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Golden Years: The Battle To Dress JFK

Tue 22 Nov 2011 - Filed under: 1960s,Clothes,Personae,The Golden Years by Richard Press — Christian
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Forty-eight years ago today, President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, TX. Richard Press remembers this icon of American politics and who won the battle to dress him.

The epic saga of President John F. Kennedy’s individual travail and public triumph is recounted with explicit and captivating detail by Chris Matthews in his new best-selling anecdotal biography, “Jack Kennedy: Elusive Hero.”

Scant attention is paid in the book to the candidate’s wardrobe, but Matthews included a revealing moment from the 1959 Wisconsin primary. Kennedy’s local operatives wanted him outside the factory gates at six in the morning in sub-zero temperature, and figured he would wear his heavy blue overcoat topped with a fur-trimmed aviator hat. Instead, JFK threw out the hat and braved the cold in his favorite H. Harris custom-tailored Shetland Tweed Herringbone Topcoat.

Matthews failed to include JFK’s dumping of H. Harris, his longtime Savile Row tailor who maintained a New York branch on 57th Street run by third-generation family member Sam Harris.

Seven months after the inauguration, “Tailor” Sam Harris, as he was condescendingly described in LIFE Magazine, disclosed the intimate wardrobe details of his most prominent customer. Harris concluded his comments with a benediction from hell, “He is the best dressed president since Grover Cleveland. We made his suits, too.”

There were no more “happily-ever-afterings” in Camelot for Sam Harris.

This was all undisclosed to the public, but Frank Brothers/Fenn Feinstein leaked to a Connecticut newspaper that the president got rid of his tailor because of the LIFE article. Fenn Feinstein, whose client roster included Kennedy brother-in-law Sargent Shriver and Gov. Abe Ribicoff, speculated that JFK might come on board.

Irving Press and my father, Paul, reached out to our J. Press regulars. The Kennedy circle included Charlie Bartlett, who introduced Jack to Jackie, longtime JFK intimate Chuck Spalding, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., FAA head Jeeb Halaby, foreign affairs advisor Bill Bundy, Kennedy personal photographer Mark Shaw, and his chief economic advisor Walter Heller.

Chipp, however, won the contest by default. Their stalwart customers included JFK’s brother Bobby, brothers-in-law Peter Lawford and Steve Smith, and Defense Secretary Robert McNamara. Sid Winston, his son Paul and master fitter Bob DiFalco began to include the White House on their finished-garment schedule.

These tailoring tidbits were admittedly incidental to Matthews’ great new addition to Kennedy lore.

The night Marilyn Monroe delivered her allegedly drunken rendition of “Happy Birthday, Mr. President” to JFK in Madison Square Garden, Jimmy Durante also croaked his birthday tribute to the president in raspy Brooklynese, “The song’s gotta come from the heart.”

Chris Matthews’ book comes from the heart. — RICHARD PRESS

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Golden Years: Ivy Trunk Shows During The Heyday

Tue 15 Nov 2011 - Filed under: The Golden Years by Richard Press — Christian
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They never taught me how to baste a suit at Dartmouth, but I had to learn how in a hurry when Ray Jacobs got sick on the road.

“The road” was the term used to describe retail travel exhibits that fulfilled the clothing needs of Ivy grads after they left college and refused to partake in the padded shoulders or faux-Ivy enticements found on Main Street.

In 1959 Brooks Brothers, Chipp, Arthur M. Rosenberg, Fenn-Feinstein, The Andover Shop and J. Press sent dozens of salemen to more than 50 cities across the country to promote their three-button, soft-shoulder wares.

At the time, a quarter of the J. Press business came from the road, a tradition from the ’20s when the salemen, including my father, sold their wares at boarding schools including St. Paul’s, Groton, Choate, Taft and Hotchkiss. When I went for my interview at Andover the admissions officer told my father he remembered buying his first suit from him.

The southern route for J. Press was covered by Ray Jacobs, an endearing and witty raconteur who served more than a generation of loyal customers from Philadelphia to New Orleans. Once on his rounds in Washington, measuring a suit for the imperious but underwear-clad Dean Acheson in his office at the State Department, Ray was going slowly and Acheson had appointments coming. “Ray,” said Acheson, “you’ll have to hurry up before my appointment comes. It really wouldn’t do for the Secretary of State to be caught with his pants down.”

The train rides themselves held all sorts of entertainment. One time Ray grabbed Jerry Lewis in the bar on a train from Philadelphia and screamed, “You stole my act!” The repartee ended to a round of applause from the lounge car as they rolled into Penn Station.

