David Caplan, the Charles M. Weis Professor of English at Ohio Wesleyan, has brought us several delightful articles recently. His latest is on the scholar who bequeathed to Tradsville the infamous anecdote about arrivistes at Princeton fraying their OCBDs with sandpaper in order to fit in with the Old Money preppies. Ivy Style is also excited to welcome Professor Caplan aboard as a regular columnist, with details coming soon.
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Students, colleagues, and friends all saw how seriously Edward Said took clothes. “Our usual ritual upon meeting after some time apart,” a friend remembers, “was for him to look me up and down and pass withering judgments on the condition of my shoes, and to berate my obstinate reluctance to engage a proper tailor.” Said insisted another friend, a colleague at Columbia University, buy a jacket he “didn’t need (and couldn’t afford) . . .. but I couldn’t withstand the force of Edward’s solicitude, and finally went and bought one. Black. Cashmere. Very nice. I wore it for ages.” In all these accounts, Said’s clothes set him apart. “[O]ne of the features that distinguished him from the rest of us,” a fellow seminar participant recalls, “was his immaculate dress sense: everything was meticulously chosen, down to the socks. It is almost impossible to visualize him any other way.”
Said loved clothes, both for themselves and the impression they made. Together with his patrician bearing, his meticulous dress made him look “every inch the professor” (as one of his students put it). ”I think it’s wrong. I’m nothing of a dandy,” Said’s only sartorial rival among his fellow professors, the French theorist Jacques Derrida, protested to a New York Times reporter. Said made no similar pretense of modesty. An interviewer asked him, “Is it possible to be a serious intellectual and a dandy? Is it possible to be a serious dandy and an intellectual?” Ever confident, Said answered: “Resoundingly yes, to both questions. I think only a serious intellectual can take an interest in appearances, because appearances are very important. And only somebody who is seriously interested in appearances can be a serious intellectual, and care about things of the mind. Because things of the mind are interesting only so far as they manifest themselves in attractive appearance.”
Said’s carefully crafted appearance expressed his determination to be taken seriously on all fronts. Like Derrida, an Algerian Jew, Said, a Christian Arab, never felt at home in the academy even as he ascended to the very top of the profession. “I realized I was to remain the outsider, no matter what I did,” Said observed after he was unfairly denied an academic honor as a student. Later slights reinforced the lesson. When the Irish literary theorist Terry Eagleton visited Said’s Columbia University class, Said’s appearance “deeply disappointed” Eagleton’s young son who accompanied him. Eagleton remembered, “I had my eldest son with me, who was nine years old at the time, and having heard that Said was an Arab, he was very disappointed on meeting him that he wasn’t accompanied by a camel and wasn’t wearing a head-dress.” I don’t think Said would have been surprised to learn that a don’s child expected an Ivy League professor to conduct his seminar “accompanied by a camel” and “wearing a head-dress” because he “was an Arab.” Said’s most famous book, Orientalism, confronted these kinds of myths: what he called Western culture’s “fantasies about the Other with a capital O.” Said’s competitively elegant clothes also pushed back against these stereotypes. His Savile Row outfits corrected anyone—adult or child—who applied those confusions to him.
As the title of his memoir notes, Said felt “out of place.” According to his account published four years before his death in 2003, Said was born and baptized in Jerusalem and lived in Cairo with his well-off family until he was sent to the States for his education at Mount Hermon School (1951-1953), Princeton University (B.A, 1957), and Harvard University (M.A., 1960, Ph.D., 1963). He found life at these elite institutions to be lonely and alienating. “My classmates [at Princeton] were or tried to be cut from the same cloth,” he remembered. “As at Mount Hermon, nearly everyone wore the same clothes (white bucks, chinos, button-down shirts, and tweed jackets), talked in much the same way, and did the same thing socially.” Railing against Princeton’s bicker system, he seized on an evocative detail:
Equally gruesome was the sight of those students who knew that by virtue of race, background, or manner, they could not make the club of their choice as they set out to transform themselves into WASP paragons, usually with pathetic results. This was symbolized by the junior and senior vogue for blue button-down shirts with frayed collars; I remember watching in astonishment as two classmates in an adjoining suite applied sandpaper to a pair of new blue button-down shirts, trying in a matter of minutes to produce the effect of the worn-out aristocratic shirt that might get them into a better club.
Sandpapered collars were not Said’s style. His collars were never frayed, not by repeated use and certainly not deliberately. Instead, his clothes remained meticulous and immaculate. Little imperfections upset him. To denounce musical encores, Said, a lover of classical performance and opera, chose a telling comparison, “Encores, in my opinion, are appalling, like food stains on a handsome suit.”
Said’s fashion sense grew more interesting as he approached middle age. When Said arrived at Columbia University in 1960s, his students saw him as a “Princeton Man,” polished and certainly not lacking in confidence. “At the time he was a brilliant, brash, and often egotistical young teacher with a reputation among students as arrogant,” recalled one undergraduate, who later became an acolyte and a friend. “Perhaps because of this, his course – which we jocularly called the ‘Ed Said Show’ — was also a must-attend event.” Early in his career, Said favored three-piece suits in muted patterns. A photo shows the bespectacled professor wearing one of them, accompanied with a white shirt, a lightly textured solid tie, and a barely visible pocket square. An uncharacteristic flaw, a slight collar gap, mars the understated effect.
A decade or so later, Said’s taste in clothes turned more daring. Named for the Duke of Windsor, Said shared his namesake’s love of fabrics and pattern. He deftly wore multiple patterns in one outfit, accented with bursts of color. He favored impeccably fitted odd jackets and trousers. The colors grew more vibrant and the plaids less restrained. Some outfits featured striking combinations. Said confidently wore a plaid jacket, paisley tie, and tattersall shirt, balancing the scale of each the patterns so they did not compete with each other. Even sophisticated observers could not help but remark on Said’s dandyish choices. When Said appeared on the Charlie Rose Show to express his despair over the Middle East’s grim prospects for peace, he wore a gun club check jacket (perhaps light and dark green, and orange-red: the colors are difficult to discern on the recording) and a patterned green tie. “Are there turtles on that tie?” Rose asked as the interview’s last question. “Yes,” Said chuckled.
Unlike the Duke of Windsor, Said did not rebel from the previous generation’s formality. When photographed, he rarely looked casual. Said favored a strongly padded shoulder to augment his slender frame. Like the Duke of Windsor, though, his impeccable style added to his powerful charisma.
As Said gained fame as a public intellectual, he turned into one of the academy’s most celebrated and controversial figures. He served as the president of the Modern Language Association and a member of the Palestinian National Council, the PLO’s ruling assembly. He ferociously assailed his critics. After the publication of Orientalism, Said and the leading scholar of the academic field he condemned, Bernard Lewis, filled pages upon pages of The New York Review of Books with charges and countercharges. “The tragedy of Mr. Said’s Orientalism is that it takes a genuine problem of real importance, and reduces it to the level of political polemic and personal abuse,” Lewis asserted. Said responded, “Lewis’s verbosity scarcely conceals both the ideological underpinnings of his position and his extraordinary capacity for getting everything wrong.” Said also launched ad hominem attacks against less prominent scholars who disagreed with him, ridiculing their professional accomplishments and impugning their sanity, even their humanity. “They let me get away with this because I dress so well,” Said was fond of saying, referring to his employer, Columbia University. Even when I disliked Said’s politics, I loved the way he dressed. — DAVID CAPLAN