Inspecting ‘Ivy Style’

The Fashion Institute of Technology museum unveiled a new exhibit last Friday, titled “Ivy Style,” which features the enduring classic menswear of the 20th century that formed on elite college campuses.
The Fashion Institute of Technology museum unveiled a new exhibit last Friday, titled “Ivy Style,” which features the enduring classic menswear of the 20th century that formed on elite college campuses. Photo by Grace Patuwo.

NEW YORK — A taste of the Ivy League has descended into New York’s Chelsea neighborhood with the opening of the “Ivy Style” exhibit at the Fashion Institute of Technology Museum last Friday.

Focusing on menswear, the show traces the evolution of classic American style from the elite campuses of yesteryear to the runways and streets of today.

The exhibition evokes a university setting with ensembles reminiscent of Ivy League campuses. At the very center of the exhibition space, a crowd of mannequins clothed in modern and period pieces stands in the middle of a grassy quad against the backdrop of a neo-Gothic façade akin to Calhoun College. At the other end of the room, athletic wear and school sweaters are displayed underneath argyle-patterned stained glass while a lounge, campus shop, classroom and dorm room line the sides.

From Nantucket reds to navy blazers, “Ivy style” occupies a well-established niche in American dressing. But even with perennial popularity of preppiness, many attendees at the opening reception said that they were not sure what to expect of the exhibit itself before they arrived.

“I thought it might be something like an ode to Ralph Lauren, J. Press and Brooks Brothers,” said Columbia alum Matthew Foley, an account executive with designer Thom Browne, one sponsor of the exhibit. “But I really love how it presents the history of the Ivy style instead.”

Widely regarded as an all-American look, Ivy League dressing actually had its origins in adaptations of the Englishman’s wardrobe at the turn of the 20th century.During the interwar years, the exhibit’s introductory inscription explained, Brooks Brothers and J. Press pioneered a redesign of British university-wear to outfit the young men of Yale, Harvard and Princeton; the designers reached college students through stores on their campuses. After World War II, this style of dressing expanded beyond the elite class as servicemen on the G.I. Bill diversified and democratized college campuses.

With increasing media coverage, the Ivy look soon reached national proportions in the 1950s as movie stars began copying the style, said Richard Press, the grandson of the founder of J. Press and a consultant on the exhibit.

“The highlight of my career,” Press said, “was when Frank Sinatra walked into J. Press, gave me a terrifying look-over and said ‘Let me see the 38-regulars because it’s time that I want to dress like an Ivy Leaguer.”

A former president of the New Haven-based family business, Press himself is a Dartmouth man (“I wanted to get away from New Haven for a little while!” he said).

In 2009, when the recession filled the nation with economic uncertainty, the comforting and familiar Ivy style again entered the arsenal of American fashion. This is, perhaps, of no surprise as fashion trends often reflect national sentiments: For example, colorless, utilitarian clothing pervades throughout periods of economic decline.

Unlike its brightly-hued preppy cousin, Ivy is a pure style that balances functionality and effortlessness, said exhibit curator Patricia Mears, deputy director of The Museum at FIT.

“I was particularly struck by how handsome and well-dressed, but also how at-ease, young men from Ivy League campuses looked in archival images from the 1920s and 30s,” she said of the inspiration for the exhibit.

While modern iterations may push the boundaries of classic dressing, timelessness still dominates the exhibit’s display: A line of historic class jackets fits in even across the aisle from updated Ralph Lauren and Thom Browne looks from the latest season. One item in particular speaks to the enduring nature of the Ivy style: a Yale jacket lent to the exhibition by Riley Scripps Ford ’10.

Ford received the navy sack suit — originally worn by his great-grandfather Warren Scripps Booth in the early 20th century — on his birthday just before entering Yale.

“At the same time my grandmother gave me this, we were getting our college assignments so it really got me excited about Yale,” Ford, a former staff columnist for the News, said. “When I got to Yale, it made me even more excited about the traditions in general. On the off-chance that my children go to Yale, I think it would be really cool if I could give this to them someday.”

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