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