In 1965, four gentlemen from Japan published “Take Ivy,” a visual account of the day’s Ivy League fashion. They mentioned that while none of the eight schools required its students to attend seminars swaddled in tweed, each one maintained an informal code of attire. Yale’s “code,” according to the book, had 20 clauses, including advice for certain occasions. For instance “wear a sport jacket and a tie” to a date.
The wardrobe of ’60s Yalies, which included herringbones, grey flannel “trousers,” “regimental” striped ties and “a cardigan with an orthodox style,” might seem fogeyish, not to mention pricey. (There’s no way “yacht parkas” came cheap.) Obviously, folks dress differently nowadays, but is there any doubt they dress less formally? I think this turn has cost us in professionalism, and I’d like to make the case that we shouldn’t show up to class in tank-tops and torn sweatpants.
Yalies are an individualist crowd, and the traditionalism of any sort is, in my experience, met with a mix of skepticism and condescension. But even if we’re here just to make money so our kids can have the same “opportunities” we do, college is a serious business, isn’t it?
We learn about things that we think are important. And there’s something in a mission statement somewhere about leadership, or global citizenship or thinking critically. And we hear quite a bit about how important all that is. The world looks to Yale to learn which matters in the cutting-edge fields need further research and, it turns out, which residential college namesakes are too gauche to keep. Yale has “privilege,” and it’ll be damned if it doesn’t use it responsibly!
Fine. Then while we’re sorting out these adult questions, let’s dress the part.
But, the free spirit asks, why have any code of behavior? Well, if you and your culture think there’s a correct way to be, then perhaps having a set of rules enforcing it is a good thing to do. The Japanese custom of bowing is an excellent example. As I understand it, the depth of the bow accords to the status of the person to whom one is bowing. The point is to show respect to those to whom respect — because of age, accomplishment or something else — is due.
Returning to the matter of clothing, many groups maintain codes of dress. Monks, for instance, wear habits (plain cloth garments) showing their commitment to poverty and renunciation of the material world. Soldiers wear camouflage for protection. Ultra-Orthodox Jews and devout Muslims also restrict what adherents may wear.
And we needn’t even look so far as the local monastery for an example. The Whiffenpoofs sport white tie as they warble the world over. I don’t know how that tradition got started, but I imagine it serves three purposes: first, it’s sort of hysterical. And second, it facilitates a kind of unity of purpose among the members. They don their cravats and canes and those white gloves that look like they were taken off Mickey Mouse’s hands, and they’re no longer just a dozen-plus handsome senior gents — they’re Whiffs, identifiable to all who see them. When they sing as one in that dress, they sing as the Whiffs. If they all just wore jeans and ripped tees, I suppose it’d still be that bunch of blokes, but it just wouldn’t be the same.
Wouldn’t it be nice if, when all the dignitaries who visit our fine school look around, they see students who appear to take what they do so seriously that they dress like adults? And wouldn’t it serve the purpose of reminding us that we’re here not just because it’s sort of fun or useful, but because we’re part of a great tradition of learning going back to the folks who started this place 300 years ago?
Well, at any rate, I think so. If you don’t, that’s fine. I’m happy to talk about it with you. But please, throw on a collared shirt for when we meet.
Cole Aronson is a sophomore in Calhoun College. His column runs on Mondays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .