As September rolled around this year, I found myself missing the start of a new academic semester and all the accompanying activities. The current exhibition up at the Fashion Institute of Technology provided an enjoyable antidote to life beyond graduate school with a lively installation that focuses on a small segment of fashion history.
Ivy Style chronicles the emergence of the preppy look in American dress, primarily focusing on the evolution of styles in menswear that pervaded across college campuses throughout the early to mid 20th century, eventually transforming into the more modern takes on this style that we still see today.
Installation shot, Ivy Style exhibition. From left to right: Brooks Brothers, wool suit, c. 1914, gift of Jessie L. Hill; Brooks Brothers, linen suit, c. 1920, museum purchase; L.F. Pike Co., Norfolk jacket and knickers, 1926, museum purchase; Beer suits, 1929 and 1930, Lent by The Bob Rodgers ’56 Reunion and Beer Jacket Collection of the Princeton University Alumni Council Committee on Princetoniana. Courtesy The Museum at FIT.
The exhibition begins with a primer of sorts where viewers are greeted with a platform of “Pre-War Ivy Style” ensembles flanked with quotes from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s, This Side of Paradise emblazoned across the walls. The significance of the manufacturer Brooks Brothers is firmly established within the canon of menswear history, and there are sack suits from 1914 and 1920, a norfolk jacket with knickers from 1926, and a most interesting pair of beer suits from 1929 and 1930 created by the company Free Land. Label text traces the beer suit as a campus phenomenon that was introduced in 1912 as an exclusive privilege for graduating seniors at Princeton University. These suits were re-purposed work wear, that was worn to protect nicer clothing from staining or other damage, and they became requisite wear for twenty five years of college reunion activities, after which point the reunion blazer was bestowed upon alumni.
Opposite this platform is a glass vitrine filled with pamphlets and literature that advise on the proper way to dress for young men, such as: The Art of Tying the Cravat published by Brooks Brothers, and The Official Preppy Handbook. Illustrations from the periodical Apparel Arts (founded in 1931) are hung on the walls, documenting the types of visual instruction young men relied on.
Installation shot, the chemistry lab, Ivy Style exhibition. Center: Cornell University sweatshirt, 1964, worn by Roger Sharp, Class of 1964, lent by Christopher Sharp. Courtesy of The Museum at FIT.
One of the most interesting forms of commentary that the clothing in Ivy Style provides is its illustration of a very specific lifestyle. The show relies strongly on this underlying context and incorporates it very well into the exhibition design by breaking the main space of the gallery into several themed vignettes that cumulatively provide a cohesive picture. This includes scenes such as a classroom, library, locker room, chemistry lab, dormitory, and even a grassy quad.
Installation shot, the library, Ivy Style exhibition. Left to right: Jeffrey Banks, ensemble, Fall 1980, lent by Jeffrey Banks; Ralph Lauren, ensemble, Fall 2002, lent by Ralph Lauren Corporation; Ralph Lauren, ensemble, Spring 1980, lent by Ralph Lauren Corporation; Ralph Lauren, ensemble, Fall 2003, lent by Ralph Lauren Corporation; Brooks Brothers, Prep ensemble, 2012, lent by Brooks Brothers. Image courtesy of The Museum at FIT.
Installation shot, Ivy Style exhibition. Left: Crested and striped blazers; Right: Ralph Lauren, ensemble, Fall 1980, lent by Ralph Lauren Corporation; Ralph Lauren, ensemble, Fall 2004, lent by Ralph Lauren Corporation. Image courtesy of The Museum at FIT.
Although some text instructs on the history of techniques like madras, of the trend for raccoon fur coats, or the significance of objects such as the gray flannel suit (referenced in the Sloan Wilson 1955 novel and the successive 1956 film The Man in The Gray Flannel Suit), the majority of the exhibition didactics focus on brand heritage.
