In making a list of the ten most quixotic initiatives I have undertaken (and the competition for a spot in the top ten is ferocious), my curiously conceived book, A Whiff of Murder, appears to be the most indescribable. I tend to write the sorts of things I like to read and at the time was absorbed with the history of Acappella music and intrigued by the notion of writing the sort of “cozy” mystery I’ve enjoyed for a lifetime. So, A Whiff presents the history of the Whiffenpoofs against the background of Yale itself.
It’s an odd book and one that has a very select readership.
One chapter, however, stands on its own, and with no expectation that the audience for this piece will be larger than that for the novel, I present my research on the evolution of haberdashery as nurtured by the Ivy League:
It is not clear exactly how the distinctive style known as “Ivy League” came into being, but clearly much of it was born in New Haven. How it happened that the unholy mess that was American style at the end of the nineteenth century became a “classic” look in the midst of turmoil we can only guess.
There has been an endless stream of conjecture about the shift in the American psyche, from the grain-fed, agrarian, small town values of the nineteenth century to the raucous jangle of alcohol-fueled excess of the American cities in the third and fourth decades of the twentieth. Freud, Prohibition, Gangsters, Ennui – Any and all of it landed at once in a country that thought it had fought a war to keep the world safe for democracy.
The Roaring Twenties, the Jazz Age, The Age of Wonderful Nonsense – all describe what were essentially urban experiences, although staid conservatism still prevailed in the outlying country towns and villages and in the quiet cities of the prairie states. The conflict between the America that had been and the America in utero was probably most vividly revealed in the drama played out in Dayton, Tennessee where William Jennings Bryan defended the Bible against the slick agnostic, Clarence Darrow, in the Scopes Trial – Bible Belt faith pitted against emerging urban civil libertarianism.
As the twenties slumped into the thirties, popular entertainment became a national resource in the wake of economic disaster. Radio and film began to create shared entertainment experiences. The radio networks carried baseball games, election results, soap operas, Swing music. Few missed the broadcast of Our Gal Sunday, which began with the question: “Can a girl from a little mining town in the west find happiness as the wife of a wealthy and titled Englishman?” Which, actually, provides the perfect connection between the sophistication and complication that came to America from Europe after the war and the simple virtues that were still honored in most of the country’s families.
Parallel to all of this there emerged in New Haven, Cambridge, Princeton, New York, and Boston a sensibility that would come to be known as “Ivy”
The term “Ivy League” itself has origins shrouded in mystery, or at least in folklore. The most unlikely suggests that a meeting between Yale, Rutgers, Princeton, and Columbia in 1873 established the rules by which collegiate football would be played. In 1876, Yale, Harvard, Princeton, and Columbia met to formalize the rules of the game of football. In either case, the four colleges involved are described by the Roman numeral, IV, thereby, it is suggested, creating the IV League.
In 1902, Yale, Harvard, Cornell, and Princeton established the Eastern Intercollegiate Basketball league. By the 1930s sportswriters covering football games distinguished the smaller and older established East Coast colleges from the newer and larger public universities by calling the smaller and older private schools, “Ivy colleges”. The eight members of the Ivy League include seven of the nine colonial colleges established before the American Revolution. Cornell is the newest of the Ivies, having been established in 1865. For reasons that remain obscure, West Point, Annapolis, and Rutgers – institutions once considered part of the group of similar institutions – were not included in the deliberations that brought the creation in 1952 of an athletic conference formally known as the Ivy League. Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Dartmouth, Brown, Columbia, Cornell, and Penn – these are the colleges that make up the Ivy League.
As is true in so many arenas, however, all things Ivy are not created equal. The academic and admissions pecking orders remain fairly consistent, and all of the Ivies turn up in the discussion of the most prestigious destinations in college admissions. In terms of style, however, there are really only two – Yale and Princeton. The rugged and athletic men of Dartmouth did contribute some notable articles of clothing – the challenge of a deep-snow environment limited muffled north-country men to gear that would emerge as the L.L. Bean or Orvis look. Later, of course, that hearty line of apparel would expand to include North Face, Marmot, Simms, Patagonia, and Mountain Hardwear.
Ivy somehow became Ivy as students, particularly at Yale and Princeton developed a self-conscious sense of fashion or style. There are other distinctive streams flowing into current campus sensibilities – Preppy and Collegiate to name the most conspicuous – but none is truly Ivy.
