Style Over Substance: The Decline Of Preppy Values

Tue 14 Aug 2012 - Filed under: WASPdom — Christian
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Last week Susan Cheever, daughter of legendary WASPdom chronicler John Cheever and a celebrated author in her own right, wrote a piece for Newsweek entitled “Gin Without The Tonic.” The URL of the digital version explains the theme a little less cryptically:

The theme of Cheever’s essay — that the uber-rich of today are not grounded in the same fixed WASP values as the great American dynasties like the Vanderbilts and Astors — ties in neatly with a comment recently left by a reader:

I hope that Lands’ End continues to be the poor man’s Brooks Brothers, so that we can continue to dress like the 1%.

Cheever’s essay also conflates the “one percent” — the elusive catchphrase that rose to prominence during the On Wall Street protests and in its strictest sense means the global uber-rich, not an old but cash-poor preppy clan trying to save its summer house — with the upper middle preppy class. Prepdom has never been the domain of the top out-of-sight, as Paul Fussell called it. The nouveaux riches — who are newer and richer than ever before — clogging up the Hamptons where respectable families once summered aren’t “modern preppies”: they’re not preppies at all.

In what universe does this line possibly make any sense?:

The 1 percent behave outwardly more like the headmaster of Groton than like their own grandparents.

Cheever is more spot on when she compares the “one percent” to the great American dynasties to come out of the Industrial Revolution, a more direct comparison:

… the Carnegies, the Vanderbilts, and more recently the Roosevelts all established foundations that made the world an extraordinarily better place. When John Jacob Astor IV gave up his seat on a Titanic lifeboat, he was acting out of a tradition of gallantry and service that was rare then and is even rarer now.

But the idea that Americans at the very top are “slavishly imitating” old WASPs is hard to swallow. The real people wearing whale-embroidered belts probably do care a lot about the old Protestant values than the jet-owning hedge-funders and technocrats. — CC

Poised Or Oblivious? The True Essence Of Prep

Mon 9 Apr 2012 - Filed under: 1990-present,Clothes,Film,WASPdom — Christian
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This weekend columnist Mark Oppenheimer penned an essay about prepdom for Salon that’s pegged on Whit Stillman’s new movie “Damsels In Distress.” The piece is more thoughtful than the usual stuff that gets said about the cultural phenomenon known as preppy.

Oppenheimer’s thesis is that preppy is more than a style of dress. This you already know. But the more part may surprise you:

It is more properly understood as an orientation toward power.

I don’t know about you, but my eyeballs involuntarily rolled at this. Is Oppenheimer suggesting a Marxist reading of preppy, the take on things that’s been so trendy (if not downright orthodox) in academia the past couple of decades? Though it may seem its polar opposite, claiming preppy is an “orientation toward power” actually comes from the same point of view that argues, say, that preppy is “all about marketing,” and its wearers not members of a cultural group linked by geography, education, class and taste, but fashion-following lemmings in the hands of money-grubbing business entities.

Granted, my own argument here is several decades out of date. Except for a small surviving old guard, preppy has long ceased to be an expression of the culture of the eastern elite. It is mostly — but not entirely, as well shall see — divorced from the WASPy values from which it sprung, and is primarily a fashion commodity. Nevertheless, it is a fashion commodity with certain social signifiers it will never shake.

As Oppenheimer’s essay continues, it begs further nitpicking:

Like members of other subcultures, including Deadheads or Goths or English soccer hooligans, real preppies are at least willing to proclaim allegiances.

This comparison feels dubious as preppy is — or once again, was — an expression of high culture (or something close to it), not subculture. It is disjointed for Oppenheimer to simultaneously link preppy style to the power establishment yet also compare it to goth teenagers going through adolescent angst or hippies who like to take road trips and get stoned together.

Moving on, here’s that damned word again. The sharp monosyllable “style” is so less pompous:

But the clothes are not just an aesthetic choice.

