Southern Charm?: A Dispatch From The Front Lines Of Campus Life

Recently I again found myself swimming in a sea of sneakers and t-shirts that cost unholy sums. You may be thinking I was pillaging a Neiman Marcus Last Call in the wake of its financial woes, but you would incorrect. In fact I was reacquainting myself with the college campus I call my own as I entered my junior year.

My university is a liberal arts institution in the South whose students once enjoyed attending polo games on Saturdays and where the old joke was that players took a pay cut when they went to the NFL. Now the school has been overrun with business majors and engineers replete with all the trappings of the meritocratic elite. I am writing this dispatch to give you an idea about the state of the sartorial union, which I’m certain the readership of this site has been keenly aware of since 1968.

The institution I call home was once a bastion of Southern charm, where Trad style ruled the day and conservatism characterized life in all its facets. The 1980s defined this institution, and I’m convinced that many aspects of this place have never really left that decade. The school is synonymous with preppy WASPs driving BMWs around the campus for four years only to get shuffled off to some investment bank or consultancy firm to slave away in order to afford all the same luxuries their parents provided. As one of the last people on this campus who still actually appears mildly preppy in some regards, this place makes for an excellent case study in fashion and class.

As you can probably infer, conspicuous consumption rules the day here, and there is nowhere that is more apparent than in fashion. The demographics of this place are those that would have embraced Ivy and Trad styles during their midcentury zenith, and then subsequently adopted Preppy styles as a further evolution of the general disposition. The common title of the style that carries forth the same general silhouette of the great midcentury styles — without the refinement and class that accompanied them — is “frat.” Make no mistake, the individuals I go to school with occupy a very rarified rung in the social ladder, yet that has no bearing on taste or comportment. Frat as a general style here is an odd mix of athletic implements, such as sweatpants, combined with English staples, such as Barbour jackets. Furthermore, what counts for the better dressed cohort here is typically synthetic polo shirts by Peter Millar, paired with chinos or Wranglers. Shirts are usually untucked, to affect the regular disposition of leisurely dishabille. 

Athleisure has thoroughly infected all things throughout the culture, and it is especially apparent here. The female student population is almost invariably clad in LuluLemon leggings and sorority shirts. Formality rears its head on campus when interviewers descend promising six-figure salaries and kombucha on tap. Subsequently, the men don the standard regalia of the meritocratic strivers: a navy blue suit (two-button and notch-lapeled of course), white spread collar shirt (button-downs are not considered formal enough), some sort of mundane tie, and either black or brown captoes. The self-styled rakes of campus model themselves after Gordon Gekko and up the ante with Gucci loafers and pinstripes, but very few have the panache, sophistication, and humor to not come off as pompous morons.

Hairstyles are another realm that seemed to have gotten lost in the Reaganite era, with most guys looking like the preppy villains from a John Hughes film. I grew out my hair into a style reminiscent of Christian Bale’s Patrick Bateman in “American Psycho,” but eventually it left me looking like an East German terrorist. Ivy’s trademark short hairstyles have definitely been discarded by most of the men here.

Many of the upperclassmen involved in specialized programs within the business school have adopted the new high finance/Silicon Valley venture capitalist uniform of Patagonia vests paired with golf shirts and Gucci loafers to denote preeminence among their peers. The Gucci loafer is the ultimate shoe of the current regime because it fits perfectly into the realm of conspicuous consumption whilst still appearing refined. There is no shoe to my knowledge that the mere sound it produces from walking (the bit loafer jingle) conveys money. Of course, there are various others running around in thousand-dollar sweatshirts and sneakers that cost more than a Rolex, but nothing screams taste more than a Gildan shirt that costs as much as the average COVID stimulus check.

As for me, I happen to have to privilege of being fraternal brothers with some of the best dressed men on campus, and it almost seems like we all just naturally ended up in the same place together. While I certainly am not a doctrinaire member of Ivy Style’s readership, I have grown to appreciate the aspects of the style more and more. Ultimately few here are even still aware of the importance of the Midcentury American styles, and what few things they do recognize they merely call “preppy” or “frat” in a feeble attempt to articulate thoughts on schools of style we know to be deeply nuanced and intricate.

The greatest thing missing for me is not merely the clothes, but rather the disposition of refinement I observed in my readings that seemed to characterize the places that the styles inhabited. In a way, things such as style allow us to carry forth the ideas that produced the essence that tied it all together. — CANON HILL

Image via Thrift Store Preppy

36 Comments on "Southern Charm?: A Dispatch From The Front Lines Of Campus Life"

  1. So other than bad style and banking, what else is going on at SMU these days?

  2. Braughh, not much has changed at SMU since the days of keggers, backwards-facing ball caps, and overusing the words “awesome,” “totally,” and “like.”

  3. I wish there was a ‘smack my head’ emoticon here, so in its place:

    I’d like to know the author’s major, since he may have an issue with engineers and such.