The popularity of Lisa Birnbach’s The Preppy Handbook confused the issue of an original American fashion style considerably; the very popular book presented a clothing manifesto attached to the communities that most commonly send their offspring to boarding and independent day schools. The Grosse Pointe attorney arriving at a lawn party in lime green slacks festooned with whales may be considered “preppy”, no matter where he went to school or how long ago he went there. “Preppy” in the current vernacular, as touted by Ralph Lauren, J Crew, Talbot’s, Lily Pulitzer, Southern Tides, and Vineyard Vines, is expensive, casual, and often brightly colored. A preppy outfit may include the wearing of stripes and plaids or pink and green. In fact, the hallmark of the “preppy” attire may be the drawing of attention to the wearer. “Look at me! I’m dressed casually, but this cost a bundle!”
Similarly, the term, “collegiate,” is too broad and too inclusive to describe anything other than an audience rather than a style. Happy frat boys at Northwestern, business majors at USC, golfers at Furman, “good ole boys” at SMU or Tulane all dress comfortably, frequently expensively, but without particular identity. In the 1920s, for example, the raccoon coat was the rage at Ivy colleges and at Nebraska, Kansas, and Chicago.
Just as there is a difference between fraternities that grew up in ivied climes (Delta Kappa Epsilon, Alpha Delta Phi, Psi Upsilon) and those that popped up in the Midwest or South (Kappa Sigma, Phi Delta Theta, Sigma Chi, Phi Gamma Delta, Beta Theta Pi, Sigma Alpha Epsilon, Kappa Alpha Order, Tau Kappa Epsilon and others), the identification of Ivy League as a distinctive style has much to do with the experience of a privileged class at Yale and Princeton in the first half of the twentieth century.
A freshman arriving at Princeton in the first half of the century might well have understood why Amory Blaine, central character in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s evocation of life at Princeton, This Side of Paradise,knew instinctively that something was wrong with his clothes. At the height of Princeton’s self-conscious fashion hey-day, students were expected to observe the distinction between freshmen, sophomores and upperclassmen; only those in the third or fourth year, for example, wore Princeton’s signature white flannel trousers or striped neckties. Langrock’s, Princeton’s premiere clothing store, provided the most fashionable Princetonians the garb they required to take their place in one of the college’s most selective eating clubs – Ivy, Cottage, or Tiger Inn.
Fitzgerald’s take on the clubs is dated and certainly only his, and yet, the characteristics probably did have some legitimacy. Ivy for Fitzgerald was “breathlessly aristocratic”; Cottage, Fitzgerald’s own club, and perhaps the site at which he began writing This Side of Paradise, is described in the novel as a “melange of brilliant adventurers and well-dressed philanderers,” and “the parlor-snakes’ delight.” One has to wonder if fellow members of Cottage, Senators Bill Bradley and Bill Frist, enjoy the parlor-snake reference, but it certainly did apply to Fitzgerald. Athletes found their way to Tiger Inn, a club marked, in Fitzgerald’s words, with “bluff simplicity,” and “…vitalized by an honest elaboration of prep-school standards.”
Princeton’s legacy includes the Princeton haircut (short back and sides – longer front and fringe), Norfolk jackets, Shetland sweaters, spectator shoes, raccoon coats, and rep ties. For better or for worse, the Princeton version of Ivy became the version Hollywood adopted and, to some extent, the Hollywood version came back to Princeton. The close connections between Princeton and the South may have something to do with the popularity of seersucker suits and white linen jackets in New Jersey.
The tradition of elegant dress for men was more restrained in Britain. Sir Hardy Amies is said to have observed:
A man should look as though he has chosen his clothes with intelligence, put them on with care and then forgotten all about them.
There were certainly well dressed men in Boston and New York at the start of the new century, and the establishment of Brooks Brothers in 1818 is one of the landmarks in the evolution of an Ivy sensibility. Abraham Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt wore suits made for them by Brooks Brothers as has the company of actors in the widely admired series, Mad Men. Brooks Brothers is certainly properly cited when describing American Traditional menswear, but the company is also properly remembered in noting the innovations that have become part of the tradition – button-down shirt, madras, the polo coat, Shetland sweaters, Argyle socks, and light-weight suits. Of all its many notable creations, however, its greatest contribution to an Ivy League wardrobe is the sack suit. The sack suit includes a three-buttoned jacket (only two showing), a soft shouldered blazer without darts, and cuffed pants without a front pleat.