As for myself, I was the low man on the payroll waiting to begin my six months as a private in the Army Reserve when, with two days’ notice, I was called off the bench to serve as a varsity substitute on Ray’s next  stop, Paul’s Below The Steps, a cigar store across campus at the University of Virginia.

That’s when I found out about the basted try-on for Colgate W. Darden, Jr., Dean of University of Virginia Medical School. A basted try-on prepares the needlework of a garment for sewing. I didn’t know how to read a tape measure, let alone pin a suit. Even worse, the fitting was for a white tie and tails Darden was planning to wear for a gala event at Monticello.

Ralph Chieffo, Sr. was the chief fitter and designer at J. Press’ York Street headquarters. Before his career at J. Press he operated a custom tailoring school in New Haven and wrote the textbook “How to Tailor a Custom Suit.” He quickly gave me an emergency tutorial.

Arriving late at night in a deserted Charlottesville depot, I managed to haul the merchandise trunks from the baggage car and drag them on a wagon to the hotel. Those days railroad travel was primitive in rural Virginia. The following morning I set up shop, a pop-up store that was a York Street Potemkin Village in back of the Playboy magazines and cigar humidors.

Warehouse racks and bridge tables displayed the sample inventory amid a symphony of ancient madder, Irish poplin, and stacks of English swatchbooks. Three thousand Virginians received postcard notices for the showing. The business was brisk and I acted like a seasoned pro pinning up Dean Darden. He later told Ray to send his regards to the young Mr. Press for his fluent fitting debut.

The road trip continued to the Dupont Hotel in Wilmington where I outfitted a contingency from the Dupont family on their home grounds. Fast-forward to a final port of call at the Bellevue Stratford in Philadelphia, with a late inning at the posh St. Anthony’s Club at the University of Pennsylvania.

It was the birth of a salesman. But three weeks later I was a private at Fort Dix, where my try-ons were KP and latrine duty. — RICHARD PRESS

Richard Press is the grandson of J. Press founder Jacobi Press. A graduate of Dartmouth, he worked at the family business from 1959-1991, ultimately serving as president. He also spent four years as president and CEO of FR Tripler. He lives in Connecticut.

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Golden Years: New York Nightlife In The ’50s

Fri 14 Oct 2011 - Filed under: 1950s,The Golden Years by Richard Press — Christian
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During the Eisenhower years, Manhattan was an island of social, economic and cultural equanimity. The legal drinking age was 18, the bars stayed open until four in the morning, and the Biltmore Hotel advertised special student rates for Seven Sisters and Ivy Leaguers.

Here are some memories from those days of my misspent youth.

The hub was Under the Clock at the Biltmore, where everybody poured through the tunnel from Grand Central. The Palm Court was next to the hotel lobby and served convenient cocktails along with Emory Deutch and his violin, who serenaded a conspicuous and well groomed college crowd. On holiday weekends it took on the appearance of a freshman mixer in Northampton.

A couple of blocks away, social climbers patronized the Stork Club. Sherman Billingsley, a former prohibition bootlegger, was saloon keeper and arbiter of Cafe Society. He famously gifted samples of Sortilege, his signature perfume, and winked if your companion stashed a Stork Club ashtray into her handbag. For the price of a drink at the bar you gained entree to the plush Cub Room for a rhumba played by Payson Re’s orchestra. This was the upscale part of the evening. The nitty-gritty was at Jimmy Ryan’s.

Before Elvis or the twist, the popular sound of New York was Dixieland. The uptown headquarters was Jimmy Ryan’s, where Wilbur de Paris and his band turned 52nd Street into Rampart Street.

Ryan’s was a prep United Nations. The room was not restricted to the Ivy League, but was a democracy that also welcomed outliers from far-flung places like Rutgers, Lehigh, RPI or CCNY. The insiders knew when you bought intermission pianist Don Frye a drink; he never forgot and rewarded you at the door or even a trip to the men’s room with a six-step pianistic flourish.

Dixieland in the 1950s was a revival of the earlier Jazz Age chronicled by F. Scott Fitzgerald in “The Great Gatsby”:

All night the saxophones wailed the hopeless comment of The Beale Street Blues while a hundred pairs of golden and silver slippers shuffled the shining dust.

Dixieland clubs were all over town. Central Plaza Casino and Stuyvescent Casino were seedy second-floor union halls on Second Avenue with sawdust on the floor and spilled pitchers of beer. Bobby Hackett, Conrad Janis, Zutty Singleton and the regulars climaxed the evening strutting around the room while playing “When The Saints Go Marching In.”

