Lewis H. Lapham On Clothes, Yale, And The Product Placement Of Self

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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

32 Comments on "Lewis H. Lapham On Clothes, Yale, And The Product Placement Of Self"

  1. Nick Sapers | October 9, 2015 at 2:06 pm |

    This is a pretty stupid piece. If you didn’t like it or understand it, why quote so extensively from it and link to it? It’s difficult to see why you bothered posting anything about it at all. You’re hardly presenting an engaged and informed critique.

  2. Others may like and understand it.

  3. Richard Meyer | October 9, 2015 at 2:13 pm |

    Every time I have seen Mr. Lapham on TV, he is impeccable in dark suit and tie.

  4. The quotient of intellect and fashion I find evenly divided between Messrs Lapham and Boyer.

  5. I did enjoy the piece. Thanks for posting.

  6. Charlottesville | October 9, 2015 at 4:47 pm |

    Thanks, Christian and Jerrod. I enjoyed the article too. And taking Mr. Press’s advice to heart, I plan to give my attention this weekend to Bruce Boyer’s latest, which arrived in my mailbox yesterday. Temperature locally is back above 80 at the moment, and I think I see a martini shaker and screened porch in my immediate future.

  7. And be sure and listen to some recording’s of Victor Herbert’s hauntingly beautiful “Indian Summer.” Not often you have an opening chord progression of G to D+.

  8. Charlottesville | October 9, 2015 at 5:14 pm |

    Excellent idea, Christian. I think I have Tommy Dorsey, Bing Crosby and probably at least 2 or 3 other versions to choose from. Cheers!

  9. I first learned of the tune from Kay Kyser:


  10. Lapham was a much better writer 25 years ago. He has been fairly self-indulgent for a long time.

  11. On the contrary, Mr. Lapham, J. Press would have carried the look favored by William Burroughs, who always wore a conservative suit and tie, sometimes with a trilby.

  12. I hope that the poster above who I believe to be the man behind the Traditional Natural Shoulder Tumblr (http://naturalshoulder.tumblr.com/) does not mind me posting the link since he did not. If you like historical images you will like this.

  13. It is the responsibility of the writer to be intelligible. Mr. Lapham is, as Mr. Pyle notes, indulging himself when he writes in such a manner.

    Of course, the worst writer in recent memory is the execrable Noam Chomsky, whose style is so unmistakably awful as to have inspired the Chomskybot, a program that will generate paragraphs in the nutty professor’s style.

  14. Here is a link to Lapham’s complete dramatic documentary musical, “The American Ruling Class” (1 1/2 hrs.):


  15. Seconding T. Bearden’s remark, Lapham’s swipe at William S. Burroughs, Harvard ’36, is very ill-informed. Here’s a description of Burroughs from 1965:

    “He wore a gray lightweight Brooks Brothers suit with a vest, a blue-striped shirt from Gibraltar cut in the English style, and a deep-blue tie with small white polka dots. His manner was not so much pedagogic as didactic or forensic. He might have been a senior partner in a private bank, charting the course of huge but anonymous fortunes. A friend of the interviewer, spotting Burroughs across the lobby, thought he was a British diplomat.”


  16. Bravo,Taliesin, for coming up with that description of Burroughs. One gets the sense that the pompous Mr. Lapham doesn’t know much about William Burroughs.

  17. the piece needs more references and citations ….

    Seriously, though: was all that overwriting necessary to make the obvious point that “clothes serv[e] as statements of function and rank within societies”?

  18. The days of the rumpled, fuzzy, tweedy, wrinkled New England patrician are long gone, aren’t they? Except where they’re not. But was Establisment ever friendly toward campus style beyond the walls of the campus?

    They dress like Lapham–a sort of unfortunate fusion of House of Commons MP and Men’s Wearhouse:


  19. In all fairness, this is the preferred style among the majority of men who dress for business.

  20. There is nothing obscure about it. Mr. Lapham is showing off. The Yale English Department wouldn’t have countenanced such writing. And the Yale students who took serious things seriously wouldn’t have warmed to his appearance: like a turkey trussed and stuffed on Savile Row.

  21. That whole Yale thing.

  22. Brings back fond memories of Yale and the tables down at Mory’s.

  23. OCBD-Thanks! I was wondering where the surge of new followers came from. Likewise, love your blog.

  24. Is it new, AP? Would you like us to post about it here?

  25. Thanks, Christian. I guess the tumblr doesn’t really merit a mention beyond what OCBD has given to your comment section regulars. The tumblr isn’t new and its been on hiatus for a while and its mostly just pictures that have been posted over at AAAT, anyway. I’ll probably update it a bit this fall with the latest stuff, but the flow of new trad pics on the internet seems to have slowed down, so I guess that will peter out as well before the end of the year.

  26. “I didn’t have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead.” Making the profound and complex easy to understand is true genius and few are masters of it. Making simple points and observations an uphill climb is the legerdemain of a simple, condescending, arrogant pedant. At least most of the time, IMO.

  27. Well put, George.

  28. I agree that Lapham’s style here is a bit plummy, and might be seen as obscure because it is allusive and indirect. But the overall tone is arch, and I think that is quite deliberate and functional. It’s serious and playful at the same time, which I see as a defensive tactic. I think his tone goes together with the position he defines for himself at the beginning — neither a stock broker nor a bohemian, but somewhere floating between the ruling class to which he was born and the critique of that class that his character and intellect led him to. As he says, he wears pinstripes in the company of Wall St., a blue suit among the politicians, and tweed and turtleneck on the Upper West Side. He is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, the heart of the establishment, and yet he published a book called “Pretensions to Empire: Notes on the Criminal Folly of the Bush Administration”. How does one pull that off? I think it’s a matter of style, and although it is not my style, and may not be to everyone’s taste, I enjoy the performance, even with the gaffes. He does not pretend to be a scholar, and wearing learning lightly is part of the persona.

  29. A gentle hand of guidance would help Mr. Lapham concerning the use of active as opposed to passive voice. His article poses a problem for readers with any sense of syntax. Good writers today are as rare as a snowbird in hell. As my Presbyterian minister would say, “some to honor and some to dishonor.”

  30. His style is just fine. He’s wrong, though, about the New Criticism — Brooks, Warren, et al. were anything but Platonists. The New Criticism is all about style as the substance of reality.

  31. Fantastic piece about reality v.s artifice, and how the “the new bourgeois social order exults in flying false flags to signal a wished-for, not a given, identity” by dressing up to relieve status anxiety. Calls to mind erstwhile poster “Richard” and the implied reader of the Ivy Style blog.

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