Wednesday, February 24th, 2010

White People Clothes and "Old Money Green"

WHITE PEOPLE THINGSOn the eve of my 28th birthday last month, I sat down to my computer prepared to purchase what my dad calls "proper pants." Closer to 30 than I'd ever been before, I decided I'd like to enter the next couple of years owning at least a few pairs of trousers that weren't denim, or at least not denim purchased at Uniqlo (one of the better reasons to live in New York, in my opinion).

I went to Polo's web site, believing, as the ads have told me to, that Ralph Lauren is the lead purveyor of exactly that which I sought: pants! Classic, proper pants for American men who are through wearing only black denim to hide spilt beer but not through with having a certain interest in what messages their aesthetic sends to the world.

Still a believer in all clothes skinny, I clicked on the Slim-Fit Custom Chinos, tailored things described as "polished casual." They looked to be snug in the ass like my old jeans but not something I'd be embarrassed to wear to an impromptu wedding or funeral. "Perfect, fuck it, I'm done," I thought, dragging the little hand across the screen to the small square color swatches. I considered Aviator Navy and Polo Black. But I quickly abandoned both for a nice dark green–that is, until I clicked on the drop-down box and saw what specific kind of green I was about to order: "Old Money Green."

I'd just wanted to buy a pair of pants. Instead, here I was being reminded that my grandfather was a butler and my grandmother a maid.

I was disappointed, though not necessarily surprised. Like any major clothing company, Polo hawks a lifestyle–or at least the dream of a lifestyle–just as much as it hawks shirts and belts. (For example, American Apparel, the general store for Midwestern kids with ambitions to do coke with Josh Hartnett in Lower East Side bathrooms, offers leggings in Night Fever Navy.) What was jarring, however, was how frequently these hints of old money airs turned up to pollute my shopping experience.

Over at J.Crew, a new arrival is the "plantation madras" button-down, a breezy, colorful shirt just in time for the annual thaw, not to mention a thing whose name I can't help but associate with slavery. Of course, perhaps I'm being hypersensitive. Because not all plantations got fat off slave-labor and it's a bit silly to necessarily associate the two. Then again, would anyone ever sell a "plantation bullwhip"? J. Peterman might. The company Seinfeld so often mocked seems more eager to revel in blue-blooded patriarchy than a Buckley sipping highballs on a yacht on Long Island Sound. Here's the company's description of a pair of its tweed slacks: "Did you know that Verdi wrote 'Falstaff' when he was 80? … Verdi, Walt Whitman, the Mellons. Hard workers from solid European stock. Just like these pants." Well then! At that point, I say to hell with the subtlety; call them the Sorry, Darkie Breeches: "From solid European stock and for solid European stockholders."

Thankfully, even more direct is J. Peterman's "owner's hat," introduced thusly: "Some of us work on the plantation. Some of us own the plantation."

I'm not naive. Having lived in New York and Los Angeles, I'm keenly aware that fashion has never been about inclusion–be it for the benefit of minorities (save gays), the poor or really anyone outside of a few major, expensive, Western cities. But lately, chic clothing appears to be trending toward privilege far more drastically than it ever has before. Take, for instance, Hedi Slimane's Dior Homme line from years past. Though it was always prohibitively expensive, it was very often based on outfits New York's hippest street rats pieced together from whatever they could barely afford or steal. And because it was grounded in a culture of poverty, the look seemed far more accessible–like an all-ages punk rock show–despite its price tag.

All this comes, oddly, after years of preppy and "white-seeming" major fashion brands (from Ralph Lauren to Vuitton) being propelled to success by black consumers. ("As hip-hoppers aspired to look like rich people, they took a keen interest in the preppy clothes that were very fashionable in the 1980s. This had a huge influence on a relatively new brand called Tommy Hilfiger," wrote Henrik Vejlgaard in Anatomy of a Trend.)

