Before it became acceptable to wear pajamas to class, Ivy League institutions had an unspoken dress code. “Ivy Style”—an exhibit currently running at the Museum at Fashion Institute of Technology—transports us to that ideal time when attending classes was a sport coat affair and ties were commonplace in the quad. While the exhibit features pricey labels like Brooks Brothers and J. Press and little mention of Columbia, the free admission and inspired ensembles make it worth the downtown trip.
The exhibit begins in the basement, in a room so dark that it feels like an initiation into Yale’s Skull and Bones society. Upon further inspection, Princeton is actually the Ivy that dominates the first of the exhibit’s two rooms.
The Princeton displays in particular offer new insight into its large role in the development of the Ivy League “look,” including gems such as the “beer suit,” an ensemble created to protect one’s nice clothes from taking a spill.
The museum also adds literary color to the first room by displaying quotes on the wall about Ivy style from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “This Side of Paradise,” in which the main character is a Princeton man.
Walking into the showroom initially feels overwhelming—too many mannequins have been crammed into too small a room. But the museum does stagger them so that visitors can match a sign with the outfit it describes.
The setup of the main exhibit is cleverly planned to reflect different areas, or as the exhibit referred to them, “environments,” of college life, and the clothes Ivy men wore in each of them, featuring classic designs by Brooks Brothers, J. Press, and Ralph Lauren.
The first of these environments is a pre-WWII dorm room. The museum is careful to recreate every detail, down to the copy of Esquire shoved under the mattress.
Best of all, instead of wearing an old T-shirt and boxers, the mannequins were lounging in Brooks Brothers robes over dress pants, button downs, and ties.
The next environment, which was not labeled but appeared to be a closet twice the size of the “dorm” room, was not nearly as exacting, focusing on too many elements of style. The collection of men’s “smoking flats,” an often velvet loafer-slipper hybrid, nonetheless managed to stand out—particularly given their recent comeback as a style chiefly for women.
Along the back wall was a walk down memory lane of Ivy style throughout the 20th century set against the backdrop of an outdoor pathway. The looks populating this environment ranged from the expected—fur coats and plaid—to the not-so-expected, like the red and green cords and pants covered with spikes on the knees and crotch. Columbia guys, take note—spikes are in this season.
Although the exhibit credits Columbia as one of the original four Ivies, there is little evidence of the University’s style in the exhibit. Only a single blue striped tie stitched with the Columbia’s crest is included in the collection, although “Roar, Lions, Roar” played in the background at one point. But the goal of the exhibit is not necessarily to look at specific schools—though there are period pieces and photographs—but to look at the theme more broadly, with the spaces unattributed to any school or city.
There were more environments modeled after libraries and chem labs, but the boathouse, populated by muscular, athletic mannequins outfitted in sportswear, is the last place to check out before leaving.
Although none of the styles here were attributed to Columbia in particular, the beginnings of the University’s modern-day style—rolled-up khakis and Sperry’s—are evident.
The biggest disappointment is the total absence of polos. Still, the exhibit offers a unique view on the many avenues of Ivy style that a simple stroll down College Walk could not offer. The exhibit is running through Jan. 5, so it’s worth checking out before the semester ends—it just might inspire Columbians to bring the raccoon-fur coat back into style for next season.