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?


The (Inclusive) Tables Down At Mory’s

November 30, 2010

Yale University is unique among top colleges, and even among other Ivies, in that it boasts a private club on campus. Well, not completely unique: Dartmouth College fully owns and operates the Hanover Country Club, membership in which is open to Dartmouth students.

But Yale really has something special in Mory’s: a private club in New Haven, right on York Street, catering to (and offering) the exclusivity and pedigreed stratification of a social structure which grew out of the same university responsible for Skull & Bones.

Mory’s came into being one evening after crew practice in New Haven: a group of oarsmen from Yale’s Class of 1863 found an unpretentious ale house at 103 Wooster Street, between Franklin and Bowery, and stopped in for a drink. The rowers found themselves served and entertained by Frank Moriarty, proprietor of the tavern “whose hospitality and dignity belied its dingy surroundings.”

After temporarily closing due to financial difficulties in 2008, the newly opened Mory's is trying to be more inclusive as it seeks to expand its membership.

Word spread, and Mr. Moriarty’s pub gained in popularity at a steady clip: soon, he had all the Yale business he could handle. He died in 1876 and his wife – known locally as The Widow – moved the business to Temple Street, and into more aristocratic lodging. When The Widow died, her longtime manager Edward G. Oakley took over and immediately gave every undergraduate $20.00 worth of credit at the newly christened Temple Bar. As students neared their limit, Mr. Oakley would gently remind them of their debt and thereafter accept only cash from that customer. He never dunned any man beyond that gentle reminder and nobody ever asked to have his limit extended; in ten years, Mr. Oakley lost only $25.00 in that system.

In 1912, The Mory’s Association was formed to ensure the longevity of the bar. The Association began issuing shares of the venture to Yalies and, eventually, converted the shareholding membership into a private club. The Association bought a new house for the club and many of the old bar’s original furnishings and fittings were bustled into the new property and installed there: windows and door casings, wainscoting, the entire front entrance, tables, chairs, and fireplace mantels.

The club fell on hard times in 2008 and shut its doors temporarily; the Association raised money for a grand re-opening and renovation and, in the midst of it, secured financing by loosening membership requirements in a bid for a greater dues-paying base. And it worked: membership among undergraduates is nearly 2,000 now, 75% of the club’s goal. Christopher Getman, president of the Mory’s Council, couldn’t be more pleased. His administration’s goal of increasing inclusivity by relaxing membership requirements has seen the to club prosperous times, and Mory’s financial footing, if not its original character, is solid again.


Dartmouth Rugby Round-Up

October 4, 2010

The Dartmouth Rugby Football Club downed the University of Pennsylvania last weekend, at Penn, by a final tally of 78-7. The match was the first of the Ivy season for the DRFC, which also notched a 38-7 victory in a B-side match played later that day.

The next day saw Dartmouth in Princeton, New Jersey, rolling over the Tigers 52-3 amidst strong play by back Will Lehmann ’12 and DRFC co-captain Tommy Brothers ’11.

This past Saturday, Dartmouth took the pitch in New Haven, set to play the Bulldogs at Yale. Match reports aren’t yet in but Yale came into the came with a 2-0 record, similar to Dartmouth’s, after downing Ivy rivals Columbia and Cornell. Details forthcoming.  


Observed In New York

September 18, 2010

Via the New York Observer, by John Pompeo:

For everyday New York men who strive to be reasonably well dressed, it can be a daunting experience shopping for clothes that won’t make you look like an ass.

Simply traverse the labyrinthine corridors of Barneys, Bergdorf and Bloomingdale’s, where the all-over-the-place mess hanging from the men’s racks is enough to induce migraines: Are pink ties metro or macho this week? Should slim-fit jeans really be this tight? Why do these scruffy flannel lumberjack shirts cost $300? And what’s with all the crazy stripes and extra pockets and ridiculous eagle prints? Things aren’t any simpler inside the showrooms of up-and-coming men’s wear designers, a casual survey of which might make a discerning fellow ponder whether he’d rather look like an urban vampire (Robert Geller), a coal miner (Gilded Age) or a confused sailor (Rogues Gallery).

All of which helps explain the current appeal of American “trad,” short for traditional: an Ivy League–inflected style that’s managed to retain an old-school sensibility without seeming dated or costumelike. Trad is, quite simply, a safe haven for sartorially selective gentlemen amid the ever-growing chaos of department stores and runways. 

