Just Clothes: The Boyish & Thuggish Ivy League Look

In 2010, Ari Samsky wrote an essay for Splice Today called “Prep To Death.” I was alerted to the piece a couple of years later, in the first iteration of this post, which we shall revisit now in light of what may have changed since then, and what may remain the same. Here were my remarks from nine years ago.

* * *

Samsky is one of those people for whom the word “aesthetic” is a kind of verbal tick they can’t control. We get half a dozen times in the essay, including “sartorial aesthetic,” a deliciously pompous seven-syllable whopper.

But far more interesting is the use of the phrase “It’s just clothes,” which occurs twice. This is the same expression used by some English Ivy fans, who romanticize the clothes with all sorts of subjective associations (jazz, Jack Kerouac, French New Wave films) while at the same time insisting that the clothing objects themselves are merely the physical manifestations of platonic concepts that exist independent of the milieu from which they sprung and flourished. In other words, somewhere in the heavens exists a concept called The Oxford-Cloth Buttondown that resides in superterrestrial purity free from all earthly baggage and associations. Except, of course, for the desired ones.

Before Samsky tells us that the Ivy League Look is “just clothes,” he seems to be telling us it’s anything but:

Ivy League style, which paints a relaxed and faintly disheveled veneer over the luxurious clothing of the American ruling class, brings an easily identified and reproduced look and a heady whiff of wealth and privilege.

And:

The Ivy League or prep aesthetic comes from a specific part of America, after all, and the men (and women) who wore these soft-shouldered blue blazers and Weejuns for most of the 20th century were not always as forbearing and gentle as their careful dishabille would imply. For an American, or at least for me, the Ivy League style carries a scent of elitism, not to mention puerile, athletic cruelty.

Talk about your subjective connotations. Later, after a long analysis of Muffy Aldrich:

I really don’t care if she’s has an “authentic” claim on the preppy look (it’s so mainstream now that arguing about whether people who haven’t attended prep school have a “right” to prep is at best utterly asinine and at worst classist drivel). But this authenticity helps her make claims to the “right” and “real” way of doing things. It makes me very uncomfortable when people try to sell prep with an ethos and a lifestyle attached to it. Deck shoes may be suited to boats but I have worn them without injury or ridicule in Iowa City, a point just about as far from the Atlantic as it is from the Pacific. It’s just clothes.

Now I certainly agree that suggesting you need to have attended a prep school in order to wear clothing referred to as “preppy” is an asinine notion, but that hardly means they are “just clothes.” The phrase on which Samsky’s contradiction turns is his summary that while at Princeton “no one seemed to confuse clothing and lifestyle.”

But however confused things are today, in which a billionaire such as Mark Zuckerberg is perennially clad in a hoodie, clothing will always be an expression of its wearer’s lifestyle. Furthermore, the fact that the kind of overachieving and ambitious people who attend Ivy League schools don’t want their clothing to be visually distinguished from hoi polloi strikes me as disingenuous and a kind of reverse snobbism. In their minds it’s evidently acceptable to use words such as “exegesis” and “praxis” (not to mention “sartorial aesthetic”) that verbally mark you as superior in intelligence and education to 90 percent of the populace, while in the meantime settling for the lowest common denominator (in Zuckerberg’s case) when it comes to clothing, and seeing in the Ivy League Look a rank whiff of classicism. That right there, for better or worse, is the difference between the legacy era and the meritocratic one: It’s OK to be smarter and better than most everyone else, you’re just not supposed to look like it.

The final passage in which Samsky contradicts his “just clothes” remark is the following. It not only acknowledges the “rich and powerful WASPs who originally wore this style,” but also points out people like Richard at WASP 101 (who is mentioned in Samsky’s essay) for whom preppy clothing provides the means to posture as an old money blueblood:

The rich and powerful WASPs who originally wore this style would not be fooled by a tyro who learned his mode of dress from the Internet or from either one of Lisa Birnbach’s books. If you’re dressing preppy in order to convince people of your inherent worth then you need to focus less on clothing and more on psychotherapy. Adopting an exaggerated burlesque of the Northeast WASP lifestyle to go along with your LL Bean khakis is similarly crazy. Even the dyed-in-the-wool preppies who supposedly wear this clothing naturally can’t care all that much about it, they simply found khakis and button-downs in their closets when they were children and continued wearing them without modification as they grew older.

