September 23, 2012

In Review: FIT's Ivy Style

Last week, the newly accredited Museum at FIT opened their newest exhibition, Ivy Style, chronicling the evolution of the Ivy League look from it’s inception in the early twentieth century to it’s resurgence in popularity today. Particularly after my recent inspiration post, I knew I had to check out another point of view on the subject.

One interesting thing I appreciated about this exhibition is that, similar to the recent Costume Institute exhibit, the pieces are grouped thematically rather than chronologically. Locales such as the chemistry lab, the quad, the dorm room, and the ‘University Shop’ demonstrate how much the clothes have changed over the last century while still managing to stay much the same. From the origins of ‘sportswear’ to the peak of formality each piece serves to inform the journey of the quintessential American style.

It is fascinating to witness the way in which clothing worn on campuses across the northeast (particularly Princeton, who is often credited with being the site of the original Ivy style) was embraced and adapted by college students into a style that was uniquely their own. During the heyday of the 20s and 30s, formality in dress extended even into the privacy of the dorm room. Young men would essentially just replace the suit jacket or blazer with a dorm robe specifically designed for use in the home. At one time, college students would have been expected to own two formal evening suits. Sadly, these days most men will never even own one.

Aside from the history presented in the exhibit, there are a lot of beautiful clothes on view for one to enjoy, even if you are not a fashion history buff. Some particular favorites of mine featured are the Princeton beer suits and the assortment of boating blazers. Interesting side note – while today a blazer is traditionally navy, they got their name from the ‘blazing’ red jackets worn by the rowing club of St. John’s College, Cambridge.

I really enjoyed the juxtaposition of a vintage ensemble with a contemporary one. This happened a lot with Ralph Lauren and occasionally with Brooks Brothers looks, but really made an impression with the formalwear section. It exemplified the three primary forms of formal attire (the tuxedo, cutaway tailcoat, and morning suit) and how little they have changed over the years, even if they have fallen out of use.

Some of the individual curatorial choices were interesting as well. There were at least a half-dozen different types of mannequin sprinkled about the exhibit. I don’t know if this was deliberate or they just didn’t have enough of one style, but it seemed an odd choice. I did really like how the busts without heads had pocket squares tucked into the collar to cover the neck. It was an interesting use of a menswear staple that heightened the overall impression of the ensemble.

I enjoyed a lot of the information presented, particularly the way in which it is presented, which at times has a slightly humorous slant. One favorite quote from the information plaque on madras print tells us how “originally, madras was prized for shirting because of its natural vegetable dyes, which ‘bled’ when washed, and thus produced new coloring effects […] but for most of the last half century, the cloth has been dyed with colorfast chemicals, thereby taking all the fun out of it.”

One problem that I had was that while most mannequins are fully dressed, occasionally only one or two of the pieces are attributed. I assume that this is because the other pieces are not vintage, but there are plenty of contemporary pieces in the exhibit, so I can’t really justify that. I personally would like to know who makes each piece that is dressed in the ensemble to be able to compare different interpretations and representations of the piece and the Ivy look as a whole. It wasn’t a huge issue for me, but it was definitely a missed opportunity in my opinion.

Probably my biggest issue with the exhibit (and it isn’t a deal-breaker, more of an annoyance) is that I thought there was a little too much preference evident, partially in the choice of pieces included but mostly in the accompanying descriptions. The info plaques that provide interesting tidbits of information about the companies and their history feature Thom Browne three times, second only to Ralph Lauren (who has four). Now, I like Thom Browne and I appreciate what he does (even if the shrunken suit is not my personal style), but I would not call him a sartorial giant of Ivy Style when compared to the likes of Brooks Brothers and J Press (who have 0 and 1 plaques respectively) and their almost 100 years of experience. One could argue that he designs Black Fleece so it is like giving props to Brooks Brothers, except it isn’t really because he has only designed for them for 6 of those 94 years of existence. I found it particularly interesting because Brooks Brothers is the main sponsor of the exhibit.

Beyond that, all of the Thom Browne plaques read less like an objective history and more like a rave review with statements like “while some designers are taking a trip down memory lane, Thom Browne consistently shakes of the staid qualities of the past. Browne has won over the high-fashion cognoscenti […yet] has not achieved a parallel degree of acceptance in the world of “real” menswear.” While his works were not given disproportionate attention, my sticking point is that patrons could be better served by a more rounded history of the major players past and present. Gant, for example, was not represented nearly as much as I think they should have been, given the influence they once had and the prominence to which they have returned in the US market.

Overall, I think this is a fantastic exhibition and curated much better than the most recent Costume Institute exhibit, in my opinion. Though small, it is incredibly informative and the variety of pieces on display makes it more than worth the trip. A few things I thought were a bit of a stretch, but I appreciated the nod to Perry Ellis’ influence. If you are in NYC anytime soon, I completely recommend a visit (the Fashion A-Z exhibit in the main gallery isn’t too bad either).

Curated by Patricia Mears, with co-curators and consultants Richard Press and G. Bruce Boyer. Sponsored by Brooks Brothers with additional support provided by J. MacLaughlin. The exhibition runs through January 5, 2013 and is free to the public. The Museum at FIT is located on 7th Ave and 27th Street and open Tu-Fr from noon-8pm and Sa from 10am-5pm. The Ivy Style exhibition is through a set of double doors to the left of the Fashion A-Z exhibit and down a flight of stairs.

Stay stylish,
- JJ

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