Richard Press, looking every bit the dapper sage and witty columnist, shot by Rose Callahan for her “Dandy Portraits” series.
In our last post, Ivy Style founder Christian Chensvold shared his embracing of black, the forbidden color of the trad wardrobe, as, if nothing else, a means of being a crow among the kelly-green parrots. Now columnist Richard Press recounts his rude awakening when he joined J. Press in 1959 and dared suggest the company stock a black item.
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The only time the Man In The Grey Flannel suit was ever draped in black was in the casket for his funeral. This lesson I learned at the start of my career in the family firm.
George Graham, the brilliant importer of English goods, was showing me and my uncle Irving, the great arbiter of Ivy style, his Welch Margetson British tie selections. I soon found myself salivating at the sight of a flamboyant yellow and red paisley blooming against a black ground, and enthusiastically suggested it.
“Strictly for cloak and suitors,” Irving said, painfully dismissing my choice as if I were a Borscht Belt comedian in the Catskills. “Anything like it with a navy ground?”
And just like that a longterm classic was born of that swatch book, and I had learned my lesson. Black may be suitable for evening wear, but that’s about it. There’s simply little place for it in the wardrobe of an American gentleman.
In 35 years at J. Press we never carried a black rep stripe or a black ancient madder necktie or scarf. However, there were two exceptions to the rule: a black silk knit tie to wear with oxford-cloth buttondowns (especially yellow and pink), and a black emblematic tie with a pink pig for the Porcellians at Harvard. Oh, and the Yale Fence Club tie and scarf, which came with double yellow stripes against a black ground.
When I moved on to FR Tripler, I found things were quite different than under the strict decrees of my father and uncle. Tripler carried black Chesterfield coats by Hickey Freeman; at J. Press they were always charcoal with only a black velvet collar. In furnishings, including Shaggy Dog sweaters, hosiery and sport shirts, the dirtiest color at J. Press was navy.
The snobbery of well fitting, meticulously tailored clothing of English and Italian fabrications in tasteful colors immune to becoming outdated is largely a remnant times past. Don Quixote tilting against the presiding windmills of vulgarity still chooses brown leather for day time and relegates black to evening wear only. — RICHARD PRESS
Today “Ivy StyIe” opens at the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology, and I’d like to extend a personal invitation to all who are able to come and visit. It’s been an absolute joy to work on and has brought back many memories of my own college years.
The exhibit incorporates elements of Ivy League life over the past century, and I was able to assist with some of the memory work. When decorating parts of the exhibit’s dorm-room area, I was reminded of my monk’s cell in Streeter Hall at Dartmouth. It was so monastic I would often flee it for the Tower Room in Baker Library and the embrace of the soft leather armchairs among the book-lined alcove lofts. The vistas of the White Mountains, barely visible through the six-paned Georgian windows, made it difficult to concentrate on any book I was reading.
Likewise, the exhibit’s chemistry classroom installation reminds me of my struggles to stay afloat in math and science courses, while I thrived in things like Comparative Literature and History. The elite social room area, represented with a tailcoat and dinner jacket, rekindles the jealousy I felt for those who could sip a chilled martini at Yale’s Fence Club after the football game, while I was stuck with flat Gansett slopped from a rusty keg into a waxed beer cup by a maladroit Chi Phi pledge in our dank and odorous party cellar in Hanover.
I helped to set up the FIT exhibit through a vale of tears and laughter shared with Patricia Mears, deputy director of the Museum at FIT, and fellow consultant G. Bruce Boyer. While I spent dozens of seasons peddling three-button suits on the floor at J. Press, Bruce was penning elegant books about the origins of menswear as Fashion Editor of Town and Country. Bruce mastered the sophistry and minutiae of the goods I peddled.
The blood that courses through my family’s veins is encapsulated in the centerpiece presentation of the sportcoat collection of my father, Paul Press. In the exhibit they are featured between the dorm room and social club, in the same way that he wore them in the campus stores in Cambridge and New Haven. Custom-tailored half a century ago in the third-floor workroom on York Street, they were pinned and chalked by Ralph Chieffo with fabric cut over paper patterns drawn by Dominic DiPetto. My father argued with Ralph to raise the cuff or move the button holes. There was blood, sweat and tears in every stitch. His Harris Tweed jacket still has a perceptible aroma of peat from its genesis in the Outer Hebrides. Glen Urquhart plaids and Scottish District checks retain the super-soft touch of cashmere and unmatched color fabrications that remain a signature of fabric supplier W. Bill of London.