But the khakis and buttondowns donned unselfconsciously by those “dyed in the wool” preppies are anything but “just clothes.” They were raised on them, as Samsky points out, and that makes their clothing an expression of the very values and traditions Samsky ridicules in his passage about Muffy Aldrich. If Samsky can see homoeroticism in “Take Ivy” (where “blond giants strut confidently”) and “athletic cruelty” in navy blazers, he ought to know that clothing is never just anything.— CC

25 Comments on "Just Clothes: The Boyish & Thuggish Ivy League Look"

  1. Great analysis. The shame is that Samsky could probably write well if he applied himself and exercised some better reasoning. Instead, it reads like high school jibberish.

  2. I check Aldrichs’ blog frequently, Im a sucker for New England landscape photos- her world is definitely very insulated, she does mention her schools and family history frequently, no black faces in any of her pics. . .

  3. The article is new to me as well. The author has it so very wrong. Preppy clothing is about being frugal and dressing in good taste, all the while avoiding expensive, pointless trends or current fashion. It is embracing the tried and true. Items of quality, of heritage of craftsmanship. The author is critical of the preppy look for women and defines it as “sexless”. Very shallow thinking that women (Muffy Aldrich in particular) are to be defined and valued only for the “sex appeal” of their clothing. I gather Samsky would be a fan of Lady Gaga.
    I won’t go into the lifestyle statements which are made in the article, for the region of the country in which one lives is a determining factor as to lifestyle and interests. Preppy clothing is practical and comfortable, hence, topsiders in Kansas City and Nantucket reds in New Orleans.

  4. As some commenter previously remarked on this blog, the homoeroticism in “Take Ivy” is obvious: a fixation on men’s backsides. As far as “athletic cruelty” is concerned, it is a characteristic of the Ivy League rather than of Ivy style.

  5. CBP you made a lot of good points that the author did not seem to take into account. Almost every where that I have worked most men have dressed this way or very close to it and these are Midwestern non-ivy men who do not frequent menswear blogs. My point is that it is a very common and sensible way to dress. Also, I have found Muffy Aldrich to be nothing but a kind and pleasant woman that is far from pretentious. Just my 2 cents.

  6. Roy R. Platt | December 6, 2012 at 2:24 pm |

    One might hope that Santa brings Mr. Samsky a copy of Paul Fussell’s 1983 book, “Class”.

  7. Mr. Samsky sounds like someone who has read to much Jack Kerouac… You can usually recognize a Kerouac devotee

  8. “Before Samsky tells us that the Ivy League Look is “just clothes,” he seems to be telling us it’s anything but:

    Ivy League style, which paints a relaxed and faintly disheveled veneer over the luxurious clothing of the American ruling class, brings an easily identified and reproduced look and a heady whiff of wealth and privilege.”

    CC, I don’t think you’re getting Samsky’s point here (such as it is).

    He says: “And I remain entirely without sympathy to the idea that prep or Ivy League style requires an accompanying praxis; it’s just clothes.”

    That is, I think: he’s trying to make it clear that he’s _not_ saying that only traditional WASPs have a right to wear the clothes. He’s saying, instead, that anyone _can_ wear the clothes, but that if you choose to do it (regardless of yacht ownership), you should be aware that a lot of people will think you’re either a privileged jerk, or posing as one.

    As for me, twelve or fifteen years ago I would have agreed with him — but things are different now. Not too many Americans have the direct experience of being oppressed by the WASP elite any more. I think we’re more like the Japanese, these days.

  9. Wait, there’s more!! “It’s only a watch. It’s only a car, etc.”. I find that such pronouncements ordinarily come from those who lack taste.

  10. Zuckerberg attended Phillips Exeter Academy. You may have unwittingly proved his point that it’s “just clothing,” and not a sign of lifestyle. Not saying I disagree, but bad example.

    I’m indifferent to Muffy Aldrich’s blog, but she did an article on which fleece preppier: Patagonia or Northface. Made me think she has way-too-much free time on her hands. Seriously, how trivial.

  11. Zuckerberg certainly wasn’t of the elite. I recall he was able to study at Exeter on some sort of scholarship.

    Anyway, whatever happened to Jinx? He was my favorite commenter, a true persona.

