THE ANTI-TRADITIONAL OBSTINANCE OF J. PRESS
Ian Marcus Corbin
April 20, 2020
The great modernist poet Thomas Stearns Eliot departed Harvard Square for London in 1914, leaving a philosophy dissertation completed but undefended. Much to the irritation of Harvard president Charles Eliot, his distant relative, the young man would never return. We do not, therefore, know what the legendarily poet would have made of the equally legendary haberdasher J. Press, which opened its Harvard Square location in 1930. But that needn't stop us from speculating.
Jacobi Press, a Latvian immigrant, had previously found great success and defined an enduring aesthetic at his original Yale University location, founded in 1902. From its inception, J. Press has stood next to Brooks Brothers at the heart of New England prep culture, supplying striped ties, flat-front khakis and three-button sack blazers to the boarding school and yachting set. The aesthetic today is much as it was then. One might expect the comprehensively dowdy Eliot – the great theorist of tradition, a self-described “classicist in literature, royalist in politics and Anglican in religion” – to revel in the tweedy obstinance of J. Press. But actually, the retailer’s traditionalism would likely have struck the poet as a bridge too hidebound, too mired in its own legacy to survive and flourish.
Eliot aside, J. Press has certainly struck the American apparel market that way. Last year, after a run of 86 years, the company closed its storied Harvard Square location. The original store in New Haven continues, as do outlets in New York and Washington. The closure is partly an illustration of the harsh enforcement of market discipline by landlords, but it is also the story of a brand that wears its heritage as a ball and chain. A visit to one of the remaining J. Press stores feels like a trip into the past – a rich, careful, luxurious past where quality and standards and traditions reign. The lushness is a pleasure, the anachronism reassuring. It is nice to know that some things stay stable, even if we do not want to drape our upper bodies in a sport-coat cut like a potato sack.
Unfortunately for J. Press, the world outside keeps moving forward. The similarly named J. Crew has made an international fortune by updating the aesthetic that J. Press essentially invented, a dressier subset of American prep known as the Ivy League style. J. Crew has found a way to make the J. Press style sell better with just a few small tweaks – slimmer cuts, more blending of casual and formal, a rakish sprezzatura that extends, alas, to a rather cavalier attitude towards quality and craftsmanship.
Meanwhile J. Press has continued to provide apparel for fathers returning to Harvard Square to witness the graduation of their sons, none of whom would be caught dead in a J. Press garment. The halls of Harvard are now populated by bright young things in jeans, t-shirts, sneakers, and the occasional button-down. The look is more Urban Outfitters than Brooks Brothers, despite the occasional sighting of a Vineyard Vines tie. Power, prestige and achievement just don’t look the way they used to. J. Press was never going to convince millennial students to wear jackets to class, no matter how slim cut they were, but the refusal to change a stitch has guaranteed the company’s obsolescence.
One irony is that Ivy League style was not, at its inception, a particularly formal or traditionalist way of dressing. Quite the opposite. The knit ties and blazer-khaki combinations produced by Jacobi Press were offered as a breezy, dressed-down aesthetic that the sons of rich men adopted to express their independence from double-breasted, fob-watched fathers. It’s a cool look – it still works when done with some panache – and J. Press could have helped it to grow and change, if it wanted to.
This is where T.S. Eliot comes back in. His widely praised essay “Tradition and the Individual Talent” is probably the single most influential exploration of tradition written in the English language. In it, the “classicist in literature” makes his case that an artist who hopes to produce a truly great body of work must first seek out a deep, serious, comprehensive immersion in what has come before. He (or she) must keep his feet planted there, in that tradition, but then – and this is the key – he must, must turn those old materials into something new. Evolution is an essential, non-negotiable part of tradition. Artistic stasis, just repeating again and again what has gone before, is thus anti-traditional. Shakespeare became the bedrock of the Western literary canon in some significant part because he pushed his tradition forward, going so far as to invent hundreds of new words.
Jacobi Press was an innovator in his own right, advancing the visual grammar of New England prep. If the custodians of his legacy do not figure out how to carry on his tradition of innovation, that baton will simply be passed to someone else, and likely someone less concerned with the quality and craftsmanship that helped to make J. Press great.
About the Author
Ian Marcus Corbin recently completed a Ph.D. in the philosophy of culture at Boston College. He is now co-director of the Human Network Initiative at Harvard Medical School, and an adjunct instructor in the Carroll School of Management at Boston College.