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.
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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.
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