Think Oxford button-downs (and that’s real button-downs, meaning collars that button down, not simply dress shirts, to which the term is often misapplied). Natural-shouldered blazers. Flat-front khaki trousers. Loafers. Bow ties, rep ties. Polo shirts in solid colors. Lots of madras plaid. Early Brooks Brothers. New England WASPs. F. Scott Fitzgerald.“Trad is sort of the antithesis of what’s happening in fast fashion right now,” said Michael Williams, 30, who obsesses over classic American men’s clothing on his blog, A Continuous Lean. “It’s like the opposite of what all the men’s wear designers are doing,” Mr. Williams continued. “It’s not fashion; it’s clothes.” 

THE ORIGINS OF trad date back to the turn of the century, with the founding in 1902 of the New Haven–based men’s clothier J. Press, considered the epitome of the style. The look became prominent on the Ivy League campuses of the 1950s and ’60s, as documented in the Japanese book Take Ivy, a rare photo collection first published in 1965 that’s enjoyed something of a revival in the past year. The term trad itself is said to have been coined by the Japanese, who have also been driving the current fascination with obscure U.S. clothing brands and Americana that’s taken hold at various men’s boutiques, department stores and on a handful of blogs akin to Mr. Williams’. (J. Press was acquired by a Japanese company, Onward Kashiyama, in 1986.)  

Perhaps you’ve noticed Lacoste polos, Ray-Ban eyewear, bow ties and hand-sewn camp moccasins on the streets of Billyburg?

Those who embrace the look say subtlety is key. 

“When done right, it should almost be invisible,” said John Tinseth, 52, an insurance broker and longtime traddy who’s been writing a blog called The Trad—anonymously, until now—for the past two years. He was on the phone from his West 57th Street apartment, dressed, he said, in L. L. Bean khakis and moccasins and a yellow university-stripe Oxford by Rugby.

“A guy should walk right by you and he’ll have the whole thing down and you won’t even notice,” Mr. Tinseth said. “That’s when it’s done perfectly.”

‘Imagine your best-dressed uncle throwing open his closet for you to frolic around in.’—David Wilder of J. Press

In New York, ground zero for trad is the J. Press store on Madison Avenue and 47th Street, one of the company’s four U.S. retail locations. (The others are in New Haven, Boston and Washington, D.C.)

There, you will find David Wilder, a polite 41-year-old sales associate and trad guru to scores of Manhattan males.

On a recent Friday afternoon, Mr. Wilder, who is tall and broad of build, with thin blond hair and Joycean spectacles, was toggling between register, rack and fitting room, stopping every so often to chat with familiar customers, who greeted him brightly by name.

He was trying to find a properly fitting $595 navy blue wool blazer for a young buck headed back to school at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland.“I think this one’s going to be a lot better,” Mr. Wilder said, sliding a size 41-long onto the studious shopper’s shoulders.

Mr. Wilder grew up in Greenwich, Conn., “surrounded by Madras jackets and what we would call ‘go to hell’ pants, which are heavily patterned,” he said on his lunch break, over a quiche and a bottle of Canada Dry ginger ale at a sandwich shop across the street from the store. “The type of stuff you’d wear to the Belle Haven yacht club.” He was wearing tasseled Alden loafers; English-made J. Press over-the-calf socks; American-made J. Press khakis with a one-and-three-quarter-inch cuff (the trad standard); a Lewin striped shirt purchased on Jermyn Street in London (a bit racy for a trad ensemble, he said); a flat-knit solid navy blue necktie; and a natural-shouldered navy blazer by David Cenci. (His J. Press jackets were at the cleaners that day.)

 AT YALE, Mr. Wilder studied 18th-century American and European history, and spent several of his summers working part time at the J. Press store in New York. “It was like working in your eccentric uncle’s genteel closet,” he said fondly. “Imagine your best-dressed uncle throwing open his closet for you to frolic around in. Like an insiders’ club for people who love the Ivy League look.”

After that, Mr. Wilder helped run a high-end personal stationery business, Therese Saint Clair, that his parents founded when he was 9 years old, and that he eventually sold in 2001.

About five and a half years ago, after a stint working as a concierge at the Delamar Greenwich Harbor Hotel, Mr. Wilder sent his résumé to the New York J. Press store on a whim. He was hired shortly thereafter, he said, and has been shilling trad style five days a week ever since.What is the difference between trad and preppy, The Observer wondered?“Preppy is a little broader than trad,” he said. “It’s more eccentric, more colorful.” (All those duck prints!)Trad’s entire purpose is to defy and transcend the whims of fashion, but inevitably some elements will be seen on the runways this week—likely during Thom Browne’s show on Sunday, Sept. 13, at his Hudson Street store (Mr. Browne got a massive plug when Vogue editor Anna Wintour recommended him to David Letterman on her Aug. 24 Late Show appearance).Since 2007, Mr. Browne—otherwise best known for encouraging men to expose their hairy ankles—has been designing a trad-oriented specialty collection for Brooks Brothers called Black Fleece.

