A Sprig of Ivy



After touring a recent exhibit at The Museum at FIT called Ivy Style, which celebrated the fashion that evolved from the campuses of the Ivy League schools — Brown, Columbia, Cornell, Dartmouth, Harvard, Princeton, U-Penn and Yale — in the early part of the last century, I picked up the accompanying book (also called Ivy Style). In its preface, curator Patricia Mears states that despite the recent recession, apparel brands have been under pressure to produce more collections, more garments per collection and to get into more product categories. The trend doesn’t necessarily mean the items are better… just that there’s more of them. As a result of this overproduction, Mears writes, “I wanted objects that were well made, with real purpose.” She found that designers and other fashion cognoscenti were all returning to the Ivy heritage for “a look that transcends and endures….”

In fact, she goes on to differentiate “preppy” from “Ivy” and to show that much of what we take for granted as conservative, classic dressing was, at the time, anti-establishment and revolutionary.

Mears shows that “no other university defined Ivy Style as fervently and as beautifully as Princeton in the 1920s and 1930s.” Due in part to its somewhat isolated location, sportswear — clothes literally worn to play sports — became “around-the-clock attire.” Clothes that we might describe as classic or even stuffy, like tweed suits or white bucks, actually evolved from golf and tennis attire of the time. “Princetonians were also credited with introducing the sport jacket,” appropriating Norfolk hunting jackets by updating the construction and wearing them with unmatched trousers.

The relaxed style was then broadcast to the world by the most closely watched celebrity of the day, Prince Edward of York (the Duke of Windsor). Eschewing the formality of court dress that his great-grandmother, Queen Victoria, would have demanded, the Prince became fascinated with this sportive style and elevated it to a whole new level (the subject of an essay in the book by Dr. Peter McNeil, a professor of design history at the University of Technology, Sydney). Particularly after abdicating the throne of England, he popularized wearing relaxed, informal clothes in public settings, including short-sleeved knits, bright colors and tartans… clothing we see today even in office settings.

The Ivy Style exhibit bravely showed how modern brands have been influenced by the movement, from Michael Bastian’s trim, preppy looks to Thom Browne’s cutting-edge parodies and, of course, Ralph Lauren’s entire oeuvre. But perhaps to get the best look at the future of men’s fashion, we should return to the college campus. Maybe one day we’ll all be wearing compression-fit T-shirts and drawstring sweatpants to work. On the other hand, if we look to royals like Prince Harry for inspiration, we may be headed to the office completely nude.

Radical Conformists by Patricia Mears is published by Yale University Press and The Fashion Institute of Technology.

Images courtesy of FIT.