Big Man On Campus

It would be an understatement to say F. Scott Fitzgerald was an arbiter of the Ivy League Look. A former student at Princeton who, having become absorbed in writing dropped out to write several critically acclaimed books, Fitzgerald helped chronicle the Jazz Age and the clothing styles that came to define it. Though Fitzgerald was never recognized during his lifetime as the breezy writer we praise today, he is rightfully remembered for his contributions to the Ivy canon.

Of his books, The Great Gatsby is indisputably the most well-known, and for good reason is respected among those in the Ivy style community. After all, its plot was centered around the conflict between Old and New money, the infamous pink suit of Jay Gatsby and the establishment-style dress of Tom Buchanan, the “James Gatz” from North Dakota and the Yale educated inheritor from Chicago. But are we overlooking a book of his more essential to the Ivy style canon, This Side of Paradise?

If Fitzgerald wrote among the first pieces of literature to capture Ivy style, This Side of Paradise helped cement it. From the beginning, its main character, Amory Blaine, situates himself between the stories Fitzgerald and Jay Gatsby. Amory attended prestigious prep schools, dropped out of Princeton, and became the “romantic egoist” who was unable to convince the love of his life to marry him after to his inescapable fall into poverty. Fitzgerald, having dropped out of Princeton as well, wrote This Side of Paradise in order to secure himself financially and, ultimately, convince Zelda Sayre to marry him. The book was a success on both fronts.

At the same time, Amory was a figure who resembled the new money culture personified by Jay Gatsby – at one point wearing an overbearing combination consisting of a purple tie, purple pocket square and purple socks, only to be told “You must go to Brooks’ and get some really nice suits.”

Throughout the novel, Amory unsuccessfully attempts to adapt to the culture of Princeton. Yet he is, at the very least, able to grasp the conformity of its Ivy style, pointing to two distinct groups of freshmen students. One group, which Amory considers himself a member of, is described as the “slickers,” characterized as having:

1. Clever sense of social values.

2. Dresses well. Pretends that dress is superficial – but knows that it isn’t.

3. Goes into such activities as he can shine in.

4. Gets into college and is, in a worldly way, successful.

5. Hair slicked.

The other is the dubious prep school “big man,” who Amory contemptuously explains as being:

1. Inclined to stupidity and unconscious of social values.

2. Thinks dress is superficial, and is inclined to be careless about it.

3. Goes out for everything from a sense of duty.

4. Gets to college and has a problematical future. Feels lost without his circle, and always says that school days were happiest, after all. Goes back to school and makes speeches about what St. Regis’s [Amory’s fiction prep school] boys are doing.

5. Hair not slicked.

Towards the end of his freshman year, Amory asks his friend Tom D’Invilliers, both of whom had somewhat adjusted to Princeton’s elite culture, whether the year had been “slick”:

“’No,’ declared Tom emphatically, a new Tom, clothed by Brooks, shod by Franks, ‘I’ve won this game [fitting in at Princeton], but I feel as if I never want to play another. You’re all right – you’re a rubber ball, and somehow it suits you, but I’m sick of adapting myself to the local snobbishness of this corner of the world. I want to go where people aren’t barred because of the color of their neckties and the roll of their coats.’”

For me, This Side of Paradise had a profound effect on how I’ve viewed Ivy style. Though Ivy style is certainly more about clothing, Fitzgerald’s novel chronicles the history, culture, and connotations of class behind it. In a way, he portrays Ivy style as being much more than the clothes of privileged kids: they’re symbolic of an entire American culture.

Perhaps that’s way Ivy style has been so enduring. At Michigan State University, where I attend college, the culture is far removed from the Princeton of Amory Blaine, as most colleges are from the heyday of Ivy style. Yet through books like This Side of Paradise, I’ve always felt a connection between the history of my campus and others such as Princeton, which have been tied together by a once-shared style. Hopefully, students who wear tweed coats, repp ties and penny loafers – not Amory’s infamous combination of purple – are able to keep that connection alive. – JACK M. CARLSON

