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How did personal taste and idiosyncrasy fit within J. Press offerings and customer consultations when the business was family owned? Here’s a precis from three generations of Presses who made the rules and sometimes broke them.
Before World War I, York Street in New Haven was lined by custom tailors who also dabbled in furnishings to meet the requirements of the students and faculty they served. My grandfather, Jacobi Press, tailored three-piece tweed, flannel and worsted suits for them, always searching for new resources in the British Isles to distinguish his fare from the competition. Suits were the order of the day. Single-breasted blue blazers were the only unmatched jackets he offered, usually accompanied by grey flannel trousers, whipcords or white duck trousers, the singular uniform for resort wear.
The Guns of August impelled my grandfather to break with tradition. Foreseeing the possibility of a trade embargo, he boosted his stock of English merchandise before America’s entry into World War I. During the war, his civilian trade evaporated and domestic gabardine was the fabric used for the for military officers’ uniforms he tailored during the duration. At war’s end he was faced with a grossly unequal quantity of tweeds and flannels mixed with unlikely gabardine remainders from uniforms that were impossible to divide into suits. His solution was to make up odd tweed jackets separately and accompany them with odd grey flannels and gabardine trousers. Yale customers cheered the new look, which became a uniform of choice for the tables down at Mory’s.
After World War II, the GI Bill of Rights heated up a simmering melting pot for those not born into the white-shoe traditions of the Ivy League. The exploding population of veterans chose to adopt the historical wardrobe of their campus peers, making it their own, and revolutionizing the retail requirements of the campus stores. Jacobi’s sons, Irving and my father Paul, engineered a full deep bench of ready-to-wear clothing made exclusively for J. Press with favorable prices to fit the budget for non-trust fund Ivy Leaguers.
The Ivy League Look was not only the wardrobe of choice for Joe College. The coffers of corporate America were teeming with Ivy graduates on Madison Avenue, Wall Street and the all councils of power during the heyday of The American Century.
Delineating J. Press from Brooks Brothers and other Ivy retailers, the Press brothers conceived of a variety of signatures setting their wares apart from that of others. Center hook vents were the trademark on all suits and sportcoats. High gorge lapels deftly accommodated the extreme J. Press sloped shoulder. Full-body dress shirts camouflaged muscular torsos of varsity football players, together with the beer bellies of their boozer buddies. The cognoscenti identified with the snob appeal of flap pockets on every J. Press shirt.
Ready-to-wear sportcoats and suits promoted soft finished fabrics of understated coloring. Black was verboten, restricted for formal wear. Neckwear categories were selected across the pond by Irving Press. He made certain his choices were restricted to J. Press. The Irish poplins, ancient madders, English reps, wool challis, and India madras were not available only on our counters. Irving designed and trademarked the famous Shaggy Dog hand-brushed Shetland sweaters specially made for J. Press by Drumohr of Scotland.
Tradition is not unbending. I left Dartmouth for a stint in the army before entering the family business in 1960, the dawn of JFK’s New Frontier. Changes I orchestrated for the new era were often met by clashes with my father and uncle, who were determined to maintain the order of past times. My goal was to engage the enthusiasm of the Mad Men in our Ivy meat market on 16 East Forty-Fourth Street.
Non-Ivy Leaguers were previously neglected and we engaged their preferences for two-button, front-darted suits in the New York store. Tradition had roots not necessarily reflected at the time, but were standard in the 1930s. Four-inch wide ties reflected demands from junior A-listers sporting their fathers’ vintage clothing recovered from family trunks. I ordered them. Uncle Irving threatened me, “You’ll pay for every goddamn one we don’t sell.” Walter Cronkite spotted them about town. I appeared on his newscast, beating Ralph Lauren to the wide-tie punch. Lilly Pulitzer approached us and designed caricatures for us with Yale Bulldogs, Dartmouth Indians, Princeton Tigers, and the whole Ivy caboodle.
We nudged India madras ties into wraparound belts for summer wear. Tussah silk buttondown shirts made their debut as a scrappy formal dress shirt with black studs. Taking a cue from 1930s Gentleman’s Quarterlies, I revived wing-collar shirts for dinner jackets.
Hosiery meant socks and garters. Jacket length was at the tip of a clenched fist. Forty regular jackets had a forty-inch chest. Idiosyncratic customers chose custom for peak lapels, side vents, roped shoulders, and Duke of Windsor fabrics, but stayed in the Press camp out of loyalty and respect for the quality inherent in all offerings.
