I visited an intriguing exhibit this week at New York City’s Museum at FIT (Fashion Institute of Technology) called Ivy Style. What was interesting to me was how this style, originating in the early 20th century in the hallowed halls of Harvard, Yale and Princeton and so associated with all things conservative, revolutionized fashion. And it still has a huge impact on how we dress today. So while I haven’t been preppy since grade 10, it’s clear why elements of preppy style work for any woman at any age.
I’m laughing as I write this because I never thought I would promote preppy style. While I went through a phase in early high school in which I wore John Henry (remember that name?) and Ralph Lauren shirts, I dumped the pink cotton for black Lycra upon falling in love with new wave music, and re-branding myself “alternative.”
Touring the intimate exhibit, I realized how two foundations of Ivy style — cardigans and blazers — are some of my wardrobe basics today. And even if none of your friends are named Chip; if you’ve ever owned a button-down shirt, khakis or loafers, it’s influenced you, too.
The origins and evolution of the style
Ivy Style focuses on both the origins and evolution of this mode of dress. While it began with the privileged young men who could afford an Ivy League education, the exhibit indicates how its appeal spread in the mid 20th century to everyone from working class soldiers home from the war to jazz musicians. And much later, in the ’90s, how hip-hop culture and urban youth adopted preppy style, helping make Tommy Hilfiger a household name.
Preppy meets an It Girl
While the FIT exhibit focuses on menswear, it’s easy to see the influence of preppy style on women’s fashion today. Think of J. Crew, for example, and how its 44-year-old president and executive creative director, Jenna Lyons, has become a fashion It Girl by mixing and styling preppy classics in a modern way. Lyons will wear a blazer shrunken from its classic proportions, and then mix things up further by pairing it with bold jewelry and sky-high heels.
And lest you think it’s a North American phenomenon, Lisa Birnbach, author of the 1980 classic The Official Preppy Handbook now works with Tommy Hilfiger curating a travelling display of the look around the world. In the September issue of American Elle she describes how preppy style is alive and well in, and influenced by the cultures of, such places as Paris, Hamburg, Milan, London and, especially, Tokyo.
Tweaking of prep
Today’s tweaking of Ivy style is totally simpatico with the message of the exhibit that this way of dress is meaningful to all, not just those from affluent East Coast backgrounds. (Even though there are items on display donated from both a Muffy and a Pepper…).
From the show catalogue itself: “Purists may bemoan the ways Ivy has changed, but the style is so brilliantly distilled and perfected that its elements can be tweaked and even upended without losing Ivy’s distinctive, spirited essence.”
So get those loafers out from the back of the closet. Just don’t pair them with a hair band…
Ivy Style runs until January 5, 2013.