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.


P-Unit Forever: Behind the Scenes of Tea Partay

Sun 1 Aug 2010 - Filed under: 1990-present,Film,WASPdom — Christian
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OK, you just read the headline, saw the embedded video, and you’re snickering. Let me explain.

When I founded this site, I vowed never to post the Smirnoff “Tea Partay” video, which had become infamous in the online world of Tradsville. But I recently began covering digital marketing for Yahoo!, and found myself chatting with Kevin Roddy of BBH New York, who was the creative director of the video. How could I not ask him about it?

Turns out the video, produced in June 2006 and considered one of the first successful viral marketing videos on YouTube, became a hit by total accident. Read on to find out how as we go behind the scenes at the Tea Partay afterparty. — CC

* * *

IS: “Tea Partay” is considered perhaps the first viral marketing video to be a huge hit on YouTube.

KR: Yes, it was one of the first true experiments in this space. It used YouTube in a way it really hadn’t been used before. It hit a million people in three or four days, which was massive at the time.

IS: Who came up with the idea?

KR: The guy who wrote it is named Matt Ian. He grew up in Greenwich, CT, but if you asked him, you would never guess in a million years that’s where he’s from. He’s tattooed, has long greasy hair, dresses like a slob — but he grew up surrounded by all of this. In fact, the guy who invented Top-Siders lived just a few houses away.

Because Raw Tea was tea and alcohol, he got the idea to use those two juxtaposed elements and use two other ones. So tea can be the Nantucket world, for lack of a better term, and alcohol can be this urban world. So that’s how the idea came to him.

IS: The video has a great eye for details of the WASP wardrobe that are ripe for parody.

KR: Oh yeah, there’s a shot of the khakis with whales on them, and Top-Siders and the sweater tied around the neck. That came from Matt, and when we were looking for a director, we needed two things, but the most important was somebody who understood the way rap videos are shot. If you study rap videos, which we did, there are clichés. There’s always the shot of a girl coming out of a swimming pool, they’re always shot low looking up so they’re intimidating looking down at the camera. We went to Little X, who was a rap music video director, so he knew that side of the equation. Then we hired a stylist, Rachel Johnson, who really understood preppy. (Continue)


That Stings! The First WASP-Free Supreme Court

Tue 18 May 2010 - Filed under: WASPdom — Christian
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President Obama’s nomination of Elena Kagan to the Supreme Court set off a flurry of decline-of-the-WASP articles in major media outlets this week. If Kagan is confirmed, the formerly 100 percent WASP Supreme Court will not have a single Protestant, something to mourn or celebrate, depending on your point of view.

Writes the Wall Street Journal:

Until the early 1980s, when a flood of new wealth began to democratize the American elite, the path to power and status in America was straight and narrow. It usually began with old-line families in the lush estates of Greenwich, Boston, New York or Philadelphia and wound its way through New England boarding schools, on to Harvard or Yale and finally to the white-shoe law firms or banks of the Northeast or the corridors of power in Washington.

Richard Brookhiser, author of “The Way of the Wasp,” has this piece yesterday in the New York Post, while Newsweek weights in on the topic here.

Pictured above is the Supreme Court in 1952, at the time of Brown v. Board of Education. — CC


Friends in High Places: “Cheerful Money” Reviewed

Mon 5 Apr 2010 - Filed under: 1990-present,WASPdom — Christian
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Very belatedly I’m finally getting around to a post on Tad Friend’s “Cheerful Money: Me, My Family, and the Last Days of WASP Splendor,” which was released last year. Like the tribe of WASPs itself, Friend and his book have an even amount of vices and virtues.

Tad Friend is a staff writer at The New Yorker and a graduate of Shipley and Harvard. His father was president of Swarthmore, and his grandfather had received the highest grades ever in the history of Yale. His ancestors had done things like sign the Declaration of Independence.

Friend came of age in the ’70s when WASPdom was in the throes of decadence, a noble but faulted tribe that carried within it the seed of its own undoing. The closer he looked at his family and its milieu, the more he saw drunks, depressives and general pathology. For Tad Friend, the cost of being born privileged was 13 years of psychotherapy.

