frats

Recently an email sent by an Emory University student to his fraternity brothers telling them they were badly dressed made national news.

Well it’s about time someone took them to task.

The student, Jonathan Weiss, also included some style suggestions straight from the trad playbook, including admonitions to cuff their pants. Weiss said his parents raised him on an “eccentric rower preppy” wardrobe (we’re having trouble picturing that precisely), but is currently to a kind of fashion update on nostalgic Americana, thanks to his discovery of the Beat generation.

A story by CNN that posted on Friday includes several remarks from friend and colleague Bruce Boyer talking about campus style:

The young man’s fashion takedown might seem like a bold change from the “Animal House” fraternity stereotype (and a bold move for a new brother), but according to G. Bruce Boyer, a contributing editor to Town & Country, the looks Weiss advocates have roots on campus.

Although it might feel like high style on the average college campus these days, fraternity members at Princeton, Yale and Harvard were running counter to the formal fashion of the early 1900s. With colorful scarves and sport coats, the Ivy League elite pioneered casual, stylish men’s fashion, said Boyer, who co-curated a recent exhibition of Ivy League fashion at the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York.

“It only became this new-conservative look of the Eastern establishment in the 1950s,” Boyer said. Post-World War II, it became a status symbol, a look associated with power, Boyer said. It was revived in the early 1980s, when it became known as “preppy.”

The current revival of Ivy League style, and the broader Americana look, is driven by close, fitted Italian tailoring and Japanese fashion sense, Boyer said. The notion that clothes have a deeper, non-verbal communication is something Weiss subscribes to.

Whenever things slide to one extreme (like showing up for class in hoodie, flip-flops and pajama bottoms), the counter reaction is likely to also be extreme. Weiss is certainly doing good in the world, and I’m not being facetious. Some of the cruder behavior long associated with fraternities might be curtailed if the guys were dressed in clothing they felt dignified them.

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But I think it may be wiser to first encourage basic modes of dress that are more realistic for college students in the 21st century. Khakis, button-front shirts tucked in, sweaters and boat shoes — the uniform of the preppy ’70s — would still be a huge leap forward. But full-on dress shoes, vests and bow ties (the kind of outfit Weiss is wearing in the photo above) go too far, and are likely to peter-out as a short-term “look at me” gimmick rather than any kind of long-term raising of standards.

Some years ago a fellow named Fonzworth Bentley tried to reform the hip-hop world by getting them out of t-shirts and sweatpants and into ascots and smoking jackets. His so-called “gentlemen’s movement” was short-lived. — CC