Island Awakening


In the summer of 1979 I traveled from my home in Louisiana to visit a girlfriend who was summering in Nantucket. She was working as someone’s nanny and sharing a home with about 20 similarly employed youths. The girlfriend thing turned out to be a disappointment, but Nantucket was something to remember.

I had learned the prep look in New Orleans, where it was known to the locals as Uptown and on campus as preppy. Up to that point the look meant little more to me than welcome relief from the “Saturday Night Fever”-inspired styles of my early high school years. My own beginner’s wardrobe was quite simple: I spent 90 percent of my time in khakis, an oxford (usually in need of laundering), and Top-Siders. Many of my friends had clothing that showed true devotion to the style, but I’m not sure I even noticed. And getting my sober ass down to Perlis to stock up on the goods was not a high priority.

The trip to Nantucket changed all that. The so-called girlfriend was working days, so I had plenty of time to look around the island, and I liked what I saw. I liked the red pants. I bought some. I liked the way everyone looked like they had just gotten off their sailboat. My friends in New Orleans were more likely to look like they had just returned from a fishing trip, which is fine, but didn’t capture my imagination in quite the same way.

Even though the signs had always been there, I needed to break away from my limited view of campus and fraternity life to understand that the look was more than I knew.

The following spring I made my way to Louisville for Kentucky Derby, where I would once again experience the style in a potent form. Only after experiencing Nantucket and Louisville did I begin to understand that there was much more to this look that I had so casually and carelessly co-opted.

I’ve never been back to Nantucket, though I wouldn’t pass up the chance to go again. I’d be very surprised if it were anything like I remember. It was quaint in a way that is hard to imagine now.

And honestly, I’m not sure I want my memories tampered with anyway. — LONGWING

24 Comments on "Island Awakening"

  1. It’s pretty much still the same. A little more commercialized, but nothing close to what’s happened to Martha’s Vineyard or the Hamptons. Still very quaint, still very unique.

    Side note: I am currently on Nantucket.

  2. Christian | June 12, 2009 at 2:26 pm |

    Chase, you should send us some candid, Sartorialist-style shots of the locals.

  3. There once was a man from Nantucket….how does the rest of that go?
    I also enjoyed Nantucket Nectars but haven’t seen them in stores in ages

  4. I wish I understood how or even why those trips away from home when we’re young have such a lasting impact. Great story.

  5. Christian | June 12, 2009 at 9:37 pm |

    Not just the trips we take during our coming-of-age, but the music we listen to at the time.

    They say the reason why no music moves us as powerfully as the music we associate with our youth is not mere nostalgia for that time in our lives. It’s because we had such hormones raging at that time that we were extra sensitive to the power of music. If you agree with Schopenhauer that music is the most powerful art form because it expresses the will directly, rather than in representations as with novels and paintings, then it makes perfect sense.

    The music we listened to during adolescence was nothing less than the sound of our own raging hormones.

  6. Chase – That is good news. I would love to get there again someday. I actually have a friend with a house on Block Island so a trip there seems a bit more likely at this point.

    Toad – When I travelled as a young guy, for some reason it was important to me not to look like a tourist. This was certainly rooted in some insecurities but it lead to me constantly aping the mannerisms of the locals. Now I don’t care about looking like a tourist so I tend to pay a less attention to these things.

    CC – Thanks for my day in the sun, even if not on the beach.

  7. “I’d be very surprised if it were anything like I remember. It was quaint in a way that is hard to imagine now. And honestly, I’m not sure I want my memories tampered with anyway.”

    Sentiments like that and phrases such as “you can’t go home again” and “the past is a foreign country” ring true, at least regarding man made environments. What made the experience special was the people – you as well as others – and they’ll never be the same again so the place is never the same.

  8. Great Post!

    Nantucket——I went to Nantucket in 2006 (I was then age 18) and it really did open my eyes as far as style. It really had a lot of tradition- apparent from the moment we left the cape and saw the backyard where the Kennedy’s used to play touch football.

    I love everything about the place which I now sometimes call ‘Defender Island’ because half of the cars there are Land Rover Defenders, and have never left the island. They have the Nantucket parking stickers all across the bumpers dating back decades. I also remember the signs everywhere that said “GUT FISH, NOT HOUSES.” If you want to rebuild or renovate a house you are supposed to use any boards from the old house that are still in usable condition.

