Gentlemen of Hampden-Sydney

I’ve listed Hampden-Sydney again this year as the most preppy college in the South.  It was founded in 1775, when George III was King of England, Virginia was a British colony and the Declaration of Independence was yet to be written.  One of only four all-male colleges remaining in the United States, Hampden-Sydney counts Patrick Henry and James Madison as two of its original Board of Trustees members.

Phi Gamma Delta Fraternity Members

Phi Gamma Delta Fraternity Members at Hampden-Sydney College

Students at Hampden-Sydney take a great deal of pride in their appearance and believe in good manners.  In fact, the school has published its own etiquette guide:  To Manor Born, To Manners Bred (now in its 7th edition), which has been updated for the social media age.  That’s serious dedication!  Some gentlemen of Phi Gamma Delta fraternity above display a range of attire:  plain front khakis, blue blazers, a navy suit with a Brooks Brothers repp tie, freshly pressed pinpoint and oxford cloth button downs, bow ties, ribbon belts with motifs and a needlepoint belt.  This is all standard dress on campus, and one of the reasons Hampden-Sydney is considered a very traditional college.

Hampden-Sydney Alumni Tailgating - Football Weekend

Hampden-Sydney Alumni Tailgating Prior to a Football Game (Fall 2012)

In the February 2013 issue of Town & Country, Hampden-Sydney alumni were featured tailgating on campus prior to a football game against arch rival Randolph Macon. All of these gentlemen are sporting bow ties, and one is wearing Nantucket Reds with a pair of go-to-hell socks that would make President George Herbert Walker Bush envious.  Tailgating was spoofed in Lisa Birnbach’s The Official Preppy Handbook (1980) in which she also listed Hampden-Sydney as the #3 preppy college in the country behind Babson (#1) and Hamilton (#2).

Off The Wagon:  The Tailgate Picnic - The Official Preppy Handbook

Off The Wagon: The Tailgate Picnic – The Official Preppy Handbook

Also in The Official Preppy Handbook, noted both for its finely drawn satire and anthropological treatment of preppiesis a section on body types with representative photos and descriptions of each.  The Good Old Boy’s biography includes attending Lawrenceville and Hampden-Sydney, and his stated attributes suggest a fun-loving, if not bawdy, demeanor.  He is holding a “genetically attached beer can,” while wearing a button down layered over a Lacoste shirt (Southern collar notably not popped), rumpled, flood level khakis and a pair of penny loafers, one of which is duct taped to keep the sole and the upper together – a practice cultivated at Lawrenceville.  He’s the one of the three I think I’d most enjoy being around.

Preppy Body Types - from The Official Preppy Handbook (1980)

Body Types (Male) – The Official Preppy Handbook (1980)

As an homage to Birnbach, whose publication became a national bestseller, the college’s Kaleidoscope yearbook staff responded with The Official Preppy Yearbook.

The Official Preppy Yearbook 1981

Kaleidoscope 1981 — The Official Preppy Yearbook (Hampden-Sydney College)

Birnbach visited Hamden-Sydney a few years ago to promote her most recent book, True Prep, in which she elevated the college’s sartorial place, writing,”… allow us to assure you, in no uncertain terms, that Hampden-Sydney is, without equivocation, the preppiest college in the United States.”  In fact, one enterprising student there, Samuel Thomas, recently co-founded a bow tie company called Dogwood Black (originally Southern Ties) and is now marketing his expanding product line nationally after getting requests from upscale men’s clothiers.

Dogwood Black: Nantucket Summer Madras Bow Tie ($45.00)

Dogwood Black: Nantucket Summer Madras Bow Tie

In addition to the classic madras bow tie shown above, Dogwood Black offers such unique items as a camo bow tie.  I think this qualifies as the Southern version of go-to-hell style, allowing  a wearer to go from duck blind to formal party without skipping a beat.  One quote on the company website functions as a philosophy about wearing one of their ties, “If you can handle being the center of attention.”

Dogwood Black:  Camo Bow Tie

Dogwood Black: Camo Bow Tie

Dogwood Black - Tie Box

Dogwood Black – Tie Box

Hampden-Sydney has become more diverse in recent years, and with that change has come a difference in fashion sensibility on campus.  The look among some students retains the preppy style but is much more updated.  The gentleman on the right (below) looks as if he might be wearing a Dogwood Black Delta Chi fraternity bow tie, but I’m not positive.  The gentleman on the left seems more aligned with Unabashedly Prep, which I’ve heard described as “new wave prep” or as “preppy with a twist.”

Preppy With a Twist at Hampden-Sydney

Preppy With a Twist at Hampden-Sydney

Dogwood Black - Delta Chi Fraternity Bow Tie

Dogwood Black – Delta Chi Fraternity Bow Tie

Dr. Christopher B. Howard, Hampden-Sydney’s 24th president, is a graduate of the U.S. Air Force Academy.   This gentleman was a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford University, where he earned a Master of Philosophy and a Doctorate of Philosophy in Politics.  He also holds an MBA from Harvard Business School.  Howard is the first African-American president in the college’s history, and he is proudly a Brooks Brothers man.

