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"Ivy Style" Exhibit: Get Schooled on American Menswear's Campus Origins


Thanks to The Social Network, the Ivy League stylebook has expanded to include a certain iconoclast's signature hoodies, well-worn bathrobe, and ludicrous flip-flops. Luckily, Mark Zuckerberg's influence didn't reach "Ivy Style," a highly entertaining and appropriately named exhibit on display at the Museum at FIT in New York City through January 5.

Quaintly designed to resemble a college campus, complete with an ersatz library, leafy quad, and cramped dorm room, the collection fondly looks back at the diverse styles originating at Ivy League universities over the years and proudly presents retroactively silly trends right along with enduring classics. Whether you're checking out the former (e.g., ridicuous raccoon-fur coats) or the latter (unassailable Brooks Brothers blazers; pictured below), you can't help but notice a sense of purpose at play throughout the exhibit—and it's a doozy. "The idea of American menswear really begins right here," said Patricia Mears, the museum's deputy director, during my recent visit. Given that she was speaking to me in the shadow of two mannequins modeling the gorgeous eveningwear favored by pre-war Ivy Leaguers, it's an argument I'm not prepared to refute.

A warning to men who love vintage clothing: This exhibit will induce drooling. I, for one, will forever be on the lookout for pieces similar to the multicolored Chipp madras jacket (circa 1970; pictured below) and the red-and-white-striped flannel blazer (c. 1928) we passed as Mears led the way around "campus." Even the oh-so-Waspy tweed jackets from the legendary New Haven outfitter J. Press caught my eye, in part because, incredibly, the exhibit is short on earth tones.

"I was worried it was going to have way too much tweed," Mears said with a laugh. "But it actually turned out to have much more color than I thought it would."

Surprisingly, it's true--Ivy Style is not a gray-and-brown affair. Greens, pinks, and reds make regular appearances, often in the same outfit. For example, a tartan patchwork jacket from 1974, put together in what was commonly called the "Go-to-hell look," seems like something Rodney Dangerfield might have worn for a round of golf in Caddyshack.

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Seeing as I was wandering around a fake university, it seemed appropriate to learn a thing or two. Did you know that chinos began to appear on Ivy League campuses after soldiers, fresh from World War II via the G.I. Bill, began transitioning parts of their old military uniforms into their everyday outfits? Or that, in the roaring 1920s, imbibing Princeton students wore white "beer suits" over their clothes to protect themselves from the dangers of spilled alcohol? Neither did I.

The man responsible for many articles in the exhibit is Richard Press, who carefully assembled outfits designed by his influential grandfather Jacobi Press. While traditional J. Press and Brooks Brothers gear features prominently in the exhibit, it's fun to see styles loosen up and evolve over the years, from the formal evening ensembles of the 1920s to the preppy sweater-and-shorts combos of the fifties and sixties. Richard lent FIT pieces from his own collection, which the museum complemented with its own archives and contributions from Princeton, Cornell, and other Ivy League universities. The jumble of fascinating period pieces is put into context by a selection of modern takes from labels such as Thom Browne, Band of Outsiders, and Tommy Hilfiger.

Despite the fact that the trendsetters who walked Princeton's halls in the 1920s belonged, with few exceptions, to America's upper crust, there are fashion lessons to be had here for all of us. "For younger men, I hope it inspires a greater interest in dressing properly for the occasion," Mears said. "You don't always have to wear a T-shirt and jeans. A little bit of formality can look great and still have that sense of ease."

Gone are the days of wealthy young men changing from their morning suits into their evening suits. With the rise of denim and logo-emblazoned sweatshirts, not to mention hoodies and flip-flops, Ivy League campuses are no longer the bastions of high-end fashion that they once were. Still, just as the fresh-faced students of the pre-war era slowly incorporated pieces from the polo fields and tennis courts into their outfits, so, too, do fashion-forward youths match things like tweed blazers with skinny jeans today.

The exhibit—which those unable to attend can purchase in book form (from, you guessed it, Yale Press)—succeeds in backing up Mears' bold claim. Aside from cowboy hats and rough denim, the Ivies' fun, playful take on stiff British formalwear really is the beginning of American menswear, with much of it still very relevant. As for the beer suit, we'll let you know when that comes back in style.

—Keith Wagstaff is a writer and editor based in Brooklyn. Follow him @kwagstaff.


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