This year’s spring/summer line was heavy on the madras, seersucker and paisley, with a predominantly navy blue, white and gray color palette. (A photo that surfaced on The Sartorialist blog in April 2006 of a silver-haired gentleman wearing a slim, short-cut navy blue blazer, a light blue Oxford shirt and dark gray slacks with an ankle-length pant hem ran with the caption: “O.K., Trads, you’re really closer to the Thom Browne aesthetic than you may want to admit.”) Like Mr. Browne, Michael Bastian, who is showing at Exit Art on Sept. 14, is a breakout men’s wear designer known to dabble in trad pieces.“Pick up a Browne or Bastian shirt,” said Mr. Tinseth, “and you can feel the heft of it and know it was made with care.”But a true traddy might opt for the more economical and authentic route of getting his dress shirts custom-made, perhaps by a tailor like Alexander Kabbaz, shirt maker to Tom Wolfe, Mr. Tinseth said. Likewise, a traddy would buy a J. Press suit over one made by a trendy designer.

“This stuff lasts forever, which I don’t think fashion people like because they need to sell new stuff,” said Mr. Tinseth, citing a pair of cordovan shell Alden wingtips he bought in 1986 and still wears today.Mr. Wilder, of course, concurred.“Traddies want something authentic,” he said, taking a sip of ginger ale. “Not something that’s a riff on something authentic.”


Watering Holes: Mory’s Temple Bar

June 28, 2010

Mory’s Temple Bar is a New Haven institution, having served thirsty Yalies since its founding in 1849. Membership in the club is generally open to anybody affiliated with Yale University (which is annually less the compliment it was the year before), and has lately been overrun, via lax membership standards, by co-ed student government types.

Despite its reputed $2 million endowment, Mory’s was forcibly shuttered during the financial upheaval of 2008. Its president has since promised to re-open in the summer of 2010, after renovations.

The Whiffenpoofs at Mory's.

Mory’s occupies 306 York Street, a white frame building which was formerly a private home, built sometime prior to 1817. The clubhouse made the U.S. National Register of Historic Places in 2005.

The Whiffenpoofs, Yale’s effeminately-named a cappella troupe, regularly entertain in the club’s dining rooms. Their hoary staple, The Whiffenpoof Song, makes mention of Mory’s as “the place where Louis dwells.”

A Mory's Cup in the offing.

Since its opening, one of the constants at Mory’s (it held an all-male tack until 1972 when, three years after Yale admitted women, Mory’s did too) has been the tradition of Cups. A Cup is a ceremonial drinking event in which silver trophy urns are ordered by color (red, gold, purple, green, blue, velvet, and more) and each color corresponds to a drink, drunk from the urn. Whomever is left holding the urn at its completion, cleans it dry with only his mouth and hair while the rest sing the Mory’s Song by way of encouragement. When the Cup is dry, it’s turned upside-down and set on a napkin, then raised again and the napkin inspected for any sign of unfinished drink having dripped.

Another Mory’s tradition is that its bar rooms serve as retreat to the members of the Yale Political Union, recent notables of which have included George H.W. Bush, the late Gerald Ford, John Bolton, and the late William F. Buckley, Jr.


Dollars & Sense

April 7, 2010

Online salary database PayScale.com undertook recently to rank American schools by their students’ average income upon graduation, and then again ten years out. Things broke down thus:

  1. Dartmouth College ($58,000 / $129,000)
  2. MIT ($71,000 / $126,000)
  3. Harvard University ($60,000 / $126,000)
  4. Harvey Mudd College ($71,000 / $125,000)
  5. Stanford University ($67,000 / $124,000)
  6. Princeton University ($65,000 / $124,000)
  7. Colgate University ($51,000 / $122,000)
  8. University of Notre Dame ($55,000 / $121,000)
  9. Yale University ($56,000 / $120,000)
  10. University of Pennsylvania ($60,000 / $118,000)

This year wasn’t the first that Dartmouth topped the list; though its graduates start at one of the lower top-ten median salaries, their rise in earnings over the subsequent ten years is largely due to an alumni network legendary for its loyalty.

Al Lee, PayScale’s Director of Quantitative Analysis, doesn’t give much credence to his report, though: “Even more than where you go to school, the degree you get is a bigger influencer of your pay for the vast majority of Americans.” True, Mr. Lee… but then again, the vast majority of Americans didn’t go to any of these schools.

Dartmouth wins again.