Today, the look is classic Americana, exemplified best–at least where the Internet is concerned–by the tremendous success of fashion blogs like A Continuous Lean. ACL's editor, an ostensibly very nice man named Michael, celebrates things like saddle shoes and Barbour jackets, and has said many times that he finds inspiration in things like Take Ivy, a photo book from the 1960s focused on the style of rich white men educated in the highest echelons of U.S. academia. Likewise, the Spade enterprise. Preppy plaids, professorial tweeds and bow ties festooned the models festooning the runways at New York's most recent fashion week. Unlike their predecessors, who were often made up to look like Dee Dee Ramone and Kurt Cobain, working class heroes, these human coat hangers were mostly indistinguishable from the fashion people watching them: men and women who were born rich and will die rich, and who will look shiny all along the way.

I like Barbour jackets a lot, and Tod's driving moccasins. I even like "Nantucket red" pants with a crisp white shirt and a blue blazer. But, as a person of color with no family crest of which to speak, I wonder if I should. It would be one thing if the current fashion trends were merely sentimental for grandpa's favorite pair of shoes. But here, amidst the money greens and plantation nostalgia, it seems as if they're also rooted in grandpa's stunted cultural outlooks as well. I now see a sick irony in myself and kids in East New York wearing bow ties and sweater vests. Not new money kids, not old money kids, but no money kids who, apart from the slacks, look nothing like the Take Ivy boys everyone's heralding, copying, designing for and listening to. To paraphrase one of my favorite poets, "I would go out tonight, but my ancestors were crushed under racial oppression for centuries."

Cord Jefferson is a writer-editor living in Brooklyn. His work has appeared in National Geographic, GOOD, The Root and on MTV.

38 Comments / Post A Comment

jolie (#16)

Oh mercy, I'm rending my Lilly at the use of "Nantucket red" pants. QUICK! Someone get me a glass of wine with ice and my smelling salts.

HiredGoons (#603)

*(pulls settee away from the bay window and grabs shawl)

Nice to see "Take Ivy" being namechecked … but remember too that it was a portrait of Trad fashion and lifestyle from the outside, by a Japanese photographer commissioned to do the project for Van Jacket, an Ivy-manque' Japanese clothing line. "Take Ivy" was hardly even known in the US until very recently (35 years or so after its first printing). So, while it's held up as the canonical portrait of mid-60s Trad style, it's as much an outsider's interpretation of that style as, well, the East New York kids with the sweater vests.

Screen Name (#2,416)

Steven was ready to click through to the main story when he was stopped cold by a banner ad at the top of the page. "Wait," J. Peterman commanded. "Are those wooden buttons?"

He looked down at his shirt. No, those are definitely not wooden buttons. Shit. Should they be? He wondered how many people seeing this same advertisement actually had wooden buttons. Two? Three? A hundred? Everyone but him? Goddamnit. He felt a creeping hard-bitten nausea settle in. For all he knew people had been laughing at him behind his back his entire life, all for not having wooden buttons.

jolie (#16)

Can I crawl inside your brain and just hang out in there for a while?

Screen Name (#2,416)

Sure. It would be like this:

- What's he doin' now?
- He's holding the glass.
- Lemme see.
- Hold on a sec. He's actually gonna drink it.
- Get out.
- I swear to God! Wait. Are some money-related action potentials getting in?
- No problem, I'll release a few more neurotransmitters.
- He's stalling. Release some more… more… more.
- Bottoms up, sailor!
- Hahahahahahaha! He drank it! Hahahahahahaha!
- Lemme see!
- Shut up. He's going up to her now.
- Move over. I gotta see this.

"Hi. I am. Your drink. Iss a constable podium?"

- Ahhahahahahaha! CONSTABLE PODIUM!!!!! Did you make that up?
- I did.
- Classic.
- Hold on! He's swaying!
- Good god! He's going down!
- Adrenaline! Adrenaline!

oudemia (#177)

I seem to recall a Lisa Birnbach Times op-ed piece lamenting the end of the age of No Nantucket? No Nantucket Red Pants.

Flaneur (#998)

I'm a trad-dressing person of color myself, and I say wear what you want and screw the associations.

Dickdogfood (#650)

Based on my very limited experience (he linked to my blog once, OK?) ACL's Michael Williams is ostensibly and actually a nice guy.

It should be noted that a lot of the websites with a fondness for nu-prep (especially ACL) also have fascinations for decidedly non-blue-blood things like American industrial style and Japanese reinterpretations of same, so I'm a little doubtful that nu-prep is based on entirely (or at all) based on a sympathy with "grandpa's stunted cultural outlooks." (Though yes, J. Peterman–and the Banana Republic of the 80s-90s–were uncomfortably naked about their colonialist fantasies, obv.)

