Preppy Forever: A Century of Style at The Fessenden School

The French blog Greensleeves to a Ground (run by Fracis Cazal, whom we wrote about here), recently discovered the Flickr album for the Fessenden prep school in West Newton, MA. The album includes the school’s class photos for the past 100 years and is a fascinating look at the rise and fall of the Ivy League Look.

For the first part of the 20th century, the student body wore heavy and somber woolens, as in the photo below from 1921. One immediately notices the uniformity, which is not the same as a uniform, something we’ll see much later.

With the rise in sportswear, the postwar boom, relaxed formality and the full flowering of the Ivy League Look, the class of 1962 (second photo below) displays a great deal of sartorial variety. While the boys are all dressing within the confines of a particular genre, dictated by their social milieu, we see how flexible and open to individual preference the genre was at the time, exemplified by the student pictured at left, who sports a crewneck sweater with his madras jacket.

By 1986 (third photo below), in the midst of the preppy ’80s but nearly two decades after the fall of the Ivy League Look, things are starting to ossify. Trousers are primarily chinos — no more charcoal worsteds or grey flannels — and note the preponderance of navy blazers, a sign of what’s to come.

In the ’90s a point of no return was reached, and the entire class began to wear the uniform of khakis, navy blazer and school tie.

The change began in 1993, when the boys all began to wear navy blazers but wore a variety of ties and trousers. Yet by 1995 (the class photo for 1994 is missing), they are all wearing the same school tie. By 1996 (a better quality and color photo), we can clearly see that the only variation left is in the shade of khaki on their trousers. The final photo below is from the class of 2010.

The photos illustrate a couple of things. Most obvious is the depiction of the rise and fall of a particular style of American male clothing that ultimately left behind only traces of its former existence, like the aroma of cognac that remains in an empty snifter.

The second point is harder to pin down. I was going to speculate that the change in the boys’ attire is a reflection of something you cannot see in the photos: namely, the changing world beyond the borders of the Fessenden campus.

But this has proven difficult to pin down.

An email correspondence with The Fessenden School’s communications director Lindy Gruen was inconclusive. According to Gruen, class photos are currently taken on graduation day — hence the boutonnieres. Gruen did not know why today the boys all wear the same thing whereas previously they did not, and wondered if class photos were formerly taken at a different time of the year.

I was planning to speculate that the change to a navy blazer uniform reflected the fact that the boys no longer owned jackets and ties as part of their regular wardrobe. That previously Fessenden students had simply worn school clothes and now wore school uniforms because of the general prevalence of casual dress throughout society, and that even boys from familes that can afford the $45,000 annual tuition do not own closets full of jackets and ties.

This theory was shot down by the fact that Fessenden students do have a jacket-and-tie dress code, but do not wear a school uniform consisting of navy blazer, khakis and school tie.

So while there’s clearly something going on in the change from varied clothing to a standard uniform for class photos, exactly what it is remains unclear. One thing is for sure: The 100 class photos from the past century all have one thing in common: They all depict boys wearing jackets and ties. But for the first 80-odd years, the boys aren’t all wearing the same thing.

Other photos on the Fessenden website show the boys wearing a variety of preppy garb, with Gruen providing the following comment:

Classic styles play a role in the modern Fessenden School attire. However, today’s Fessy boys express their different personalities very colorfully. Along with our coat-and-tie dress code, boys add bright colors, bold stripes, plaids and madras, which seem to be favorites of the 485 day and boarding boys on the Fessenden School’s Metro-Boston campus.

Ms. Gruen also included a link to this example photo of the students displaying their sartorial panache, a suggestion that preppy style — in some form or another — will live forever at The Fessenden School. — CHRISTIAN CHENSVOLD





14 Comments on "Preppy Forever: A Century of Style at The Fessenden School"

  1. I went to Fessenden for Kindergarten through 8th grade. This is very cool to see their Flickr album published on the blog.

  2. My wife and I happpen to drive by Fessenden once in a while. Out comes the Thurston Howell lockjaw accent and hilarity ensuses. “Chad is Fessenden lad and Buffy is at Babson.” Class of ’62 is lookin’ sharp.

  3. Oh, affirmative action. The sudden spike in minorities between 1986 and 2010 is great.

  4. You should cover the preparatory boarding schools (I attended one). You can’t get anymore “Ivy”/Preppy than that unless it’s an actual Ivy school 🙂

  5. I work at the Fessenden school (and, I think, taught the above commenter).

    For the current class photos, it’s worth noting that for graduation day we do provide school ties and ask the boys to wear them. That level of uniformity does not characterize the everyday wear. Yes, there’s a lot of khaki pants and blue blazers…a lot…but normally ties vary tremendously and, as Ms. Gruen said, there’s a fair amount of experimentation with the colors & patterns on shirts, blazers, and occasionally pants. (Also Bermuda shorts are permitted in season, but you wouldn’t see them in a graduation photo either.)

    There’s also, in winter, sweaters thrown into the mix. Very occasionally you’ll see someone get creative with a vest.

    Definitely not so much with the grey flannel and wool, though. As with society at large, people have trended toward lighter fabrics.

    I once saw a kid try to comply with/get around the “belt and tie” requirement, while bored in study hall, by turning his tie into a belt and making a new tie out of duct tape, but he didn’t get away with it. Too bad; I thought it was creative.

    And, of course, these photos leave aside entirely the issue of the faculty….(The men are under the boys’ dress code; the women, of course, are not, and as it’s not entirely clear what a comparable outfit for a woman would be, our interpretations vary tremendously.)

  6. We visited historic Deerfield, Mass a couple years ago. We saw students walking between classes. Evidently their dress code requires a jacket and tie. They paired them with boxers and flip flops. An unusual look, I thought.

  7. [Opening riff of “This Charming Man” plays over first photo of kid in madras jacket with crewneck.]

  8. class of 2010 represent

  9. Andromeda – you have to give the kid some credit – it seems he was channeling A Separate Peace’s Phineas.

  10. Either Phineas, or Fred Astaire. Either way, it’s been done before.

  11. I also work at Fessy (and live in the white house in the photos.) The only reason that the boys in the most recent photos are wearing the same thing is that we have a specific dress code for graduation, as an alternative to caps and gowns. Every boy must wear a navy blazer, white shirt, Fessenden tie, and khakis. It’s really the only day of the year with a specific, uniform dress code. On every other school day, variety abounds. It gets particularly interesting in February with our annual “ugly tie” contest. I’m not sure any photos from that event will make it to any style blogs.

  12. oh – and don’t forget about the wonderful holiday of vestival 🙂

  13. Was at Fessenden 1961.
    I remember my Mother dragging me in to “Brooks Brothers” for the “Look”.

  14. Khakis are not formal enough for a photo like this. You can buy grey trousers at Target that look damn close to wool if they aren’t actually for under $30.

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