When it comes to starting fashion trends, there’s Princeton and then there’s every other school. From the three-button suit to its namesake haircut, Princeton has popularized such menswear staples as Norfolk jackets, raccoon coats, tweed sport coats, rep ties, spectator shoes, khaki pants and Shetland sweaters.
Princeton’s sartorial influence has been dulled by time, but for much of the 20th century it was well acknowledged by both a watchful fashion industry and rival schools.
LIFE magazine’s 1938 article, “Princeton Boys Dress in a Uniform,” confirms that “tailors and haberdashers watch Princeton students closely,” while students at Harvard and Yale call Princetonians “the prototype of Hollywood’s conception of how the well-dressed college boy should look.”
So how did Princeton men become such recognized style leaders?
Like most clotheshorses, they had money and a penchant for both quality and quantity. As one student wrote in a 1931 campus publication, “As every Princeton father knows, his son’s clothes are expensive.” Yearbooks, newspapers and athletic programs were filled with advertisements for Brooks Brothers and Franks Brothers, a top-tier shoe company.
Not only did Princeton men spend big bucks on their own apparel, but their stamp of approval helped manufacturers court other collegiates. The school’s name attached to a garment conferred integrity. EE Taylor Corporation’s “Princetonian” shoe was advertised as direct “from the campus of the country’s collegiate fashion center,” and was one of the company’s best selling models of 1934.
Secondly, Princetonians lived in a self-regulated environment with a well defined social pecking order. Sure, Harvard and Yale had their share of insularity and rich white kids, but they also pioneered financial aid and scholarships, which fostered a more diverse student body than Princeton. In rural New Jersey with little meddling from administrators, Princeton men created a homogenous campus culture that prioritized fitting in.
In “This Side of Paradise,” F. Scott Fitzgerald, describing his protagonist’s first day at Princeton, wrote, “Amory felt unnecessarily stiff and awkward among these white-flannelled, bare-headed youths who must be juniors and seniors, judging by the savoir-faire with which they strolled,” and he “wondered vaguely if there was something the matter with his clothes.”
For the first half of the century, Princeton freshmen and sophomores were banned by tradition from wearing particular garments, such as white flannel pants or striped ties. One had to earn the right to dress like a Princeton man.
While an ample bank account and the need to dress the part allowed Princeton students to assemble a well honed wardrobe, the leisure-based lifestyle of their campus inspired the actual trends. Athletics dominated Priceton’s student culture. Sportswear was worn around the clock. Earlier trends, such as tweed golfing suits or flannel blazers, had an air of formality. Those that came later in the century couldn’t have been more casual, and included sweatshirts, sneakers and t-shirts. Despite such differences, the collective contribution of Princeton students to the modern American wardrobe is undeniable. Whether you’re wearing khakis and a sport coat or jeans and a cardigan, chances are your clothes were first popularized at Princeton. — DEIRDRE CLEMENTE
Deirdre Clemente is a cultural historian who was denied admission to Princeton three times. She is a former fashion writer and currently a Ph.D. candidate at Carnegie Mellon, where her dissertation dissects the influence of college students on the casualization of the American wardrobe in the first half of the 20th century. Her work has appeared in the Journal of Social History, The New England Quarterly, and Labor Studies Journal.
What was it like for a public-school kid from nowhere to go to an Ivy League school during the heyday?
Sure, you got to wear cool clothes (once you figured out what they were), but even that was fraught with anxiety.
At least it was for Timothy Thompson, whose first semester at Yale was full of loneliness, awkwardness, and rigorous academics requiring 18-hour days just to keep from flunking out.
Tim previously appeared in our post “Blue Man Group.” Now here’s his story: a lengthy LIFE magazine feature on what happens when a “rough country boy” from Oregon gets into Yale, only to endure a “painful struggle trying to fit in.”
In addition to brain-twisting homework and the challenge of making friends, Tim also had to learn strange new words like “avant-garde,” buy new clothes in order to “keep up with his classmates,” sit through French courses conducted in French, and uphold his clean-living Baptist values in the wake of the Sexual Revolution.
But Tim had pluck: “I want to be myself,” he told the magazine. “I don’t want to be classified as a sophisticate, a playboy, a screwball, or anything.”
But didn’t LIFE do him a disservice by profiling him in a high-circulating periodical? Talk about piling on the pressure: Now it wasn’t just his parents and campus advisor waiting to see his math grade, but the entire United States of America.
Did Tim eventually graduate, rising from Pacific Northwest obscurity to old-boy network? And where is he now?
Attempts to find an answer via Google came up empty. I’ve a bottle of bay rum for the reader who can find the answers. — CC
If you’re reading this, chances are there’s something pink in your closet. In fact, you might be wearing a pink polo, oxford or Shetland right now, and feeling pretty damn manly doing it.
Do you owe it all to Brooks Brothers?
According to LIFE magazine, Brooks all but invented the color pink — at least for men.
The special shade of pink in Brooks’ oxford-cloth buttondowns is legendary. Turns out it was first produced around 1900, but germinated for 50 years until it blossomed into a sartorial icon.
