Golden Years: Suiting Up Eli Frosh

nhpressSuiting up Eli frosh in the heyday was do or die for New Haven clothiers.

Salesmen at J. Press were instructed by my dad Paul Press (front right) to memorize the Yale Freshman Blue Book. He quizzed them daily about dorm addresses, hometowns and secondary schools the book provided. Freshmen lived in seven ancient dormitories on the Old Campus. The favored boarding school choice was Durfee Hall, with communal suites designed to house six to nine students. It was mainly populated by St. Grottlesex Gatsbys.

Little Georgie Feen (back left), popularly known to the cognoscenti as The Mayor of York Street, knocked on every door in Durfee Hall, always offering his calling card, sample swatches, booze, and promises of favors. Georgie was not an elitist, hitting on anyone who walked into J. Press whether they looked “white shoe” or were draped in the padded shoulders of Podunk High.

“Goodbye To New Orleans,” a memoir by Peter Wolf, recalls coming to Yale from Exeter. Wolf’s roommate turned out to be Calvin (Bud) Trillin, then a virgin outlander from Kansas City, later in life a celebrated American journalist, food writer, poet, fellow memoirist and novelist. Trillin lamented to Wolf, “We couldn’t find the Ivy-look, Eastern-type clothes Kansas City people wear here, so my folks decided I’d buy some new stuff when I got to Yale. Where do you suggest I go?”

Five minutes later we were inside J.Press, a couple of blocks away on York Street. Under the hovering, appraising eye of George Feen, one of the great haberdashery salesmen of all time, Bud replaced key parts of his wardrobe.

My father’s elder brother, Irving Eli Press (front left), Eli Class of 1926, ran the family business from New York. A mainstay at the Yale Club next door to the company offices on 44th Street, the blood that surged through his arteries was Yale Blue. The Press Brothers utilized their inside track to supply the staff the who’s who and what’s what of Boola Boola.

Back in New Haven, Herman Racow (back right) was veteran elder statesman at 262 York Street. He was constantly combing is immense stack of index cards to identify any incoming offspring of his alumni “see yous.”

Gabe Giaquinto (back row, second from right), with his roots in the Italian-American Wooster Street neighborhood bounded by Sally’s and Frank Pepe’s pizza parlors, cashed in the checks of ethnic possibilities only hinted at in the Freshman Blue Book.

Sam Kroop (back row, second from left) achieved tournament celebrity at the Yale Golf Course ever since caddying as a teenager at Hillhouse High. He picked up country club gossip about incoming Bulldog duffers. He was also the West Coast J. Press road man, and my father made certain he gathered the names of all the sons of his customers heading East to college.

Competitors ran a tight race. Jack Feinstein and his brother Bill Fenn were relentless at Fenn-Feinstein. David Langrock and son-in-law Alan Frank anchored Langrock’s prime location and keystone corner at York and Broadway. Arthur M. Rosenberg sustained its heritage as America’s top-volume bespoke tailor of the Roaring Twenties. Lester Eisenberg directed Gentree as if it were a stage prop in the London Burlington Arcade. Saks Fifth Avenue University Shop, two doors from Mory’s, utilized the financial advantages provided by its department-store parent. Izzy White and son Alan White held the fort at White’s two shops, one on York Street and the other with a vibrant ladies’ department on Chapel Street. The Yale Coop promoted off-price student discounts for faux-Ivy, national-brand merchandise. Brooks Brothers and Chipp had regular exhibits in the Hotel Taft, but their monthly showings were unable to match the depth of inventory and timely alterations available from the local campus shops.

New Haven was Boomtown Ivy from the end of World War II until the conflagrations that erupted in the late 1960s. During the heyday hundreds of tailors, merchant tailors, salesmen, shippers and shleppers ruled the roost. Thousands more Yalies roamed the Elm City byways garbed naturally in three-button suits, Shetland sportcoats, plain-front grey flannel trousers, OCBDs with three-inch ties, Shaggy Dog sweaters, and dirty white bucks — the ephemera of a Golden Age.

The song is ended but the melody lingers on. — RICHARD PRESS

49 Comments on "Golden Years: Suiting Up Eli Frosh"

  1. Another great article-Thank you Richard

  2. THIS is why I hang around this site…

  3. Bravo, Mr. Press.

  4. A great read.

  5. In the Cambridge store, I always loved the second Sports Illustrated cover, from 1954 I believe, on the wall, with Vic Seixas, Davis Cup captain, in a JP Press sport coat.

  6. Mr Press, thanks for another very interesting article.

  7. Thank you Richard. Will you be heading to Windsor for the Centennial next weekend?

  8. Probably.

  9. To have the memories is one thing, no small job in and of itself, but to communicate them as well and as often as you do is the true gift. Thank you, Mr. Press.

  10. Faux-Ivy at the Co-op!

  11. Great to see that none of those guys took it too seriously.

  12. Richard,
    Thank you for this amazing retrospective. Reading your inside look about how J. Press competed to win the hearts, minds, and cash of an incoming class of Yalies is a great business story! The way your Dad quizzed the staff about incoming Frosh was/is an amazing story about winning through knowing one’s customers and prospects!