In 2010, Hampden-Sydney entered into a formal partnership with Brooks Brothers to provide a 15% corporate membership discount to students, faculty and staff of the college.  The program is titled “Dressing for Success with Brooks Brothers.”  In this YouTube video, President Howard discusses the program and the investment in college education with parents of prospective students at an event hosted in a Brooks Brothers retail store in Richmond, VA.

Hampden-Sydney Display at Brooks Brothers in Richmond, VA

Hampden-Sydney Display at Brooks Brothers in Richmond, VA

Now in its third century of operation, Hampden-Sydney has a beautiful campus, an excellent academic reputation, a long tradition and a very loyal alumni base, many of whom contribute substantially to the institution every year.  Its past is distinguished, and its future looks secure.

Hampden-Sydney-College

Hampden-Sydney-College

Hampden-Sydney Historical Marker

Rothko, a Cigar and Strong Black Coffee

Cigar Chomper

Hub City Bookstore is a great independently run bookstore in Spartanburg, SC. On a rainy Saturday morning not long ago, I sat in a sheltered area outside, smoking a cigar and drinking strong black coffee from Little River Roasting Company next-door.

I was reading James Breslin’s biography of the Abstract Expressionist painter Mark Rothko, whose life story and work I’ve been very interested in lately:  born in Dvinsk, Russia (now part of Latvia) to a Jewish family, emigrated to the United States, attended Yale University, whose students were overtly anti-semitic in the 1920s, on a scholarship before dropping out and moving to New York City.

Rothko lived in near poverty for many years, devoting himself to his art, before gaining recognition as one of the most important and well-paid painters of the 20th Century.  In the 1950s, he was commissioned for a series of large works for the Four Seasons Restaurant in the Seagram Building on Park Avenue in Manhattan.  The $30,000 commission was the largest of its kind ever offered at that point and would be the equivalent of $2,000,000 today.  Rothko completed the work and then, always the prickly, argumentative personality and prone to depression, refused to sell it on the grounds that the restaurant’s bourgeois clientele would not be able to comprehend it.  He was probably right about that.

I love Rothko’s story.  He had very little when he arrived in America, although there was a support network of family.  He defied career expectations and didn’t choose safe and financially lucrative work.  He chose something that was incredibly difficult, cultivating an artistic talent, developing his skills and his vision and forging them into a successful aesthetic, while also contending against class prejudice, anti-immigrant attitudes and anti-semitism.  Although his life had a tragic end in suicide, his art transcends his life and moves us today.  He will always be remembered.  Bravo!

James Breslin - Mark Rothko

For more about Rothko, check out the excellent BBC documentary from The Power of Art series:

Tad Friend – A True Wasp

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Tad Friend, in his 2009 memoir Cheerful Money:  Me, My Family and the Last Days of Wasp Splendor, reveals in candid detail his complicated upbringing and emotionally insular life in an illustrious family, which includes a signer of the Declaration of Independence, a president of Swarthmore College and generations of Ivy League degrees.  He is a staff writer for The New Yorker and a graduate of Harvard University.

In the first chapter of Cheerful Money, Friend begins to unpack the meaning of Wasp and discusses why that term is not really accurate in describing old money families and their mores.  Given the frequency with which the term Wasp is bandied about by fashion bloggers, and particularly in light of the recent dust up between Ivy Style and Wasp 101, I thought it might be useful to let someone with some expertise on the matter cast some light.

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From Cheerful Money (pages 11-14):

The ACRONYM “Wasp,” from “White Anglo-Saxon Protestant,” is one many Wasps dislike, as it’s redundant – Anglo-Saxons are perforce white – and inexact.  Elvis Presley was a white Anglo-Saxon Protestant, as is Bill Clinton, but they are not what anyone means by “Wasp.”  Waspiness is an overlay on human character, like the porcelain veneer that protects the surface of a damaged tooth.  Worse, the adjective is pejorative:  “Waspy” is reserved for horse-faced women, tight-assed men, penny pinchers, and a capella groups.

Picture 18

I’m too cheap to spring for a new acronym.  But my family and their friends, as Wasps, were circumscribed less by skin tones and religion than by a set of traditions and expectations:  a cast of mind.  They lived in a floating Ruritania losely bounded by L.L. Bean to the north, the shingle style to the east, Robert Falcon Scott’s doomed polar expedition to the south, and the limits of Horace Greely’s optimism to the west.