In the May 2 issue, LIFE declared 1955 “The Peak Year for Pink,” writing:
The color that women have traditionally appropriated from babyhood has taken a turn in the other direction. Across the U.S. a pink peak in male clothing has been reached as manufacturers have saturated more and more of their output with the pretty pastel. Against the charcoal gray with which it is usually worn, pink is shown here in almost everything short of a trench coat — even in a golf jacket and a dinner jacket. Now more of a staple than a luxury, the color is even acceptable to teen-age boys.
Like most male fashions, including the Ivy League Look, this pink hue and cry has taken some time to develop. Sole responsibility lies with New York’s Brooks Brothers, whose pink shirt, introduced in 1900 but long unnoticed, was publicized for college girls in 1949 and caught on for men too. Already being copied in clothes by such rival bon-bon colors as light green and lavender, pink is heading into home furnishings.
When Marks & Spencer installed elevators in Brooks Brothers’ Madison Avenue flagship, they only went down.
Widely acknowledged for monumental mismanaging Brooks, hastening a decline in quality and the isolation of lifelong customers, the UK apparel firm Marks & Spencer eventually sold Brooks Brothers in 2001 after 13 years and hundreds of millions in losses.
This article, from the July 9, 1990 issue of Forbes, is an interesting view of the beginning of the decline.
Christopher Sharp, who recenly presented M Magazine’s WASP story, provided the document. — CC (Continue)
This is the second in our efforts to digitize the work of G. Bruce Boyer, whose many fine articles on menswear have not yet found their way onto the Internet. Titled simply “Loafers,” this piece originally appeared in the July, 1982 issue of Town & Country, and was collected in Boyer’s 1985 book “Elegance.”
Boyer was kind enough to provide a few remarks on the piece by way of introduction; they are followed by “Loafers” further below.
It’s been almost a quarter century since this piece was published in “Elegance,” and I read it again with mixed emotions. On the happy side, I think the broad idea of comfort’s influence — footwear serving as a synecdoche — is seen to be truer now than ever. On the less happy side, comfort’s influence seems now to be mostly the only influence.
Not quite true because the overriding rule of fashion is that we will continue to dress like those with whom we wish to be associated. But then of course, why shouldn’t comfort be the overriding concern? The answer to that question is another paper I’d like to present to The Academy of Arts & Sciences some day.
I still think “That Touch of Mink” made a sartorially interesting point, and that Kipling is more right than ever about 49-year-old women. I haven’t seen any stats about what dress shoe is the most popular, but I would still put my money on the slip-on. Will men really turn completely to those hyper-designed sports shoes, even when produced in black leather or dark suede? Most shoes are now made of synthetics.
What continues to surprise me, though, is how conservative we continue to be in our dress, how slowly we change. The style of business dress has changed only minutely in over a century. Only the Medieval cloak seems to have had such a track record in the past 800 years or so of male attire. When we think of all the incredible, unimagined inventions within the suit’s history — radio and TV, telephone, airplanes and cars, computers, organ transplants, superconductors, outer space travel, and on and on — how is it that men are still wearing the same style jackets and trousers and shoes and shirts and neckwear they did over a hundred years ago?
In so thoroughly materialistic a world, it’s intriguing to think that we continue to be intimately surrounded by objects of such incredible symbolic worth.
Me? I’m still wearing my Alden cordovan penny loafers, model #986. — G. BRUCE BOYER (Continue)
Christopher Sharp presents this swan song of ’80s prepdom from the January 1990 issue of M Magazine. In keeping with the neurotic WASP theme, the scans were taken at a self-consciously nonchalant angle.
I’ve had this magazine for almost 20 years. The cover story certainly spoke to me: I’m white, an Anglo-Saxon, attended a Scottish Presbyterian school, and may be an undiagnosed neurotic. It’s a cheeky piece, a little precious in places, and the poison pen is welded a little more like a clumsy cudgel at times.
That said, we all can recognize a bit of ourselves or someone we know in these stereotypes and clichés. Who among us does not venerate old furniture and well worn rugs, have a propensity for drink and predilection for riotous pants?
In many ways I like the photos better then the article. There’s the three Deerfield students labeled “the larval stage,” with one looking insolent in a school t-shirt; another in the ubiquitous but perfect blue blazer, white button down and rakishly askew tie; and the third diffident in a yellow on yellow combo. All appear confident they will be Masters of the Universe one day.
But my favorite is the two tailgaters, one a bit ruddy with a wind-blown combover, sporting a candy stripe shirt and striped bow tie, the other silver-haired in a solid blue buttondown with a blue small print tie. There is also a third gentleman barely visible in a blazer and madras pants. They all seem like the perfect gents to share a bourbon and branch with.
M Magazine‘s editor Jane Lane’s assertion that WASPs are America’s “most underrated minority when it comes to quirks and foibles” may be true. But I like to think of them as America’s most underrated minority, period. As the great WASP critic and social historian E. Digby Baltzell said, “Never in history has a nicer group of private-school boys run the world.” — CHRISTOPHER SHARP (Continue)