At some point in the 1980s, I was working in Manhattan and overheard a conversation between two fellows from another borough discussing one of my business associates, whose unlikely given name was Win, possibly short for Winston.
“Win? Who knows anybody named Win?” asked the first. The other guy noted that he had discovered this new category of humanity called “Protestants,” whose folkways, including naming conventions, apparently differed from his own and those of his companion. This information was received with good humor, but some puzzlement. “I know Cath’lics and I know Jews, but [WTF] are Protestants?” Excellent question. Let’s take a stab at answering it. This shouldn’t take long.
As most people know, 500 years ago this year Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the door of All Saints Church in Wittenberg and began the Protestant Reformation. Although, according to Eric Metaxas, writing in The Wall Street Journal, Luther probably did not actually post his theses on that night of October 31, 1517. It may have been at any time up to a month or so later. And he may have just handed them to the sexton or someone to post, among the other humdrum writings that were regularly tacked to the church door for public notice “next to a flyer for a missing cat,” as Mr. Metaxas puts it. And he may have used paste rather than nails, which is quieter and not very dramatic. Still, the important thing to keep in mind is that up until 500 years ago, there were no Protestants, and therefore no WASPs with names like “Win.”
I told you this wouldn’t take long.
But that can’t be the whole story. For starters, Wittenberg is in Germany, isn’t it? Germany may have Saxons, but I don’t think they have Anglo-Saxons. You have to go to England to find those. So I suppose that WASPs didn’t come along at least until Henry VIII wanted to get a divorce, arguably history’s least auspicious beginning for a church. Maybe the appearance of the first WASPs dates to the 1534 Act of Supremacy, which separated the English church from Rome. Or to Henry’s excommunication by the Pope. Or possibly a decade or two later with the revised Book of Common Prayer, when Thomas Cranmer crammed an extra dollop of Reform theology into the new English liturgy. But then there was that nasty back-and-forth episode involving Queen Mary, which didn’t end so well for poor Bishop Cranmer. At least by the time of Queen Elizabeth, the first one that is, I think most Anglo-Saxons were more or less Protestant. I mean that’s why they call it the Anglican Church, right?
Okay. Let’s begin again. Glossing over a few dates here and there, at least we can agree that without Martin Luther in Germany and some messy stuff in England, at some point around 500 years ago, more or less, portions of which may admittedly have been a bit gruesome and involved some unsavory characters interspersed among the saints, we would not have Protestants in England, where Anglo-Saxons come from. There. And without Protestants in England there would be no Protestants in New England. And without Protestants in New England, there would be no WASPs. And without WASPs, there would be no hands permanently grafted to G&Ts, no shirts with collars so floppy that they have to be held down with buttons, no ties emblazoned with colorful pictures of edible waterfowl, and no wide-wale corduroys embroidered with crossed tennis rackets. And then where would we all be?
So let us now contemplate the WASP wardrobe, partially summarized as follows in “Preppies: The Last Upper Class?” by Nelson W. Aldrich, Jr. in the January 1979 issue of the Atlantic Monthly:
LL Bean boots, Top-Sider moccasins, tasseled loafers; pure wool socks, black silk socks, no socks; baggy chinos, baggy brick-red or lime or yellow or pink or Pulitzer trousers, baggy Brooks Brothers trousers, baggy boxer underpants; shirts of blue, pink, yellow, or striped Oxford, sometimes buttoned down, some made for a collar pin, usually from Brooks or J. Press or The [name of town or college] Shop; jackets of tweed, corduroy, poplin, seersucker with padless shoulders, a loose fit around the waist, and (if tweed) a muddy pattern…
Who could ask for more? So let us give thanks for the great WASP wardrobe and the WASPs who wore it. Like William F. Buckley, Jr., Jack Kennedy, Jacobi Press, Ralph Lauren and… wait a second. None of them are actually WASPs. How about Lisa Birnbach, author of The Official Preppy Handbook? No? Hmmm. Prince Charles maybe? Who could be more white, Anglo Saxon and Protestant than the Prince of Wales? I mean, have you seen him? Unfortunately, it looks like the Windsors changed their name from Saxe-Coburg and Gotha in 1917 to something, well, a little less German. Fair enough. Not the first immigrants to change the family name to pass among the locals. There’s a good chap. Let’s not mention it again.