Sometimes the memories that come flooding back aren’t even my own. Former Episcopal Bishop Paul Moore, Jr. recalls his college days in his book “My Harvard, My Yale.” He and his pals were once bailed out of the New Haven jail on a Sunday morning by my grandfather following a rowdy fracas outside Mory’s. They were singing Christmas carols to their fellow inmates when Jacobi Press, the local college tailor, appeared in a three-piece suit, watch chain and derby to bail them out. “J. Press had a small store on York Street and did more than anyone to establish the Ivy look,” Moore writes. “His tweeds were a little softer and flashier than Brooks Brothers tweeds, his ties a little brighter. J. Press’s sons assisted him and still run the business. We became friends as well as customers of the Press family.”
The story for our succeeding generations is the saga fluently presented in the MFIT exhibit, whose initiation begins at an entrance occupied by Brooks Brothers. The main wall is inscribed with a tribute to Brooks and Princeton by F. Scott Fitzgerald, excerpted from his debut novel “This Side Of Paradise” from 1920. Ephemera from the Brooks Brothers archives are also presented in a vast panoply of material from the past century.
Ralph Lauren is also fittingly honored with a star turn at the MFIT. “When I was a young man going to college I always loved the Ivy League Look, its ease and traditions,” he has written. “When I began designing menswear, I studied the timeless elements of this classic style.”
At last count more than 60 mannequins have been dressed for the show, some of them in full-on postmodern prep. The riffs by Michael Bastian, Thom Browne and Jeffery Banks go mano-a-mano with my dad’s Donegal Tweeds from the heyday.
Though it doesn’t appear in the exhibit, F. Scott Fitzgerald provided another apt quote: “There are no second acts in American life.”
“Ivy Style” — both the website and the exhibit of the same name — have provided me with a second act. I hope you’ll come and enjoy the performance. — RICHARD PRESS
“Your wedding day will be the second happiest day after you beat Yale,” Coach told the team in the locker room at Harvard Stadium before The Game.
John Phillips’ novel “The Second Happiest Day” may not be great literature, but if you want to experience the heyday of Ivy at Harvard, go find this book.
Phillips allegedly deflowered Jacqueline Bouvier in 1951 on a creaky hotel elevator in Paris before his bestseller was published. That’s when he was still known as John Phillips Marquand, Jr., not yet competing with his Pulitzer Prize father, J.P. Marquand. His dad’s book about an earlier Harvard generation, “H.M. Pulham, Esq.,” also chronicles the adjustment of a townie becoming a full-fledged Harvardian, eventually making the best clubs, receiving the ultimate organizing his class’ 25th reunion in Cambridge.
Lest we forget, Amory Blaine, Princeton hero in Fitzgerald’s “This Side of Paradise,” always claimed “Stover At Yale” was “his kind of textbook.” Nick Carraway went to Yale and so did Gatsby antagonist Tom Buchanan. Eli always got into the act.
My Princeton favorites are the work of Geoffrey Wolff, Class of 1960. “The Duke of Deception: Memories of My Father” is a knowing memoir of an errant father who got tossed out of Princeton, landed in jail, and ended his life in disrepute. “The Final Club,” is a novel with a protagonist from a public high school in Seattle with a Jewish mother and drunken father who masters bicker, Briarcliff, Lester Lanin, and crew on Lake Carnegie — a precis of the era.
The essence of Princeton nobility, Scott Fitzgerald self-destructs in a swath of booze at the 1939 Dartmouth Winter Carnival in that cruelly drawn and quartered Budd Shulberg novel “The Disenchanted.” In a different vein but with the same New Hampshire geography, Chris Miller’s “The Real Animal House” recalls Alpha Delta Phi’s dysfunction in days of yore at dear ol’ Dartmouth.
The more meaningful contribution the Ivy League provided America was a tradition of service exemplified in the nonfiction book “The Wise Men: Six Friends and the World They Made,” by Walter Isaacson and Evan Thomas.
In it the authors elevate the WASP ascendency beyond the gin-and-tonic, three-button snobbery of Old Money by describing the heroic examples of Dean Acheson, Charles E. Bohlen, W. Averell Harriman, George Kennan, Robert Lovett and John J. McCloy, who rescued the postwar world from chaos. The gift of public service these men provided the country is the real meat of Ivy. Read about them first, then go for the gravy. — RICHARD PRESS
Ivy isn’t Ivy anymore. Now it’s called “preppy.” Except Brooks Brothers is back in the fold announcing, “American Ivy” and “Trad & True New Arrivals for Fall.” It all gets very confusing. Last year’s items weren’t “trad and true?” Maybe they were just preppy.
