Take My Ivy, Please

A few years before my excellent state graduate school destroyed the promise of accessible public education and raised tuition to the same levels as the privates, my housemate, complaining that he wanted an experience that I had already had, transferred to Yale. Said experience, one I had never put a name to, was “the Ivy League experience.” I never thought that my undergraduate years at Dirnelli U (known to non-iGents as Brown) amounted to any sort of emblematic experience of the eight universities that compose the Ivies, nor that the sort of experience that expression connotes exists today outside of the imaginations of a few who have closed their eyes to the sartorial realities of college, whether on the campus of an Ivy League or elsewhere.

Certainly by the time I wandered my college town’s streets the idea of an Ivy look that was not the national college outfit of jeans, sweats or even pajamas was ludicrous, even if those wanderings frequently took me past Brown’s last two, soon-to-be-extinct, soon-to-be-unmourned, Ivy outfitters. Despite one of them adding a large wood carving of the Polo logo to its sign, they remained unrelatable enclaves surrounded by the diners with insane hours (midnight to four AM) and smoke shops with Sobranie Black Russians which I remember more sentimentally.

They weren’t welcoming, either, if I ever braved to venture past the window displays with Royall Lyme and defiantly middle-aged Barry Bricken and Tricots Saint-Raphael mufti. Undergraduates were not buying, and that shop, Hillhouse Ltd, closed my senior year. Times had changed to the point that I remember the opening of a Gap on Thayer Street drawing some criticism in the press for that shop’s expected priciness.

Richard Press evokes Hillhouse Ltd.’s predecessor, Langrock, and the other classic outfitters of the Ivy League in his sparkling memoir Threading the Needle, a collection of reminiscences from his posts on the website of J. Press, the ur-classic clothier founded by his grandfather. Even if J. Press is now owned by its Far Eastern licensee Onward Kashiyama, Richard Press remains the face of the firm, and, for all intents and purposes, its breezy, never windy, voice.

Press is ebullient to the point of becoming almost ethereal, a far cry from my memories of the weary heaviness of my local Ivy shops’ atmospheres, their prosaic furnishings and quite mundane merchandise… But then again, my first recollection of Ivy style, recognized in retrospect like a recovered memory, was of my high school English teacher’s tweed jacket, which he opened to lend me a pen that smelt as memorably bad as almost anything I’ve smelt since then, including tanneries and certain institutional wards, suffused as it was not with the Hebridean peat fires that Richard Press insists you could smell in the old Harris Tweeds his father sold, but with decades of spilt coffee and sweat-drenched wool that must have never seen a dry clean, so that his shapeless, indiscriminately patterned tweed jacket bore the pedigree of its soiling. My first experience, then, was of miasma, not Press’s ether.

No wonder Richard Press makes a virtue out of the emptiness of the actual Ivy stores, filling them with ethos and intangible evocations: a sense not just of community but of belonging. Belonging to the New Haven restaurants that only sat university students and staff, not townsfolk; belonging to the boisterous undergraduates who knew that Press’s frequently invoked “Boola boola” is a Yale fight song; belonging to a time when immigrant tailor Jacobi Press and his staff travelled the trails of the carriage trade and visited boarding schools to sell rich adolescents custom suits, the better to lock them in for college and life. Belonging to dangerous road trips between Dartmouth and its sister college in the days before co-education (or good highways) to flirt, or at least hope to loan out a J. Press Shetland wool sweater; belonging to Frank Sinatra’s party one whirlwind evening when the Chairman of the Board sat most of the J. Press New York staff at his table in all the chic watering holes; belonging to the small group of people who have seen Dean Acheson in his underwear… Always, however, the thrill of this inclusion is in its exclusion of others: through codes of language, through the financial means required to pay for custom tailoring (for children who would grow out of it!); through social class. It is a privilege to read Richard Press’ writing, but it would be unwise to forget the privilege his rosy reminiscences required.

