Dress rehearsal

Editor’s Note: Again all gratitude to Dan Covell. Great piece, perfect time of year for it. Also photo selection credit: Dan Covell.

Every year around this time, as a new school year commences, I get the urge to re-watch “The Paper Chase.” You likely know of it – the 1973 film that depicts the struggles and eventual enlightenment of a first-year Harvard Law School student, starring Timothy Bottoms as James Hart, as the impressionable naif from Minnesota, and John Houseman as Charles W. Kinsgfield, Jr., the imperious and demanding professor of Hart’s Contracts course. Lindsay Wagner played Hart’s slightly-older woman love interest, then of course went on to big things as “The Bionic Woman.” Houseman, Romanian-born, raised in England and a founder of the Mercury Theater along with Orson Welles, won the Best Supporting Oscar for his work, then parleyed the character’s success into a four-year gig on an eponymous TV series and, more notably, in ads for the investment company Smith Barney. Those of a certain age will recall the ad’s tag line, so I won’t restate it here. If not, you can find it on YouTube.

Houseman starred in the campaign from 1979 until his death in 1988, an eternity in the ad game (the company kept the theme going with other actors, including George C. Scott, until 1992). The ads were my first exposure to what I would later realize was Houseman’s Kingsfield, and they seem to have been shot simultaneous to the filming of “The Paper Chase.” My favorite ad is from 1979 where Houseman, in a clubby dining room replete with dark wood paneling and stained glass windows, plays the role of Kingsfield-turned-pitchman to the hilt, speaking authoritatively in the famed mid-Atlantic accent favored by movie actors from the 1930s and 1940s. After a white-jacketed waiter serves him a soft-boiled egg in a Wedgewood egg cup, Houseman takes a break from reading the morning paper (probably the Wall Street Journal or Barron’s) and speaks direct to camera (at a slightly low angle) about the hard-working investment researchers at Smith Barney. The wardrobe is also direct out of “The Paper Chase”: Dark, three-piece suit, muted bow tie, white three-point pocket handkerchief. Smith Barney clearly wanted an old money vibe, and Houseman’s delivery and wardrobe delivered it in spades. 

Through the release of “The Paper Chase” and “Love Story” three years prior, and in the midst of the full flower of the hippie/counterculture’s influence on nearly all forms of fashion, Harvard-based tales imbued with Ivy Style were having a Hollywood cinematic moment. In “Love Story,” preppy millionaire and Crimson hockey forward Oliver Barrett IV, played by Ryan O’Neal, shares a dorm suite with a card-playing jokester played by real-life former Crimson football player Tommy Lee Jones, and falls in love with the blue-collar and ill-fated Radcliffe student Jennifer Cavalieri, played by Ali MacGraw. The film is in fact credited with bringing the term “preppy” into the national parlance when MacGraw’s character hangs the epithet on O’Neal’s character – whom we later learn indeed went to Exeter – when they first meet in the Radcliffe Library. “What make you so sure I went to prep school?” O’Neal asks. “You look stupid and rich,” MacGraw retorts, and goes on to tag him with the moniker on another dozen occasions by my count; at first, derisively, then later with affectionate mockery. The film is based on the best-selling book by Erich Segal, a Harvard grad who taught at Harvard, Princeton and Yale, so one can assume a fair bit of source credibility on this exchange, at least in the fact that MacGraw’s character spoke a belief likely held by many in Ivy quarters.

In the film’s hockey scenes, O’Neal’s game action stand-in was former Crimson star and soon-to-be longtime head coach and athletics director Billy Cleary. I worked for a year in the Harvard athletics department between my Master’s and Ph.D. studies, and my prized possession from that time is a Cleary-signed photograph of the hockey-playing cast on the ice, with Billy on the far left, as the crew bracketed the comely Ms. MacGraw. Years later, Cleary, still Harvard’s most notable player ever, recalled that during filming “they’d shoot him from the waist up, and he’d be moving his eyes and his head like he was scanning the ice … (but) he was a Southern California guy who didn’t know how to skate.” 

While the film does include a few shots of O’Neal in game action on the ice (carefully keeping his lower body out of frame) and in the penalty box, O’Neal’s off-ice wardrobe could have been purchased from The Andover Shop or J. Press, both of which would have been a cross-ice saucer pass from the movie’s multiple campus and Cambridge filming locations. In the various scenes where the star-crossed pair made snow angels and a snowman in John F. Kennedy Park, lunched on a picnic table outside Harvard Stadium, or gazed longingly into each other’s eyes while basking in an autumnal glow in Harvard Yard, O’Neal’s garb was as on-point Ivy Style student as was Houseman’s Ivy Style professor: Tweed tartan jacket (with leather buttons on cuffs) over crewneck wool sweaters of gold, tan and light green over OCBDs of white, blue and yellow; a shearling jacket with a crimson-and –white scarf, a grey herringbone overcoat; a dark grey suit with a black-and-crimson rep tie (worn at a chamber ensemble concert); a grey herringbone odd jacket with a tan Brooks Brothers #1 rep tie when he meets with the Harvard Law School dean; a light blue Harrington jacket as he sat studying on the steps of the Harvard Law School. When scraping for money by selling Christmas trees after breaking off with his family due to his father’s disapproval for his relationship with MacGraw, O’Neal dresses in a blue-collar flannel shirt and jeans (but still keeps his crimson-and-white stocking cap), but when he graduates and moves on to a sturdy Manhattan law firm, he dons a wardrobe similar to Kingsfield’s, albeit with a hipper, modish vibe, such as a double breasted navy suit and a dark purple polka dot tie. Nonetheless, he pulls on a white Irish fisherman’s crewneck as he skates for his fatally ill spouse (sorry, spoiler alert) at Wollman Rink in Central Park.