The Ivy Style exhibit, which opens September 14 at the Museum of the Fashion Institute of Technology, lets viewers make the choice whether the historic Ivy League Look I grew up with has evolved naturally into preppy or been vulgarized beyond repair. There’s plenty of old Brooks Brothers in the FIT mix, together with J. Press, The Andover Shop, Chipp, Gant, Langrock — all the old standbys.
Preppy and Ivy was the life that late I led. It was in my blood, genes, and most of the air I breathed. The Ivy League Look was officially declared dead in the late ’60s? Baloney.
The Ivy campuses exploded in the ’60s. The assassinations, Vietnam protests, and civil disorder all cast their mark on the Ivy League as on the rest of America. Amid the unrest, corporations continued to prosper, the suburbs fostered a second-tier business elite which fulfilled its business and social obligations wearing Ivy League suits to the office and patchwork madras on the 18th hole. It was the best of times in the worst of times and I was on the fringes of glory.
“Dick Cavett’s Clothes by J. Press,” appeared weeknights for a long run on ABC-TV beginning in 1968. Ryan O’Neal, the first preppy pop icon, was outfitted for “Love Story” at J. Press’ Cambridge store. Robert Redford’s corduroy for “All The President’s Men” was chalked on our mezzanine floor. Lisa Birnbach’s preppy sendup included J. Press in the Locust Valley Lockjaw Hall of Fame. PYG (pink, yellow, green) worked the margins, but corporate America did not tolerate sloppy dress. There were no casual Fridays.
In 1980 Harvard and Yale banners hung over the counters, Ivy League songs played in the background and old-fashioned Ivy League was aggressively merchandised by J. Press licensee Onward Kashiyama in 75 stores throughout Japan. Jesse Kornbluth’s article in the June 15, 1980 New York Times Magazine headlined, “New Boost For The Old Guard: Japanese men are discovering the (American) stores synonymous with good taste.” Paul Stuart and Brooks Brothers also joined the frenzy across the Pacific. (Continue)
Yesterday Gant announced it will open three new retail stores later this year in Boston, Georgetown and Los Angeles. Today former J. Press president Richard Press talks about his New Haven partners and rivals, who got their start in the J. Press stock room.
When his sons got out of the army at the end of World War II, Bernie Gantmacher asked his pal Jacobi Press if he could give his sons Elliot and Marty a job in the stock room at J. Press.
Gantmacher had owned a shirt factory in New Haven since the ’20s and occasionally supplied J. Press. Packing the ties, shirts and arranging the haberdashery in the York Street store, the Gant boys inhaled the scent of Ivy and the rest is history.
They formed Gant Shirtmakers in 1949 and by the mid-’50s the discreet “G” on the bottom front of every Gant shirt became part of American menswear history. Soon campus stores in and outside the Ivy League, menswear shops beyond the Northeastern seaboard, and upscale department stores opened up Ivy League sections (before the invention of the clothing genre “preppy”) coast to coast. And a signature product was the Gant buttondown shirt.
I remember going head to head with Elliot and Marty at a party in New Haven. “We worked in your stockroom and you only buy a few sport shirts from us,” they said.
“Good luck selling to our competitors,” I replied. “We are grateful for your success.” The postprandial conversation continued merrily amongst the New Haven shirt cognoscenti.
Success prompted a similar situations at Paul Stuart, known in the ’50s as “the poor man’s Brooks Brothers.” The Gants also engineered a hundred-plus store contract with the Hart Schaffner Marx Retail Group, including Wallach’s, which maintained one of its many thriving stores around the corner from Paul Stuart on Fifth Avenue. That was the end of Gant at Paul Stuart, but Gant gained hundreds of new retail store customers.
Brook Brothers, J. Press, Chipp and The Andover Shop were the retail merchants serving the niche market of the boarding-school-to-boardroom Northeastern Elite.
Gant sold its Ivy-styled buttondown to American men who didn’t want to look like Main Street Babbitts. I recently visited the Gant shop in my old neighborhood on York Street, across from the Yale campus. It’s the same roost occupied once upon a time by Langrock and Arthur M. Rosenberg. Gant’s Yale Co-op line offers a keen glimpse of the past with much opportunity for future enhancement. The shop is archival without being dowdy and is a necessary stopover with visits to the British Museum of Art, the Yale Rep, or the Yale Admissions office — or Sally’s Apizza on Wooster Street.
The photo above was taken as I gathered some remnants of the past for the MFIT’s Ivy Style exhibit. — RICHARD PRESS