"Ivy Style": FIT Charts the Evolution of Campus Fashion

(l-r) Raccoon fur coat worn by Joseph Verner Reed, Yale Class of 1926 (father of donor). The Museum at FIT, gift of Ambassador Joseph Verner Reed; Chipp, madras jacket, circa 1970. The Museum at FIT, gift of Glenn Forbes; Brooks Brothers, linen suit, circa 1920. Museum purchase.
(Eileen Costa/Courtesy of the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology, New York)

The Museum at FIT is taking its visitors back to a time before the Ivy League look meant college hoodies and logo-stamped sweats. 

As the space's latest exhibition, “Ivy Style,” shows, collegiate fashion has spread way beyond the courtyards of Harvard, Princeton, and Yale. The exhibit charts the history of campus fashions from the 1920s through today, tracing the evolution of classic menswear items like polo coats and penny loafers from their European beginnings to their American redesign by such pioneering brands as Brooks Brothers and J. Press.

“You can only go so far with innovation and design, and I think that a lot of times – especially in periods of crisis – nostalgia, looking towards a more genteel time period, is what people want,” Patricia Mears, deputy director of the Museum at FIT, told ARTINFO of the look’s recent comeback. While Ivy staples like Glen plaid, madras (above, center), and linen suiting (above, right) are present in the exhibition, Mears also turned up some forgotten campus trends, like the 1920s raccoon coat (above, left) and Princeton’s beer suits. “Princeton University students would wear white coveralls and duck cloth jackets to keep their good clothes from getting beer on them during parties,” Mears said. “There were a lot of trends, but the thing that is important is how many of the trends, such as athletic wear, which transitioned from the playing field into the classroom, were really important.”

Mears began looking at photos of Ivy Leaguers from the 1920s and ’30s as a reaction to what she saw as a “fracturing” in the industry. “There was a downturn in the economy, and a number of people I knew who were wonderful designers were going out of business,” she said. “And the tragic end to the life of Alexander McQueen happened around that time, and John Galliano, whose entire career imploded, and yet people were still wanting more product, cheaper product, less good quality product.” Vintage student snapshots from tony college campuses proved to be the cure for Mears’s fashion malaise. “I began to realize, these are handsome young men wearing beautiful clothes, but there’s also a sense of ease, a freshness to it. I said, ‘This is really style.’”

While the Ivy look is pretty democratic these days, with everyone from H&M to Hermes turning out brass button peacoats and embroidered smoking slippers, this wasn’t always the case. “If you look at pre-World War II images, you’re talking about more of an elitist group of people, people with more money who could send their children to college” Mears said. “After the war, the G.I. bill changed that, so working class men, older men, could suddenly go back to school. They brought with them things they had worn during the war. Things like chinos became part of the college students’ uniform.” The style became so popular in the 1950s, that Mears considers the mid-century years its heydey, before Ivy style evolved into preppy style in the following decades. “I think with the decline of the Ivy style in the 1960s and the resurgence in the ’80s, you started to see the word preppy being used for more fashion-oriented clothing,” she said. “It was brighter, more youthful, and there were a lot of women’s clothes, too. Ivy is really menswear, it really comes out of this university environment.” 

Mears has faithfully recreated that environment in the Museum at FIT, where looks are staged in faux prohibition-era dorm rooms, grassy college quads, and campus classrooms. See the exhibit, which runs through January 5, 2013, at New York City’s Fashion Institute of Technology. 

Click on the slide show to see images from FIT’s “Ivy Style” exhibition.