Dignified Atmosphere: The 1952 Yale Dress Code Controversy

yale glee club 54

A frequent lament is that college students no longer know how to dress. The Ivy League is not immune to this criticism. Frederick Robertshaw, Yale class of ’55, when comparing his time at Yale to that of his sons, commented on the younger generation by observing that “campus fashions resemble casual day in a county jail.” The response from the Ivy brain trust is that challis neckties are no longer proper accoutrement to tweed, the default choice now is “a colostomy bag.” So the generational Mexican standoff continues.

What is worth examing is an earlier controversy from Frederick Robertshaw’s time at Yale. I had heard rumors of a dress code being instituted at Yale in the 1950s. Given that the boom years are often cited as the halcyon days, it begged the question of what kind of dress code, and why?

I dug through the Yale Daily News archives, and this is what I found.

On February 28, 1952, the Executive Committee of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences voted that coat and tie would be worn at evening and Sunday midday meals in all dining halls operated by the university. This included the freshman commons, the college dining halls, and the graduate school. The law school, which was independently operated, was not included. That is the full extent of the dress code. Most colleges (houses) had voluntarily agreed to this practice. The holdouts were Davenport and Stillman Colleges.

Theodore M. Greene, master of Silliman College, said, “I had hoped that individual initiative would have made coats and ties universal in this College, but this does not seem to be the case.” According to the Yale Daily News, Greene had wanted “to avoid any such ruling but now welcomed it as it would neaten up the general appearance of the colleges involved.” Master of Davenport College Daniel Merriman supported the decision of the executive committee. He had personally observed an increase in “sloppiness” in student dress over the past two years. A.  Margaret Bowers, Director of University Dining Halls, said, “This new rule gives the colleges a much more dignified atmosphere and it is not too much to ask that students be properly dressed for one meal every day.”

The Yale Daily News was in step with its former chairman, William F. Buckley, class of ’50, who advocated for the dining hall dress code during his tenure. The News called the rule “a good thing and conductive to a loftier degree of civilization in the manner and mores of the Yale animal.”

So what was the reaction among the ‘Yale animals’ to this dress code? It seems mixed. There was begrudging support, mock outrage and protest, charges of paternalism, as well as plenty of sophomoric satire. Silliman Council “cast a unanimous vote of censure of the method by which this ruling was enacted. This is not to say we are against the ruling. But we are most definitely against the undemocratic manner in which this coat and tie regulation was brought about, just as we take our stand against the paternalistic manner in which the cut system was reorganized and the authoritarian abolition of Derby Day.”

A group calling its self the Lower Court Vigilante Committee told the Yale Daily News, “The new tie rule is hated by people in Davenport (active haters number in the twenties).” There was also five members who protested on February 29th by wearing the university issued ties around their head. It’s a little hard to take their outrage completely seriously when they suggest the ties provided to the students came from the Aloha Shirt Company (controlled by a mother of an executive committee member), and that the rule was put in place to placate the York Street clothing lobby, which the Vigilante Committee claimed bribed a dean — with 14 striped ties.

If one is inclined to give this farce any credibility, it is dissuaded with talk of gunman in purple shirts and bomb threats on York Street. Another group of campus satirists, calling themselves Little Bohemia, suspect The New Haven haberdashers of even a more far-reaching and nefarious plan. They wrote, “The York Street Combine now seeks a ruling to require the wearing of matching pajamas in all college bedrooms.”  They claim that 12 pairs of regimental pajamas in Davenport stripe have already been delivered to someone identified as the “expounder of the full man.”

George Rein, class of ’52, wrote to the YDN complaining that the rule was forcing sartorial orthodoxy. “They would have all of us dress alike, behave alike in class, and think alike,” he wrote, adding that it was “but another step in a growing demand  for conformity and other manifestations of autocratic and paternalistic nature of Yale’s administrative body.” He then offered his apocalyptic vision of Yale: “There will come a time when all Yale men will dress like spooks on tap day, sit rigid in the classroom with sober vacant stares of mechanical men, file with military precision into the dining halls, and when we must not touch women or liquor after 6:30.”

The controversy peaked on March 15, 1952, when Harris L. Coulter ’54 wrote an editorial entitled “End of Nonsense?” He called the attacks on the rule silly, writing, “Any mind which can be so preoccupied with such little grievances obviously does not has not enough breadth to concern itself with bigger ones.” He begrudging admits that the Lower Court and Llittle Bohemia letters were funny, but adds, “that should have been the end of it of it.”

The Yale Daily News seemed to have had enough as well, agreeing with Coulter by quipping, “It is.” — CHRISTOPHER SHARP

Top image, the Yale Glee Club, 1954.

9 Comments on "Dignified Atmosphere: The 1952 Yale Dress Code Controversy"

  1. Ezra Cornell | February 17, 2016 at 8:28 pm |

    Brilliant piece of work! Thanks for sharing. Proves once again that the “golden age,” no matter the subject referred to, was in fact never really was quite as golden as we assume, imagine (and wish?). Terrific piece of history.

