NEW YORK — The quintessential Ivy League look, born on college campuses more than a century ago and epitomized by tweed jackets, seersucker suits, khaki trousers and button-down oxford-cloth shirts, hit the peak of its popularity in the mid-1950s, had fallen out of favor by the '70s and today is invoked most often as the upscale ancestor of the preppy aesthetic. But thanks to a shelf's worth of recent and upcoming books, a new museum exhibition at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York and a new clothing line from J. Press — one of the Ivy League's earliest outfitters — interest in the look seems to be growing like kudzu.
The "Ivy Style" exhibition at the Museum at FIT, which opened Sept. 14 and will be on view through Jan. 5, is the museum's first effort dedicated solely to menswear. It focuses on apparel from the earliest years of the 20th century through recent designer collections arranged in tableaux that try to present the Ivy League man in his natural habitat — classroom, dormitory, fraternity, grassy campus quad and the like.
The exhibition was organized by museum deputy director Patricia Mears with co-curators and consultants Richard Press (former president of J. Press and grandson of founder Jacobi Press) and men's fashion writer G. Bruce Boyer.
Vintage pieces include crest-emblazoned and contrast-taped Princeton and Yale University blazers (from 1916 and 1919, respectively) and a 1966 J. Press Harris Tweed "Presstige" sport coat that's the very definition of the word "tweedy."
These pieces are displayed alongside modern-day iterations of the Ivy look by brands including Ralph Lauren and Brooks Brothers (the latter one of the exhibition sponsors). One particularly eye-catching ensemble that illustrates just how far the tendrils of Ivy's influence have stretched is an over-the-top Thom Browne fall 2012 menswear look that combines preppy pink, green plaids and allover hound dog prints with silver spikes at the crotch, shoulders and knees.
An accompanying book, "Ivy Style," edited by Mears (and published, appropriately enough, by Yale University Press) is due out in October, joining coffee table books such as Daniel Cappello's "The Ivy League," (published in April by Assouline); "Preppy: Cultivating Ivy Style" (published in October 2011 by Rizzoli), written by Jeffrey Banks and Doria de La Chappelle with a foreword by Lilly Pulitzer; and the gold standard of the oeuvre, the 2010 English translation of "Take Ivy," a Japanese book originally published in 1965 that is filled with campus candids of the Ivy League look. In addition, Ivy League style will be the focus of the museum's annual fashion symposium in November.
But the refocus on the style isn't purely academic. Among the lines making their debuts during the spring and summer 2013 runway shows in New York City this month was J. Press York Street, a new collection from the company (which was purchased by Japan's Onward Kashiyama Co. in 1986) designed by brothers Ariel and Shimon Ovadia, whose efforts with their own label, Ovadia & Sons, earned them a spot on GQ magazine's 2012 list of best new menswear designers in America.
With the York Street collection (the name is a nod to the location on Yale University's campus in New Haven, Conn., where Jacobi Press opened his first store in 1902), J. Press is attempting to dust off and reinvigorate the brand here in the U.S. To do so, the brothers Ovadia are mining the 110-year-old company's heritage for inspiration, taking key pieces and tweaking fits and silhouettes to feel more modern.
The resulting debut collection, scheduled to hit retail in the spring, includes a selection of khaki-colored suits, patchwork madras sport coats, oxford button-downs, polos accessorized with chambray bow ties and a seersucker piece or two thrown in for good measure. But the inaugural effort also includes military-influenced pieces, such as military jackets in nylon or cotton and cargo-pocket trousers.
To Press, who is no longer associated with the company that bears his family name, those kinds of influences make the look "the new, postmodern prep, derivative of the original Ivy League look."
Which brings up the question of what, exactly, distinguishes the Ivy League look from preppy style? While the exhibition touches briefly on the topic ("[S]ince 1980," reads a card accompanying one display, "preppy has encompassed a wider range of clothing elements, particularly women's fashion, and is more 'trend' driven than Ivy style"), others offered up more colorful explanations.
"Prep originally was the weekend look of Ivy" style, Press said. "You didn't wear your gray flannel suit to the golf club, you wore a madras jacket, a sports shirt and bright colors — pink, yellow and green. That was preppy."
Menswear consultant and stylist Michael Macko sees the Ivy League look as "pure and undistilled" while preppy is more of a hybrid — think urban preppy or Saharan prep.
"I think of it like Ivy [style] is the father; classic and old-school — J. Press and Brooks Brothers with Church's shoes — and preppy [style] is like he slept around and had a lot of interesting children," Macko said.
What's behind the interest in Ivy? Mears said the museum exhibition came about somewhat serendipitously, but she was partly motivated by the roots of Ivy style. "This was really classic, beautiful menswear," Mears said, "a look that was from America, and it was young American men that were setting trends and driving things in a direction that no one had really talked about before."
Mears' comment underscores that Ivy style isn't just tapping into the prevailing preppy trend or the consumer's ongoing appetite for heritage brands. It also happens to be a good, old-fashioned, made-in-America phenomenon — a cultural export with an influence on global style second only, perhaps, to the blue jean.
And Press, who worked in the family business from the time he graduated from Dartmouth in 1959 through the company's sale in 1986 (and for several years afterward as a consultant), points to fashion's inevitable pendulum swing.
"In 1954, Life magazine came out with an article that said: 'The Ivy League look takes over America and the home of the Ivy League look is J. Press,' and that was what I consider Ivy's heyday," he said.
"And last year, when I was giving a lecture to Yale students, one of the things I kept hearing was: 'Mr. Press, we're not interested in our fathers' look — we're interested in our grandfathers' look.'"Copyright © 2015, CT Now