But forget my pet peeves. Here’s where things get more interesting: Despite the commodification and middle-class mainstreaming of preppy clothes, they will never shed their upper-middle connotations. One of the reasons for the failure of JC Penney’s American Living collection, I suspect, is that the company, despite trying to go upmarket, radically misjudged its lower-middle-class customer’s willingness to don critter shorts and pink oxfords, no matter how low the price point. In the documentary “People Like Us,” there’s an enlightening experiment in which working-class grocery shoppers were offered enriched white sandwich bread for 69 cents, or hearty, four-dollar artisan bread for free, and the shoppers preferred to pay for the white stuff because they liked the taste better. Likewise, in most large cities free classical music concerts are readily available, yet are sparsely attended. Beethoven, alas, is evidently something that can’t even be given away. Talk about putting the “class” in classical.

This leads us to Oppenheimer’s most insightful passage. Preppy clothing may be democratic, but it is still elitist. Like top-tier universities, just because it’s open to everyone doesn’t make it populist:

But preppy clothes have been the uniform of other products of the university, too, not just the bankers. Who loves a tweed jacket more than a humanities professor? And who loved a sack suit more than the elegant political radicals of the early 1960s? Take Malcolm X: For him, conservative attire was not ironic but proprietary. His clothes announced that he, and the Negro more generally, was entitled to the uniform and the prerogatives of power. Preppiness, in other words, is not inherently reactionary, and it is not inherently exclusionary; indeed, in a sense it is very democratic, precisely because one only needs the clothes, not a family crest. But it is not demotic; it is elitist. It is concerned with access to hierarchies, not the abolition of them. There have been left-wing preppies, but there have rarely been populist preppies.

Returning to Stillman, Oppenheimer notes the frozen-in-time aspect of preppy clothing and how the filmmaker uses it as part of the temporally vague settings of his films:

Stillman uses preppy clothes for an entirely different purpose. The clothes round out his characters, give the audience shorthand for what kind of families the characters come from, but above all take them out of time. For Stillman, preppy clothing is not a way to evoke, say, a Kennedy-era boarding school, but rather a way to defeat dating altogether. In short, if you wanted to make a fantasy movie set in some unidentifiable period of postwar America, you could use certain articles from Brooks Brothers and J. Press. And, indeed, that is what Stillman, who is not a realist or ethnographer but a fairy-tale fantasist, has done.

This next passage again suggests Oppenheimer’s “academic” point of view, in which everything in the world is viewed through the prism of race, gender, class and sexual orientation. It also serves as a reminder of just how unique Whit Stillman is as a filmmaker, as these things don’t concern him:

In all Stillman’s movies, there is no racial or religious tension, no class envy, no religious bigotry. Stillman’s world even lacks many of the interlopers who have kept prep schools and elite colleges vital and meritocratic (and fashion-conscious): There are no obviously Jewish characters in Stillman’s movies, no Asian Americans, only one black character who so much as gets a name, and no gay men or lesbians.

And in our value-free culture, let’s not make judgments about the lack of diversity in Stillman’s films. It’s OK to make movies about smart white people, just don’t confuse them with reality:

There is nothing wrong with Stillman’s World, this alternate reality in which conversation is snappy, the young men and women are all attractive, and their clothes are tailored awfully well. There are times when I would not mind living there. But that’s because it’s a Utopia, literally a nowhere — it does not exist, it cannot exist. That the resident characters wear certain clothes we associate with certain schools, certain professions, certain vacation spots and certain stores does not mean that these characters are like the real-world people found in those schools, work professions, vacation spots or stores. Whit Stillman characters are not preppies; they just dress like them.

Which brings us to Oppenheimer’s conclusion, which returns to his thesis about power:

But more than ever, what is true of Stillman’s characters may be true of anyone wearing preppy clothing in America today: He is not exactly a preppy. It’s not that he lacks money or schooling — after all, the majority of preppies were always aspirational, rather than bred. It’s that the statement he is making has nothing to do with elite institutions or power. In fact, preppiness today is a way to avoid those conversations.

