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School Ties

Ivy League style, the quintessentially WASPy American look defined by Jewish designers a century ago, returns to the runways for Fashion Week

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Yale football tackle Philip Tarasovic trying on a suit jacket at J. Press in New Haven, Ct., in 1955 (left), and fall 2012 menswear collections from Valentino (center) and Fendi (right) last month in Milan. (Left to right: Nina Leen/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images; courtesy of Valentino via Style.com; courtesy of Fendi via Style.com.)
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When Valentino sent models down Milan runways last month to show off the new fall collection for men, the clothes were informed not by Lisbeth Salander’s trendy gothic grunge, but by classic Ivy League aesthetics, from oversized lettermen jackets to classic trenchcoats in shiny leather. Fendi recalled similar themes in its show, finishing jackets with details pulled from cardigans and schoolboy blazers. If Milan was any indication, New York Fashion Week—starting Feb. 9—will also feature echoes of the Ivy League style made famous on the campuses of Princeton, Dartmouth, Harvard, and especially Yale, many decades ago.

Whether worn by a model or an industry insider or a chic spectator watching the fall collections come down the runway, Ivy League—also known as “trad,” a precursor to preppy style—is definitely back in vogue. Just look at the lettermen jackets going for a thousand dollars in vintage stores, or the models in J. Crew ads sporting penny loafers without socks. The only thing hidden in this resurgence of a quintessentially American style is a sense of its Jewish roots.

The Jewish influence on menswear in general is well-known, from wholesalers peddling the fabrics that make ties, shirts, and slacks, to the tailors and the retailers and the designers themselves—Marc Jacobs, Isaac Mizrahi, and of course, Ralph Lauren ( Lifshitz) continue to define modern fashion. But Jewish designers’ role in creating the Ivy League look has a distinct context, because these designers created the signature style for a world that wouldn’t admit them.

David Weinreich started the tradition in 1896 by opening Weinreich’s, a shop in New Haven, Ct., that sold custom suits. Two years later, Arthur M. Rosenberg opened Rosenberg’s, where “Rosie” would reign as the original Jewish King of the Custom Made Suits in New Haven well into the Roaring Twenties. In 1902, Jacobi Press opened his own store on Yale University’s campus, where he perfected his three-button sack suit jacket and inspired a dozen imitators that catered to the Ivy League’s finest.

Jacobi Press had emigrated from Latvia in 1896 with every intention of continuing his rabbinical studies, but, like many Jews to arrive in America at the time, he put his religious training aside, to work for his uncle’s custom tailoring business in Middletown, Ct. Press’ grandson, Richard Press, carries on his grandfather’s legacy as the preeminent historian of the classic look: He is a contributor at the blog Ivy Style, where he dishes the old gossip and tidbits that would have been otherwise lost to history. Press—who flew the coop for Dartmouth, only to return to New Haven to work for the family company from 1959 to 1991—says his grandfather never forgot his Jewish roots, becoming the first Russian Jew to become a member of the local German Reform temple in 1902, and keeping a collection of Judaica and Talmudic studies in his personal library.

By the 1920s, J. Press had become the choice tailor for everyone from Duke Ellington to Cary Grant. Even though F. Scott Fitzgerald is said to have shown up to military training wearing a Brooks Brothers suit, Press says the man responsible for one of America’s greatest novels was, in fact, a customer of his grandfather in the 1920s, and in a 1936 letter to his then-15-year-old daughter, Scotty, Fitzgerald cautioned the teenager to “beware of the wolves in their J. Pressed tweed.”

By the 1950s, the look was inescapable. After Rosenberg retired, two former J. Press employees, Sam Kroop and Mack Dermer, acquired his brand in 1958, shortly after “The Ivy Look” began landing full-page spreads in major magazines, starting with Life magazine’s “The Ivy League Heads Across The U.S.” in 1954.

The Jewish pedigree of this quintessentially American style is undeniable. If you surveyed the Princeton campus on a spring day in 1962 and saw a student from a well-to-do Southern family strolling in a pair of madras shorts with a blue oxford shirt, there was a good chance that shirt was the product of Marty and Elliot Gant: former J. Press stock boys, and the sons of a Ukrainian-Jewish immigrant. The real Ivy League alumni Mad Men who ran the advertising world of New York City wore suits with the Chipp logo from Sidney Winston (another former J. Press employee) on the inside of the jacket. President Kennedy supposedly made the switch to exclusively wearing suits made by New Haven custom tailor Fenn-Feinstein because he admired the ones worn by then Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare Abraham Ribicoff, who would become Connecticut’s first and only Jewish governor.

