Authenticity, Lyford Cay & The Prole Gape

January 31, 2012

Yesterday’s post, an article concerning the fears of decline surrounding an influx of vulgarity to the staid Bahamas enclave of Lyford Cay, occasioned today’s rig, a belated memorial to William F. Buckley, Jr., in which his death is described as an ascendancy to that great Lyford Cay Club in the sky.  

When William F. Buckley Jr. went to the great Lyford Cay Club in the sky a year ago today, an era of authentic WASPy style died with him. If you want to get technical about it, Buckley wasn’t really a WASP (because he was Catholic, not Protestant), and his wasn’t so much style as anti-style, but in the decades when he rose to prominence as a conservative provocateur par excellence, such distinctions waned in importance.

“Being a WASP has nothing to do with religion or money,” author Susanna Salk declared last year in her preppy-stuffed picture book A Privileged Life: Celebrating WASP Style. [Editor’s Note: Sure, in the same way driving a car has nothing to do with being licensed.] Rather, she said, it’s all about getting the look right. Whether Buckley would have agreed is debatable, but there he was on page 84, clutching a copy of God and Man at Yale, his button-down rumpled and repp tie askew, a picture of pure prep imperfection.

Old clothes “advertise how much of conventional dignity [the upper classes] can afford to throw away,” author Paul Fussell noted in Class: A Guide Through the American Status System. “The wearing of clothes excessively new or excessively neat and clean suggests that your social circumstances are not entirely secure.” That was, of course, never a problem for Buckley, whose “pleasantly disheveled and informal” look (as described by protégé Gary Wills) was rivaled only by that of his fellow patrician and friend, George Plimpton.

That’s not to say Buckley’s clothes weren’t well made. Fussell points to an episode of Mr. Buckley’s long-running show Firing Line, in which he interviewed an oafish Texan of decidedly humbler origins. The Texan’s jacket collar “gaped open a full two inches,” Fussell writes. “Buckley’s collar, of course, clung tightly to his neck and shoulder, turn and bow and bob as he might.” His genteel shabbiness, thankfully, did not extend to an inclusion of “prole gape.”

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WFB: Fads Be Damned.

July 29, 2011

Excerpted piratically, but gratefully, from National Review:

(From a question and answer booklet issued by The Alumni Council of Princeton University, June 1, 1958.)

QUESTION: Why don’t Princeton undergraduates look as glossy as they used to? Is it because the admissions people frown on well dressed, social-looking young men?

ANSWER: Certainly not. Since the war, Princeton undergraduates, like those in other colleges, have gone out of their way to wear beat-up clothes. It’s a fad the GI’s started.

If I had been permitted to butt in with the next question, I’d have asked, “What would you do if the next fad called on the students to go about naked?” The answer would presumably have been as evasive as the first, probably something like, “My dear sir, there are laws against indecent exposure.” To be sure, and there are none against wearing sweat shirts in a venerable university eating hall, or in a classroom where the lecture that morning may be on the age of elegance; none, even, governing dress in fraternity houses where, it is commonly supposed, it is the elite who meet to eat. The reason? Rules affecting a student’s dress are . . .

But let me relate an experience. At Yale, ten years ago, there gadded about a distinguished professor of philosophy with a mania for equalitarianism. Notwithstanding, he was himself a man of personal taste, of imposing countenance and erect bearing, and one day he decided it would be reasonable to expect members of his college (undergraduate Yale is quartered in ten colleges) to come to dinner at the college dining hall dressed in coat and tie. Accordingly, he laid down the edict. Hours later, a student had summoned fellow members of the college student council in extraordinary session to devise appropriate means of resisting the act of tyranny. In due course the president of the council appeared before the guileless master and announced that it was the consensus of the student council that the ordinance he had passed was undemocratic. The master did not reply (such a reply would not have occurred to him, even as a lascivious possibility) “Tell the student council to go—eat democratically some place else.” No, our professor of Philosophy simply rescinded his order, aghast at the revelation that, albeit subconsciously, he had entertained an Undemocratic Thought.

It is the knout of Democracy that is most generally used to flail those who believe the administrators of a college are entitled to specify, nay should specify, norms of undergraduate dress. The economic argument, implausible though it increasingly becomes, is still widely used. It holds that coats and ties are expensive, that therefore the uniform requirement that they be worn daily, and hence worn out prematurely, is a form of regressive taxation. The argument is unrealistic because in point of fact ties do not cost very much, and coats made out of a tough material will outlive even a pauper’s inclination to wear them.

It is something else, really, that prevents the deans and masters from acting. They fear, in an age of permissiveness, the howl of protest. The dean of the Graduate School at Yale said recently, “The attire of students is incredibly sloppy. It would be fine if we could get away with a rule requiring ties at all meals. A good thing to press for in my retiring years.”