  12. Shawn, do you believe Zuck’s hoodie is to a techie what a polo shirt is to a preppy? If you spend any time in the Silicon Valley, the jeans and tee shirt (with hoodie) is a lifestyle look. There are thousands of such clones putting plenty of thought into that look….including black framed eyeglasses. Believe me, it isn’t just clothes to them. It’s there tribal look.

  13. And by even discussing this we’ve all been suckered by Zucker.

  14. Lexicologue | December 7, 2012 at 6:08 am |

    @Leitmotif:

    Zuckered, actually.

  15. I never quite know who guys like this are mad at/resentful of. Shot down by Buffy at Newport, or Biff at Yale? Blackballed at “The Club”?

    Nor which “prep/trad/Ivy” clothes they’re talking about: heavily logoed prep-based costumery, or the plain but well made stuff

  16. Kagi wrote,

    “Not too many Americans have the direct experience of being oppressed by the WASP elite any more.”

    Um, what? WASPs are the people who colonized, founded, fought for, died for, and built this country. Not only did the WASPs create this country, they actually invited—invited!—non-WASPs to come and join them. As it turns out, you don’t have to be a WASP to be successful in America.

    Any mention of “oppression” is Marxist claptrap.

  17. I thought this guy sounded familiar and then I followed the link and found that I’d not only read the essay but commented on it:

    “The notion that Ivy style is imitative of schoolboy garb and therefore puerile is erroneous. The reverse is true — schoolboy garb of the ‘preppy’ culture was always imitative of adult clothing. Many of the bloggers in this space rightly lament an inversion that has taken place in attitudes toward dress: In the past, kids wanted to dress like adults; today, adults want to dress like children. A less attractive theme of your piece is that wearers of the style are ‘homoerotic,’ ‘sexually ambiguous,’ or, at best, ‘sexless.’ Bad on you.”

  18. @ Eric

    So glad to learn that we owe representative democracy to Red Indians. What a laugh!

  19. Muffy Aldrich upholds a great New England heritage against the barbarians at the gate.

  20. The U.S. certainly did not model its government after the Iroquois Confederacy. After the Revolution we wrote up the Articles of Confederation, which did take ideas from the Iroquois, but that lasted only a few years and was a complete failure.

    ps. Eric, since your such an indian sympathizer, you might be pleased to hear that from the Pequot War to crashing the first Indian court, my family has always dominated the Native Americans! We took nineteen thousand acres of land that my grandmother owns today

  21. Philly Trad | December 9, 2012 at 1:00 pm |

    @Tabor Kid

    So glad to see that there are others who believe that being sartorially correct and being politically correct are different things.

  22. *Ding ding ding ding ding ding ding ding*

    Hold the phones—we have a winner in the “Most Asinine Comment on This Thread” contest!

    The award goes not to the favorite, but to the newcomer, Michael. Congratulations, Michael! You scored bonus points for failing to make a subject and verb agree, but that’s not what put you over the top. Your comment slavishly apes politically correct memes without contributing anything to the discussion—all done without ropes, assistance, or thought!

    Thank you for playing, and congratulations again!

    We now return to our regularly scheduled commenting.

  23. Eric said, “but our country’s basic form of government was modeled after the Iroquois’ representative democracy.”

    When I think of “Ivy” I think of an educated mind in the traditional sense. Eric doe not come to mind when I think of this.

  24. All, the phrase “Just Clothes” appears on p. 48/49 in the “Prep Persona No. 2” introduction to prep dressing, both male and female, at prep school.

  25. I enjoy reading your site and I’m a frequent visitor.I must admit though, I don’t like the fact that you like to “stick the boot” into English Ivy fans whenever the opportunity arises. Yes, I appreciate that your article clearly says “some” English Ivy fans but there have also been previous articles where you have been disparaging.

    Yes, this site is your baby and you have the freedom to write whatever you wish but In the current social climate when there’s more things than ever pulling us apart – race, sexual orientation, nationalism to name but a few, you are missing an opportunity to continue to unite lovers of clothes regardless of their nationality.

    I appreciate that you may have encountered hostility in the past from certain parties from the UK but that was quite some time ago and to my knowledge those parties no longer exist.

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