To wear such timeless clothing in 2012 is a bit like wearing very preppy clothing in 1970, when Whit Stillman was in college. Outside the haberdasher’s doors, there is warfare, recession and class anger; but on one’s back there are the clothes of another era, indeed clothes that transcend all eras. In a time of tumult, preppy clothing is escapist. It does not imply that its wearer is a conservative or a 1-percenter or opposes birth control for women. But it does suggest that, at least for the moment, he would rather talk about something else — as if it were a few years ago, or a few years from now. As if talking about something else were ever really possible.

And so those born to prepdom and those who converted may find they have more in common than they thought. Wearing whale-embroidered cords is certainly a way of communicating that everything is all right — in your world, at least. And that unflappable insouciance is probably why so many people can’t stand preppies.

But since anyone today can don the clothing of the power elite, you never know just what the wearer of embroidered trousers may be really thinking. After all, he could be a radical environmentalist with an ironic sense of humor on a noble crusade to save the whales. — CHRISTIAN CHENSVOLD


Uncommon Bonds: New WASP 101 Tumblr

Sat 18 Feb 2012 - Filed under: WASPdom — Christian
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As noted before with the now-defunct tumblr Rich White People, the fast-growing image-driven blog format provides its style-junky curators with the ideal platform for presenting a context-free visual blitzkrieg. Otherwise unrelated photos are thrown together into a collage whose cumulative effect is a personal statement about the site creator’s taste. Depending on how you look at it, it’s either an eye-candy banquet or a photographic junk heap. (Continue)


Happy Hanukkah From Ivy Style

Tue 20 Dec 2011 - Filed under: WASPdom — Christian
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On this, the first day of Hanukkah, sends glad tidings to the unsung heroes of the Ivy League Look: the many Jewish clothiers that catered to the Protestant Establishment and taught generations of young men the virtues of a natural shoulder and how to dress like an American gentleman.

Despite the popular admonition “Dress British, think Yiddish,” these haberdashers helped put the America in our Anglo-American national style, and preppy dress is all the richer for their creativity and innovation.

Not to belabor the point, but save for Brooks Brothers, essentially every Ivy League clothier was Jewish. And so our holiday wishes go out to:

J. Press
Paul Stuart
Eddie Jacobs
Barrie’s Shoes
Arthur M. Rosenberg
Rosenthal & Moretz
Arthur Adler

And extra-special Hanukkah wishes to Ralph Lauren for keeping alive the taste for WASP style just as the tribe was beginning to crumble. — CHRISTIAN CHENSVOLD


Words & Images from Preppy: Cultivating Ivy Style

Tue 18 Oct 2011 - Filed under: 1990-present,Historic Images,Ivy Trendwatch,WASPdom — Christian
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Last week I Jeffrey Banks and Doria de La Chapelle presented me with a copy of their new book, “Preppy: Cultivating Ivy Style.” It was a great honor as a couple of my Q&As for Ivy Style are cited in the credits, as is W. David Marx’s article on the Miyuki-zoku, plus work from early Ivy Style contributor Deirdre Clemente.

While “Preppy: Cultivating Ivy Style” doesn’t boast groundbreaking research, it’s a solid overview well timed for a new trend and new generation. Perhaps a quarter to a third of the book may seem extraneous (fashion writers, like literary scholars, feel they must cite sources they feel are related but which often feel tangential). However the bulk of it is devoted to precisely the origins of this style — prep and college students in the Northeast and the WASP establishment — while still taking an inclusive approach apropos for 2011.

Here the authors offer a terse summary of the style:

Preppy has always been acknowledged as an inherently American phenomenon, a fashion — or anti-fashion as some have called it — whose imagery perpetually connects us to idyllic college days, sport, and the spirit and vitality of youth. Preppy’s origins are rooted in the grounds of the elite Ivy League universities of the 1920s, where young, WASPy and wealthy gentlemen invented a relaxed new way for collegians to dress by co-opting athletic clothes form the playing fields, mixing them with genteel classics, and decking themselves out with caps, ties, pins and other regalia to signify membership in a prestigious club or sport. They then embellished the look with the best possible accessory: an air of complete and utter nonchalance.