    There is another article from you I’d love to read. Your Father is a legend in New Haven. He is a legend to competitors of J. Press, employees of J. Press New Haven, the New Haven Lawn Club, and many other business owners and folks with whom he had social relations. Words and phrases like “fastidious,” “meticulous,” “Perfectly dressed,” ‘best dressed man ever,” and others are often mentioned.

    I think we are about the same age and, if asked, I couldn’t have written the story of my Father until a few years ago. He was too big a figure, larger than life to me, and I had insufficient perspective. Your Father is a legend. Might it be possible for you to tell his story? I believe many others, in addition to me, would find your telling to be fascinating!

    Thanks,
    Bill

  13. Going through the archives in preparation of our 1,000th post, and came across this piece by Chris on the Co-op:

    http://www.ivy-style.com/style-on-a-student-budget-remembering-the-yale-co-op.html

    Faux-Ivy, King Richard?

  14. Undated Co-op ad in post heralds, “Pants tailored on premises by Ralph Chieffo,” who left Yale Co-op in 1946 to become Custom Designer and Fitter at New Haven J.Press followed at his retirement by Ralph Chieffo, Jr.

  15. Richard,thanks for your memories.

    Tha suits of Press brothers in the pictures were custom made (bespoke)?

  16. Custom.

  17. Just noticed they’re all wearing striped ties but there’s some disagreement on which direction.

  18. Very enjoyable read! Thank you Richard.

  19. It would appear that Mr. Press, front left, is wearing cufflinks with his button down shirt. Anyone confirm that observation?

    @ Bags’ Groove: Working for the New Haven station chief was serious work.

    @Christian: In re the stripes: Think politics.

  20. Not a single pocket square. Interesting. My father never wore one, ever. I’m sure he thought they were effete, dandyish. An true born Englishman could do it, but most un-American.

  21. I hesitate to ask, but is Mr Irving Press (front row left) wearing a Brooks Brothers shirt?

  22. Everyone wore every piece of clothing from J.Press including their boxer shorts not pictured.

  23. Comment by A.E.W. Mason — “Not a single pocket square. Interesting. My father never wore one, ever. I’m sure he thought they were effete, dandyish. An true born Englishman could do it, but most un-American”.

    Well,but the white “TV fold” is Al American.

  24. @ A.E.W. Mason

    Don’t tell me they were all volunteer firefighters, as well.

  25. Very nice suits, especially the one in the front left.

  26. @Squeeze — Thanks for the reassurance.

  27. @ Bags’ Groove

    Precisely so! And a very clever analogy, by the way. They were, as you so quickly grasped, entrusted with ensuring that things remained “Cold” and didn’t get “Hot.”

    @ Carmelo

    Your argument isn’t with me; I never go out of the house without one. But there’s a split of authority: Ward Cleaver didn’t wear one. Both Ozzie Nelson and Jim Anderson did. Then there are these two “manly men” who didn’t:

    http://4.bp.blogspot.com/-DviVr-SIQbo/TzikYS6_2kI/AAAAAAAAAcM/E-ze75Uw1wE/s1600/james-franciscus-mrnovak-0005.JPG

    But what about Mr. Press on the left….. Are those cufflinks with that button down. I say “yes.” Anyone?

  28. Great post.
    Recall, THE place to buy a Shetland sweater was Gamer on Chapel St
    And, of course, Barrie’s Shoes. Perhaps the greatest loss.

  29. Another fantastic piece from Reb Squeeze

  30. I also see cufflinks with the cutton-down collar on the left. And I see absolutely nothing wrong with it.

    It’s really too bad that my dad died a few years ago. He had all sorts of good stories about the golden age that often discussed here (he graduated in 1952) that usually involved drinking beer, chasing girls, cars and sailing. But they looked good doing it.

    I also recall stories about him and a friend planting cherry bombs with a lit cigarette attached to their fuze in some sort of large ash tray that one of the clothing stores right off campus had. I’m sure it wasn’t Press. I think that he always a fan of Press. He would always take me there while my mom refused to take me anywhere other than Brooks or Neiman Marcus. Looking back, I’m fairly sure that her choice was really due to the fact that she preferred the tea that they served at those places (in the back, if you’re spending enough).

  31. @Im

    Thank you. Exactly. Nothing wrong with the cufflinks at all. In the opening scene of Twelve O’clock High, Dean Jagger is wearing a button down with cufflinks. Mind you, the cuffs are not double cuffs, and it appears that the same goes for Mr. Press’s shirt in the picture above.

    After the War, and I’ve said this before, a lot of otherwise “Ivy” guys who were advancing in their careers started wearing French cuffs. Lots of these guys had been officers and they desired a little more formality to go with their civilian success. I’m sure Squeeze recalls that J. Press NYC carried not only very nice white broadcloth French cuff shirts but, heaven forefend, even contrasting white collar French cuff shirts. Sure, the college guys up at New Haven may not have been buying them, but if you’re a partner in a white shoe firm traveling to London or Paris, you might be inclined to wear a forward point broadcloth shirt, with or without French cuffs, rather that a beefy button down. McGeorge Bundy is wearing a button down shirt with French cuffs in a series of interviews he did as Stimson’s biographer.

