Golden Years: An Apologist For Tradition

photoIvy Style wraps up its recent series of posts on menswear rules with these thoughts from Richard Press, who is pictured at left with his uncle Irving, circa 1984.

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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

15 Comments on "Golden Years: An Apologist For Tradition"

  1. Upon arrival in Cambridge in 1957, I went to J. Press and bought a brown herringbone sport coat, a lovat Shaggy Dog sweater and an blue OCBD with a button flap pocket. A Midwestern boy, I was in heaven. A few days later, I had elbow patches put on the coat sleeves at a tailor shop across Mt. Auburn street.

    I wore the sport coat and the sweater until my divorce in 1989 and I had to give much of my clothing to charity to live in smaller quarters!

  2. Thank you for sharing your story, Mr. Trotter.

    Gentlemen, let his story be a warning to you: never get divorced! You’ll have to give up too much, including clothes.

  3. Thank you Mr Tress for the always interesting account. I note that you & your uncle are standing just outside the Yale Club NYC on Vanderbilt Ave which also still also houses the Dartmouth Club[and the UVA & Deke Clubs] & that to this day YC members get a discount at J Press. Where exactly was the location of the old, old J Press NYC store[near Paul Stuart]?

  4. Thank you Mr Press for the always interesting account. I note that you & your uncle are standing just outside the Yale Club NYC on Vanderbilt Ave which also still also houses the Dartmouth Club[and the UVA & Deke Clubs] & that to this day YC members get a discount at J Press. Where exactly was the location of the old, old J Press NYC store[near Paul Stuart]?

  5. Mr Press,in the picture you have a double breasted.
    Is in Ivy tradition?

  6. In other words,in those days JPress offered double breasted suit custom made?

  7. This is a glimpse of pre-business casual Yale Club. I remember carrying Irving’s luggage from the YC to the New Haven bound train- what a great gentleman of the cloth!!

  8. J. Press usually carried a limited selection double breasted suits and blue blazers

  9. Mr Press,
    You are a really good writer!
    I always pay special attention to your contributions!

  10. Richard Meyer | September 14, 2013 at 7:11 am |

    Paul Winston (Chipp) carries on the old tradition with Winston Tailors. I am proud also that, unlike the Yale Club, my D.C. club hews to the jacket and tie (usually suit and tie) mandatory requirement.

  11. Ironchefsakai | September 15, 2013 at 10:49 am |

    Unfortunately, J. Press is now unaffordable for those of us non-trust fund Yalies (at least, on a grad school stipend). And, in my case at least, even if I were interested (let’s face it–I’d pay the arm and leg graciously) they don’t stock size 36!

    It is, of course, no longer the case that J. Press sits on York St., but Gant and Jack Wills have swooped in, attempting to fill the gap. Mory’s next-door neighbor is a really trashy club–Toad’s–though I don’t know if that’s its own tradition…

  12. Ironchefsakai:

    Press lived with Jack Wills and Gant until last winter’s brutal storm. One prays that the return to York Street will be sooner rather than later.

    Toad’s occupies what was the very first Co-Op and will celebrate four decades of being a thorn in Yale’s side next year.

  13. I understand that the J. Press store on York Street should reopen sometime next summer.

  14. G. Bruce Boyer | September 19, 2013 at 9:45 am |

    Richard Press is a font of wisdom and erudition. As a writer myself, my envy of his ability to tell a story so well is pea-green. We can only hope that he publishes his memoirs ASAP. They will undoubtedly make an important historic record and great hours of pleasurable reading.

  15. Jeffrey Shawn Haber | January 11, 2014 at 6:13 pm |

    I must say that it was an absolute thrill to see Mr. Richard Press at my Father Jerry Haber’s Retirement Bash at the El Quijote Restaurant on December 4, 2013. Richard Press (the master of sartorial elegance) has left such an indelible mark on my life and still does.I still fondly remember singing classic popular standards tunes to Richard on Saturday mornings at the store-which he relished. Today, I thoroughly enjoy reading Richard’s erudite articles appearing on IVY Style- his article on Frank Sinatra (my favorite Singer) is priceless. Although I am a NYC Educator today, I still fondly recall the great times that I had working at J.Press.Even to the present day, my Father proudly reminds me of how Mr. Paul Press was so appreciative of the tremendous help that I gave to the J.Press NY store over the summers when I was attending John Dewey High School and Brooklyn College.Moreover, I even have one great memory of Mr. Irving Press taking me to the Yale Club for lunch back in 1982 when I graduated from High School-and of course Irving was indeed a “gentleman of the cloth”. I would like to therefore wish Richard much continued success and to the entire Press family- a happy new year for 2014.

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