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.
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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)
Almost two years before “The Official Preppy Handbook” made preppy affectation accessible to all, Nelson W. Aldrich Jr. had already caught wind of the zeitgeist.
His January 1979 cover story for the Atlantic Monthly, “Preppies: The Last Upper Class?” is a seminal work of exposition on the manners and mores of the WASP establishment. It is also helpful in filling out the dark years between the fall of the Ivy League Look circa 1965, and the revival of what remained of it, combined with new styles and attitudes picked up during an intense period of social change, in November 1980 with the publication of “The Official Preppy Handbook.”
In honor of the article’s 30th anniversary, Ivy-Style herein presents this largely forgotten historic document now digitized for the Internet.
In the article, Aldrich — who authored the book “Old Money” and edited the oral history of George Plimpton Ivy-Style wrote about a while back — attempts to outline the behavioral characteristics of the prep-school set, their likes and dislikes, values and revulsions. Aldrich links the ideology of the preppy to his forbearer, the WASP, to whom the preppy owes his austerity, deference, and attitude toward money.
Aldrich devotes only a few paragraphs to preppy clothing; in his view the term “preppie” designates a group of people, not simply a style of dress. When he does mention clothes, he does so to illustrate the insularity of preppy society, in which the tiniest modifications of attire can carry great significance.
Worth noting is the passage in which Alrich argues that the distinguishing sartorial details of preppy style — presumably things like hooked vents, lapped seams and two-button cuffs, or perhaps embroidered whale belts — are relished by outsiders once they’ve figured out the secret code, but viewed as “oppressive” by the preppies expected to follow the code.
Along those lines, the famous preppy nonchalance envied by all may not come as easily as it appears. Writes Aldrich:
For the Preppie, on the other hand, gracefulness is less a gift than a standard, something to measure up to, a performance. The delight of the thing comes from the knowledge that it’s all contrived, that the effect of effortlessness requires a good deal of strain, that negligence requires attention, that indifference requires concentration, that simplicity and naturalness require affectation. The most delicious “in” joke of Preppiedom is the anxiety everyone feels about being carefree.
Aldrich’s attitude toward preppy culture is ambivalent. At times the article parodies the anxieties of preppies, yet Aldrich also seems to exalt their modesty and discretion. Although preppies may be the target of his satirical tone, he finds redeeming qualities in them which he suggests may be growing rare.
Ultimately his article is less the lampooning of a social class and more the taxonomy of an odd breed. Less than two years later, this taxonomy would reappear as a New York Times best-selling handbook.
The article is long and sometimes tedious, and so we’ve opted to present it in an excerpted format. This also presumably reduces our culpability in any copyright infringement accusation.
In addition to “Preppies,” Aldrich uses the terms Archies (from the Archie comic books) to denote the suburban middle class, and City Kids for the urban working class. — ZACHARY DELUCA & CC
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“Preppies: The Last Upper Class?”
By Nelson W. Aldrich, Jr.
Atlantic Monthly, January 1979 (excerpts)
“Preppie” is a catchall epithet to take the pace of words too worn or elaborate for everyday use, words such as privileged, ruling class, aristocrat, society woman, gentleman, and the rich. Ideological struggle is too shaming to talk about these days. Lifestyle rivalry is the new engine of history. In this sort of society, Preppies pass for an upper class. (Continue)
In honor of Election Day, Ivy Style presents the second in its series of articles from the vaults of Time magazine. For this one, commentary is provided by a Washington insider writing under the pseudonym Taliesin.
Traditional Ivy style is rarely exhibited by the most visible Ivy League graduates: politicians.
For instance, George W. Bush (Yale, Harvard) and Barack Obama (Columbia, Harvard) are never seen wearing sack suits, button down collars, or regimental striped ties.
So when and why did establishment Ivy Leaguers abandon the Ivy look?
“Goodbye to Wing Tips,” a Time article from 1973, captures the mood of an angry public that no longer wanted to see its leaders in traditional clothing. In the middle of Watergate, the establishment look — “three-piece Yale-gray suits, white shirts and club ties” — started to become a liability, and wilder, newer styles came to be seen as evidence of credibility — or at least as the absence of taint.
This, at least, was the contention of John T. Molloy, the “Dress for Success” author and wardrobe consultant. As America reeled from the political scandal that would force President Nixon’s resignation less than a year later, the article notes that “the more conservative the costume… the shadier the image.”
Thirty-five years later, it’s unlikely that the Ivy League Look is associated with disrepute. After all, some of the heroes of Watergate wore sack suits, such as Elliot Richardson (pictured above in a photo by Richard Avedon) and Archibald Cox.
It’s harder to say if the look still conveys snobbishness, or instead has become a fashion option without class or establishment connotations. Today’s politicians almost uniformly prefer the boardroom executive look — strong-shouldered suits, spread-collar French-cuffed shirts, and tastefully plain neckties — as the way to convey reliability and seriousness.
It is this latter trait that Ivy items such as whale ties, red trousers and rumpled oxford-cloth shirts probably lack in the eyes of the average voter. Indeed, the Ivy look seems to occupy an unusual position between the extremely casual, denim-and-fleece clothing of most Americans, and the dressy executive style favored by politicians. This is a paradox, as many items of Ivy clothing come across as both too fashionable and too old fashioned, too casual and too dressed up. It is therefore understandable that risk-averse politicians and their image consultants would shy away from such uncontrollable and conflicting messages.
And yet, Time notes that even as the political establishment self-destructed, all was not lost for the Ivy League Look. Molloy advocated basic Ivy staples to enhance Senator Ted Kennedy’s credibility: “short hair parted on the side, blue blazers and gray flannel slacks, loafers and preppy ties.” The style, handled correctly and executed in its most basic terms, could still convey both seriousness and innocence in the darkest days of Watergate, and it most certainly can do the same today.
This is not the case for the clothing that, according to Time, sought to replace it: “the mod suit with wide lapels and nipped waist worn over a pastel-patterned shirt.” — TALIESIN
Editor’s note: For more on George W. Bush’s uneasy relationship with his alma mater, including his eschewing of sockless Weejuns in favor of cowboy boots, see this Time article from 2001.