The organizers of “Ivy Style” acknowledge that this clothing can seem “conservative, even static,” but they provide a detailed history of its evolution. A wall bears an amusing quotation from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s This Side of Paradise: “I want to go where people aren’t barred because of the color of their necktie.” Ivy style was birthed in the interwar era at Fitzgerald’s alma mater, Princeton, where the sport (or “odd”) coat, a descendant of the English Norfolk hunting jacket, was popularized on the rural campus. Another Princeton specialty was the beer suit, a jacket-and-overalls combination worn while carousing.
The exhibition is arranged thematically, with mannequins attired according to their location on a “campus” that includes a classroom, chemistry lab, dormitory, library, locker room, quad, and university clothing shop. The dorm display features lounging robes, a kind of thin bathrobe worn at ease over shirtsleeves. In a nearby glass case are perfectly preserved Bass Weejuns (with pennies). The fishermen’s shoes were discovered after World War I by Englishmen and Americans traveling in Norway; the name is slang for “Norwegian.”
In the center of the exhibit is an overhead speaker emitting songs by the likes of Percy Faith and His Orchestra & Chorus, Tartar Band of Compton, and the Yale Spizzwinks.
The Latvian immigrant Jacobi Press founded the still-thriving store J. Press in 1902. The exhibit explains that he was eager to reduce his inventory of flannel and tweed during World War I, when officers wore gabardine, and thus popularized the flannel trousers and tweed jackets featured.
In the center of the quad is a striking raccoon coat. It belonged to the publisher Joseph Verner Reed, a 1926 graduate of Yale (though the model dons a Harvard dink cap). A Princeton newspaper said in 1923 that the coats were “thick as flies” on campus.
There are framed advertisements. Launched in 1931, Apparel Arts was a menswear magazine for wholesalers with spreads on college fashion. One is captioned: “There’s a shoht cheeyah for Haavuhd in both these costumes, although in basic detail they are both right for both sides of the embattled lines that draw up at New London to watch the Harvard-Yale classic.” Below the ads, a vitrine contains vest-pocket brochures issued by Brooks Brothers in the twenties on clothing, manners, and sports with titles such as “American Worthies,” “The Art of Tying the Cravat,” and “International Trophies.”
The sporty aesthetic was tempered by military sobriety after World War II when colleges saw an influx of veterans on the G. I. Bill. Chino pants became a staple. In the sixties, things got brighter: also on the quad are corduroy pants in Christmassy red and green. Clothier Chipp went further, pioneering the flamboyant “go to hell” look, represented in the university-shop section by a jacket from the seventies in citrus-colored madras.
The eighties saw the ascension of Ralph Lauren, whose work is the most represented in the exhibit. His polo coat (also known as a “chukka,” after a period of play in polo) is of thick camel’s hair in a classic doubled-breasted style with belted back and cuffed sleeves. Tommy Hilfiger’s nineties designs are said—in a moment of blunt truth—to have been most popular in Middle America and among the “early creators of hip-hop.”
Ten years ago, Thom Browne sparked the preppy renaissance by reintroducing staples like the gray suit with old-fashioned details (a locker hook on the coat back, grosgrain piping inside the cuff) and a very trim fit. The selections are of his more recent, experimental work and don’t do justice to his importance, especially the pink-and-green flannel pants with knees and crotch studded with spikes. The curators curiously quote Browne saying he doesn’t want to “challenge convention or conformity.”
Attentive attendees will learn some history: the blazer was developed in the early-nineteenth century at Cambridge University by the St. John’s College rowing club, whose members wore jackets of blazing red cloth. According to legend, the Ivy name comes from the football league formed in 1876 for Harvard, Yale, Princeton, and Columbia; it was known by the Roman numeral IV. Madras first gained popularity because it was dipped in vegetable dyes that when washed would bleed. Aficionados will appreciate the pieces by McGregor Reg’d, F. R. Tripler, and Jack Winter and the informative catalog.