My grandfather’s family’s rabbinical tradition died in the shtetl when he came to America. The fourth generation of Presses opted out at the sale of J. Press to Onward Kashiyama in 1986. The beat goes on, though to the tune of a different drummer. Hollywood Entertainment Manager Ben Press promulgated family tradition at last year’s Golden Globes decked out in a 1968 dinner jacket bequeathed by his grandfather Paul. Alex Shekachman of the London Daily Mail pegged him one of the evening’s best dressed.
Alas, family blood no longer courses through the veins of the great Ivy retailers. Brooks Brothers, Gant, J. Press and Paul Stuart follow the direction of their international parent companies. Meanwhile, Ivy/Prep derivatives swim in an ocean of cute names, paying scant attention to the workmanship and quality in the archival treasure of the look.
Bang the drum slowly, for anything goes. — RICHARD PRESS
As we approach the 50th anniversary of the March On Washington and Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have A Dream” speech, Richard Press shares this memory about the time his father bequeathed to King a small gift.
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My father Paul Press met Martin Luther King, Jr. at a Reform Jewish Temple in New Haven. Dad was president of the temple and Robert E. Goldberg its rabbi.
Goldberg, a jocular and very left-wing Talmud scholar, was a close friend of playwright Arthur Miller and officiated his marriage to Marilyn Monroe. He was also arrested with Dr. King in 1961 during a peaceful civil rights demonstration in Albany, Georgia.
They shared the same jail cell, and while incarcerated Goldberg invited to speak at his New Haven temple.
On the day of his visit, my father, as president of the temple, picked up King at the railroad station. After the event, on the way back to the station, both men admitted they were starved. Dad suggested they head over to Yankee Doodle, the popular Eli hangout directly behind the J. Press store on York Street.
Wolfing down cheeseburgers, fries and chocolate milk shakes at the narrow sandwich counter, King suggested, “Mr. Press, how about taking a visiting preacher on a tour of J. Press?”
King admired the hundreds of ties strewn along the open counter, picking up reps, ancient madders and wool challis, asking their derivation and how each should be worn. Breaking the interrogation, Dad picked out a midnight blue emblematic tie with crests from one of the Yale colleges. Dad folded it into a long narrow tie bag emblazoned with the J. Press circular logo. “Dr. King,” he said, “here’s a souvenir of your cheeseburger stop at Yale.”
Several years later, the men met by chance at the San Juan airport in Puerto Rico. “Dr. King, you may not remember me…” my father began.
King immediately interrupted him. “Paul Press, Bob Goldberg’s friend from New Haven. Don’t worry, Mr. Press, I still wear the tie, but I threw out the bag.” — RICHARD PRESS
The laws of acceptance and exclusion were epiphanies I experienced during my days at the prep school Loomis, now known as Loomis Chaffee. My own humble status skyrocketed the day the November 22, 1954 issue of LIFE Magazine came out, which proclaimed the Ivy League Look a national style sweeping the country from its wellspring of J. Press in New Haven. The magazine turned up in every student and faculty room on campus.
Suddenly I was greeted with regal bows that I responded to with an embarrassed nod characterizing the newfound national celebrity of the family business. The St. Grottlesex schools, plus Hotchkiss, Exeter and Andover, were always more hip to J. Press than Loomis.
Before World War I my grandfather Jacobi began merchant-tailor trunk shows at boarding schools throughout the Northeast. Loomis was the only one that refused him entree. “Mr. Press,” Headmaster Nathaniel Horton Batchelder told my grandfather, “one-third of my boys receive financial aid. They can’t afford to buy custom suits, and I will not allow them to be embarrassed being unable to patronize your shop on campus.”
Grandpa thereafter declared Loomis “the most democratic prep school in the country.” His sense of fair play overcame his retail defeat, paving the way for three grandchildren to graduate from Loomis.
In 1954, the Ivy League Look was the preppy look of the time. Boarding schools required coats and ties for morning chapel, classes and the dining hall, with suits required for Sunday chapel. Since I was carrying the flag for J. Press, the bar was set much higher for me. My narrow closet was swimming in Shetlands. Note that in the above yearbook picture of the Loomistakes, a group of acappella songsters, I — the second from left — am the only one with a tie clip and grey flannels. Jeans were considered beyond the fringe. Khakis were standard gear often bought at $3.99 in local Army-Navy Surplus stores. Most of us favored white bucks, preferably dirty. Tab collar shirts were nearly as popular as buttondowns. Most of the sport jackets were tan with an even mix of blue blazers..
