Last week US News & World Report declared Princeton the best college in the world (alas not for sartorial reasons). Yesterday Slate followed this up with an entertaining article on cocktails of the Ivy League. (Continue)
Pictured above is a madras surprise from Brooks Brothers, seen last week at the company’s Spring 2014 preview. It’s a nice dark fabric with soft shoulders, partial lining, and a 3/2 button stance.
What’s the surprise, besides the fact that it’s mid-September and you were expecting posts about tweed and flannel?
Can you guess?
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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
After a spell of breaking-news interruptions, we’re finally returning to the topic of rules when it comes to dressing. It all started, you may recall, with a Japanese graphic that included the word “rules” along with “snob.” This got me free-associating about a certain type of fusty clotheshorse who takes pride not in anything original or unique about the way he dresses, but in his ability to follow rules with scrupulous assiduity.
I may have been overreacting. Like many who weren’t raised in a sartorially advanced household or community, I learned a lot from Alan Flusser’s books, first getting “Clothes And The Man” when I was about 19. There’s much wisdom in what it teaches, and the old cliché about needing to know the rules before you can break them became a hackneyed old phrase for a reason: it’s pretty damn true.
Before Flusser there were plenty of other style writers eager to help men dress better. One of them was syndicated men’s fashion writer Bert Bacharach, who in 1955 published “Right Dress.” As you’d expect from a book aimed at the mass market, it presents pragmatic reasons for dressing better, such as having a better chance of winning love and money, the two most important things in life. Bacharach isn’t exactly interested in encouraging personal style as an existential statement. It’s practical advice for the practical, and the book’s subtitle is “Success Through Better Grooming.”
Most of the book’s advice is either common sense, banal, or simply archaic. But “Right Dress” provided some period insight for our “rise and fall” essay, and it’s worth repeating those passages here, as well as some others that pertain to the Ivy League Look, which was just entering the national spotlight at the time of the book’s publication.
As you can see, the alpha wooer in the above image is wearing a three-button suit, buttondown shirt and rep tie. But don’t be fooled that Bacharach is recommending the Ivy League Look to his Main Street reader. In fact, he thinks natural-shouldered jackets make you look like a wimp. Bacharach writes:
The well-dressed man avoids extremes in clothing models. He passes up the so-called Ivy League type which makes him look emaciated and underfed. He shuns the overly padded and overly squared shoulders which make him look like a muscle-bound wrestler. He picks, instead, a model that is midway between the two, with body lines and slight shoulder padding which flatters the figure.
Today Baracuta, maker of the iconic G9 jacket, announced it has drawn the zipper on a new website with ecommerce features as well as a generous dose of brand heritage. Baracuta was founded in England in 1937 and is currently owned by the Bologna-based company WP Lavori In Corso, which is currently planning a flagship retail store in London, plus Baracuta shops in other major cities.
During the Ivy heyday the Baracuta jacket entertained a certain popularity on campus, as this 1960 ad from the Yale Daily News shows:
As the warm days of the year gradually come to an end, we fondly put away the carefree items of summer. As a way of saying so long to the wild fabrics and whimsical embroideries of summer clothing, I’ve composed a little poem.
Well, sort of.
Today my Google vanity alert tipped me off to a story from a Chinese fashion website that mentions “Damned Dapper,” my go-to-hell story for The Rake. I can’t say I’ve ever clicked the translate button on a Chinese website before, but I did, and the results were garbled nonsense.
I was about to close the browser window when something magical happened. Words and phrases began to stand out, linguistic nuggets composed accidentally by a software program. It was the magic of poetry.
Li Po is the ancient Chinese poet who went rowing one night while drunk, saw the moon’s reflection on the water and thought it was drowning, then dove in to save it and ended up drowning himself. Or so the legend goes.
I’m no Li Po, but with a little inspiration I was able to cut and paste this translated apparel trend report and craft a terse little verse about the power of preppy clothing to rejuvenate an aged and forlorn man visiting the campus of his alma mater.
The Green Frog
By Yokamen.cn, Google Translate, & Christian Chensvold
On a bad first line to hell
With exagerrated movement irregularities
He donned the shorts with the green frog.
Everything merely implied in his casual stroll
As in the wacky style he appeared
And was swept up
To regain his youth on the campus wind.
Happy end of summer. I wore a sweater today. It’ll be tweed and flannel time before you know it. Bon week-end. — CC