Farther downtown, Nick’s specialty was Pee Wee Irwin in jam sessions. Eddie Condon’s provided the wayward horn of Wild Bill Davison, and the sotto voce tableside vocals of legendary trumpeter and proprietor Eddie Condon.

The marriage between Dixieland and Ivy was finally consummated at two sold-out concerts in Carnegie Hall during the 1955 Thanksgiving vacation. Princeton’s Tiger Town Five, led by clarinetist Stan Rubin (pictured above on a 1959 album), had appeared on Steve Allen’s “Tonight Show” and previously gigged at Jimmy Ryan’s. Their Friday-night concert also featured Eli’s Chosen Six, from Yale.

The Saturday-night concert began with Williams College Spring Street Stompers. The Indian Chiefs followed after intermission before a boisterous Dartmouth-loaded audience that prompted security to stop the show with a warning to the students to curb their enthusiasm.

The Broadway Musical was in its heyday during this decade. Orchestra seats on Broadway were reasonable, and we all went to the theatre and belted out the songs from “Damn Yankees,” “The Boy Friend” and “The Pajama Game” at parties. The Waverly Lounge at the Hotel Earle on Christopher Street was a great hangout for fans of the genre. Laurie Brewis, a fey bistro version of Noel Coward, was the featured pianist and lounge singer. He was accurately billed “The London Edition of Showtune Encyclopedia,” and made a specialty getting to know his college devotees on a first-name basis.

There was more on the fast New York track than the sound of music. Cerebral standup comedy was provided at the Blue Angel by Mort Sahl, who preceded Woody Allen in the hearts and minds of Ivy League Adlai Stevenson-type intellectuals.

At the other end of the spectrum, a $7 cover charge with a two-drink minimum was the price at the Copacabana for a bridge-and-tunnel spectacle of buxom chorus girls and comedian Joe E. Lewis in his drunken Damon Runyon act about bookies, barkeeps and broads. I can still remember the punchlines.

Last call and last dance, the morning sun peeking over the Queensboro Bridge, the goings on about town always closed with bagels, lox and eggs at Reuben’s. — RICHARD PRESS

Richard Press is the grandson of J. Press founder Jacobi Press. A graduate of Dartmouth, he worked at the family business from 1959-1991, ultimately serving as president. He also spent four years as president and CEO of FR Tripler. He lives in Connecticut.

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Golden Years: Shoe vs. Weenie

Thu 8 Sep 2011 - Filed under: The Golden Years by Richard Press — Christian
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Ivy Style’s homage to white bucks in autumn continues with these reminiscences by Richard Press, grandson of J. Press founder Jacobi.

* * *

For Yale men, Barrie Ltd. was shoe headquarters since the Isaacs brothers opened their narrow slot of a store attached to J. Press in 1934. Bob and Barry Isaacs always had their shoes made specially for them and sold under their Barrie Ltd. private label, which afforded them very competitive pricing for students and faculty.

Barrie’s, with an assist from Brooks Brothers, were the birthers of White Shoe Chic that ran parallel to the growing influence of the natural shoulder suit sold by its York Street neighbor. I remember when Barrie’s temporarily warehoused all those white bucks next door at J. Press until shelf space opened up to move them into the greedy hands of reunion classes eager to replace their old white bucks from the good old days gone by. (Continue)

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Golden Years: New Haven, Home of the Ivy League Look

Wed 17 Aug 2011 - Filed under: The Golden Years by Richard Press — Christian
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In 1954, LIFE Magazine declared New Haven the home of the Ivy League Look, writing “Sometimes regarded as more of a club than a clothes shop, J. Press is delighted rather than dismayed that its look is now capturing the country.”

Though it is closely associated with Old Blue, J. Press was hardly the only purveyor of collegiate clothing surrounding the Yale campus.

Retail fashion was sparse when David T. Langrock first opened his shop in a mock Tudor building on the central corner of York and Elm. Mr. Langrock, an enterprising retailer, was also a savvy real estate operator. The majestic Sterling Memorial Library was built on land he had acquired and which he subsequently sold to Yale. Langrock’s in 1950 had branches in Providence, Boston, New York and Washington DC, but when the lights of Ivy began to dim, closed its branches and left New Haven to concentrate on its still thriving store on Nassau Street in Princeton. (Continue)

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Golden Years: The Ivy Look, a Dispatch from Dartmouth, 1955

Thu 14 Jul 2011 - Filed under: 1950s,Clothes,Historic Texts,The Golden Years by Richard Press — Christian
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In his previous columns, Richard Press has shared his memories of the Ivy heyday and his decades at J. Press. This time he shares something he wrote in 1955 while a freshman at Dartmouth. It has the triple importance of being authored at an Ivy League college by a family member of one of the preeminent Ivy clothiers and written at the dawn of the heyday.