  4. Actually, I’d really like to see a recent photo of the author. Just because.

  5. Mitchell
    There’s a lot of SMU evidence: Wranglers, polo back in the day, paid-off football players a little later, and a respectable banking program for a long time.

  6. They’re still playing polo at SMU:

  7. Whiskeydent- I think you may be on to something. The Pony Express, Cardinal Puff’s, The Rio Room, Highland Park Village. Sounds like Peruna-ville to me!

  8. Too warm down there for wool challis, heavy oxford, tweed, and flannel –how can Ivy survive?

    I bet you’d see more tweed, OCBDs, and penny loafers at Bard than SMU. Now that the style has become rare (even peculiar), it’s the bailiwick of eccentric fogeys, who gather at places where that identity is not only welcome, but affirmed. They range from the high church anglican (Sewanee) to traditionalist (HSC) to progressive/SJW (Wesleyan). What they all have in common is a salute to the rare bird.

    Schools like SMU, including most large Southern state schools, specialize in a bland ubiquity. The only nods to Ivy are VV, the polo shirt, and the occasional pair of khakis. And maybe a 2- button Brooks Brothers Outlet blue blazer for special occasions.

  9. related aside: southerners surely do like their spread collar dress shirts. True of white collar American in general, but the demise of the OCBD among Southern prep school types is worthy of note.

  10. S.E.- You are correct about it being too warm in the south to get much wear out of tweeds, flannels, Shaggy Dogs, etc. Every year about this time I’m tempted to spring for a new tweed sport coat, but then I come to my senses and remind myself that it doesn’t make much sense to spend $900 for something I might wear a half dozen times at most. On the other hand, come January-February when the folks up north are shoveling snow and it’s 55 with clear sunny skies in Texas, I’m a pretty happy trad.

  11. Wow. This was a funny and interesting read, though not for the reasons young Mr. Hill intended.

    Willing to wager that the contempt Mr. Hill shows for his fellow students at his (moderately well-regarded) university goes both ways.

  12. john carlos
    Don’t think of a new tweed as just a sport coat. Instead, it’s also a great replacement for a dull Baracuta or barn jacket. It’s far more versatile and provides multiple ways to achieve that “purposely nonchalant” goal some guy wrote about. Also, I think those beautiful Magee tweeds at J. Press and O’Connells are lighter than a Harris.

    Is that a good enough rationalization?

  13. John Carlos – it was overcast and in low 60s early this morning in Fort Worth so I donned a tweed jacket for the first time this season and it felt great. Paired it with a blue OCBD and club tie. Something about the combination is very pleasing to me and more comfortable than a suit. Unfortunately going to be back in 80s most of the rest of the week.

  14. Whiskeydent, Natural Shoulder- Well, Whiskeydent it doesn’t take much to convince me. Yes, I’ve been looking at both Press and O’Connell’s at their sport coats. A great lineup. May have to reconsider. NS, yes the “cool weather ” arrived in SA finally. A tweed, ocbd, and a club is more comfortable to me than a suit. I believe I’m gonna have to consider a Magee. Is it truly lighter than a Harris

  15. Whiskeydent- Do you wear a tweed w/o a tie? I’ve been trying to convince myself to do that. I like the look on others but I’ve never done it myself on a regular basis.

  16. john carlos
    Absolutely! I don’t wear a tie often, but I still wear tweed with tailored pants, chinos and even jeans for a little RL thing. Gasp! There might even be ropers on my feet with the latter two.

    I admit it’s a bit of a Texas real estate developer look, but screw it.

  17. NaturalShoulder | September 29, 2020 at 8:25 am | Reply

    John Carlos – I do believe a Magee is lighter than a Harris. I wear mine without a tie and as Whiskeydent mentioned it can be worn in place of a barn jacket or Barbour.

  18. Agree with Berkeley Breathes: I’m no William Styron or anything, and I admire when young people actually put forth some effort, but this post was a tough one to get through.

  19. As unoriginal as this post was, I’m with Berkeley and Paul. That said, poor grammar and flat prose aside, his youthful arrogance is something that many of us likely shared at his age. In fact, on the similarly themed (but much maligned) website Salt Water New England today, the post to readers asks:

    “How many of your readers have been called a snob? Was it intended as a compliment or insult, and was it received as a compliment or insult?

    I am called a snob often enough and never take offense. (I am a conservative looking (if not thinking) New England WASP and I often wonder if that alone is enough for some.)”

    Some people apparently never grow out of that youthful mindset!

  20. @ JimF: that’s why I said that I admire this young guy for trying – effort counts.

    But the best lesson that time and experience can teach a writer is that ‘brevity is next to godliness’: the real work in writing is not putting words on the page, but in then aggressively removing lots of them!

  21. @Paul, youthful arrogance is useful when backed up with substance. The flat prose, poor grammar, middling university, and contempt for others spoil the cocktail.

    SWNE and the author of this piece may be called snobs, as they are not what they profess to be. No need for snobbery if “one” is authentic, to use Muffy’s phraseology.

