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
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.
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
Nomenclature in Tradsville is a tricky thing, and depends largely on your point of view. Those who like hair-splitting will tell you that a short-sleeved gingham shirt is Trad but not Preppy. Likewise, bit loafers are WASPy but not Ivy.
Fair points to an extent, though it gets tedious pretty fast, and bloggers and forum posters have to use slashes — Ivy/preppy/trad — to make sure they’re covering all the bases.
The March issue of Esquire also weighs in on the taxonomy of Tradsville by differentiating between The WASP and The Trad in its fashion spread on American style tribes. This despite that, save for the double-breasted blazer, most of us would consider the clothing items that are mentioned (go-to-hell pants, rep ties, herringbone sport coats) and tastes and pursuits (John Cheever, squash) pretty interchangable.
Which is why this whole WASP vs. Trad thing is pretty silly. — CC
Are clean-cut looking guys really, you know, clean? Tough to tell, according to this post-one-night-stand passage in Lauren Lipton’s chick-lit novel “Mating Rituals of the North American WASP”:
“Do you think I’ve caught hepatitis? Or worse?” She was makng herself breathless.
“That guy was so conservative, he looked like a 1962 Brooks Brothers ad.” Bex clenched her teeth and finished in a mock upper-class drawl, “no one like that could possibly be diseased.”
“That’s not true and you know it.”
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)
Like twilight through faded chintz curtains, the sun is setting on the WASP establishment. And Jamie Johnson is seated in the drawing room taking assiduous notes.
“It’s interesting to document a small group of people that are losing their influence,” says the filmmaker and columnist, “and highlight what may be appealing about their world, and also what is unattractive.”
A great-grandson of the founder of the Johnson & Johnson pharmaceutical empire, the 29-year-old heir wrote and directed the 2003 documentary “Born Rich,” and currently chronicles the splendors and miseries of WASPdom in a blog for Vanity Fair entitled The One Percent.
Johnson, who majored in American History at New York University, recently spoke with Ivy-Style founder Christian Chensvold about the setting sun’s bittersweet glow.
* * *
IS: What was your motivation for making “Born Rich”?
JJ: I had noticed a number of people from rich families who had opportunities and a great education and everything going for them, and they didn’t do anything with their lives. In some cases they even died of drug overdose or by crashing their Ferrari in the French Riviera.
I was in school at NYU and I thought it would be interesting to chronicle the lives of affluent kids in a documentary film, which had never been done before. I really didn’t know where the film would go, and I certainly didn’t expect many people to see it. But it got accepted at the Sundance Festival and had a good run on HBO.
IS: How much classic preppy style still remains in the WASP community?
JJ: You can go to any old WASPy social institutions, especially country clubs, and virtually nothing’s changed since the 1950s. Tennis whites are the same as they were, and many institutions still have dress codes on the golf course. When I was a teenager, I remember it being quite stylish to have a belt with the emblem of your country club on it. And if you were in a different part of the country, someone might compliment you on it. So there’s that sense of community that gets expressed through clothing.
I think the WASP community is often completely blind to outside influences. WASP style is incredibly unappealing at times, especially for women. It’s definitely repressed. I often wonder how they can operate without an awareness of what’s going on in the fashion world. (Continue)