The ‘Ivy League Look’, or ‘Ivy Style‘ was once a cutting-edge look which for decades lead the evolution of menswear. From the rarefied walls of Harvard, Yale and Princeton the trend spread to not only establishment figures such as the Duke of Windsor, but also genre-busting revolutionaries like Miles Davis. ‘Ivy Style’ is a mode of men’s fashion which has crossed boundaries, endured over time and demands the attention of academics, consumers and fashion enthusiasts alike.
Eric Musgrave is a fashion professional with a formidable 32 years of experience in the business, during that time he’s worked with some of the most significant names in the industry and earned an international reputation. There are few people with a deeper knowledge of traditional men’s style and in this article Eric applies his understanding to an appraisal of Ivy Style by Patricia Mears.
In my library the 192-page Ivy Style sits very comfortably alongside Hollywood and The Ivy Look, The Official Preppy Handbook, Take Ivy and The Ivy Look and (respectively; British, American, Japanese reissued in the US and British). That line-up underlines the international fascination for this peculiar dress code, while the dates of the publications – 2011, 1981, 1965 reissued in 2010 and 2010 – remind us of the longevity of interest in this aspect of men’s wardrobe.
Patricia Mears’ three essays on the history and development of Ivy style are enjoyable reading, while the excerpts from G Bruce Boyer’s 1985 work Elegance were a total delight. Boyer is a curious, intelligent and eloquent enthusiast for the subject. His essay on the way that jazz men such as Miles Davis embraced Ivy style was a well-paced and evocative read.
Most intriguing of the chapters for me was the interview with Richard Press, whose family owned and ran the stalwart Ivy style supplier J Press. The personal recollections, explanations and insights from Press were among the highlights of Ivy Style. I would have welcomed many more pages of memories and opinions from such an insider and indeed from other insiders.
This prompted the thought in me that we need more books on fashion that concentrate on the voices of those who actually ran companies or worked in companies. There is an unfortunate obsession across the media with concentrating on “designers” when there are so many other interesting stories to tell from the rich tapestry of the fashion business.
Having written about the fashion retail business for more than 30 years, I can understand that our captains of industry may not want to reveal too much during their periods of tenure at the helm of ships of commerce, but we definitely need to get them to open up once they have retired. Despite the interpretations of academics, theorists, fashion victims and the rest of a motley group of commentators, fashion is a business which exists to sell as much as possible at full price to consumer group.
Richard Press’ reminiscences are also useful in reminding us of the extremely complicated supply chain that is required to get clothes into shops. “One of the most joyful experiences I would have was redesigning tweed,” Press says. Given the relative narrow repertoire of shapes, cuts and styles that is acceptable to most men, cloth is one of the few elements that can be played with to introduce novelty or individuality. In its essence Ivy style was spare and cool, but it encouraged men to experiment with bold plaids, contrasting colours and mixed patterns. The images of the clothes from Press’ own wardrobe are among the best in the book.
Having spent half a lifetime writing about menswear, I know that males are both passionate and articulate about what they wear and why they wear it. My biggest problem with modern “interpreters” of Ivy style is that this singular phenomenon does not need “interpretation”. Thousands of men, I am absolutely certain, would be delighted today to find exact replicas of the classic Ivy League garments of the 1960s. Yes, they would need to be resized to fit modern bodies, but they would not need to be altered greatly. Ivy style is a pure (and purist) delight. To tinker with it is like “updating” champagne by flavouring it with cherry or bilberry. Best not bother!
I appeal to the publishing community to commission an able and informed writer (I’m available!) to interview Richard Press and his contemporaries so that we can record for posterity the insights of the people who created, sold and wore this superb aspect of men’s style. We will not see its like again.
Article by Eric Musgrave
During his distinguished career Eric has amassed an impressive international reputation and contributed to publications such as the Financial Times and Scabal’s Bespoken magazine. In 2009 Eric published an acclaimed pictorial history of men’s tailoring; Sharp Suits.