Also: can't we say that nu-prep–at least in part–is a possibly unconscious appropriation of a "black" style, which itself was an appropriation of a "white" style, which was sorta kinda a different kind of approrpriation of a "white" style, which was originally an appropriation of many many different styles from around the world? We can bring Vampire Weekend into this, too, if you like.

Ribs (#2,690)

Thanks- ^Mostly saying what i was writing in my comment, until the page-refresh cleared my box.

There's a argument there, as far as the implications of someone scooping up the Old Money Green pants and their desire to…associate with those associations. Is there a slice out there that gets off on thinking their Sperrys connect them to the AmeriKings of past? Gotta be. My hesitation comes in widening the argument to the preppy fashion as a whole – I would pause before associating Japanese fan-dom of this look to a deep dream of giving off Landed Class vibes.

In any case I think you should rock the preppy harder than them, as a one-man dis-associator. Prompt as much cognitive dissonance in the bros as possible. I liked reading this piece Cord, thanks.

Cord_Jefferson (#2,111)

Good to hear about Michael. I really do like ACL a whole lot.

Not to dive even deeper into the rabbit hole, but I suppose what I find problematic about the trad blogs is how whimsical they are about longing for the days of yore. It's very easy for middle aged white guys to romanticize the 50s and 60s (, because then they would have been even freer than they are now. For me to think of the '50s is to consider times of terror, heartbreak and violence.

These are ideas I think many trad loyalists rarely consider. It sort of resembles the way Mad Men almost completely ignores racial issues. But that's another thing altogether.

spikenard (#3,522)

As a PoC myself, who loves this kind of clothing, I say fuck it. We should revel in being able to wear this stuff and look good in it – it's ours, we can dictate fashion, we can wear what we want, we can wear it on our terms, and we should.

katiebakes (#32)

This was really excellent.

brad (#1,678)

hi. i'm of pure white trash stock myself. rubber boots were a foot fashion no matter the season- due mostly to their being no other foot covering available. anyhoo, once i got to college this agrarian look may have served me well had it not dawned on those within my sphere that it wasn't by choice. so, a friend gave me a jcrew catalog. everyone looked so clean and happy. i ordered some shorts- until college the last time i wore shorts was on my 9th birthday- and eagerly awaited new-found style. i looked so wrong. like a hillbilly in a tuxedo, which is almost what it was. i got upset and gave them to my roommate. it took a few years of being ignored by attractive women until i gave the clothing thing a new go.

spikenard (#3,522)

The way you wrote this made me so sad… you should've stayed the way you were if you were happy… why go changing?

DoctorDisaster (#1,970)

It never even occurred to me that I was reading an article about fashion. Damn good piece!

As for my actual response, I think appropriation should go both ways. I absolutely draw the line at this "some people own the plantation" horseshit, though.

I <3 Your Brain

wb (#2,214)

It took me a while to remember his name (thanks, Google), but this reminds me a LOT of Yinka Shonibare's art. Batik and madras meet Victorian-era threads!

A well-thought out, well-written piece.

bong hitler (#3,233)

"Did you know that Verdi wrote 'Falstaff' when he was 80? … Verdi, Walt Whitman, the Mellons. Hard workers from solid European stock. Just like these pants." That is hilarious. Plus you just know most of their stuff is made in China.

Soren (#2,268)

It's all aspirational man. Fuck it, if it wasn't so damn good at finding the dark heart and ignoring the bloody hand.

YoWheez (#3,516)

Hip people dressing like WASPs gives me hope that maybe someone will mistake me for a stylish person instead of a dweeb with four last names.