Comfort and ease in tailored clothing, then as now, only came at great expense. It does not surprise me that those physical Ivy shops of Providence, untouched by J. Press’s halo, withered and died. Threading the Needle includes Richard Press’s jabs at casualization. He bemoans it as a great swindle on us, depriving us of knowing what to wear, and requiring us to buy cheaper, junkier clothes at much higher margins than what honest traditional merchants like J. Press were and are selling us. But the reason Ivy is dead is because the class that wore this syncretistic American clothing, a dowdy bastardization of Britishness with Puritan formlessness thrown in, reflexively because it was what was done, and what was sold where one shopped, was quite happy to wear lighter, easier, less confining clothing as soon as they could shed the weight of Ivy, the dress code expectations that changed so radically from the 1960s onward, and quite happy to spend less on cheaper casual clothing than on expensive tailored jackets and ties whose silk had to be madder-dyed in England. You may see a few young people wearing a Harris Tweed jacket or seersucker sportcoat on a northeastern college campus, but they are all doing so with intentionality, the intention to recreate something that no longer naturally exists, populating an invented ecosystem with overthought clothing to which they associate a politics that was not at all certain to be associated with it in the days when so-called Ivy clothing was the norm on Ivy campuses.

Press’s essays even give us, in pieces, the narrative of what actually happened to Ivy Style. Once upon a time it was the norm on rarefied campuses of young gentlemen who might continue using the same tailor who had bench-made their clothes in high school and college once they graduated to Wall Street, like a Fitzgerald protagonist. The aftermath of World War II democratized (to a point) college enrollment through the GI Bill, leading many, many more people, of theretofore-unrepresented social classes, to attend college and adopt a similar wardrobe. (Another prep school teacher once informed us that Columbia University had simply called up his father after the war and asked him to attend, allowing him to climb the social ladder.) Innovations in production allowed factory manufacture of Ivy-style ready-to-wear garments as well, so that the increased number of people who wanted to wear Ivy could also afford to wear the Ivy look without having to pay the prices of artisanal one-off work. Ivy became widespread: Press uses the word “heyday” in the titles of several of his essays from this golden age when Ivy was the look. And every fashionable look has its end. Not only did fashions change, but social changes in the 1960s meant that homogenous dressing on campuses was at an end, particularly dressing like one supposed a white-collar grownup would in coat and tie. The 1970s’ upheaval in prep school dress codes broke the back of coat and tie for kids, dealing another blow to Ivy. The Ivy partisans Press evokes who wore it during those decades, doughty men, men of intelligence like Dick Cavett, of integrity like John Chancellor, were middle-aged men who had started wearing the same style of clothes decades earlier as students. (Even Frank Sinatra, who scooped Richard up to his bosom, only lasted nine months as a customer in the late 1960s before sending an emissary to tell Richard Frank no longer wanted to experiment with the Ivy look.) Ivy as a style worn by current Ivy Leaguers, or by American college students pretty much anywhere, no longer existed.

Decades later I, too, wear tweed jackets, but keep them clean (unlike the original Ivy population), and am not a parafascist reactionary (unlike some of the most visible latter-day Ivy practitioners). Savile Row tailors had to sacralize the concept of tweed for me, washing away all its associations of brown, smelly, shapeless and hegemonic, so that my garments in it, strange alpaca Shetland weaves or unthinkable lavenders, are as far from Ivy as possible.  Despite the awful Brown Daily Herald (for which I coined the motto “all the print that fits is news”) carrying a weekly News of the Ivies section, none of us felt any ineffable Ivy-ness. The closest I came to such a feeling may have been reading a cheesy story by Providence’s own H.P. Lovecraft, whose action suddenly shifted to the very room I was sitting in… or perhaps hearing a townie couple at a Spring Weekend concert by the very non-Ivy Violent Femmes mutter about how all the kids in the audience had good teeth.

I do not mourn Ivy, as I do not mourn the shops that died trying to sell it to the college populations that have moved on. I hope my housemate found what he was looking for in New Haven (I did successfully, and evilly, bullshit him into buying two Brigg umbrellas for his move there). Had I been him, no doubt I would have succumbed to some aspect of Richard Press’s winning fantasies, replaying the opening paragraphs of Franny and Zooey in my mind, wool-lined Burberry and all, in search of a possessions-linked romance that reality has no place for in this day and age, if it ever had.

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