If you find yourself in the properly reflective and curious frame of mind to handle a weighty intellectual essay, there’s a piece in the current issue of Lapham’s Quarterly that you should sit down to with a full cup of tea.
The periodical was founded by Lewis H. Lapham, who is also the editor emeritus of Harper’s Magazine. In a piece called “Produce Placement” penned by the founder, Lapham talks about his time at Yale in the 1950s and the schism between the proper young gentlemen clad in J. Press and the beatniks dressed in, according to him, cashmere sweaters with cigarette holes.
The piece is hard to follow. Perhaps it’s above my head, or is simply an example of what happens when an intellectual turns to the topic of clothes. The first paragraph alone requires a lot of chewing, then we get this for a second:
During my term as a student at Yale College in the 1950s the attitude was rated aesthetically and morally correct by an undergraduate bohemian avant-garde at a loss for a wardrobe of ready-to-wear alienation. J. Press on York Street, long-established supplier of yachting blazers and straw hats to the Whiffenpoofs gathered at the tables down at Mory’s, didn’t carry the look favored by William Burroughs and Jean Genet, didn’t stock torn fabric in liberating colors. The 1960s sexual revolution and antiwar protests were nowhere listed on the Yale social calendar, nor was the opening of admission to women; freedom now was the free beer at the Fence Club before, during, and after the Harvard game.
Lapham argues that we all use clothing to push a product, and that product is ourselves:
The Beat Generation’s undergraduate auxiliaries at Yale in the 1950s—edgy, bad boy, unafraid—had neither love nor money for leather, but they grasped the idea that fashion was the placement of the product of self. Which, as I soon learned once outside the perimeter of superior sensibility, was also the great work in progress everywhere else in a society devout in its worship of graven images.
The author learns this lesson in appearance vs. reality when he leaves college and sets forth into the world:
As I soon discovered upon being released into the wild from the cage of superior sensibility at Yale to find myself entered into a society eager for spectacle and bored by prayer, deaf to the wisdom of Thoreau, awake to the lesson in chapter 33 of the 1922 scripture according to Emily Post: “Clothes are to us what fur and feathers are to beasts and birds; they not only add to our appearance, but they are our appearance. How we look to others entirely depends upon what we wear and how we wear it; manners and speech are noted afterward, and character last of all.”
As a result, he adopts the sartorial camouflage of a chameleon:
The lesson informed my approach to a career in journalism as well as my fittings in with various social scenes up and running in the 1960s in Manhattan’s theaters of trifling and despotic ambition. The Renaissance courtier Baldassare Castiglione advises every man to dress in a way that causes him to be esteemed “even by those who neither hear him speak nor witness any act of his.” Following this advice, I took care to wear a gray pinstriped suit, cufflinks, silk pocket square when in the company of Wall Street gentry; navy blue suit, cheap watch, and heavy shoes when in Washington among low-ranking congressmen and high-ranking military personnel; threadbare tweed coat and turtleneck sweater in the presence of literary intelligentsia on the Upper West Side. The presentation of a reassuring appearance allowed for the asking of uncomfortable questions.
If this sort of thing is your cup of tea, pour that cup of tea and head over here for the full story. — CC