In Hyde Park, NY, of all places, on the banks of the Hudson River, one of the most prestigious private universities in the country offers up one of the most aggressive and well-regarded educations available, the offspring of which is masters of their majors. Celebrity masters and non-celebrity masters alike, industry seeks graduates of this private university not as an adjacent human resources practice but as a primary objective. A diploma from this university is not only a mark on a resume’, it is a resume’. This university does not even allow jeans on campus. That is how Ivy we are talking here.
At the mouth of the graduation river from The Culinary Institute of America, as it flows into the sea of the finest restaurants in the world, is a team headed by Maura McMahon. Ms. McMahon has many gifts, perhaps none so far reaching as her role as Manager of Career and Academic Advising at the CIA. There, she and her team oversee pairings, not between food and wine, but between restaurants and chefs.
Oh, and she is pure Ivy. She is a very visible member of the Facebook group, a classic dresser, and a reader of this site as well. When you interview Ms. McMahon, you are well served (there is no avoiding the restaurant puns here) to be reminded that she is also a professional storyteller, and it is best to let her do most of the talking.
I always ask this first: “Why Ivy?”
“You ask about how I dress and how it reflects my lifestyle and when/how it pivots. Just like writing a great blog, or serving a great meal, choosing how I dress starts with, “who is my audience?” and not just that but, “how can I honor them best?” I think that is where Ivy steps in. My philosophy of how I show up to my guests, to my students, and my community has to have elements of traditional values, approachability and character, no matter the circumstance. That is a reflection of how I care about others. I am approaching you with respect and I want you to know it at hello by how I greet you at the door, shake your hand (can we still do that?) and how I have presented myself to you.
A rustic family meal will be plated differently than a Michelin-star entrée and I will dress differently for each of those meals too (but in both cases there are pearls). For both menus, I expect the ingredients to be top-notch, carefully sourced and the preparation to be a mix of traditional techniques and modern innovation. That is what I consistently learn about Ivy style dress by reading this blog: quality sourcing, traditional elements, and personalized flair. I get that.”
I always ask this second: “Where do you think Ivy is going?”
“Every art form is always in motion. In food, this is Chef Massimo Bottura teaching a Master Class about his breadcrumb pesto recipe for Osteria Francescana, born out of necessity when the pine nuts ran out but became a delicious success and heralded as a way to ethically manage food waste. His restaurant spent four years as the World’s Best on the San Pellegrino Top 50 list, which is the list you should pay attention to. For Ivy dressing it is… whatever the new generation will bring to it, or throws it back to. The point is, build on tradition. Make it better, more ethical perhaps, never give up the authenticity but don’t let that limit your sense of style. When my twenty year old daughter walked out of Brooks with me after a day of back to school shopping she said, “I don’t get why you make such a big deal about that place when everything is just like good basic stuff.” And I’m like, “Yes, girl, yes.” She says the same thing to me when we drive to the edge of town past two grocery stores to go to the farmer’s market. What we buy from the growers might look like a tomato just like ShopRite but it is still warm from the sun because it was picked an hour ago and it grew up right here in the same village she did with no carbon footprint. But my daughter will prepare the tomato differently from me and wear her blazer differently from me and that is so cool because we are different. When she inherits grandma’s jewelry from me she will wear those pieces differently too, but she’ll appreciate the legacy all the same.”
You get where I am going here, Ms. McMahon knows her way around a good sentence. Throughout the interview, she kept referring to an upcoming event at the CIA, about how they are taking a step towards returning to elegance,which isn’t something one gets an opportunity in the year of work-from-home. Ms. McMahon is a lot of things, but a salesperson she is not, so I did some digging on my own about this event. If you live around me (and a large number of you do, I know, I get the emails – oh, and to the unnamed lady in Brooks Brothers in Danbury who ran up to me in front of my daughter and fussed about my hair not being Ivy but loving it anyway – I got it cut but not because of you) – if you live around me, this is something you might really want to check out. It sounds like an evening. I don’t go out at night much (sorry Brooks Brothers lady) but I know most of you do. The event is a Royale. I know some of you all know what that means, leave it on the comments. More specifically, it is a Royale: Grande Masquerade, November 6.
Here’s a link, worth a look. The charity is The Frances Foundation For Kids Fighting Cancer.
I wasn’t asked to play the gig, but I got over that, and asked a question of my own of Mr. Alexander D. Dunlevie, about the rational behind a formal black tie event… now. He wrote me back:
“Our decision to offer a Black-Tie event was born out of the recognition that so many people have been stuck at home for nearly two years. We all wanted to offer our guests an escape from the sweat-suit monotony, while still creating an atmosphere of elegance and timelessness. We really wanted to “dream big” in every possible aspect, to really welcome guests back into the public space with impact. As the graduating class, we also agreed that this represents the exact caliber of performance we wish to display to wrap up our time here. We want our guests to experience the hospitality and sophistication that has been so rare of-late, and we look forward to treating them to an evening of luxury. More than anything, we are thrilled to finally brush the dust off our black-tie attire.”
With that, I returned to Ms. McMahon.
“I hear all the time that students dress down on campus. I mean, I hear it all the time. What do you find?”
“The students take fashion seriously on this campus. I know, I know, you wouldn’t think that since they spend a lot of time in uniform and toques (what we call chef’s whites). However, we teach tying a tie with a dimple in our service class and we require business casual in lecture classes. Our students are not allowed to wear jeans or “leisure wear” anywhere on campus except the dorms and the gym. How we present ourselves to our campus visitors sets an expectation of what they will find on their plates and that should show respect, care and service to excellence.”
I think I told you, Ms. McMahon is a number of things. She is a semi-pro hiker. I say semi-pro because – who makes money hiking? And she is a professional storyteller. I didn’t even know that was a thing. But it is, and it is a true art form. Maura walked me through it – the preservation of a tradition (see where I am going here?), the dogged pursuit of excellence, a love of literature. All very much Ivy. So I asked her about Ivy when she isn’t at her day job.
“Am I Ivy all the time? Not when I am hiking a mountain and what I wear on my feet need to get me to mile ten. That decision is all utility. I also perform, and depending on the venue I will often make a different choice. At poetry events I am usually in all black. I prefer the focus to be on my words and my facial expression and not my clothing. Black turtleneck, black twin set or black poplin dress were on rotation in my last few shows, so the Ivy is there is you look for it. If I am telling a story by a bonfire, I will wear my gray cloak that is only considered “trad” if you are a Bard, and sometimes I am.”
Editor’s Note: There are a few tickets left to the event I believe, if not, make plans to go to The Culinary anyway. You can have lunch there. At a private university with a dress code, and wwwwaaaayyyyy better food than the cafeteria. – JB