But you can’t feign nonchalance until you nail the details:

In the elite, insular and often snobbish collegiate world, one’s identity was in the details: what a man wore, how his tie was tied, where his hair was parted and what club he joined were of paramount importance. Among the reasons behind Ivy League style’s resounding popularity with college students was the immense peer pressure to conform and its close relative, the deep need to belong.

And speaking of conformity, here’s Banks and de La Chappelle the Ivy heyday:

It didn’t take [postwar, college-educated men] long to learn that “working in corporate America demanded a knowledge of certain codes, many of which were embedded in the corporate uniform.” America had become more and more politically conservative, and Ivy League clothes — with their inherently understated quality and ability to blend in — were the perfect expression of the new “buttoned-down” philosophy. Ivy college graduates, well schooled in conformity, went to work uncomplainingly in their narrow-lapeled sack suits with skinny ties, while older alums, inspired by the slimmer, more youthful-seeming style, also joined the growing band of sack-suited men.

Some of the photos will be familiar, while others are fresh. Here is a handful of images I liked, which Rizzoli was kind enough to provide. Above is a scene from the film adaptation of Philip Roth’s “Goodbye, Columbus.” Below, Groton students, from the graduating class of ’67, in madras jackets: (Continue)


A Frayed So: In Praise of Beater Clothes

Wed 20 Apr 2011 - Filed under: Clothes,WASPdom — Christian
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Previously I’ve written about the Boston Cracked Shoe look, a term applied to certain WASP patricians who would wear items that had far outlived their presentable lifespan. Members of the press discovered the concept during the presidential campaign of Adlai Stevenson when they observed Stevenson had holes in the soles of his shoes while working the campaign trail.

Moving into the Internet world of the past decade, another term describing well worn items entered the Ivy vernacular. Somewhere on the ‘Net, certain items that appeared to have seen better days began to be referred to as a “beater,” as in beater blazer, beater shoes or beater watch. But this time the term was applied not to the Old Money set, but to a certain kind of trad everyman.

Most devotees of Ivy fully believe that certain items of clothing can still be retained well past their presentable life, to be used in situations that call for something serviceable but thoroughly worn. An old blazer might become a beater blazer to be used for occasions when a blazer is needed, but a well worn one wouldn’t be out of place.

Being neither Ivy League nor remotely patrician, I felt I could never pull off the Boston Cracked Shoe look. A suit worn with holed-out shoes would just look shabby and pretentious. But when the beater concept started being discussed online around 2004, it made perfect sense to me.

At the time I owned two old favorites that were one step away from the church rummage sale. One was an old Burberry topcoat that gave up the pretense of being waterproof sometime during the Carter administration. The other was a favorite Brooks Brothers sack blazer with frayed cuffs and shiny elbows. Instead of getting rid of them, I decided to keep both these old friends in the rotation to serve during foul weather, when riding the New Jersey Transit, and other similar situations where being reasonably presentable was called for, but the environment was not kind to better jackets and topcoats.

The beater concept also applies to wristwatches. A beater watch is one that the Ivy stylist wears when a watch is needed but style is secondary. The faithful old LL Bean field watch, or a Timex with scars from heavy use, serves well as a beater watch for softball games, etc.

And getting back to cracked shoes, the beater concept is perfectly applicable to footwear. Old Weejuns or boat shoes with scars and even holes in the soles are useful when more presentable footwear would sustain unwanted abuse. Sunday brunch at a nice restaurant, during bad weather, might be the perfect occasion for a beater blazer, watch and shoes.

In a situation such as this, frayed cuffs, an old field watch, and worn out Weejuns still let you be more properly dressed than most of the other patrons in sweatshirts, jeans and running shoes. — BILL STEPHENSON

Seventy-seven-year-old Bill Stephenson graduated from the University of Oklahoma in 1954. After serving in the Air Force, he spent 40 years in the insurance industry, including acting as executive vice president of Fidelity Union Life. He presently resides in Princeton, NJ, and frequently audits courses at the university.

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