The Loomis singing groups were directed by faculty member Frank House, a Whiffenpoof and former member of the Yale Glee Club. A tall lanky guy who taught English and coached soccer. His wife was a walking double of Barbara Bush, an amusing coincidence since he was a first cousin of George Herbert Walker Bush. He stole the Loomis repertoire from the Whiffenpoofs:
The old songs, the old songs,
Those good old songs for me.
I love to sing those minor chords
In good close har-ahr-monee!
For the record, here’s where the Loomistakes went to college: Yale, Princeton, Harvard, Dartmouth (moi), two to Middlebury, and the blonde second tenor in the middle, the all-American honcho, to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. An unidentified baritone in the photo flunked out.
And now a disclosure 59 years after the fact: the blonde WASP honcho beat me out for the honor of Class Best Dressed.
He got all his clothes at Brooks Brothers. — RICHARD PRESS
The role of Yale in American popular culture and the sartorial legacy of New Haven together comprise the metaphor of my life.
Ivy Style jogged my memory a few weeks ago when we posted an ad for Macy’s showroom on York Street from a 1941 edition of the Yale Daily News. “Macy’s Knows Its Yale,” the advertisement bragged, unaware that Yale was about to trade in its civilian tweeds for military khakis. Macy’s closed promptly after the attack on Pearl Harbor. After the war, Saks Fifth Avenue opened a sleekly timbered University Shop on the same premises, just two doors from the fabled tables down at Mory’s.
What prompted each of the country’s largest and swankiest department stores to join a cavalcade of stars, including a blackfaced vocalist and America’s top crooner, eager to identify with Yale?
“America’s Crooner” Rudy Vallee, Class of 1926, worked his way through school playing the saxophone and singing at country clubs and proms with the Yale Collegians. Fellow band member and Yale Law School plugger Irving Press, my uncle, shared the stand with him as violinist. Vallee flaunted Yale in vaudeville appearances and Hollywood movies sporting a raccoon coat and warbling “The Whiffenpoof Song” into a megaphone. (Continue)
Beginning in 1968, the credit “MR. CAVETT’S wardrobe furnished by J. PRESS” appeared at the end of his late-night talk show.
The producers had approached me with the idea of dressing Cavett. We agreed with them that Cavett, a Yale graduate, and J. Press was a good match for brand identification. Cavett entered Yale in the fall of 1953 out of Lincoln High School in Nebraska, an unlikely preparation for sharing cups and Welsh rarebits at the tables down at Mory’s.
His breakthrough as a standup comic occurred with socko appearances on “The Johnny Carson Show.” ABC-TV bought his act and placed him in the time slot opposite Carson. He was not interested in presenting himself as an Ivy League version of Carson, but his manner of dress still said New Haven rather than Johnny’s Pebble Beach. He wore natural-shoulder suits, sport jackets and blazers in the standard J. Press two-button model, front darted, mixing center-hook-vents and occasionally side-vented jackets, which he usually wore open. Trousers were plain front, never pleated, and complemented his rather slight stature. Dress shirts were straight point collar, never pinned, and he kept the collar stays in. Ties were 3 3/4 rep stripe and ancient madder.
Throughout the ’70s his sideburns grew longer and his suit collars wider in equal proportion. Our veteran fitter on 44th Street expertly crafted the jackets with slight waist suppression and trousers with a 20-inch knee and 17-inch bottom.
GQ recently labelled J. Press’ new York Street collection an attempt to rescue the brand from its “fusty” and deteriorating customer base. My decades on the floor at J. Press bring to mind the question whether retail conglomerates can successfully respond to the demands of a formerly dedicated clientele and still attract new customers.
Cavett’s wardrobe was a mirror image of the product culled directly from the 32-page semiannual J. Press brochure. The fabrics, colors, textures and patterns respected his outlier Nebraska roots while staying true to the clothing that surrounded him during his undergraduate years in New Haven. Cavett was never mock-Ivy, draped with buttons and spurs in flannel and tweed. The seven to nine-ounce clear finished worsteds maintained their shape and crisp appearance even on a set bathed for 90 minutes in the sweltering heat of spotlights.
Cavett rarely engaged us in over-the-top banter. Unlike Frank Sinatra ,who was always accompanied by a keening entourage, Cavett maintained a discreet privacy and bolted the store the minute he left the fitting room.
The guests of his show were uncannily chosen to match his acerbic wit. “The Dick Cavett Show” captured a niche audience ravenous for the sophisticated repartee of a Yale intellectual. Who would have thought it possible on national television years before cable and the Internet arrived?
Here’s Cavett with Gore Vidal and Norman Mailer, making for quite the contrast with today’s late-night fare. — RICHARD PRESS