31 Comments on "Big Man On Campus"

  1. Roger Sack | March 31, 2020 at 2:49 pm |

    Another literary giant, who I believe was at Princeton with Scott Fitzgerald,
    was the author and critic Edmund Wilson, who was a friend and colleague.
    His magisterial “To the Finland Station” is required reading for students
    European history and politics.

    https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/8/8c/Edmund_Wilson.jpg

  2. Great piece. Thank you.

    More and more, I think of Ivy in terms of Americana–a really tasteful and masculine version, I mean. In my (admittedly small, limited) world, there’s a good bit of overlap: guys who like tweed jackets, blazers, striped ties, khakis, and penny loafers for “dressing up” are equally inclined toward a certain sort of outdoorsy vibe on weekends. There’s nothing new about this (see: L.L. Bean), but it’s worth noting that they’re not trying to look rich, elite, or “old money.” It all feels very, well… in a word, American. One friend, a high school English teacher, wears professorial garb (including striped knit ties) to the classroom, but prefers Filson bibs, a flannel shirt, and a ball cap.

    Now the rich wear mostly crap and even the expensive stuff is skinny, modern, and unflattering, the (Ivy) affiliations with old money or wealth of any sort are long, long gone. If anything, you’re likely to be confused with a professor or a man of letters of some sort. Bookish.

  3. I’m neither a big fan nor scholar of Fitzgerald, but I seem to recall (from high school reading perhaps twenty years ago so it could be flawed) that from Amory’s prep school master or teacher or somebody there was a concern that he be fully formed before the ‘heterodox’ experience even of Princeton in the period–insulatedness being viewed as a virtue. I think a more thoughtful writer than Fitzgerald would’ve gone beyond just portraying the internal emptiness and vacuousness of the ‘lost generation’ to a critique of what produces at least part of it even apart from the war, and surely insulatedness must be crucial, not only for others and society but for them. All we get from Gatsby for the most part are glimpses of stretches of road between oases of excess and decadence, acknowledged as such in time but with little else by way of substantive commentary.

  4. whiskeydent | March 31, 2020 at 5:12 pm |

    Rolo
    Per Wikipedia, Fitzgerald died before he finished “The Last Tycoon,” and Edmund Wilson used the author’s extensive notes to edit the transcript into the final book.

    Wiki also noted that TS Eliot, JD Salinger and Richard Yeats heaped praise on Fitzgerald’s work. Of course you are entitled to dislike it (I’m not a huge fan), but I think Fitzgerald is generally held in higher esteem than you seem to think.

  5. ^I wouldn’t say I dislike him; it’s just that I think his treatment of his subjects and milieu in Gatsby and Paradise could’ve been done better and would’ve been by someone in the caliber of the Bloomsbury set et al. And for its time, despite his anti-semitism elsewhere, Eliot’s Waste Land is remarkably conscious of social perspective in a way Fitzgerald isn’t in his most popular works.

  6. “All we get from Gatsby for the most part are glimpses of stretches of road between oases of excess and decadence”

    This.

  7. Rolo, you bring up a very good point. Many of Fitzgerald’s works focus more on the characters of his novels – their lives, their personal problems, their perseverance through hardship or immediate failures – rather than a substantive plot. In This Side of Paradise, Amory’s character is, in a way, the plot. The evolution of Amory Blaine, instead of the “lost generation” as a whole or the problems that have created that generation, are what Fitzgerald centers the novel on. This may have resulted in Fitzgerald’s inability to be “successful”: that is, during his lifetime. I may be wrong, but I believe he most of his income came from his short stories he published, not his books. And, it’s well known that The Great Gatsby was a “failure” until after Fitzgerald had died. Considering all of this, however, if there was one important aspect about him, it was that he was certainly a good dresser.

  8. S.E., thank you for your thoughts! It’s interesting to see the wide-ranging sartorial choices of professors in general. Some dress like other students, in jeans, sweats, t-shirts, and the like. Others dress in the typical, maybe expected, business-casual style. On rare occasions, there’s the professor who wears a sport coat or blazer to class. At least, this is how it is at my college. With that in mind, I think your last point that you had brought up is completely correct. When people think of ivy style nowadays, they most likely conjure up images of bookish professors. On the one hand, this makes sense – after all, “ivy style” refers to ivy league colleges – but on the other, professors generally don’t exemplify this style. At least today.

