The book starts by examining the history of the Ancient Eight and its place in American (and increasingly, global), culture, and goes on to devote a chapter to each school and what makes it different from the rest.
Though primarily about the schools themselves, there are some great vintage photos and some passages about the style of American dress that takes its name from the Ivy League.
Below are some sample shots from the book (the final one, from freshman orientation at Harvard, is a spectacular shot of a sea of madras sportcoats), as well as Harvard alum Cappello’s first interview as he goes into promotion mode. — CC
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IS: How did the idea or the inspiration for the book come about?
DC: I had been consulting with Assouline on several editorial projects over the years, and one day I got a phone call from Martine and Prosper Assouline asking me if I could come in to talk with them about the Ivy League. Their son was applying to college at the time, and they couldn’t find any one book that brought all of the Ivy League schools together at once, to really give a flavor for what each one was about. They knew I had gone to Harvard and spent a lot of my undergraduate days visiting friends at Brown, Yale, Columbia, and Princeton. They were full of questions about what made Harvard different from Yale, or Cornell different from Dartmouth, and so forth.
By the end of our conversation, we had an idea for a book of our own. In a way, they asked me if I was willing to go back to school with them—or, maybe better put, to go through the process of applying to college all over again.
IS: What were some of the interesting things you learned along the way? In what ways did you get a new perspective on the Ivy League or your alma mater Harvard?
DC: There were so many facts and figures that surfaced, and I kept finding myself wanting to explore certain ones further or dig deeper on others, but I knew I wouldn’t have the scope or space to do it in this book. So there were all of these little details and bits of trivia that endlessly fascinated me, like finding out that only five original manuscripts of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address exist, and Cornell is the only private institution to own one. Or that Cornell is the only university in the U.S. with its own hydroelectric plant. I could have done an entire book on sciences and engineering at Cornell. So editing, and learning where to begin and where to end with these broad subjects, was a big challenge on this book.
I suppose I did walk away with a different perspective on the Ivy League, and my alma mater in particular, though this perspective was something that was there all along—it’s just that doing the book gave me some distance and a new eye on things. I had to approach all of it as someone who was disinterested—it became a subject I was treating, not a personal attachment (though of course my personal experience informs it and gave me a handle on it). Having gone to Harvard, I think I had stopped thinking of it as “Harvard” a long time ago. Ever since stepping into Harvard Yard on my first day of freshman year, Harvard became less about what it represents to the outside world, and more about just my good-old college days: first dates, all-nighters, football games, lectures in Sanders Theatre, long brunches in the dining halls. But “Harvard” as a brand certainly has followed me ever since graduation, and in a way that I never quite sat down to think about, until I did this book. And in researching the many great things about Harvard—its impressive resources, its faculty, its student body, its long history of academic and moral excellence—I couldn’t help but get that feeling that stirred inside of me when I was first applying there as a 17-year-old.
IS: In general was there more preppy style or less than you expected on the campuses today? And how would you rank the schools, from preppiest to least, here in 2012?
DC: I think an easy answer might be that in general our sense of decorum is slackening when it comes to style. This is happening everywhere, from college campuses to corporate offices. One Princeton student I interviewed admitted she was sad that “sweatpants had taken over” on campus, and I did see a lot of that on all campuses—sweats, tees, running shoes. Not exactly the quintessential preppy or collegiate look that comes to mind when we think of the Ivy League.
But this, remember, is not untrue to the spirit of Ivy style. What we exalt today as good fashion—the so-called “Ivy style,” which you know so well and approach with almost academic rigor—was in fact a rebellion against formality, and a move toward more relaxed sportswear. Cute tennis sneakers, rugby shirts, and fitted letterman sweaters might have been a little chicer than baggy sweatpants, but the idea behind the impulse toward each isn’t actually so dissimilar.
I also think there are different variations of “preppy,” and it’s hard to classify or rank them all here, but certainly I think there’s a Princeton type of preppy versus a Yale type of preppy versus a Dartmouth type of preppy, and so on. Princeton is like the haute prep—bright colors, unexpected combinations, alternatingly prim-and-proper and rules-be-damned. But always well put together, no matter what’s at play. At Yale, there’s more of what I call a Maine ilk of preppy, or the “Land’s End look,” a sort of old WASPy heritage of sticking to basic staples and not caring so much if your rain parka doesn’t coordinate with your shirt or if your chinos are starting to become threadbare. One professor I spoke with who’s taught at both Brown and Yale said the difference between the two is that at Brown you can tell the richest kid in the class by the best-looking clothes, and at Yale you can tell the richest kid in the class by the worst-looking clothes. And I think that speaks to palpably different senses of style—many of them “sub-categories” of prep, if you will—that persist through today on many Ivy League campuses.
Daniel Cappello portrait by Hannah Thomson.
All images courtesy of Assouline Publishing.
1) Skimmer Day, 1956; courtesy of U of Penn archives. 2) Panel of students from Cornell University cheering in relief during the Radio Quiz Between Colgate and Cornell, © Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images. 3) Students playing pool circa 1962; Pictures of student life at Yale, 1779-1988 (inclusive). Manuscripts & Archives, Yale University. 4) Students crossing the street near Berkeley College, 1950/1959; Pictures of student life at Yale, 1779-1988 (inclusive). Manuscripts & Archives, Yale University. 5) Freshman orientation meeting at Harvard; © Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images.