Preppy in New York City

Union Square and 17th Street, New York, NY

Union Square and 17th Street in New York City (1998)

My wife took this photo of me looking at books among the vendors at Union Square near 17th Street in New York City.  As best I can recall, this was taken around December of 1997.  We had been in the city nearly a year, having moved up from South Carolina, and I was working for MoMA.

Union Square was a seven minute subway ride on the L Train from the Bedford Avenue stop in our neighborhood:  Williamsburg, Brooklyn.  The World Trade Towers are visible to the right, just beyond the pedestrians.  Washington Square Park was a short walk south down University Place in the direction of the towers.

My sartorial style was largely out of synch with the burgeoning hipster population of Williamsburg, but drew respect from our old school Italian neighbors.  In this photo, I was wearing charcoal gray wool flannel pants, a button down shirt, a wool argyle sweater (non-thrifted Christmas gift) from Brooks Brothers, a wool herringbone pattern topcoat and a pair of black Bass Weejuns.  The glasses were tortoise rim.

I’m not sure whether to love or hate the fact that hipsters have appropriated (maybe hijacked is a better word) the preppy look in the last few years.  They are certainly dressing better.  I suppose that is a good thing.  So I won’t complain too much about their “preppy with a twist” aesthetic.  How ironic!  When walking down Bedford Avenue once in the late 90s in khakis, a ribbon belt and a pink button down, I felt as though I was doing a perp walk based on the scornful looks I received.  That preppy has been embraced by the same kind of people proves good taste never really goes out of style, even if for them it is a fad.  You can read more about hipsters on Free Williamsburg.  (Note:  after I made this post, I found this related article published in The New York Times:  “How I Became a Hipster.”

On the same day as the Union Square photo, my wife and I went uptown to see a Broadway show at the Neil Simon Theatre.  I can’t remember which show it was.  Maybe I can track that down by going through some old playbills.  A Christmas tree is visible on the balcony above the Russian Samovar restaurant next door to the theatre.

Outside Neil Simon Theatre - New York City (1998)

Outside Neil Simon Theatre Near Times Square – New York City (1998)

Andy Warhol: Button Down Man

Andy Beside Woody

Andy Warhol, the son of Polish immigrants, left his hometown of Pittsburgh and arrived in New York City by train in June 1949 with $200 dollars in his pocket. He had just graduated from the art program at Carnegie Mellon and wanted to work as a commercial illustrator for a magazine publisher.  But he was also obsessed with becoming famous.  He really wanted to be a fine artist, but wasn’t sure how to make a living at it.  In fact, he was unsure whether that was even was possible.

Andy - 1949

Warhol’s first job was working for Glamour Magazine, which was one of the Conde Nast publications.  He was hired by the art director there, Tina Fredericks, to do illustrations for a story called, “Success is a Job in New York.”  Fredericks wrote of her first meeting with this curious looking person in tortoise shell glasses,

“I greeted a boy with a big beige blotch on his cheek, possibly going all the way up to his forehead.  He was all one color.  Weird.  There seemed to be something other earthly or offbeat, different, for sure.  Elfish.  From another world.  He had a breathy way of talking.  His voice was slight, unemphatic, whispery, covered over with a smile.”

As a child, Warhol had suffered St. Vitus Dance, a neurological disorder that left his skin permanently discolored.  He would remain highly self-conscious his entire life about his physical appearance, famously choosing to wear an outlandish gray wig when confronted with thinning hair.

Warhol - Tortoise Shell During the 1950s, Warhol became one of the most sought after and well-paid illustrators in Manhattan.  His increasing income allowed him to move into his own townhouse.  He began to shop for his clothes at Brooks Brothers.  For the remainder of his career could be seen, even during the psychedelic days of The Factory in the 60s, wearing a Brooks Brothers suit and button down – sometimes with a repp tie.  He apparently ceased wearing bow ties after the 50s.

Andy Warhol with Rod

Unsatisfied with his commercial success, Warhol longed for something more.  He wanted to get exhibitions in important galleries.  Presenting his portfolio of drawings, he was rejected time after time – partly because his work was representational in an artworld dominated by abstraction, and partly because of his homoerotic themes, which were taboo back then.

tumblr_mi2l07m5yE1rf1jvro1_1280  By 1956, the only venues willing to show Warhol’s work were Serendipity, a popular ice cream parlor on the Upper East Side that was also a meeting place for gay men, and the Bodley Gallery next-door.  He did not sell a single drawing.  Two years later, artists Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg, breaking with the dominant mode of Abstract Expressionism, laid the foundation for Pop Art with their sensational one-man shows at Leo Castelli Gallery.

Warhol and Friends

Warhol’s work was maturing, moving toward a critique of consumer culture and mass production (best represented by his Campbell’s Soup series) in which all traces of the artist’s hand – brush work, dripped paint or process – were eliminated.  In November 1962, his one-man show at Stable Gallery in New York City took the artworld by storm and established him as the leading figure of contemporary art.  It was instant celebrity.  Warhol was on the way to becoming a superstar, one of the most important artists of the 20th Century.

Warhol - Button Down & Skull

Warhol - Campbell's-Soup

Andy Warhol - White Button Down

Meeting Whit Stillman

With Director Whit Stillman (Left)

Going through my digital photo archive, I found a shot of me with director Whit Stillman (left) last May at the Landmark Sunshine Cinema in New York City.  Whit was there for a screening of his most recent film, “Damsels in Distress,” and a Q&A session with two of the actors in that film, Ryan Metcalf and Carrie MacLemore.  This was one of the last films I saw in the city before moving to South Carolina.

After the Q&A, Whit stopped to chat with me for a while.  He is one of my favorite directors, and has been known to indie filmgoers since the 90s as a chronicler of the “urban haute bourgeoisie.”  Though his films lack a precise time or place, they do seem to capture the decline of mainline families, whose values and relationships seem hopelessly old fashioned, and an evolving and complicated set of social standards.  His previous films Metropolitan, Barcelona and The Last Days of Disco have been referred to as somewhat of a preppy trilogy.  Metropolitan (1990) remains my favorite of his films.

The Last Days of Disco (1998) features an impressive Madras plaid sport coat worn by Chris Eigeman, who plays Des.  Eigeman strenuously objected to being asked to wear the Madras jacket, but Whit won the debate.