Upon reflection from our current perspective, it feels like “The Paper Chase” is a riff on “Love Story,” albeit with a more academically focused bent (one can only imagine the Hollywood pitch meeting: “It’s like ‘Love Story,’ but more studying!”). Both films shared the same general and specific settings (scenes inside Harvard Stadium for example), and both had the same coming-of-age themes, but the key dynamic in “The Paper Chase” is the relationship between Kingsfield and his students, most notably Hart, one that is both adversarial and a form of hard-line nurturing. The differences between the stations of teacher and students are made fast visually through their variations of Ivy Style apparel. Kingsfield, the blue-blood academic, was late-life professional. Hart, the earnest Midwesterner, often seen in a tan corduroy jacket, sometime with a black knit tie. But it was Franklin Ford III (played by Graham Beckel), Hart’s classmate and study group partner, who hits the mark best of all. His persona – fifth generation Harvard undergrad and self-identified genius who speaks in a more youthful and snarkier version of Kingsfield’s mid-Atlantic diction – is also aptly defined through his dress, which to my eye could slide seamlessly into the Autumn & Winter 2023 J. Press lookbook. In nearly every scene, Ford sports a bow tie (even while studying in his dorm room across the hall from Hart), often wearing an OCBD with a flapped left-side pocket. The star of his wardrobe is a tan odd jacket with red and black glen check, with somewhat wider lapels reflecting the cut of the time. Ford wears it over an OCBD with bow tie, over a crimson crew neck, over a black crew neck with bow tie, over an off-white Lacoste polo shirt and, most notably, with a matching cloth flat cap and OCBD when he and Hart execute a nocturnal break-in to a campus library. If John can allow, here are a few of my favorite images of the film’s other best supporting actor and his owner. If it didn’t come from either The Andover Shop or J. Press, I’ll eat my own matching glen check cloth flat cap. 

Though they are connected, “Love Story” is a film mostly about the past (remember, a dozen mostly pejorative “preppy” references) and how it can influence the present (since we learn that their future looms sad and bleak). “The Paper Chase” is mostly about the present, with slight regard to the past (as far as I could observe, not a single “preppy” reference) and how the present, through the focus on the teacher-student dynamic, can influence the future (e.g., how the students perform and then make their way in the world). And while much of “Love Story” takes place in and around educational activities on the Harvard campus, “The Paper Chase” really delves into the nuts and bolts of the education process, and this is much of what I love about it. For me, education is the family business. My mom was an early-childhood educator and helped launch one of the first-ever Head Start programs in Maine, and my dad coached and taught at the college and high school levels for his entire professional life. I’ve been in that same business since graduating from Bowdoin in 1986 (and yes, as a preppy, after a post-grad year at the Northfield Mount Hermon School – of course I still have my school tie), first at the private secondary school level and now as a tenured college professor. Early in the film, Kingsfield explains to his students that the elemental nature of contracts “constitutes the relationships of members in a given society.” From an Ivy Style perspective, this means that to me, classroom attire is part of that relationship; specifically, a signal of respect for the discipline and the learning process. Since I teach sport management, an applied business curriculum in a Bachelors of Science in Business Administration degree program, my choice of classroom attire – somewhere between Ford and Kingsfield, at least one suit a week – signals to my students that I take what I am doing seriously and with purpose, and I expect them to do the same. Additionally, I seek to model behavior, as my students need to understand that even in the increasingly casual dress code realities of the today’s world of work, certain professional situations will require them to dress in a certain way, something akin to what I wear to class every day. I make this point to my students directly, and when I do so, I also joke that the nature of academia is such that I could wear a bathrobe to class if I wanted to (cinched up in front of course). While I haven’t yet seen that specific attire choice from a colleague, most are dressed only slightly more formally than the students, while some dress as if they are one of them. Maybe that works for them, or maybe they just think it does. 

My choice of dress is of course intentional, and perhaps it is my personal affinity for the various duties, roles and plights of Hart, Kingsfield and Ford that draws me to the Ivy Style look, one that reflects and indeed celebrates an immiscible and long-established connection to the history of American higher education, a system that draws students from around the world to benefit from its form, content and the opportunities derived from it. Of course the wardrobe staffs for both films were attempting to plant us firmly in a specific time and place. I would argue that what they did, and how the actors played the roles in those clothes, inculcated a message far more timeless. Class dismissed. 

