Never in my life have I seen so much tweed and corduroy.
On view at the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology through January 5 is Ivy Style, an exhibition showcasing the men’s style that evolved at Ivy League universities in the early twentieth century and whose influence is still felt in contemporary men’s fashion. Included are items and ensembles from such designers and firms J. Press, Brooks Brothers, Chipp, and Ralph Lauren. The exhibition traces the development of the “Ivy” look from its origins at Princeton, Yale, and Harvard, up through its recent revival.
Immediately upon entering, visitors are greeted with two examples of the infamous “beer suits” onceworn by Princeton upperclassmen to prevent any spills from damaging the fine Brooks Brothers suits worn underneath. On the wall above are several quotations from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s This Side of Paradise, including the famous line, “I think of all Harvard men as sissies,” which produced a memorably controversial t-shirt before the annual Yale-Harvard football game in 2009.
The main gallery is divided into eight sections, representing different campus environments, which require different styles of dress. For instance, the campus quad on the far end of the room features an outrageous raccoon coat, while the generic dorm room by the entrance—complete with a copy of The New Yorker on top of the mattress and Esquire poking out from underneath it—shows two young men wearing lounge robes over their day clothes.
The preppy atmosphere is further enhanced by the piped-in music, a playlist of Ivy League fight songs and alma maters, as well as a few period standards, on loop. One item on the track is a smooth jazz number, which seems entirely out of place and nearly ruins the aesthetic. Thankfully, it lasts only a few minutes before “Bright College Years” comes in to save the day.
The exhibit is at its endearing best when the pieces show something about the personalities of their former wearers. It is difficult to look at the extravagant raccoon coat on the “campus quad” or the garish parti-colored madras jacket in the “university store” without imagining the eccentric young men who once sported them around campus. In one of the display cases sits a cigarette case covered with the athletic banners of the Ivies.
I was particularly fond of the collection of pre-WW2 blazers, with their bright colors, crested pockets, and—in several cases—bold stripes. One in particular, a Yale class jacket, belonged to the great-grandfather of its lender, a college acquaintance of mine, whom I saw wearing it on the streets of New Haven on more than a few occasions. It is in this respect that some of the contemporary ensembles on display go wide of the mark. Leaving aside two ironic perversions by Thom Browne, most of the designers’ pieces suggest “cover model” more than truly functional men’s daywear.
There are only two women’s ensembles in the entire exhibition, both of them without analysis or explanation, which screamed “missed opportunity.” I couldn't help but feel that, in an exhibit which looks back at the fashion trends of universities that were all-male at the time, any forays into women’s fashion need to be explored more seriously or left out entirely, rather than giving visitors the impression that something was left unfinished.
The accompanying volume, Ivy Style: Radical Conformists, published (appropriately) by Yale University Press, offers readers a historical overview of the development of “Ivy style”. Edited by Patricia Mears, the book is composed of essays by multiple fashion writers, including chapters on the famously stylish Duke of Windsor and the adoption of Ivy Style by American jazz musicians, as well as an extended interview with Richard Press, grandson of clothier Jacobi Press. The final two chapters focus, respectively, on modern interpretations of Ivy style by American designers, and on the influence of the Ivy look on contemporary fashion in Japan.
Both the book and the exhibition—which is conveniently located at Seventh Avenue and Twenty-Seventh Street, and free to the public—are entertaining and informative. For audiences who are not necessarily accustomed to gawking at fashion shows, Ivy Style is “well suited.”
Ivy Style is open at the Museum at FIT, Seventh Avenue at Twenty-Seventh Street, through January 5, 2013. Ivy Style: Radical Conformists is set for publication on November 13, 2012, by Yale University Press.