Just Clothes: The Boyish & Thuggish Ivy League Look

Yesterday someone alerted me to a story on the web from a couple of years ago. Concerned with the rise of preppy blogs on the Internet, the essay is called “Prep To Death” and was written by Ari Samsky for Splice Today. Although it’s from 2010, it’s new to me and I thought it might be to many of you as well. I also thought many of the passages worthy of comment.

For starters, 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.— CHRISTIAN CHENSVOLD

63 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. If you ask me the whole article has a whiff of Russell Street about it. The phrase ‘it’s just clothes’ is surely a clincher.

  7. 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”.

  8. I also detect a whiff of something here. The problem is that those who seek to willfully manipulate our discourse regarding clothing with transparent provocations like the ‘just clothes’ line unfortunately far too often get to achieve their aim when they provoke commentary on their nonsense. But what can you do? Reason says ignore them and yet, because we live in an online world of words, they never are ignored.
    ‘Just clothes’ is a deliberate attempt to make others say that they are not.

  9. I suspected as much. After all, nobody could be so willfully stupid as to say something like this:

    “It is a tailoring style and absolutely nothing more. All the silly ‘cultural’ clutter around it is a smokescreen & a diversion to take your eyes off what matters. And what matters are cut, cloth and clobber. Shoulderlines, details, quality, construction, value, integrity…”

  10. That is obvious trolling. The author?

  11. Excellent analysis, CC. It’s nice to see blowhards like this exposed for what they are, for their “deconstruction” to be torn apart.


    Are you saying that from the fact that the black population of New England has historically been low, and remains, for whatever reasons, low, and that since Muffy Aldrich was born and raised there and has chosen to remain there, that she’s a racist?

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

  13. Sorry, read “too” for “to”…

  14. @Henry-not at all, not at all-her blog reflects her life and where she lives, just made an observation

  15. “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.

  16. Please God no – Are you talking about this pair?
    (Post nine thousand and sixtyy four – Can you believe that number?)

  17. 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.

  18. 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.

  19. 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.

  20. 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.

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

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


    Zuckered, actually.

  23. Educator stated that he checks Muffys blog frequently and in her “very insulated world” “there are no black faces in any of her pics” and then later denies that he was callingg her a racist, but “just made an observation”. You are wrong, self righteous “Educator”. Scroll down and you can see not one but two “black faces” from just last weeks post.


  24. I bow to Mr. Lexicologue.
    Any discussion of any of this is to be Zuckerd.
    True story, ‘Russell Street’ now promotes night clubs in London’s West End? What next?

  25. 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

  26. 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.

  27. “…they actually invited—invited!—non-WASPs to come and join them.”

    So do you have to RSVP when you’re a slave? They should be sending us some ‘thank you’ cards!

  28. 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.”

  29. “They should be sending us some ‘thank you’ cards!”

    Have you been to the Dark Continent lately, maybe they should. As long as we’re having fun ignoring historical context, maybe we should send ‘thank you’ notes to Native Americans. Although I do suspect they regret not controlling their borders. If they had, all this ‘thank you’ card sending would be moot. 😉

  30. I’m just teasing Henry, I know he has a good sense of humor. 😉

  31. Black American descendants of slaves have made an outstanding contribution to our culture; name one contribution that Native Americans have made.

  32. It is a sad day when a defense of Ivy culture descends into attacks on Native Americans and references to “the Dark Continent.”

    FWIW, not that one should even feel the need to dignify Polymath’s comment with an answer, but our country’s basic form of government was modeled after the Iroquois’ representative democracy.

  33. Good thing we looked to Greece for our architecture.

  34. That explains the Indian head penny. 😉

    “the Dark Continent” just stylistically sounded more Joseph Conrad-y

    But, I got to stand by Native Americans wishing they’d controlled their borders and immigration.

  35. That’s what I was hoping. I rarely comment but always lurk, and I must say you are among my favorite commentators here, MAC.

  36. Eric, thanks, are you a sociopath too? Welcome to the club. :-)

  37. @ Eric

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

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

  39. 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

  40. 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.

  41. Dan,

    I knew someone would have to mention slavery. Glad it’s tongue-in-cheek, because it was pretty funny.


    You’ve already been “pwned,” as the kids say these days, so I’ll spare you any further embarrassment.


    Not so sure about the “outstanding” part. Without them, we probably would not have gotten jazz or its runny-nosed grubby-kneed kid brother, rock and roll, but I’m not sure that would have been such a bad thing. Other than that….

    Tabor Kid,

    Great story!

  42. @Philly Trad

    Isn’t it comforting?

  43. P.S. to Tabor Kid & Philly Trad,

    Count me in!