Yet while Rosenberg, Press, and their ilk were free to measure out fabric, sew together, and create the suits for America’s movers and shakers, Jews were routinely denied admission to the Ivy League schools (especially Yale, the epicenter of the Ivy look) and country clubs frequented by their customers. Schools imposed quotas and restrictions to keep Jewish enrollment low. Richard Press recalls stories about Vic Frank, a Jewish football player in the late 1940s for Yale whom the athletic director tried to kick off the team, and another about a “society fellow” choosing to live in a hotel rather than share his dorm room with a Jewish student.

The quotas are gone, but the influence of those Jewish ateliers still endures today, thanks to modern designers who have once again turned the Ivy League look into a billion-dollar idea.

Ralph Lifshitz, a boy from the Bronx, started out as a salesman for Brooks Brothers (the one brand commonly associated with the Ivy look not founded or owned by Jews) and ended up climbing to the top of the fashion world with Polo Ralph Lauren by perfecting the ultimate symbol of modern trad style: his iconic polo shirt. If you walk into a J. Press store today, you will see that not much has changed since the brand’s inception; there are Yale pennants, pictures of bulldogs (Yale’s mascot), leather couches, and of course, suits. Gant has teamed up with popular young designer Michael Bastain, boosting its brand credibility with the young and chic.

But the influence that those Jewish-owned and -operated companies have is most evident when you look at a generation of Jewish undergraduates decked out in wares by Ivy imitators Steven Alan and Band of Outsiders. They don’t worry about being part of a Jewish quota, or whether or not their roommates will vacate because of their heritage; their biggest worry now is whether or not they’ll ever get back that blazer they lent out to a fraternity brother and if he’d even bother to dry clean it first.

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Miriami says:

Not sure why we are supposed to be surprised that Jews are in the schmatte business.

I grew up in New Haven 1950s-60s. Story about JFK and Fenn-Feinstein is true. It was widely known locally; I heard it from my father in ’62. A particular tailor (Moe Decker) would travel to DC from New Haven. I also recall hearing that the President favored Gant (ex-Gantmacher) shirts. The blue pin-stripe shirt that he wore on November 22nd appears to be one. When the photo of it was released, I simultaneously recoiled in horror but also thought, “it’s a Gant blue pin-stripe button-down Oxford.” We males in the “academic” New Haven public high school were required to wear ties, and the “Ivy” look was common — khakis with cuffs, madras, etc. Long before Yale became co-ed, my father would often say as we drove toward the campus and passed the clothing stores mentioned in the article (they were all near each other), “Look at the Yalies”. He was reacting to their habit of wearing blazers or sport jackets with ties and dungarees (aka “blue jeans”). FINALLY, Yale did accept local Jews as students in the 1920s and ’30s: more than a few, both undergrad and medical. There is a book about this called “Making the Grade”. Most undergrads did not / could not live in the residential colleges. OTOH, perhaps some got deep discounts when buying clothes! Others went to a second-hand shop, owned by a bearded, observant Jew, just a bit further away from campus.

Jason Diamond says:

Michael:

That’s fascinating about Moe Decker. He was a D.C. tailor? Did he own his own shop? I’d bet that guy had some fantastic stories to tell.

I was also trying to figure out what suit he was wearing. I believe there are records about the make, but I felt a bit morbid digging into that.

Jason, Moe was from New Haven (we called our hometown “Nahayvin”). Later on, like in the 1970s and 80s, he owned several retail stores in Connecticut that sold clothes (for men and women) at discount prices. The main attraction for me were the “Gant” shirts (his inventory probably included lots of irregulars), which up to a certain time were still being manufactured in the New Haven factory. “Decker’s” was like a precursor to Marshalls. Gant shirts were the only ones I bought back then, or were handed down to me from my Beau Brummel brother (Z”L). Definitely the Ivy Style had an impact on New Haven’s male teens, but I am recalling all this from the Jewish perspective, so my memory may be skewed…the “Lace Curtain Irish” kids from the wealthiest parish in NH (it was way classier than the post WWII, ranch house, all-Jewish “ghetto” neighborhood) also dressed Ivy. I can’t speak with confidence about other young “ethnics” and their preferred styles. As for JFK’s suit on November 22nd, you would have to get access to the National Archives to look inside for the label! Perhaps one of the Press family readers knows the answer? But for sure, some if not many of JFK’s suits were custom made for him by Moe, a Fenn-Feinstein tailor. Arthur M. Rosenberg, J. Press, and Fenn-Feinstein stores were located across the street from Yale campus. And Barrie’s shoe store that got most of its stock from England. Clearly there was plenty of business to go around! Finally, I recall being told that the guy (several blocks away) who sold Ivy second-hand got his inventory from students themselves, most of whom could easily afford to have an “oversupply” of high quality clothing, or perhaps were sent gifts that they didn’t want!

