Golden Years: Ivy, Preppy, Japan And The MFIT

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.

In 1983, suit bags with prominent J. Press logos were stage props for “Preppies,” a musical satire at the Promenade Theatre across from Zabar’s on the Upper West Side. Mel Gussow, NY Times critic, opined, “The show is intentionally traditional, upholding the J. Press dress code of button-down shirts, khakis and loafers. One production number featured nine blue blazers on the stage.”

Preppy or Ivy, the dressing combo worked for the Press family. Our goal was to provide the finest tailoring, diligently police our resources, and promote generational continuity of our inventory with competitive prices to satisfy the requirements of a demanding and devoted customer base diligently attended by a well versed staff.

Onward Kashiyama bought J. Press in 1986. My first trip to Tokyo featured a stage appearance at a fashion show highlighting the company convention. My comments were often lost in translation, and what came out might have served “Saturday Night Live” well. Logos on Nantucket bags featured “J. Squeeze,” the insider’s nickname for Press. A Yale bulldog showed up on sweatshirts with “Boola Boola” scripted under his belly. I was responsible for some the fluff, but my Japanese cohorts had also carefully studied the American Century. They recognized that the Ivy League Look appeared at the pinnacle of influence of the world’s greatest superpower.

Ivy Style at the MFIT depicts a saga when preppies were monied WASP teenagers who didn’t need high SATs to get into Yale. Their status was reflected by the understatement of their sophisticated wardrobe. It’s all going to be at the museum, along with the work of designers currently translating the hallowed remnants of the past into a new frontier, though hardly like JFK’s.

See you at halftime on the once-upon-a-time quad that looks more like York Street in the ’50s than York Street ever did. — RICHARD PRESS

Former J. Press president Richard Press is pictured above at the 1987 Tokyo Expo.

22 Comments on "Golden Years: Ivy, Preppy, Japan And The MFIT"

  1. This is a beautifully written lament, sprinkled with just the right amount of informative nostalgia to support it. I don’t think I’ll ever totally understand why ivy lends itself so unrelentingly to extreme caricature. I sincerely hope the MFIT exhibition is short on some of the bizarre re-invention we’ve seen in the past. Hopefully we’ll see some early Perry Ellis. In my opinion, Perry was one of the very few designers inspired by ivy to have given it, for the most part, the respect it rightly deserves.

    JFKyle

  2. Will the opening day of Ivy Style at MFIT go into the evening for us desk-locked folks?
    Thanks!

  3. wonderful article .

  4. “understatement”, “sophisticated”, “generational continuity”.

    Hallmarks of what I like to think of as Ivy League, as opposed to preppy.

  5. If I had those five beauties around me. I’d have a huge grin too. Still aiming for the MFIT Symposium in early November.

  6. It is always nice to hear from Mr. Press. Thanks for sharing.

  7. Richard Press seems to agree Ivy is prep and visa verse. It’s all about what’s appropriate for the place, the time and the occasion. Mr. Press is an authority, his ancestors were at ground zero.

    Check out the great photo with his son, the tradition continues, and do tell is the look Ivy or Preppy?

    http://www.ivy-style.com/golden-years-curtain-call-in-new-york.html

  8. Boston Bean | July 31, 2012 at 8:39 pm |

    @MAC

    In reply to your question:

    Most definitely Preppy, as opposed to Ivy.

  9. In reference to JFK above, I was in the gettysburg Museum just after the Fourth of July. They had on display one of JFK’s old suits.
    Being a man of detail, I had to check it over very carefully, in order to see if he actually was a man of ivy. It was a nice medium grey, glen plaid, two-piece, two-button. I could not see if the pants were plain or pleated as the jacket was buttoned. However, I questioned if it did in fact have pleats, as it was a ventless jacket. Yes, It was in deed ventless. To me this is the biggest cardinal sin of any man’s wardrobe, this side of the Atlantic! So,just exactly how ivy was JFK???

  10. Philly Trad | August 1, 2012 at 7:09 am |

    @Jim

    Ventless jackets, far from being a cardinal sin, are the sign of a gentleman who prefers a bit more formality, as are pleated trousers.

    Both add an aristocratic touch to traditional Ivy.

  11. Philly Trad are you being serious or kidding? Maybe so in Europe, but not here.
    Neither have any place in this particular style, unless wearing a tuxedo! Find me any examples in Press, O’Connell’s, BB’s etc.

  12. Didn’t JFK sometimes wear a back brace? That may explain it, or maybe not. They might be suits he bought while visiting England, his father was the ambassador.

  13. After giving it some thought, I have seen pleated pants in Press, O’Connell’s, and BB’s, but never anything in the way of ventless suit and/or sportcoats.
    I do believe that he did wear a back brace. I was quite suprised by the non-vented jacket, not the rest of the outfit.

  14. Johnny Reb | August 2, 2012 at 1:52 pm |

    None of the regular readers of that blog IvyGate actually attend an Ivy school. No one cares enough to read it.

    It’s also funny that he thinks R. Press founded J. Press!

  15. All that hard work to get into one of the world’s finest schools, spoiled on writing Gawkeresque web snark. I don’t understand the point he’s trying to make, but then again neither does he. At least he got the tone right.

    His WASPier predecessors back in the Old Boys Network days would’ve written it in Latin. Now that would be impressive. But all he’s done with his (presumed) intelligence and education is merely the literary equivalent of spilling his seed upon the soil.

    Oh wait, JK Trotter is probably a female.

  16. We were called a cargo cult, OOOOOOH…..NOOOOO!

  17. Before I saw that picture (plus the old BB catalogs the HTJ puts up), I thought I’d never miss the 1980s. But I do! I’d love to see women dress up again (and the men, too).

  18. Plenty of women in Japan still dress like this. Especially those that work. Most department store salesladies, especially those at the front of major department stores or at information counters, look like they’ve just come from a polo match or the Kentucky Derby. Hats included.

  19. Men’s ‘Ivy’ has always struck me as classic whereas womens ‘Ivy’ style feels frumpy now. The photo above is an example. Designers would do well to recall the ivy look for womenswear in more modern cuts

  20. Foster IV
    Those aren’t great examples of women’s Ivy style, although the tartan- velvet evening gown on the left and Laura Ashley type floral dress on the right aren’t bad.

    In the 60s, most ivy style women dressed in a feminised version of men’s ivy style clothing, many of the same brands.. The Villager brand is one that comes to mind, they are know for the OCBD shirt dress and great women’s BD, Club and peter pan collared women’s oxford and broadcloth blouses. They also marketed skirts, kilts, sweaters, knee socks and blazers. I actually wore hand me down Villager OCBDs in junior high, no one ever noticed the shirts buttoned the wrong way. J.G. Hook, another great women’s shirting company in the 70s and 80s, was founded by Max Raab, who also founded The Villager brand.

    Of course, there were other brands, HIS for HER, Gant, Bobby Brooks, Pringle, Weejun come to mind.

    This photo, from this blog, is a good example, but lacks detail. Note the knee socks, Weejuns, skirts, shetland sweater, and the gal in the duffle coat.

    http://www.ivy-style.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/07/ivy3.jpg

  21. Ivy Gate we covered that ground http://www.ivy-style.com/page/3?s=ivy+gate

    I read the current commentary, it appears the author thinks FIT is in Japan, unless I misread this”Ivy Style’s unique ethos in a meandering essay, published on Ivy Style two days ago, about the vertiginous decline of Ivy League fashion (as documented by a Japanese museum, apparently):”

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