The history of menswear fashion is bound to the history of some of America’s most prestigious college campuses. In Ivy Style: Radical Conformists, a book of essays edited by The Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology’s Deputy Director, Patricia Mears, several menswear experts examine the “Ivy League Look” and describe a multifaceted and highly influential moment in fashion history. I sat down with one such expert, Richard Press, who is the former president of J. Press, a contributing writer to Ivy Style, and a co-curator of and consultant for the exhibition of the same name, which was recently on view at the Museum of the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City.
The collection of essays features beautiful archival pictures of the Ivy League schools significant to this history. Yale University and Princeton University are among these featured schools, and in my conversation with Richard Press, he clarified the importance of these two schools:
“There was a bruited discussion between all of the curators and the staff, including me, while we were formulating Ivy Style whether the aristocracy of the style was Princeton or Yale. In 1954, an iconic Life Magazine article (which was at that time the archetype of American media) said that the Ivy League Look ‘takes over America and its home is in New Haven.”’
It is important to note that this Life article was an assertion of the style’s progression, not its beginning. Before World War II, Princeton University was known to be the purveyor of Ivy Style.
“After World War I, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s first novel, This Side of Paradise, was released to enormous best seller fame and took place at Princeton University. Its main character, Amory Blaine, represented the so-called ‘Princeton aristocracy’. In Apparel Arts Magazine in the 1930’s, the magazine credits PrincetonUniversity as being at the throne of style of classic Ivy League fashion.”
And so, with the enormous impact of F. Scott Fitzgerald in the roaring 20s, Princeton was iconic; after World War II, it became Yale.
My conversation with Press turned away from our discussion of key American campuses and toward the key retailers present at this moment in the history of fashion. Ivy Style deals greatly with the contemporary evolution of Ivy Style, which brings to mind the common term, “preppy”.
“When the Ivy League Look was very popular throughout America it was not referred to as preppy. To the key retailers responsible for the Ivy League Look, like J. Press which was on the campus at Yale, Harvard and New York, we always referred (it was not a public term) to prep style as what we thought of as the weekend, country club, yacht, resort-style of the Ivy League Look.”
The terminology for this more casual version of the Ivy League look became popularized as “preppy” when in 1980 Lisa Birnbach published The Preppy Handbook. “Preppy” went national. Richard Press continues this history:
“Then it was adapted by, most recently, the national fashion media as represented by Tommy Hilfiger and Gant and J. Crew and most of the national stores with their pop-up fashion shows. My view is that it’s a vulgarization of the actual term Ivy Style.”
For those who missed the extraordinary “Ivy Style” exhibition at FIT, and are within striking distance of New Haven, all is not lost: Richard Press will be at the Yale Barnes & Noble Bookstore on Wednesday, February 6 at 3:00pm to show a short video of the exhibition, followed by a brief talk and Q&A session. We hope to see you there!
Caroline Hayes is a student at New York University and former Yale University Press intern.