Left: Installation shot, Ivy Style exhibition. Brooks Brothers, Prep ensemble, 2012, lent by Brooks Brothers. Right: Installation shot, Ivy Style exhibition. Left to right: Cardigan sweater, c. 1925, museum purchase. Brooks Brothers, wool pants, c. 1930, gift of Jessie L. Hill; Corduroy pants and tartan vest, 1960s, lent by The Cary Collection. Brooks Brothers, oxford shirt and blue blazer, lent by Brooks Brothers; Thom Browne, ensemble, Fall 2012, lent by Thom Browne. Both images: courtesy of The Museum at FIT.
It was not surprising to find a plethora of Brooks Brothers objects, Ralph Lauren, and Tommy Hilfiger in the mix. But there were some surprising interjections that livened up the display such as a Thom Browne ensemble from Fall 2012 that contains a mix of pink, green and cream tartan heavily embellished with metal spikes along the knees and crotch of the pants, with matching spikes along the shoulders of a green blazer also covered with pink embroidered dogs. Opposite this piece, even the surprising orange glare of a Princeton University reunion jacket seemed dated and tame.
Although the focus of the exhibition is on menswear, two women’s ensembles are slipped into the quad installation, which include a Perry Ellis pantsuit and sweater from 1981, and a Thom Browne ensemble for Brooks Brothers Black Fleece line.
It is also notable that literature supporting the Ivy look is skillfully woven into the supporting label text throughout the show, such as in the case of the author and designer Jeffrey Banks and his contributions to fashion through his designs as well as via his popular books: Tartan: Romancing the Plaid and Preppy: Cultivating Ivy Style.
The locker room or sportswear portion of the show includes football pants from 1915 paired with letter sweaters from the 1920s and once again, calls on the designer Thom Browne and his exaggerated mohair football ensemble to enliven the group. Pieces from Band of Outsiders Fall 2009 collection, and Tommy Hilfiger’s Spring 2012 presentation demonstrate simultaneously how body ideals have shifted while certain garment styles have remained more slow to change with time.
The dormitory section continues with the Brooks Brothers legacy using a pair of lounging robes, while the adjacent campus store plays an important role in the dissemination and promotion of all these looks throughout time. Brands like J. Press, Chipp, Corbin Ltd., and Gant are displayed amidst a mix of interesting accessories, many of which come from the Cary collection. There were belts, shoes, suspenders and slippers, and it would have been great to see dates and more specific information on these accessory objects.
Overall, the presentation is fun and engaging, and skillfully brings a less dynamic portion of fashion history to life. Although brands like Brooks Brothers and Ralph Lauren are ubiquitous in fashion today, it was interesting to learn about lesser known companies with long manufacturing histories in the United States. Brand heritage (and a culture of tradition in general) was an important underlying theme throughout the exhibition, and to unearth a little more interesting history along these lines, WT intern Michaela visited the Gant campus store in Princeton early this fall.
Below is Michaela’s investigation into the history of the brand Gant:
The 2011 opening of the GANT Campus Store marked a revival of the brand’s historic association with Yale University. This relationship began in the late 1920s, when Bernard Gantmacher, a Ukrainian immigrant, moved to New Haven by way of New York City and became recognized as a skillful shirtmaker in the private-label manufacturing business. Gantmacher’s sons Marty and Elliot established GANT of New Haven in 1949.
Collegiate style proved inspirational to the brothers. After observing G.I. Bill students wearing chinos similar to those worn in the Army, the pair produced a signature Chino and the pant’s stylish ease soon became an integral part of the Ivy look. GANT designed its Co-op Shirt exclusively for sale in Yale’s campus co-op. The shirt featured a button-down collar- a technique borrowed from British polo players- and a back loop, which a Yalie might have used to hang a shirt inside a gym locker or, more romantically, removed to signify that he was going steady.
Today, the Campus Store functions as an archive, proudly exhibiting press clippings, advertisements, and vintage garments to chronicle GANT’s Ivy League legacy. This is interesting from a fashion history perspective, and likely an effective marketing technique: shoppers can see the tony heritage they will adopt by wearing the brand.
Ivy Style will be on view through January 5th, 2013. Please see the museum website for additional information.
***Special thanks to the press office of the Museum at FIT, Douglas Geller from Gant USA, and Michaela for her research and collaboration on this post!***