That cast of mind is excessively attuned to such questions as how you say “tomato” – a word I now find myself pronouncing both ways, usually at random and always with misgiving.  In this and more important respects I seem to have become, somehow, a motley product of my famously marvelous background.  Oh, sure, I don’t belong to any clannish or exclusive clubs, I prefer beer to hard liquor, I am neither affable nor peevish – the alternating currents of Wasp – and I love pop culture.

pepperidge-farms-milano

And yet.  Until quite recently, I had the Wasp fridge:  marmalade, wilted scalions, out-0f-season grapes, seltzer and vodka – nothing to really eat. (The Wasp fridge is like the bachelor fridge, but Wasps load up on dairy, including both 1 and 2 percent milk, moldy cheese, expired yogurt, and separated sour cream.  And atop the Wasp fridge sit Pepperidge Farm Milanos, Fig Newtons, or Saltines – some chewy or salty or otherwise challenging snack).  I have a concise and predictable wardrobe, and friends even claim that I inevitably wear the same oatmeal – colored Shetland sweater.  I will never experience the pleasures of leather pants or a shark’s tooth on a thong dangling in my chest hair.  I will never experience the pleasures of chest hair.  And, like the Tin Man, I don’t articulate my upper body sections; it moves en masse or not at all.

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I politely stand aside:  no, no, after you.  I have a soft laugh, and I rarely raise my voice.  Though I have an outsize grin, and friends take pleasure in trying to elicit it, I am reserved upon first meeting (it’s Wasp women who are expected to charm).  I used to like being told I was “intimidating,” because it seemed to sanction my verbal jabbing to maintain a perimeter.  Making everyone a little uneasy came naturally.  When I characterized a college roommate’s dancing style as “Jimmy Cracked Corn,” he nursed the wound for decades, and a woman I fooled around with in my early twenties told me years later, that she had to get a new mattress and headboard after I remarked on her “game-show bed.”  I am slow to depend on people because I hate being disappointed, hate having to withdraw my trust.  All this has often led people to read me as aloof or smug.

I am fiercely but privately emotional – I was embarrassed, recently, when my wife, Amanda, found me having put The Giving Tree down while reading it to our twins, Walker and Addie, because I was in tears.  I married Amanda, a strong-minded food writer, seven years ago:  she revamped my fridge, and some of my other disaster areas.  And I convinced her to have children, the best thing we have done together.

The_Giving_Tree

I walk into parties with a confident air but wait to speak until I have a point to make or self-deprecating joke to offer. I can give a handsome wedding toast.  I am slow to pitch in on manual labor and not particularly handy, though I pride myself on the rarely called-for ability to carve a watermelon into the shape of a whale (a sprig of parsley makes the spout).  I am frugal to the point of cheapness – when out to dinner with friends, I used to contribute only for the dishes I had ordered.  I dislike having to eat quail or crab, all that effort and mess for scant reward, an aversion Amanda calls “No sex in public!”

For a long time I didn’t think of myself as competitive, though my friends kept assuring me, as they pointed out where my helicoptored five-iron had landed, that I was.  My belief that you shouldn’t do something you care about in a half-assed way often provokes the charge that I don’t want to take part in any activity I can’t do well, that I fear public ineptitude, which is certainly true for karaoke.  Despite my standoffishness, I am a good listener, and loyal, and friends often turn to me for advice.  A Wasp friend remarks that I would have made an imposing country parson.

Most of all, I am a Wasp because I harbored a feeling of disconnection from my parents, as they had from their parents, and their parents from their parents.  And because, deep into my thirties, most of my relationships had the life span of a child’s balloon.  I felt that I was carrying around a brimming bucket of walnut stain and that if anyone got too close it would spill all over both of us.  So I ended up spending my inheritance and then some on psychoanalysis.  I was in trouble, but it was nearly impossible for anyone who didn’t know me to tell, and I made it nearly impossible for anyone to know me well.

Preppy: Cultivating Ivy Style

A new book exploring the origins of what has become known as the preppy/ivy style is due out from Rizzoli on October 4th.  I pre-ordered my copy yesterday through Amazon.  I’ve bought a number of books recently on the topic of preppy/ivy dress:  True Prep (Lisa Birnbach’s update of The Official Preppy Handbook), Take Ivy and The Ivy Look:  An Illustrated Pocket Guide.

Book Summary from Rizzoli:

Preppy: Cultivating Ivy Style – The authoritative fashion history of the roots, growth, and offshoots of the quintessentially American preppy style. Preppy offers the first definitive and in-depth volume on preppy fashion, exploring its evolution from its pragmatic origins and presence on elite Eastern campuses in America to its profound influence internationally and metamorphosis on the runway. For the first time, the preppy story is told completely and beautifully with iconic and never-before-published archival and editorial photographs and personal snapshots from the original Ivy elites.
Exploring all facets of men’s and women’s preppy fashion, this vibrant volume is replete with photographs and vintage ads illustrating the iconic elements of prep: from Oxford shirts, khakis, and Shetland sweaters to Peter Pan collars, madras pants, and Lilly Pulitzer tropical blooms. Authors Jeffrey Banks and Doria de La Chapelle also examine the fashion designers who played a major role in shaping the preppy look, from retail pioneers J.Press and Brooks Brothers to Ralph Lauren, who single-handedly marketed not just a look but a lifestyle. Also featured: a band of young twenty-first century Ivy stylists and fashion labels worldwide, who have infused preppy with high-octane design on and off the runway. Preppy is a stunning tribute to an American phenomenon.