  9. Trevor Jones | March 31, 2020 at 10:57 pm |

    @Jack, what is you major, if you don’t mind me asking?

  10. Anglophile Trad | April 1, 2020 at 12:51 am |

    Jack M. Carlson
    Re: “students who wear tweed coats, repp ties and penny loafers”,
    I too am at MSU, and have never seen one student dressed like this. I have, however, seen one professor here who favors this style, only one.

  11. I’m going shopping for madras fabric to create an ivy face mask.

  12. Hardbopper | April 1, 2020 at 7:13 am |

    @ Jack,
    How do we, they, define the “typical, maybe expected, business-casual style” these days?

  13. ^I didn’t, in fact, know either of those things, but was interested to learn of them and to read your interesting piece.

  14. Vern Trotter | April 1, 2020 at 10:15 am |

    Good job. Some effort went into this piece. I continue to this day to meet otherwise educated people who think Tom d’Invilliers was a real person.
    I always wonder who receives the income from the FSF estate. Gatsby has been one of the world’s best sellers for decades now. Because of required reading courses of course. Scot is buried in Rockville, Maryland. Worth a visit if in the area.

  15. Trevor, I’m majoring in Political Theory and Constitutional Democracy at the James Madison College – a residential public policy college at MSU.

  16. Anglophile Trad, you’re unfortunately correct. I would guess there’s probably one – maybe two or three – students per campus who actually dress like this. I would wager, however, that at least every major campus has a student who carries the torch of the ivy league look. (I wonder who the professor is, though!)

  17. From a piece in the NYT in 1988:

    To the Editor:

    In his review of ”The Triarchic Mind” by Robert J. Sternberg (Sept. 25), Philip N. Johnson-Laird remarks (of a fact about childhood learning that is unimportant here) that ”It is like hearing, courtesy of Hemingway and Fitzgerald’s celebrated exchange, that the difference between the rich and rest [ sic ] of us is . . . money.”

    The exchange is celebrated all right; it is in fact to American literature what the story of Betsy Ross and the flag is to American history. But it never occurred, and even though in the present instance it provides only a parenthetical simile, one sees it everywhere, so an attempt to debunk it is worth making, and The Book Review would seem to be the very place to make it.

    This is one of those cases in which the truth is much more interesting, not to mention instructive, than the legend.

    In 1926 Fitzgerald published one of his finest stories, ”The Rich Boy,” whose narrator begins it with the words ”Let me tell you about the very rich. They are different from you and me.”

    Ten years later, at lunch with his and Fitzgerald’s editor, Max Perkins, and the critic Mary Colum, Hemingway said, ”I am getting to know the rich.” To this Colum replied, ”The only difference between the rich and other people is that the rich have more money.” (A. Scott Berg reports this in ”Max Perkins, Editor of Genius.”) Hemingway, who knew a good put-down when he heard one and also the fictional uses to which it could be put, promptly recycled Colum’s remark in one of his best stories, with a revealing alteration: he replaced himself with Fitzgerald as the one put down. The central character in ”The Snows of Kilimanjaro” remembers ”poor Scott Fitzgerald and his romantic awe of [ the rich ] and how he had started a story once that began, ‘The very rich are different from you and me.’ And how someone had said to Scott, yes, they have more money.”

    Fitzgerald was naturally offended by this patronizing use of his name by a person he had thought of as his friend, and he wrote Hemingway, asking him to ”lay off me in print,” adding that ”Riches have never fascinated me, unless combined with the greatest charm or distinction.”

  18. Hardbopper, if I had to base it off of my professors, it would be chinos with a button down shirt (tucked in, of course). I’ve also had a few professors who prefer a quarter-zip sweater over it as well.

  19. Jeff, I’m sure Brooks Brothers will make one of those soon. Maybe a seersucker face mask for summer, too.

    Vern, thank you for your comment! I may be wrong, but I believe Zelda was sent to a hospital (or asylum) in Maryland after being diagnosed with schizophrenia, where she remained until her death. This might explain why Fitzgerald is buried there as well.