  32. @ A.E.W. Mason

    Double cuffs = bow ties = formal. OCBD + double cuffs = no-no. And why “French” cuffs? Or toast, come to that.

  33. Well done!

    Especially nice to see an ownership nurturing their veteran staff as opposed to terrorizing them!

  34. Mr. Press, thank you for taking the time to keep these wonderful echoes and images of the past from fading away by keeping them distinct, detailed, and animated.

  35. I think you need to capitalize “frosh” in the first sentence 🙂

  36. @Bags,

    Why “French” cuffs? For lack of a better explanation, I like to think that it’s because when you wear them so many attractive women are drawn to you that you run a greater risk of the French disease. And you end up buying these same women French toast for the next morning.

    Back when I worked in Big 5-land, I always found it entertaining that even people who didn’t really care about dressing well at all would very often take a sudden interest in French cuffs after they made partner.

    Another French cuff story that I can’t resist adding is about the time that I had to fly to New York late one night for a meeting the next day with the CEO of a company we were going to acquire. I somehow forgot to pack cufflinks, so I had the concierge staple the cuffs in place the next morning before the meeting. D’oh! Where are those 24-hour cufflink stores or cufflink vending machines when need them?

    These days I try to wear French cuffs at least once per week, just for an excuse to wear some of the cufflinks that I have. One pair are actually fully-functional keys for handcuffs, another pair is the crest of the unit I was with in the Gulf War, etc.

  37. @Im.

    Not the French disease, toast, or even fries. Dumas’ Count of Monte Cristo, apparemment mon ami. But give me a svelte button cuff any day of the week. Double cuffs were never ever Ivy.

  38. I haven’t written an interprative essay in a while, but how the Ivy League Look reflects WASP values has always fascinated me. Basically, no French cuffs, no spread collars, no double-breasteds, and in some respects no shoelaces or socks.

    I suppose it’s already in the rise and fall essay, the passages about how college men liked everything casual and nonchalant, and that was the dominant influence on the Ivy look.

  39. @Bags,

    On a more serious note, I used to believe that the Dumas explanation doesn’t actually withstand much scrutiny. The OED shows the first use of the term “French cuffs” going back to at least 1810, while Dumas’ writing dates from roughly 1830-1840. But I recently learned that the 1810 reference probably isn’t to French cuffs like we know them. That seems to date from 1842 or so, which is actually almost consistent with the Monte Cristo (1845) explanation. It’s certainly close enough to justify some long and bitter flame wars on the internet over it.

  40. @Bags; Im; Christian:

    I agree that French cuffs are not “Ivy”; they are, however, an accepted part of the “adult” WASP culture as distinguished from what Christian rightly describes as “college men” lik[ing] everything casual and nonchalant . . . .” French cuffs came by this adult “WASP” acceptance simply because a very substantial number of Ivy (or other ) grads, as they matured, took in more of the world, and especially realized how little they knew about anything, began to warm to items of apparel outside what they were wearing prior to reaching the age of 25 (before which, science tells us, the brain is not yet fully formed).

  41. French cuffs are also part of the adult guido and pimp culture. I can also attest that they are occasionally part of the Irish Catholic white trash tradition, yes I occasionally wear french cuffs. ;-

  42. And from the other side of the divide, herewith, Exhibit 2. Which appears, counterintuitively, to be featured on a blog called, of all things, “oxfordclothbuttondown.” And, remember, the Buckleys weren’t WASPS–although WFJr. played one on TV.

    http://oxfordclothbuttondown.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/01/William-F.-Buckley-Sr.jpg

    Come to think of it, it isn’t counterintuitive. See, e.g., Prescott Bush. (BTW, I like all these guys, different from each other though they are.

    http://all-that-is-interesting.com/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2014/01/true-conspiracies-prescott-bush-portrait.jpg

    S

  43. Presidents Clinton and Kennedy are proof that we Irish can’t handle interns, handle might be the wrong word, maybe the word is trusted. 😉

  44. @MAC

    I did not, until this very moment, realize that Hitler was Irish. I’ve done some research post your post and it turns out the family name was originally MacHitler.

  45. MAC,

    Henceforth I shall refer to them as “Irish cuffs.” Andre Malraux, eat your heart out.

    http://frenchfinest.files.wordpress.com/2012/11/andre-malraux.jpg

  46. French-cuffed shirts were hugely popular in the 1950s and into the early 1960s. I conclude that from the many (hundred or more?) old movies I’ve watched, and also my dad’s closet. He was a mechanical engineer and we lived in a medium-sized city in the midwest. Many of the shirts he wore then had french cuffs, and he had a jewelry box full of cuff links. Most of the men he worked with wore them, too, even the junior men.

  47. Henry Contestwinner | February 12, 2016 at 1:12 am |

    Re-reading this post, I see that the comment I wanted to make never got posted; I must have made some sort of mistake.

    As I recall, I wanted to say something about how good everyone looks, and how striking it is that no one is smiling. Men were serious back in the day, weren’t they? Of course, the trend in smiles has been noticed and commented on elsewhere.

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