  22. Jim F,
    “a conservative looking (if not thinking) New England WASP”. Is there any other kind?
    Yep. Unfortunately, that is how “they” teach. If the teacher assigns a 5-page paper, turn in 6 and set the curve. Editing is the real work. He’ll get there.
    Stick with it, Canon. That photo is early 80s, no?

  23. Charlottesville | September 29, 2020 at 2:44 pm | Reply

    UVA and W&L certainly have the southern version of preppy/ivy-style pedigree, and yet neither one shows much evidence of that today, beyond the occasional navy blazer (2-button and probably darted unless purchased at Eljo’s), Vineyard Vines tie, OCBD and khakis, as described by S.E. above. Penny loafers and Bean boots are also still fairly common in Charlottesville, and the ubiquity of Barbours is making me self-conscious about wearing mine (bought on a trip to England 30 years ago) lest someone think I am trying to be fashionable. However, one look at the rest of me should dispel that thought.

    John Carlos – I hope you give in to the tweed urge. As I think we have discussed before, the wool/silk/linen blend tweeds can be nice when Harris would be too much. Nevertheless, that Magee Donegal Mist blend of wool, mohair and cashmere is hard to beat, and lighter than the usual Harris tweeds. Brooks used to carry a lighter all-wool tweed they called Brookstweed, but unless you find one on eBay, those days are long gone.

  24. Charlottesville- I’m convinced! Going to check out Press tonight. Didn’t realize Magee is lighter in weight than a Harris. The only tweeds I own I purchased at the Ben Silver warehouse sale for half price.

  25. I visited my alma mater on Saturday briefly and I submit that we have more weighty concerns than polo match or no polo match. There were large posters littered ALL OVER the beautiful campus threatening students not in compliance with social distancing rules. Especially mask wearing. These folks are mightily concerned with masks, aren’t they?

    It was grotesque and perverse. I suspect that Ted Sandyman is in charge there.

  26. Doing your best to avoid being sued into oblivion also helps an organization such as a college or university to succeed.

  27. John Carlos – Just to be clear, the Magee tweed that I have from J. Press is lighter than the Harris tweeds I own, but it is not summer weight. I think it will be very nice in the 50s and low 60s, but it is still too warm for most of the year in San Antonio. That being said, they are beautiful sport coats.

  28. Charlottesville- That’s why I’m torn. Thanks for your input.

  29. Charlottesville- Thanks for the tip. I’ve never purchased anything, much less shopped on eBay. Not sure why, but I will definitely keep it in mind. What is your experience with eBay?

  30. Charlottesville | September 30, 2020 at 5:22 pm | Reply

    John Carlos – I was skeptical at first as well, but have been very pleased with buying J. Press and classic Brooks items on eBay.

    I know my sizes for each maker, know the labels, and can usually date the item to within a few years. I look carefully at the photos to see the condition, and e-mail the seller with questions if I have any. Sellers are usually very responsive and willing to measure an item, confirm sizes, send pictures of labels, etc.

    I would say that it is an especially good source for tweeds and other winter fabrics which, generally being more hard wearing than summery clothing, are relatively common in near-new condition, even if several years old. Worth a look with a search of your size and a maker you like (e.g., “J. Press, 40 R”). You may get lucky, especially if you check back periodically. It took a year or more, but I have been able to replace 2 favorite Brooks Brothers sport coats with the identical items, in like-new condition despite being 20 years old or more.

    Good hunting!

  31. Charlottesville- Thanks for the valuable advice. I’m a perfect 40R. Used to be a size or two larger. Think I’ve shrunk with age. 71 in about two and a half weeks.

  32. Charlottesville | October 1, 2020 at 9:23 am | Reply

    John Carlos – Happy Birthday!

  33. Charlottesville- Many thanks!

  34. The young fellow who wrote this seems to have more ideas than will fit in a few paragraphs. He may be a bit of a snob, too, but I applaud his other instincts. I went to college in the other end of the South (Wofford, Spartanburg, SC) and am pleased that many students still go to football games in blazers, khakis and ties or skirts, dresses, and pearls. Much of the South, Sewanee or Sparkle City, gets chilly in the Winter and might see occasional snow. Wool is appropriate when the high temperature is 50F.

    But, I did reflect on what I’ve seen since. In graduate school at Ohio and Pitt in the 90s, it seemed the stylish students favored hippie, artsy, or goth dress. Some of them pulled it off well. More people settled into the anonymous slobbery of today and the recent past.

    After some time working in colleges, fate brought me back to Maine to teach public middle and high school students in sort of affluent communities. Other teachers have invited me to their classrooms to teach students to tie neckwear and dress for a job interview. Kids complement me on the way I dress. “That’s a nice suit, Mr. H,” one will say. With a breaking heart, I explain it’s a blazer, not a suit. I have steered a few of them toward Lands’ End as an affordable starter for traditional American clothing.

    Dressing nicely is more than pride and snobbery, it is a sign of respect for the people one encounters.

  35. What an amazing piece of writing. Thank you for that.

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