  2. Straight Arrow | February 18, 2016 at 2:57 am |

    One does not jest about such matters.

  3. From the vantage point of the current day, it’s hard to appreciate how politically radical was the acceptance of first work-wear and then sports-wear and then pajama-wear during the decades staring around 1960. At one time, it was common for garage mechanics and plumbers to wear a necktie at work. I can recall the farmer who operated a fruit cart in my neighborhood wearing a jacket and tie with his overalls when selling his crop to housewives like my mother. Except in unusual circumstances, it was simply the fact that a man in any walk of life appear in jacket and tie. The traditional Ivy league style of odd jackets and derivative British textures and patterns was not unique because it was dressier or neater than the average “Main Street” man, but because it took the same form as everyone else but with a vaguely foreign and youthful affectation. Contrarily, when students first began wearing denim work-wear it was a distinctly Marxist statement to show solidarity with so-called oppressed working people. It also revealed these upper and middle class students’ obtuse naivete as most real working class people at the time, like my farmer acquaintance, would think it highly disrespectful to wear their work clothes to a place like church or school. Increasingly, this disrespectful attitude toward the institutions of civilization became a hallmark of the intellectual classes. It supposedly demonstrated how “down” you were with oppressed peoples inhabiting the outskirts of civilized society. Today’s college student, and even their parents, grew up in a world in which disrespecting any higher purpose or institution is a sign of how savvy or “street-smart” they are. Most students today would desperately want you to believe that they simply wear whatever is comfortable. In fact, it is now seen as admirable and intellectual to pursue one’s individual whims at the expense of “oppressive” society, and you can see the same theme in recent campus controversies about politically correct speech codes. This is a radical change from a time when individuals distinguished themselves by their intellectual curiosity and respectful debate. The complete lack of a uniform reveals a deeper cultural conformity than existed when everyone pretty much did wear the same thing.

  4. The primary purpose of clothing is protection from the elements. Period. Thanks to advancements in shelter (insulation, central heating, air conditioning), the number of demands that we humans make of clothing has decreased steadily. There was a time when owning at least two or three flannel suits made good sense. Nowadays, thanks to the temperature setting in most offices, you’ll cook if you attempt anything over 10 oz. Too bad for the West of England flannel makers. (Yet Fox lives on!)

    Beyond protection, which one can achieve with flannel shirts, faded jeans, old sweatshirts, and a dated topcoat, there is the social function of clothing–how one either fits/blends into a community, or sticks out (there are degrees, of course). Clothing speaks, whether we like it or not. More often than not, the clothing preferred by middle-class Americans says, “I am boring. I mean, really boring. No, really. I am.” Most middle class suburbanites are as bland and boring as the homes they own and the cars (think Camrys and Accords and Ford Explorers) they drive. And the food they eat and television shows they watch.

    What I’ll call Haute American Traditional (H.A.T.) style can send any number of messages–all at once. But “I’m boring” isn’t one of them. An ensemble consisting of a glen check Shetland tweed jacket, heathered English flannel pants, an alligator belt, Alden loafers and an Irish Poplin tie doesn’t–cannot, in any universe–inspire the observation, “How boring.” Especially when the guy next to you in line at the grocery store is wearing his usual hoodie-and-Levi’s combo. And when contrasted with the guy wearing the too-skinny suit and pointy black shoes (trying to look like the GQ ads on a mid-level manager’s budget), H.A.T. looks even better. Over and over, the look just, well, wins.

  5. Isn’t there a line in “Metropolitan” about foreign acronyms?

  6. Henry Contestwinner | February 18, 2016 at 11:46 pm |

    Absolutely top-of-the-line comments by Jerry and S.E. Kudos, gentlemen!

  7. I think a defining characteristic of ‘the golden days’ is that such a rule would be enacted, and enforced.

  8. Just occurred to me that H.A.T. also annihilates the preferred weekend garb of most suburban dads. You know, the Under Armour crap.

    And it utterly butchers the overly sophisticated updated traditional look, which tends all to easily toward the foppish. The differences are subtle and nuanced, but real. Trad the stiff spread collar in for an OCBD and the tapered 2-button for a relaxed sack cost, and–boom!–you’ve just won again. H.A.T. style. Take that, Paul Stuart. Does it burn? Does it?

  9. Ezra Cornell | February 19, 2016 at 8:01 pm |

    An alternative: our clothing choices can be just that: ours. They don’t have to be a comment on the lives and values of others who dress differently, whether foppish or UA (etc.). I find it rather refreshing, in fact, to see people in different kinds of outfits, especially ones I don’t myself wear. When people think about what they are wearing, then it’s all the more interesting to see what they have put together. But in the end, I don’t think it’s necessary to embrace Trad as a defiance against others or a commentary on the “inadequacies” of those around me. It has value of its own.

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