Must we wait until the Dean retires? Let us hope not. Meanwhile, I make a few observations. The first: Does not insistence on a minimal standard of dress reflect a decent respect for the opinions of mankind? The same community that insists that one pay at least a procedural respect to the opinions of ideological aberrants can hardly be expected to shrink from deferring to society on the appropriate means of clothing one’s nakedness. Even in the world of getting and spending, for whose coarseness a considerable contempt is stimulated in many colleges and campuses, coat-and-tie is a prerequisite to participation. The Beats who indulge their sloppiness as a symbol of their individualism can take the measure of their hypocrisy by reflecting on their imminent surrender — effective on the day they graduate into the world of commerce in which, almost to a man, they fully intend to spend their lives. The young graduate who informs Merrill Lynch, Pierce, Fenner and Beane that to require coat and tie is undemocratic, can expect a most un-Philosophic reply. I doubt, going further, that there is a Princeton undergraduate who would presume to call on Jack Kerouac without coat and tie. If disorderly attire is a genuine symbol of personal independence, then the college generation should stick by their symbol at least a few decorous weeks after the ink is dry on their baccalaureate degrees. If it is not that, then dishevelment is what it is: a blend of affectation and laziness.

The second point for the academic community to think over is the matter of authority. Is it theirs to stipulate a minimal standard of dress? Professor Joseph T. Curtiss of Yale said recently, “Respectful or respectable dressing is a characteristic of adult society. Some people are born gentlemen, other people acquire gentility during life, still others must have it forced on them.” The tendency is to depreciate the beneficence of externally imposed norms of civilized behavior. There are many who, like myself, would, if left alone, permit our standards of personal dress to deteriorate to the level of the downright offensive. Conscientious members of society — and I include here, intending no offense, administrators of our colleges and universities — should not permit us to indulge our disintegrative proclivities. Coat-and-tie is merely a symbol. It could be courtesy; deference; reverence; humility; moderation: and are these not, all, the proper concern of a college administration? Is there a relationship between a faculty’s weakmindedness, and a student body’s disorderliness?


Prep School Wisdom

June 13, 2009

“Preppy” is a simple way of describing a style of dress associated with a type of American which is, tragically, “waning in Westchester” (as writer Joe Malchow puts it). The fashion belonged historically to the Eastern WASP establishment and so belonged also, in the public eye, to inherited money and privilege. The style took its name from New England college preparatory schools and the real preppies were the students there. Of those, the most authentic were the ones whose fathers and, for the luckiest, grandfathers had been students at those same schools, and who wore those old men’s faded, broken blazers and slip-on tassel loafers to class.

Phillips Exeter Academy, Exeter, New Hampshire.

Phillips Exeter Academy, Exeter, New Hampshire.

The legacies were the luckiest for having the old blazers and shoes because those things had a certain cachet, the way scuffed leather does, the way your wristwatch will never seem quite so adult and masculine as the one your father wore when you were young. That cachet was authenticity and authenticity was a badge which identified established families. The badge had little to do with money, although that was often a side-effect, but with taste: author Nelson W. Aldrich, Jr. notes “the preppy ideal represents a collective yearning, with respect to money: yearning for a triumph of class over income, of grace over works, of being over doing.”

The ideal was apparent in the rumpled old blazer’s being held in higher esteem than the shiny new one because it was rumpled from generations of tradition. The blazer, and the shoes, were investments: an initial outlay of cash for quality meant a lasting return. Sound investments paid off: briefcases lasted, country homes were passed down along generations, children moved into their parents’ houses. The essence of the style was a disdain for showy wealth, of new possessions, because newness meant first possession. A new blazer couldn’t have been worn by a father or a grandfather to the same school as its current owner, so its owner must be a newcomer.

Author and professor G. Bruce Boyer writes:

“It’s better to have one good pair of shoes than a half dozen cheap ones, because the cheap ones look cheap even when they’re new, but the new ones look good even when they’re old. Quality by definition is the best you can get for your money. If you buy a pair of shoes for $500 and they last you 10 years, that’s $50 per year. If you buy a pair for $100 and they last you six months, which was the more expensive? I think the Old Money WASP guys were just cheap, so they always bought the best.”

“And the best always is the cheapest, if you have the money to buy it in the first place. The way we do it today is ask how much it costs. Nobody asks how much it costs over its lifetime — it’s just the initial price. And if you only look at the initial price, you’re going to get screwed every time. I think that’s what the Old Money guys thought, and I think they’re right. New Money doesn’t understand the appeal of old, worn family things.”

The lesson here is two-fold: frugality and taste. Sound, conservative investments will be rewarding, and ostentatious displays of wealth are deplorable. The wisdom of the prep students was to invest in tried-and-true quality, to avoid flashy affectation, to find value in tradition. Their traditions were their badge much more than any money ever was, and current economic climes might remind the rest of us of the value conservative traditions can hold, in dress as well as finance, and of the importance of function over form, and of substance over style.