Like twilight through faded chintz curtains, the sun is setting on the WASP establishment. And Jamie Johnson is seated in the drawing room taking assiduous notes.
“It’s interesting to document a small group of people that are losing their influence,” says the filmmaker and columnist, “and highlight what may be appealing about their world, and also what is unattractive.”
A great-grandson of the founder of the Johnson & Johnson pharmaceutical empire, the 29-year-old heir wrote and directed the 2003 documentary “Born Rich,” and currently chronicles the splendors and miseries of WASPdom in a blog for Vanity Fair entitled The One Percent.
Johnson, who majored in American History at New York University, recently spoke with Ivy-Style founder Christian Chensvold about the setting sun’s bittersweet glow.
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IS: What was your motivation for making “Born Rich”?
JJ: I had noticed a number of people from rich families who had opportunities and a great education and everything going for them, and they didn’t do anything with their lives. In some cases they even died of drug overdose or by crashing their Ferrari in the French Riviera.
I was in school at NYU and I thought it would be interesting to chronicle the lives of affluent kids in a documentary film, which had never been done before. I really didn’t know where the film would go, and I certainly didn’t expect many people to see it. But it got accepted at the Sundance Festival and had a good run on HBO.
IS: How much classic preppy style still remains in the WASP community?
JJ: You can go to any old WASPy social institutions, especially country clubs, and virtually nothing’s changed since the 1950s. Tennis whites are the same as they were, and many institutions still have dress codes on the golf course. When I was a teenager, I remember it being quite stylish to have a belt with the emblem of your country club on it. And if you were in a different part of the country, someone might compliment you on it. So there’s that sense of community that gets expressed through clothing.
I think the WASP community is often completely blind to outside influences. WASP style is incredibly unappealing at times, especially for women. It’s definitely repressed. I often wonder how they can operate without an awareness of what’s going on in the fashion world.
IS: Does the taste for old and rumpled clothing still remain?
JJ: Certainly for more casual looks distressed clothing is desirable. When I was in school, having your boxer shorts hang below the bottoms of your regular shorts was very hip. And for teenagers, there’s this crossover between the preppy and the pothead. So it’s fundamentally a preppy look, but there are these accents like out-of-control hair and a frayed collar and a patch on your clothing, like a hippy look.
The WASP community likes the idea of abundance, and that you’ve had such a long history of affluence that purchasing new clothing is never something you need to do. That can become a status symbol, and it can work against you if you’re thought of as someone who needs to buy a new dinner jacket in order to go to a debutante ball.
IS: What do you personally like to wear?
JJ: I actually think it’s fun to reference the American classics ironically. I’m a fan of anyone who has an ironic style. I’d say more and more I’m drawn to what I grew up with. Not so absurd as whales stitched onto corduroy pants, but I certainly grew up with the fundamentals of preppy style.
To me, WASP style is more interesting when you’re a teenager, because you have more opportunities to be creative. As men get older, their options are restricted. They’re wear jeans and the classic Gucci loafer, and the shirt is the only thing about them that’s expressive.
IS: Books and articles on the “decline of the WASP” have practically become a cottage industry, and that’s part of what you cover in your column. What are your thoughts on this?
JJ: I think we’ve been witnessing the end of WASP ascendancy for a while. It’s true that WASPs have less power with each passing decade since the ’50s. Part of it is their own fault, because their exclusive social practices have limited them. They haven’t brought in fresh talent and ideas, and been able to maintain their influence. Both the decline and what still remains equally fascinate me. And there are people I know who’ve had much more WASPy upbringings than I did.
IS: What are the degrees of WASPiness in one’s upbringing?
JJ: I mean that I had some outside influences. If you are raised in an affluent WASPy household, and you don’t interact with anyone who isn’t a part of that community, your upbringing is more WASPy. And there are some people who don’t want to interact with anyone who isn’t Protestant Old Money.
IS: How much of the old WASP prejudices still exist?
JJ: They still exist. They’re acknowledged less and less, and are certainly stated less and less, but it’s definitely a community that still holds prejudices. That’s how you’re raised. Exclusivity has been such a part of the WASP world for so long it’s impossible not to take impressions from it.
IS: And what of the virtues still remain? Are young people still raised to hold things like ostentation and naked ambition in contempt, and to appreciate understatement, have a moral sense, and feel an obligation for civic duty?
JJ: I think those values still exist. There is definitely a preference for understatement, and people encourage subtlety and a less ostentatious way of living.
IS: Your film includes Ivanka Trump, and the Trump family isn’t exactly known for subtlety.
JJ: But I think WASPs are behind the times in that regard. There’s nothing wrong with subtlety, but at the same time there’s nothing wrong with self-promotion. Times have changed, that’s why you don’t see that many WASPs involved in the highest ranks of government, business and culture. They’re hanging on to values that are irrelevant in the modern world.
IS: It sounds like you’re suggesting that many WASPs are unwilling or unable to compete in a meritocratic society, that they were accustomed to a more casual, gentlemanly approach, and that today things are too competitive.
JJ: I think that’s true, and that it brings up a real paradox in our culture. What’s so alluring about WASP style is the sense of nonchalance it communicates. And at the same time, that casual, laid-back attitude and approach toward life has really been a disservice to WASPs in recent decades, and has contributed to their decrease in influence.
IS: Your film explores the insecurities that come with being born to money, and even envy for those who make it on their own. Tell us more about this.
JJ: I’ve often observed that people want to be something they’re not: The self-made banker wants to be a gentleman farmer and man of leisure, and the inheritor wants to be a mover and shaker in the business world. I’ve seen it go both ways.