Richard Press says:

JFK got his clothes at the end from Chipp. All the inside stuff in is in my Golden Years of ivystyle.com—-Richard Press

E. Geertz says:

Mr. Marcus, I enjoyed reading your comments. I think you’ve mis-remembered the book about Jews at Yale, though. It’s called Joining the Club, by Dan Oren. (I am a Jewish townie myself. My family knew Dan Oren a million years ago when he was my brother’s bar mitzvah tutor, if you can believe that.) (You probably can, if you’re from here.)
Enjoyed reading this article. I still have some of my Dad’s clothes from Rosenberg’s and J. Press. Beautiful stuff.

J. Kiger says:

I would like to read some more about Marty & Elliot Gant & Seymour Shapiro[Sero Shirtmakers] if you New Haven natives would be so kind as to comment.

One of the Gant brothers drove a Bentley. Certainly got attention. I remember thinking it was a Rolls-Royce and was corrected. Had never heard of it before. Sorry, that’s it. I stand corrected re: Dan Oren’s book and JFK’s suits. What I do know for sure is that the only good thing to happen to my father’s family during the Depression was HAVING to move from a nearby “valley town” to NH because Yossel got into Yale but couldn’t / didn’t live on campus. He supported himself (and probably helped to put food on the table) by working part-time construction when they were building the “new Gothic” Law School. And our Jewish family doctor of the same generation (graduating high school late 1920s early ’30s) attended Yale Medical school. So I extrapolated from there. My father (never college educated) made some comment long ago that Yale had something like a “committment” to accept a certain number of brainy townies. Sounds so strange now, considering the disproportionate # of J’s as students and faculty all over the Ivy League.

Hmm, yes and no.

Jews were proficient in the fashions of the day, but the origins were not Jewish, rather than Anglo-British(in the transatlantic sense).

Jews were, however, deft at adapting and many found the suave, WASP style to be very stylish and masculine and therefore got into it.

But it’s one thing to create something from birth, and another to come in at a later date and excel at something but not fundamentally transforming it.

Still, a good article.
Reminds me of the ‘Jews behind Hitler’s favorite car’ piece recently at the Forward.
Funny(or in this article’s case, interesting), but historically so-so with the facts.

Fascinating article. Who knew? Thanks. One small correction–Abe Ribicoff was CT governor before he went to the federal govt.

Hi J. Kiger,

I had the pleasure of working for Seymour Shapiro running manufacturing at SERO Shirtmakers for years. What a talented designer and brilliant businessman. He created a single needle stitching technique that many other well known manufacturers copied. I learned so much of what I know today about business and quality from Seymour. SERO was recognized as one of the most high-end shirt makers and SERO shirts were sought after by the most upscale retailers throughout the country. It was a great experience to be part of SERO and the Jewish contribution to “Ivy Style.”

continued…One more thing about SERO. From the bottom of my heart, I know that one of the factors in hiring me for my current job (running public relations/social media for a top tourist destination) was because my boss was a total SERO shirt fan. At the interview, he talked more about SERO than he did me. He knew that he had to hire me if I was a Seymour Shapiro protege. Thank you, Sey, for all the top notch training, you cracked the whip but I came out a better professional! And if you’re out there and want to start another company, I will be Employee #1 running your public relations and social media campaigns. Let’s do it!

J Kiger says:

Hi Ms Gelman, Thanks for the interesting information! I wore Sero shirts and Gants in the 1960′s and they were fine shirts. Were the Gant brothers related to Mr Shapiro? Thanks again!

J Kiger says:

Also where in New Haven was the Sero factory, originally and after the expansion?

Michael Freilich says:

Brings back memories.. In my twenties I had the pleasure of working in the Carribean and my position required me to wear a suit. Having been raised in New Haven I bought my suits, shirts, etc. at Arthur M. Rosenberg, and J. Press. I distinctly remember lookin at my wardrobe which didnt hold up so well in the hot muggy areas where I worked. So I got on a jet and flew all the way back home to spend a few days but mainly to shop at my favorite two stores and renew my wardrobe for Carribean life. I look back in fondness, especially at some of the salesmen and the fitters. I have forgotten their names but not their business “style”. And, the only business shirt I ever wore was a Sero shirt. Still have a few in my closet. Even though I havent worn them for 2 deccades, I will not part with them. It may have something to do with Eve Gelman. :)

Eve Gelman says:

Hi J. Kiger,
The Gant brothers were not related to Seymour Shapiro as far as I know. After the expansion, the factory and offices were located in Branford off I95, in what is now the Walmart. Before the expansion, I believe the factory was on Hamilton St. in the Wooster Sq. area.

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School Ties

Ivy League style, the quintessentially WASPy American look defined by Jewish designers a century ago, returns to the runways for Fashion Week

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