    In town there was a standing dress code that called for absolutely no beach attire. There were no fast food restaurants. The Ralph Lauren store was great- flagship but in island styling, and carried the entire Wimbledon line.

    I’m dying to go back!

    Louisville- One of my favorite cities. (I live in Bloomington, IN though) I have a friend who works at Brown-Forman and lives down there. There are definitely some preppy areas- Frankfort Ave, The Highlands.

  9. I have great memories of Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard – we used to make at least one trip a year to Nantucket when I was in high school and living in Bass River, MA. Martha’s Vineyard is probably much less unchanged – still a lot of farming and fishing for profit.

    If you’d like to get a “feel” for the Vineyard – read some of Philip Craig’s mystery novels, most of which have Vineyard in the title. Mr. Craig died a couple of years ago – believed to be a most unmaterialistic person. I enjoyed his books, and his recipes for local seafood – and a great martini.

  10. Longwing….Brilliant little story. LFG first walked during a Nantucket vacation.

  11. While the story is about Nantucket, the fact is that in 1979 I was a college student in Uptown New Orleans discovering button down shirts and adopting that “preppy” look. Although Louisiana and Nantucket are far from one another, my journey was a bit longer since I was going all the way from Gretna, Louisiana to Uptown New Orleans. Thank you for reminding me of Perlis, breaking in Top Siders and pretty much just reminding me of that moment in my life.

  12. Hey Ed, Thanks for speaking up. I may have spilt beer on you over at Fat Harry’s. I’m pretty sure I spilt beer on everyone.

  13. Trevor Jones | March 21, 2019 at 12:59 pm |

    Nice post. Interesting to see how your personal style has been influenced by two bastions of prep — northeast and south — but each being so distinct. Also, a great reminder that there’s SO much more to the style than just button-downs, tweeds and khakis. Color is a great way to keep things fun, and nothing is more classic than Nantucket reds. On a sidenote, happy first day of spring! Breaking out the color myself, four panel pants today to ring in the season. Great story here, Longwing.

  14. Let’s all say thank you to Walter Beinecke, Jr.

  15. “It was quaint in a way that is hard to imagine now.“

    Very little about the islands can be described as quaint. New Money is brash, loud, and in-your-face.

  16. Charles Hammersmith | March 21, 2019 at 3:15 pm |

    So many shades of khaki are available in chinos that I feel no need whatsoever to try “red” trousers.

  17. Man, I love reds but they’re a tough sell here in rural Idaho.

  18. I think most versions of it look awful.

  19. Charlottesville | March 22, 2019 at 10:45 am |

    Thanks for the reminder that it is the season for reds and a navy blazer. Looking forward to getting them out of the closet over the weekend.

  20. Michael Brady | March 22, 2019 at 11:22 am |

    Really enjoyed the Nantucket piece. I even forwarded the link to my daughter in Boston, who can relate to what you wrote from both her personal experience and the sensibility for these things that she shares with me.

  21. Great, elegiac piece. My first exposure to New England back in the 80s was less glamorous (Northfield, Mass.) but equally memorable.

  22. Evan Everhart | March 22, 2019 at 1:03 pm |

    Thanks for the reminiscences Longwing! Yr memories, and yr sharing of them are much appreciated by me, and I see many others as well.

    Having lived mostly around the same area (though intermittently amidst travels and family visits for shorter periods), this idea of remembrance, and the fear or even pain of disillusionment of the memories and moments treasured during a formative period or periods is very poignant and powerful.

    Honestly, I think that it is that imprimatur, that powerful captivation of what is “correct” in whatever literal or philosophical or contextual way, from our collective subconscious youth which has been behind the survival of our style, and it’s dissolution – during the so-called cultural revolution with this idea that the various generations are so disparate from each other – which has caused so much cultural dissonance over the past 50 odd years or so.

    Anyway, thanks for writing! I really appreciate the mental journey which you’ve opened a door onto, as an enhancement upon an ongoing mental theme in my own meditations on existence. 🙂

  23. White Pinpoint | March 23, 2019 at 1:04 am |

    Rural Idaho is not the only place that pink trousers aren’t de rigueur.
    Charles Hammersmith,
    Chinos are about understatement. Pink trousers are not.

  24. WP, I said I liked them, I didn’t say I wore them. ;o)
    I pretty much wear khakis exclusively (stone and Brit tan).
    If I lived in NE, I’d reconsider.

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