In 1902, Jacobi Press opened a shop on York Street in New Haven. At the height of its influence, J. Press had shops in New York, Cambridge, San Francisco, Princeton, and Washington, D.C. as well. Today, the shop operates in New Haven, New York, Washington, and Cambridge. From the outset, Press hired extraordinary tailors, making clothing that has stood the test of time; a vintage set of evening clothes or a blazer from J. Press is elegant and beautifully crafted and may be worn with pride by several generations of Ivy men. The tailors at Press stood ready in York Street to meet the demands of young men from across the country who landed at Yale with a handsome allowance and the desire to dress as Yale men ought. They also took to the road, visiting prep schools with trunks of material, taking measurement of the even younger men who would carry their loyalty to J. Press into their own collegiate wardrobe.
The tradition of made-to-measure clothing, “bespoke tailoring,” had come to New Haven from England as did many of the fabrics J. Press used. Bolts of English cloth are still on hand for those clients who wish to have a suit, trousers, or blazer made to measure. It is not only in the expert cutting and tailoring of fabric that Press excelled; its buyers found the most sumptuous cashmere, tweed, and velvet.
When George Herbert Walker Bush was accused of being just another “Brooks Brothers Republican,” he drew back the corner of his suit to reveal the label. “I’m a J. Press man,” he said, knowing that the difference mattered.
Later generations of tailors trained at J. Press would go out on their own. Sydney Winston founded Chipp, a much beloved purveyor of fine men’s clothing, especially noted for neckties and the linings of its jackets. Paul Winston, Sydney’s son, was the tailor who found and crafted the exquisite linings, so much admired that the lining was frequently selected before choosing the fabric for the suit itself. JFK was one of Chipp’s most loyal customers, although other Kennedys preferred the more traditional cut of the Press suit or blazer. Although Chipp is no longer one of the premier haberdasheries in New York City, Paul Winston still makes bespoke suits for the discriminating man of fashion.
Few men of fashion, however, step out of an evening in white tie and tails. The Whiffenpoofs do and have almost from the start of their history. British aristocrats (and wealthy Americans who copied them) had long “dressed” for dinner. The tailcoat had been worn in Britain since the Regency, during the day and in the evening. The model that is considered the highest degree of formality in evening dress today is actually the form of tailcoat known as the evening tailcoat or the dress tailcoat. In any case, gentlemen sat to dinner in a cut-away jacket, black waistcoat, stiff white shirt, and a white bow tie. Actually, sitting in a dress tailcoat was a bit of a problem. The advice given to those attempting it for the first time was not to divide the tails, but to flip them over the side of the chair.
Dress tailcoats and trousers are made of worsted wool, black or midnight blue. The shirt is white, cotton, and stiff (pique) as is the white tie. A distinctive difference between the full-dress shirt and the tuxedo shirt is that the full-dress collar is high and made of folded wings. Today, the more commonly worn waistcoat is white; all other features remain as they had been at the start of the twentieth century.
This is not the place to describe the many ways in which formal wear has changed over the decades, but it is worth mentioning that all formal wear evolved quickly in the 1920s and 1930s, sometimes referred to as the Golden Age of Formal Wear. A revolution had already taken place on both sides of the Atlantic, with the “invention” of the tuxedo.
Like the origin of The Whiffenpoof Song, the emergence of a formal jacket without tails comes from several directions. An American visiting London in 1886 was introduced to the Prince of Wales. James Brown Potter was taken with the Prince’s jaunty appearance; affecting the crisp elegance of the military officer, the Prince stepped out in society in a short jacket and a black bow tie. Returning to his home in Tuxedo Park, New York, Potter introduced the style to his tailor and subsequently to his friends.
The transition to a more “relaxed” dinner wear allowed gentlemen to move (and sit) with greater comfort; the style quickly took hold and is the standard for all but the most formal occasions. Today, formal dress can be described on three levels: “White Tie” demands the gentleman wear the tailcoat- ladies are expected to wear a ball gown. “Black Tie” invites the men to wear the traditional tuxedo and women to arrive in an evening gown. “Business Attire” announces the expectation that gentlemen will arrive in a conservative suit.
The Whiffenpoofs do not always perform in white tie, but they don their tailcoats often. Newly tapped juniors finally consider themselves fully members of the Whiffenpoof family when they have been awarded the white gloves they will wear on stage.
Other groups at Yale and elsewhere have developed distinctive costumes, and several have followed the Whiffs’ lead, appearing in white tie and tails. The practice does lead to the incongruous distance in dress between the group and its audience. Perhaps the over-formality of the Whiffenpoofs’ appearance is part of its appeal; anachronistic, a bit musty, the Whiffenpoofs tie together all that was Yale and all that men of Yale might yet become. The languid, well-bred prep school aristocrat still has a place on stage, but so do talented men from every background and circumstance of life, each standing, gloved and shining without regard to pedigree.