    Michael, the last quote you mentioned speaks volumes to Fitzgerald’s fascination with the rich. Sure, riches never “fascinated” him on their own, as he told Hemingway, but Fitzgerald arguably saw “charm” and “distinction” as inseparable from the rich. After all, he went to great lengths to make both Gatsby and Buchanan personify this charm and distinction, to remove the characters of less wealth from having any charm and distinction themselves. Also, I believe “The Rich Boy” was one of several short stories Fitzgerald wrote after The Great Gatsby which were inspired by the novel. His short stories may, in fact, be his best work.

  20. Charlottesville | April 1, 2020 at 11:25 am |

    It’s funny, but just a few days ago I mentioned to my wife that I always thought Gatsby was somewhat overrated, and that re-reading it a year or so ago had not changed my mind. Glad to know that a few others share my guilty secret. Not to say it is a bad book, or that he is an uninteresting writer; just that I don’t think that it is “The Great American Novel.”

    Jack Carlson – The quarter-zip sweater has become the default “professional” look here as well, and not just at the university. Thankfully, we have some holdouts for tweeds and ties, but still a small minority even in this town which is generally considered fairly traditional or at least “preppy,” whatever that means these days. Of course now most people are housebound, and I have no idea what they are wearing. Still tweeds and ties for me.

  21. Once in a while, there are a few male professors visible in jackets or suits with ties here at Michigan State University. Most often though male deans of colleges and members of the administration into, out of, and around the Hannah Bldg. A smattering of male students too at certain times during the semester. Probably fraternity pledges or business students, who have been asked to dress for certain occasions. But their ‘dress’ shoes always look dusty and scuffed up (sadly). The shoes are always the item that spoils the overall look when men of any age in my little corner of the world dress up.

    Best Regards,

    Heinz-Ulrich

  22. Had to google Q-zip sweater. Seems to me to be a PITA to remove when it gets too warm. But, what would I know? I don’t have a terminal degree.

  23. Charlottesville | April 1, 2020 at 12:59 pm |

    Heinz-Ulrich – You are certainly right about shoes. As George Frazier said, “Wanna know if a guy is well dressed? Look down.”

  24. MacMcConnell | April 1, 2020 at 1:51 pm |

    Jack Carlson
    “Jeff, I’m sure Brooks Brothers will make one of those soon. Maybe a seersucker face mask for summer, too.”+

    According to GQ, Brooks Bros are making face masks

  25. Vern Trotter | April 1, 2020 at 10:47 pm |

    There is a statue of Francis Scott Key on Eutaw Place in Baltimore, if they have not removed it. Scot used to detour around it when drunk because he did not want “Frank” to see him drunk. Key was a distant cousin on his mother’s side but Scott called him a great, great uncle, yes. Who can blame him? Zelda was for a while a patient in Sheppard-Pratt Hospital just north of Baltimore. His daughter, Scotty, considered Baltimore her home town.

    His prime biographer, Matthew Bruccoli, says Scott dressed in “Brooks Brothers collegiate style,” in his book, “Some Sort Of Epic Grandeur.”

  26. René Lebenthal | April 2, 2020 at 7:28 am |

    By accident I believe I decided to read “This of side of paradise” during my confinement here in France.
    If you are not a native Speaker it’s not always easy to follow everything, by you are right Jack, it helps a lot to understand Ivy Style and the american college life
    Thanks for your contribution Jack !!
    René

  27. Perhaps it’s best not to search for a formulaic literary enlightenment in Fitzgerald. Note his attention to an old social order being shattered by the automobile and changes in mobility. He was born into a world of porches and parlors connected like pearls on a necklace by steam railroads. Vast alterations were coming, not so much by the onset of a modern war, but by new connectivity that had not been permitted before. A whole generation was dealing with the question of confinements and escapes, and it was bringing some very devastating results. He forsaw what was going to spread across all classes and populations and knew this would bring an upheaval. He both laments the losses and revels in the freedoms, but sees the dangers around each corner that will crush the individual. The man had vision that most of his contemporaries entirely lacked, save for a few. He wasn’t trying to be perfect, and adaptation was difficult for him as he saw through the facades most were clamoring to attach themselves to.

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