I have been down this unhappy road. It's not going to happen. Just be…

ehcotton (#358)

I was hoping for some comment about how Ralph Rueben Lifshitz himself was a Jew from the Bronx and the son of a house painter, now feasting off the nostalgia off those who probably made a sport of their anti-semitism when he was a boy. What does it mean? I'm checking out of work so I think about it myself.

ehcotton (#358)

Can't think about it* oops

metoometoo (#230)

In the Rolling Stone article the guy from Vampire Weekend talks about how he got all excited when he made this discovery about Ralph Lauren, and that's when he got into the preppy style.

metoometoo (#230)

As a freckly pale-faced girl-next-door looking girl who emerged from the incubator of preppiness that is Middlebury College, I am generally terrified to wear anything other than black jeans and black t-shirts for fear of giving the wrong impression.

metoometoo (#230)

On a related note, this is a thing that was said to me during my senior year, after I had cast aside my ill-fitting polo shirts and pearl earrings: "That's weird, you don't seem like the kind of girl who would wear Converse."

Multiphasic (#411)

I guess my major claim to cultural ownership is being a direct spiritual descendant of Levi's: a fake Jew from the one city where absolutely no one gives a shit, with a proclivity for getting inexplicably dirty.

demograph (#3,589)

At my no-one-gives-a-shit high school, there was a Korean guy affectionately nicknamed "the dirty Joo." Ah, memories.

Get yourself some reds, you'll never regret it. Don't give custom to thinly-veiled racists trying to capitalize on thinly-veiled racism. That's disgusting. Instead do what a WASP would do (WASPs don't succomb to aspirational advertising): Find a good pair of pants at a price that's good for you and buy in bulk. LLBean and The Gap are your best bets for reasonably priced chinos. Brooks doesn't understand the innate disposability of chinos so only go there for flannels (for WASPs flannels are to chinos as for other people chinos are to jeans).

Most of all don't let somebody else's bullshit stop you from dressing well. For me sartorially inhabiting WASPery is not about communing with the disgraced opinions and ill-gotten gains of my ancestors (my parents have always been quite open about how miserable everyone was back then), although it is certainly an acknowledgement of their existence, but it is primarily about living how I want to live now.

SemperBufo (#1,849)

Don't be concerned. If you really had a propblem with what my co-workers have no problem calling "acting white," you'd have been at that Insane Clown Posse show the other night.

Mar (#2,357)

This was a great article.

Eon Huntley (#3,737)

This doesn't touch on is the fact that Ivy League style may have started as the look of the privilege whites of America, but didn't end there. There's a great article in RL magazine about Miles Davis and his visit to the Andover shop and subsequent Ivy League/Natural shoulder look. It does on to describe how other jazz singers adopted this look. Also, on Ivy Look there's links to fashion spreads from Ebony magazine showcasing the Ivy League/Natural shoulder look. Based on the argument presented the ONLY people who could justifiably rock this look would be WASP. Mr. Lauren/Lipshitz whose empire is built on this look was obviously disagree.

For the record I am a black dude who grew up in East New York and I regularly shop at Brooks Brothers and Ralph Lauren.

Anarcissie (#3,748)

In the 1950s, everyone around me wore the preppy style of clothing. To me it looked dull, bland, mildly ugly, just like the people who wore it. I am curious as to what people see in it now, especially those who have actively chosen it as an expressive style rather than accepted it as a default setting. It doesn't seem to be ironic or multidimensional or polytonic or any other of that pomo stuff. Or is it one of those things which, if you gotta ask, you ain't never gonna know?

Missing Link (#3,776)

Great post.

oneviciouslife (#3,819)

Terrific post Cord! I'm a little late to the party, but your post made me think of this photo editorial i saw recently:

There were african american men back in the day wearing this style, and totally pwning their white counterparts, imo. I say if you're comfortable in it and it represents how you feel about yourself, rock it!

I just sent this to, the customer service email on the page for the Plantation Madras shirt:


So is this what the owners would wear or what the slaves/serfs/peasants would wear? The only color choice is "Baltic," and I can't think of any plantation agriculture* in the Baltic region, so I'm not sure what you're going for here.

Jesse Irwin
Chicago, IL

* 'Plantation' generally designates large, consolidated agricultural holdings, owned by a minority, foreign, or occupying group, utilizing a workforce of people held in slavery or other peonage, and producing for the benefit of remote interests, rather than the local area or workers. See also for more reasons why 'Plantation'-branded products might be a big turn-off for people who'd otherwise be interested in your clothes.

This is a great article, where people can find very useful information. Good clothes need special fragrances for men . Them make a good pair.

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