  • Dan Covell

14 Comments on "Dress rehearsal"

  1. 1. Excellent article, written the old fashioned way. To be a costume designer for a serious film set in the past would be a tough gig. Easy enough to fine photos, but…

    2. That tag line is so “OK, Boomer, last century”. It just wouldn’t sell today. Today we’re selling a “gratifying digital experience”.

    3. One of the three best education movies was To Sir, with Love.

    4. There was also Room 222 for TV. I never watched it. At the time I was only interested in seeing Reed and Malloy doing burnouts in a ‘71 Roadrunner.

    5. I was told LS was about B&H, and TPC was about WJC. Pretty sure they were joking.

    6. For JB: As DC mentions the Autumn & Winter 2023 J. Press Look-book, I’m wondering when I might expect to receive my JP F/W 23 Catalog? Looking forward to that.

    • I will ask!

    • I haven’t seen Paper Chase, but to your third point, I’ll agree, and maybe add Educating Rita, Mr. Holland’s Opus, Sister Act II, and maybe even PCU, just for kicks. Only Mr. Holland’s Opus makes a point of showcasing how student dress changed from the mid-’60s to the mid-’90s. And Michael Caine sports some very professorial tweeds and corduroys, if I remember correctly.

    • No love for Welcome Back Kotter? Kidding. Maybe.

    • The Nutty Professor?

      • Wait! Stop the presses! Professor Dave Jennings, played by Donald Sutherland in Animal House (also known as “whiskeydent Aces Scho-Pro”), is borderline Ivy in his corduroy suit. And of course, the entire movie is set at the well-respected Faber College (referred by someone as the 134th Ivy) and the characters are fine examples of the fraternity men and sorority sisters of that era.

  2. NaturalShoulder | September 25, 2023 at 10:01 pm |

    I have read most the posts on the site back to inception and this is one of my favorites. Wonderful detail and analysis of the films and their relationships to one another. Franklin Ford has the best wardrobe of any movie or television character and I agree that he could wear the same items today and not look our of place, save the wider lapels. II also look at the contrast between Ford’s attire and that of the Minnesota native, Hart who wears more of a rugged Ivy Would be interesting if they made a TPC 2 set 10 years later in the early 80s. Would Ford still have stuck with the Press look (I suspect yes) but if Hart made his way to NYC, he may have gone with Armani or the Gordon Gecko look. Also glad to hear you keep up sartorial standards in the classroom. Please do contribute more in the future.

  3. Richard E. Press | September 26, 2023 at 9:38 am |

    Letter perfect. Fighting fiercely for a Harvard sadly reminiscent of J. P. Marquand largely dismissed by the Cambridge litterati.

  4. Charlottesville | September 26, 2023 at 10:56 am |

    Thank you Dr. Covell for an excellent post, and a reminder of what a good film The Paper Chase was. I saw it in my teens, and it probably was one factor that made me decide to go to law school a decade later. And thank you also for setting an example of professional dress in your classroom. Judging from what I see locally, that is a rare thing indeed these days.

  5. Professor Kingsfields do exist. I attended a southeastern law school from 1964 to 1968 (to which I would not be admitted today as it has risen to a top 20 U.S. News ranking). Our first year contracts professor had an approach not dissimiar to that of Kingsfield – he made at least one student cry. This was back in the day when students stood to recite cases and you did not want to show up unprepared, which required submitting a note with an explanation of the unpreparedness. He would then read and comment, not postively, on the best of the day. A few yeaars after graduating he came to town for an alumni event and I was tasked with picking him up at the airport and serving as his driver. After the event we retired to a bar and after a number of bourbons I was able to express how much I had come to appreciate what he had put us through and he got teary talking about never wanting one of his students to be humiliated in court. I have watched The Paper Chase with relish many times and Dr. Covell’s excellent piece inspires me to watch it again.

  6. ErikFromMaine | September 26, 2023 at 10:53 pm |

    “…Andover Shop or J. Press, both of which would have been a cross-ice saucer pass from the movie’s multiple campus and Cambridge filming locations.”


    There’s only one Dan Covell. This was solid gold.

  7. Excellent article; really great.
    I read that the author taught briefly at Northfield Mount Hermon!
    What memories that brings back!! I went to summer school there (to make up a credit) in summer of 1981. A wonderful experience and, my Lord, were we ever preppy!!

  8. Excellent article on the Paper Chase. I attended law school at W&M while the show was on TV. Undoubtedly it was influential on how we dressed, though I think we were probably more casual in our everyday approach to dress. But moot courts and interviews were dominated by 3 button grey suits worn with white OCBDs. Up to now, I really wasn’t aware how I developed my own affinity for Ivy Style dress. But the Paper Chase and my peers in school are undoubtedly the source.

  9. Poison Ivy Leaguer | October 4, 2023 at 10:04 am |

    Guess who dressed Ryan O’Neal in Love Story. According to the credits, Botany 500.

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