journey, highlighting crested blazers and lesser-known wardrobe staples, like the Princeton "Beer Suit" (white cotton overalls and a matching jacket). Items like buckskin shoes and white flannel trousers can also be traced back to the hallways of Princeton - arguably the ultimate symbol of American aristocracy, a place where even F. Scott Fitzgerald's protagonist, Amory Blaine indulged his social ambitions in the novel This Side of Paradise. Upon entering, visitors are greeted with Blaine's quotes, including his infamous line, "I think of all Harvard men as sissies."

The exhibit is not organised chronologically, but the effect is nonetheless magnificent. Set up in two main hallways, each space is divided into sections that mimic campus life - a classroom, the library, a dorm room (complete with copies of The New Yorker and Esquire), a grassy quad, an area devoted to varsity sports, and even a "university shop." Items like a luxurious raccoon fur jacket from the '20s or a madras sports jacket from the '70s are juxtaposed, with each setting conveying the overall, enduring legacy of Ivy Style. 

Despite its non-linear approach, the exhibit still manages to highlight key turning points in the style's trajectory - for example, its heyday in 1950s when Ivy Style reigned supreme with Kelly green cable sweaters, oxford shirts and penny loafers. "I can tell you it [the exhibit] evolved through a veil of tears, love and laughter," says Richard Press, former president of J. Press and a consultant for the exhibit. 

Fine tailoring and bespoke fashion was a way to join the elite, and gain access to the American Dream. Ivy Style told the world that you were going to make it, that you too belonged. 

Together with Patricia Mears, deputy director of the Museum at FIT and G. Bruce Boyer, a leading authority on men's fashion and former men's fashion editor for Town & Country, the trio carefully tell the story of Ivy Style - balancing the politics of exclusion and social class against the evolution of menswear in America.

Press, himself a graduate of Dartmouth (class of 1959), explains, "these people [early proponents of the Ivy Style], who really represented the wealthy in America… they believed in really understating their power, and they did that by dressing down. Which means their suits did not have big shoulders… they didn't wear shiny clothes, they wore English Tweeds with very dark colours…they were formally informal in their dress and that was the keystone to the Ivy League look."

Originally, the term "Ivy League" had more to do with intercollegiate football than educational standards. In 1954, the term became the official way to identify the eight schools that made up the Northeastern athletic conference. It has been suggested that Harvard, Columbia, Princeton and Yale were part of a much earlier grouping known as "I-V" in reference to the Roman numeral IV. The exhibit builds upon the root phrase by connecting the dots between varsity sports and mens fashion. Both boutique merchandisers and contemporary designers like Tommy Hilfiger have consistently drawn inspiration from football fields and locker rooms across the country. While taking a stroll through the exhibit's "campus," visitors listen to a mix of jazz standards and Ivy League marching songs, eyeing period photographs and sports memorabilia on loan from the Cary Collection (a comprehensive New York repository for rare books and vintage graphics).

In no way, however, do the period regalia outshine the work of the exhibit's real stars - Brooks Brothers, J. Press, Arrow, Gant, Chipp, Hathaway, Bass and The Andover Shop. Together these merchandisers built the foundation of Ivy Style and, inadvertently, what some might refer to as "preppy." From the Number One sack suit created by Brooks Brothers to classic Bass Weejuns (loafers), Ivy Style caters to purists and those with a longing for old-world tailoring. 

"My favorite item was my father's Glen plaid cashmere sport jacket," says Press, who donated several jackets and blazers worn by his father and grandfather.  

Ivy Style juxtaposes enduring pieces  
with modern reinterpretations.
Courtesy of Fashion Institute of Technology.

The show also pays homage to contemporary designers who have either been influenced by Ivy Style or have used its clothing tenants to revolutionise American menswear. Designs by Ralph Lauren, Michael Bastian and the whimsical Thom Browne are purposefully staged within the exhibit's various spaces, with each curated item celebrating craftsmanship, and a refined sense of comfort - the very definition of American menswear. 

The exhibit also coincides with the release of Ivy Style, a book of essays edited by Mears and published by Yale University Press. Christian Chensvold, a contributor to the book and founder of the blog Ivy Style, believes that the exhibit reflects a retail sensibility that is missing from contemporary menswear fashion. "Back in the day Ivy Style did not rely solely on star designers…. there were merchandisers and haberdasheries. That's what we need more of. There was so much more variety in fabric choices, you could have one cut and 50 different styles. You just don't see that anymore." 

Like any other art form, fashion evolves. And Ivy Style is no different. It is a code of dress that is no longer literal. Wearing a grey flannel suit or a sports jacket doesn't mean you belong to an exclusive society, or that you attend an Ivy League university. But a reverence for tenacious tailoring still denotes a level of prestige. It is both aspirational and practical. The dressmakers, tailors and merchandisers behind Ivy Style were largely Jewish. And in many ways, the story of Ivy Style is really the story of Jewish immigration in America. Fine tailoring and bespoke fashion was a way to join the elite, and gain access to the American Dream. Ivy Style told the world that you were going to make it, that you too belonged. 

Ivy Style will show until January 5, 2013 at New York's Museum at FIT. 



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