There must be some real WASPs somewhere. In browsing through my bottomless supply of useless ephemera, I come across an Ivy League heyday era Holiday magazine, dated December 1956. In it is an article by John Knowles about Phillips Exeter Academy, styled, “A Naturally Superior School.” This should be good. Who could be more WASPy than John “A Separate Peace” Knowles and what spot on Earth could be preppier than Exeter? And the phrase “naturally superior” just drips with WASPy privilege and condescension. I can almost see him peering at me over the top of a pair of tortoiseshell half-glasses as I nervously shift my weight from one cordovan loafer to the other and wonder if he can tell I attended a public high school. The text notes the ubiquitous “gray flannels or chino trousers with odd jackets” that is practically a uniform for the students. The pictures show tweedy teens in ties strolling through a leafy, redbrick simulacrum of Eton and Harrow. Yeah! That’s what I’m talking about. And yet, alongside names like Plimpton, Trafton, Saltonstall, and John Foster Dulles appear Antonio Olivieri and Joung Won Kim.
Well, what else does my ancient Holiday have to offer? This looks promising: “South Carolina” by William Francis Guess. “Guess” sounds pretty darn WASPy, doesn’t it? And spelling out all three names is only half a shade less preppy than first name, two middle initials, last name and a Roman numeral. Mr. Guess shares with us his impressions of that lovely southern state from the grand houses of Charleston on the coast, west to the Blue Ridge Mountains, and concludes that — this must be a misprint. He appears to say that the midcentury cotton factory workers of Greenville comprise “the purest Anglo-Saxon stock in the world.” Salt of the Earth and all that, but I’m not sure that a Free Will Baptist mill hand in Appalachia is what most of us think of when someone says WASP. They may have made oxford cloth, but I doubt many of them wore repp ties and navy blazers while they were doing it. Still, I suppose, technically speaking, he’s right. After all, our WASPy old friend Mr. Knowles was born in West Virginia coal country.
So returning to clothes, if I may, to be scrupulously honest, madras and seersucker originated in India and “khaki” is an Indian word for dirt-colored; Shetland sweaters and Harris Tweed are Scottish; Weejuns came from Norway; and I don’t see how WASPS can claim Irish Poplin either. Even gin started in Holland. I’m an Episcopalian and regularly wear most of the stuff on Mr. Aldrich’s list, but my father’s first American ancestor, no doubt having gotten wind of what happened to the unfortunate Mr. Cranmer, legged it from Spain to get away from the Inquisition and wound up in New Amsterdam. Possibly, he picked up some gin in Old Amsterdam on the way, so that is at least arguably WASPy. And my Virginia mother’s antecedents came from Germany to try to scratch out a living in what was then sovereign English territory. Just like Prince Charles’ folks, now that I think about it.
It turns out that this is not as easy as I thought it would be. What does the P in WASP stand for anyway? Maybe Metaxas knows something. He writes, “Luther opened the door for the creation of thousands of new churches under dozens of denominations, Lutheran among them. In the coming centuries, this attitude would help elevate the concepts of religious pluralism, tolerance, democracy and freedom.”
Pluralism, tolerance, democracy and freedom. I know there is more to it, but that doesn’t sound so bad. So thank you, Martin Luther, Henry Tudor, and St. Thomas Cranmer. Thank you Mr. Knowles, Mr. Plimpton, Mr. Saltonstall and all of those Carolina mill hands. And also thank you Messrs. Windsor, Buckley, Kennedy, Press, Lauren, Olivieri and Kim, Ms. Birnbach, Mom, Dad and the rest of us WASPs by adoption. Maybe we can all relish our WASP heritage, wherever it, and we, actually come from. Let’s toast to that. Mine’s a large G&T. — CHARLOTESVILLE