  44. In this post there seems to be some questions about Muffy Aldrich. So, I submitted George’s link to Muffy’s Christmas parade to my neighbor Myron for analysis. Myron is a retiree from the local Ford assembly plant and a greeter at the local WalMart, but he was a photo recon analyst in Nam. Myron had some interesting findings.

    First, Muffy lives in a better neighborhood than Myron and I.

    Second, Muffy has a 75% chance of being a democrat or Rockefeller republican, she drives a Volvo.

    Third , Muffy loves dogs.

    Forth, Muffy could be a militarist, she likes drum and fife marching bands.

    Fifth, Muffy is not a racist, only 34 black people live in Essex, Connecticut and she managed to photo two of them.

    Sixth, Myron thinks Buffy is cute.

  45. I don’t think the kids are saying anything close to “pwned” these days. That’s pretty 2002!

    Anyway, while some comments suggest that the KKK went to college, I’d have to imagine Western Alabama State is a long way from joining the Ivy League.

  46. Oh, gee, gosh darn it. Am I out of touch with the youth of today? Is my groovy hep cat lingo outmoded? Dang it all to heck!

    Having said that, your KKK Komment is sub-mornic, Eric. Did you go to college? Maybe you should ask for a refund, because it doesn’t seem that they taught you how to think.

  47. I apologize for having a “sub-mornic” comment! =)

  48. @Eric

    You didn’t know Kappa Kappa Kappa had a chapter at Dartmouth?

  49. Daniel Webster was in the KKK

  50. If Ivy Style had an option to “rec” or “+1” a comment (and in the scheme of things, glad it doesn’t), that would have earned one.


  51. Eric
    You’re right the founders of the KKK weren’t Ivy league educated, but they were educated, from wealth families, ex-confederate soldiers and WASP. The six founders were composed of four lawyers, a newspaper editor and a businessman. The KKK, was founded in Pulaski, Tennessee in 1865 as a social club, they mostly partied and dabbled in local Democratic politics.

    In 1867 with the imposition of Radical Reconstruction and Military District rule throughout the south, like all reactionaries, they decide to have a secret organizational meeting in Nashville at the Maxwell House Hotel. My guess is they pick Nashville for ease of water transportation for delegates and the hotel’s coffee. At this “convention” they elected Bedford Forrest, the famous cavalry officer, as the first Grand Wizard and wrote the Klan Prescript. To read the Prescript one would think is was a typical American freedom document, but what it really was was a rational for a southern political insurgence, both legal and illegal.

    The Klan never had a true organization or control of it’s various affiliates and things got out of hand pretty fast. Voter suppression of Freemen quickly turned to killing, lynching, rape, assassination, settling personal grudges, you name it they did it. In 1870 Forrest sent out word to cease and desist the violence to no avail, but by the mid 1870s the Klan had faded, they had succeeded in intimidating black voters, driven out the carpetbaggers and returned the south to Democratic party rule by 1877.

    One wonders if all this tragedy and evil would have happened had Lincoln not been assassinated. The Klan might have just partied on in Pulaski.

  52. MAC

    Thank you for giving us a synopsis of the Klan. I was raised about thirty-odd miles North of Pulaski (beautiful town, by the way), so I knew some of the organization’s early history; but I was not familiar with NBF’s desire to end the violence that the Klan participated in during Reconstruction. I share your belief that things would have gone far better for Southerners (both White and Black) had Lincoln not been assassinated. If I remember correctly, Lincoln was in favor of a conciliatory approach to Reconstruction, one that I truly believe would have gone a long way toward changing regional attitudes.

  53. Chen- interesting that my comment was deleted. Why don’t you try to leave it up this time?

    It was, the “prep” name and purpose came from those who went to prep school. To be “preppy,” one had to go to a prepatory school. If you didn’t, that’s fine, but don’t try to pretend it is not a factor.

  54. What comment was deleted?

  55. LG
    Your post was not deleted, it’s on a different thread, The 10,000 Hours It Takes To Become Well Dressed.

  56. wow, this is why everyone (rightly) thinks conservative/preppy white people are racist. you all should be ashamed of yourselves in this thread.

  57. E.C. Brewer | January 5, 2013 at 9:14 am |



    Maybe just forthright, rather than hiding one’s true feelings behind a Politically Correct liberal (in the American sense) mask.

  58. Why, John, does everyone (rightly) think conservative/preppy white people are racists?

  59. john
    You might want to ask the dealer for a new deck, that racism card is getting pretty tattered. 😉

  60. John is 100% correct. Being ugly and racist, and calling it “forthrightness,” isn’t “conservative/preppy.” In fact, given the traditions behind the clothing still some of you appear to so slavishly ape without any understanding of the context behind them, it’s quite the opposite. It’s just ugly, and suggest a much meaner provenance from a milieu that values being loud, or “right” more than anything remotely approaching grace.

  61. *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.

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