As a narrator, Friend is a mirror of the very problems that plague him. He admits to coming across throughout his life as cold, aloof, shy and untrusting, and in his memoir Friend first strikes you as the archetypal uptight and repressed WASP, a master of the punctilioes of social form but incapable of feeling or caring about anything. Friend shares equally in the vices and virtues of his clan, and they often trade places depending on context. Reticence may be tactful at a dinner party, less so when lying in bed with your significant other. His facility with English prose seems to build a protective wall around him more than it draws the reader in. Moreover, the first few words in the book’s subtitle are “me” and “my family,” a hint that the book is more of a self-indulgent exercise in personal therapy than a tome meant to entertain and inform the reader.

As a result, Friend’s general observations about the WASP class held my interest much more than the endless pages about him and his family. Like characters in a novel, you are either drawn in by the details of their lives or quickly bored.

Now for some of the book’s observations. Friend nominates 1965 as the year of the downfall of American civilization. He later writes, “I am drawn to what we had in great part because it’s gone — drawn to the ruinous romance of loss.” And elsewhere, “In a country built on growth and transformation, on the appetite for more, the ambition to preserve things as they were is peculiar to the modern Wasp.”

When it comes to matters sartorial, Friend writes of his “concise and predictable wardrobe.” While in prep school,

I quickly adopted the prevailing look of ceremonial outdoorsiness: Shetland sweater draped over my shoulders, ski tickets dangling from my down vest year-round. We wore duck boots and boat shoes though there wasn’t a large body of water for a hundred miles. Docksiders were superior to Topsiders, and Blucher mocassins from LL Bean best of all. These facts were simply evident, incontrovertible.


Mom gamely helped me shop to fit in, though her pride in me sometimes made the expeditions a trial: when I was seventeen, she took me to Jos. A. Bank and asked the salesman, “Do you have a pair of pants for a young man who’s going to Harvard?” As layering was also de rigueur, once I left home in the mornings I would slip one of my father’s way-too-large Lacoste shirts over an oxford-cloth button-down, flipping up the collar points to appear, in theory, studly.

Friend also differentiates between preppies and WASPs, though it seems rather obvious. “Preppy,” after all, comes from prep school, so by definition it will be associated with youth. Writes Friend:

This was the preppy look, regularly confused with the Wasp look. The confusion is understandable, as Wasps and preppies are often visually indistinguishable and can even interbreed, like horses and donkeys, though their offspring are usually sterile. The young of each species favor the preppy look: a vibrant effusion of pinks and yellows and greens blazoned with animal insignias such as the spouting whale. Older Wasps and preppies fade toward the Wasp look: dull, molting colors of khaki and battleship gray, and tweeds. (Though preppy men often have an Indian-summer flowering, in their sixties, into Nantucket-red pants topped by blazers in goldenrod or anise).

One reason for the confusion is that as Wasps began to vanish as a ruling class, they disappeared not from but into the culture, which produced perfect (and therefore imperfect) reproductions of their clothes and furniture, as well as armies of preppies to use them. The Wasp tastemakers of the twentieth century were neither Anglo, nor Saxon, nor Protestant. They were Jews, and to a lesser extent Catholics.

And later:

The real difference between preppies and Wasps is not couture but outlook. Preppies are infantile and optimistic, forever stuck at age seventeen; Wasps emerge from the womb wrinkly and cautious, already vice presidents, already fifty-two.

At one point, quoting Cleveland Amory, Friend offers this amusing short list of what makes one club material at Harvard:

… one must demonstrate “a healthy respect for the observation of Harvard’s social taboos. These taboos have always included, among other things, over-careful dress, undue athletic exertion, serious literary endeavor, rah-rah spirit, long hair, grades above C, and Radcliffe girls.”

Eventually, I ended up warming to Friend as a narrator, largely because of his self-deprecating humor, and ended up mildly cheering for him to get his life together. Though Friend may not make you wish he was yours, “Cheerful Money” is still a unique addition to the decline-of-WASPdom literary canon. — CC

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