Entitled “The Ivy Look,” the article appeared in DART, the school’s humor magazine, and was co-authored with Art Zich, who later became a foreign correspondent for Time-Life and associate editor of Newsweek.

Pictured above is the original artwork that accompanied the story.

* * *

“Who is that fellow in the Ivy League suit?” It’s being whispered on campuses everywhere and not without reason. With the resurgence to conservative dress, people are finding it difficult to tell one friend from another. What’s more, it’s getting so that people can’t even tell themselves from each other. The social implications of this situation are obvious when one considers brushing your teeth, or borrowing a necktie from someone, who, when you return it, turns out to be yourself.

The problem is not a new one, however, as members of the turn-of-century classes will admit once they have admitted they are members of the turn-of-the-century classes. The well-known “Ivy Look” had its beginnings at New Haven in the days when McKinley was president, starting the day McKinley was shot. Students usually purchased their clothing from small, modest shops, and for this reason “Ivy Look” tailors made little or nothing. Gradually, however, there emerged the distinctive, sophisticated attire of the Ivy Leaguer (in many ways similar to the Texas Leaguer, the Bush Leaguer, and the Real Eager but much more distinctive, of course).

The most popular outfit in those days was the custom-tailored suit, so-called because it was the custom to tailor the suit so you couldn’t afford it. The custom-tailored-suit gave way to the ready-made-suit, which in turn gave way, but could be held together with safety-pins. Other popular “Ivy League” numbers are the Summer (summer expensive and summer cheap), the Gasuit (to be worn by people with head colds), and the bridal suite (ten dollars night and breakfast in bed with coffee and rolls).

The first important change in the manner of “Ivy Look” dress after 1900 was the arrival of the “odd jacket” or sports coat, worn with “slacks” so called because of the condition of your wallet after purchasing. The “sport coat” is named after the good sports who were the first to wear it; they were later stoned to death. Today it is not uncommon to see Madison Avenue executives in the same campus tweeds that were popular during their own college days.

There are arguments concerning just what constitutes the “Ivy Look.” The originators are specific. Conversely, the specifiers are original. Carefully nurtured peak is the rule. The coat of the true gentleman must consist of unpadded shoulders, padded wallet, three button notch high lapels, and deep hooks and vents to let in hot and cold air. The back-strap on the trouser back is preferred being superior to the back-strap on the trouser front. The belt should be worn as high as possible, leaving none of the trouser visible above the belt line, let alone the person inside of them. Sox should be supported by garters, while garters should be supported by muscular calves. If muscular calves are not available any form of livestock will do just as well. Shoes should be of sturdy English cut, heavy enough to keep feet out of elements and fast enough to keep the wearer out of reach of the creditors.

Only a few varieties of shirts are permissible, and naturally, those with sleeves are preferred. The rule for college-correctness dictates button-down, round, or English tab. When confronted with the tab, it is always smarter to allow the other fellow to pick it up. The button-down demands a button on the back and pleated backs are mandatory. The wearer who has a pleated back to begin with is thus ahead of the game. The prescribed daytime shirt color is blue on Oxford, bowling on the Green, and drinks on the house. White is proper for evening wear, unless you are spending the evening in the tub.

There is a wide choice in the selection of ties. Although some Ivy Leaguers look down on on challis, a good many challis look down on Ivy Leaguers also. The exquisite foulard is always permissible, coming as it does from the French word which means “artistic fool.” It goes without saying that the hard and fast rule of the Ivy Leaguer is his insistence on the four-in-hand knot. A Windsor knot, according to our sources, is strictly gauche, and should only be worn by gauchos.

Dark colored suits are the usual rule, but a clever blend of light and dark coupled with the right tie and a sheepish grin can often lend the needed sophistication, creating the illusion of correctness. When one feels he is correct enough, he may hand himself in to be marked. Brown is still the most stable color in sport coats, and also in stables.

The cloth put into the finest of the Ivy League suits is invariably imported from the British Isles. Recently the trend has been toward the importing of the British Isles. The cloth is usually produced on the antique spinning wheel of a Scotsman whose ancestors have been weaving for generations as a result of producing antique Scotch.

The “Ivy Look” will be seen throughout the East this fall. The question remains: “Who is the man in the Ivy League suit?” It’s his roommate from Exeter. — RICHARD PRESS & ART ZICH

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