F.I.T.‘s ’Ivy Style' exhibit explores the fashions of privilege

'Ivy Style' is on now at the Museum at FIT. (Jason Diamond)
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It makes perfect sense that the first thing you see when you walk into the Fashion Institute of Technology’s Ivy Style exhibition is a quote from Amory Blaine, the protagonist of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s This Side of Paradise, discussing why he likes Princeton over Harvard or Yale as his choice for college.

Although the term “Ivy” wasn’t used to describe the collection of elite colleges along the East Coast until 1933, Fitzgerald’s debut, along with Owen Johnson’s 1912 novel Stover at Yale, were the two novels of the early 20th century that best described life at the grand institutions of learning that we now call the Ivy League. The style that first developed on those campuses in the days of Stover and Blaine continues on to this day on runways from New York to Milan (not to mention plenty of websites and forums for enthusiasts), yet this is the first exhibition of its kind.

Ivy Style packs over a hundred years of sartorial history into one big room. The exhibition, organized by deputy director of The Museum of the Fashion Institute of Technology Patricia Mears (she is also the editor of a new book of the same name out on Yale University Press), proves that there has been little evolution in the way of the traditional Ivy League dress aside from the look being one that has embodied wealth and a certain class status over the past century—and that aesthetic preservation is exactly why the look attracts loyalists interested in the static timelessness of its iconic silhouettes. It’s the same sense of refinement that has always been part of the Ivy look. If you didn’t go to Dartmouth or Columbia, you can still dress like you did – if you have the money to afford it, of course.

The exhibition wisely offers a mix of button-up Oxford shirts, blazers, Madras-patterned shorts and jackets that have all been signatures of the look for decades, but it juxtaposes those classics against each other in a thematic arrangement rather than a chronological one, thereby taking items that on their own might seem mundane and exploring their rigidly codified organization in a larger stylistic system. Ralph Lauren’s 1980 take on the look—suspenders, orange-striped tie, a looser fitting shirt, and cuffed pants that look like something Michael J. Fox would have worn on “Family Ties”—rests comfortably a few feet away from a trio of aged school blazers adorned with their respective school’s insignia; the most flamboyant being the orange Princeton blazer from 1919 that lends a bit of color to mental images of America’s best and brightest strolling across a black-and-white campus around the First World War. But the exhibit fails to properly put the exhibit’s angle into a historical perspective. Things are too scattered about and the style is presented as one that has only existed on the Ivy League campuses and among the rich and white. It gives very little in terms of who the practitioners were, and the impact of the look on culture beyond the fashion world. A shame, because Ivy Style the book does a wonderful job at explaining the history of the look in a broader context; the Duke of Windsor’s love of the “Soft Look” that helped introduce the casual Ivy League styles to the masses is one example. The main focus of the exhibit is the actual piece of clothing on display, and it lacks a good deal in terms of putting things into a proper historical context, and moving the look past its “Golden Years” after the Second World War. If you were to go by the story told be Ivy Style, there was little to no preppy style in the 1960s and 1970s.

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The companies who helped develop what we now know as the Ivy League look are also given their full credit throughout Ivy Style. While Brooks Brothers is listed on the back of the program as a sponsor, Gant has bits of ephemera (advertisements, fabric swatches) scattered about, and there’s an Arrow Oxford shirt autographed by the entire 1933 Harvard varsity football squad. Richard Press, grandson of J. Press (the other original Ivy League menswear company still in operation) founder Jacobi Press, was brought on to help consult on the exhibit’s curation.

Sadly, not much attention is paid to the tailors and companies who once dotted the main streets along Ivy League campuses. Maybe that’s due to FIT’s inability to properly acquire the pieces to put on display, but it almost comes off as if there was a group of five or six stores exclusively located around Yale and Harvard, when in that isn’t at all the case: haberdasheries, shoe makers and other custom suit makers are forgotten, and it lends an air of brand obsession to Ivy Style.

Ivy Style is a lovingly put together exhibition with clever set pieces, like a raccoon fur coat from the late 1920s, donated by former ambassador and old Bush family friend Joseph Verner Reed, that would make a 1970s pimp weep with jealous envy. Other interesting items include a Madras jacket made by Chipp in the early 1970s that looks like it belongs on the set of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. Yet the show fails to encompass the look’s few developments: namely its contemporary manifestations and broad appeal beyond white, upper-class America. It fails to properly give credit to the Jewish tailors and business owners (the Press family, Fenn-Feinstein, Rosenberg’s and many more leading up to Ralph Lauren and the creators of Gant), and hardly touches upon the popularity of the look in Japan, save for a copy of the 1965 Japanese photography book, Take Ivy (the book’s cult popularity led to a recent reissue).

But the exhibition’s greatest error is neglecting the reciprocal relationship between Ivy Style and African-American fashion for over half of the last century.

The Ivy Style book smartly dedicates a chapter to jazz musicians like Miles Davis, John Coltrane, and their contemporaries who adopted the Ivy look to lend an air of intellectualism to music that already had no problem being cool. The show offers hardly a morsel on this connection, a disappointing omission to say the least. It also fails to highlight the fact that brands like Tommy Hilfiger owe much of their success to the fact that Hilfiger’s Ivy-influenced clothes were so embraced by young African-Americans in the 1990s, and that connection continues to this day with blogs like Street Etiquette to Andre 3000 sporting sweater vests and bowties and Pharrell’s love of pink Polo shirts.

The closest the exhibition gets to broaching the subject of diversity are two Thom Browne pieces, one that displays a sensibility informed by Ivy and mixed with high fashion (read: metal spikes on blazers. Preppy mixed with fetish wear. See a bunch of them here), and another from his 2012 autumn/winter collection that looks like a Blue Meanie dyed grey, but is instead Browne’s high fashion interpretation of a varsity football player from the 1940s.

The look is smart; the people who wear and love the clothes have usually been as well (or at least pretended to be so), but it is also the look of the American upper crust. A look that has been adapted and advanced by people who were once not allowed to go to school in the campuses the look came of age on. The least the people behind the exhibit could have done was have faith that their audiences would want an honest representation of the culture and not a catalogue of its most identifiable wears. Ivy Style’s biggest problem is that it romanticizes the old boy’s club many associate the style with. FIT missed out on a great opportunity to show how a very American look has evolved, and in some small way, show how America itself has evolved.

'Ivy Style' is on view at The Museum at FIT through Jan. 5, 2013.