At this year’s Yale-Harvard game, students celebrated the 40th anniversary of the Saybrook Strip. Two minutes before the end of the third quarter, cries of “shoes” echoed through the Saybrook section. Like the Saybrugians who came before them, fans performed the college cheer before disrobing to their underwear.
The Saybrook Strip might seem trivial and silly, but its historical significance is worth pondering. More than just a manifestation of youthful exuberance, the strip is an artifact of long-term changes in ideas of selfhood and sexuality, transformations that partly signified the transition from old Yale to new Yale.
For many, the Strip represents an ethos of youthful libertinism, the embodiment of what some of my fellow News columnists would call a “you do you” culture. But this interpretation elides the fact that nudity was mainstream at Yale for most of the 20th century. At Payne Whitney Gymnasium, students trained in the nude. Up until coeducation in 1969, nude swimming was mandatory at Yale. In 1987, when a city ordinance compelled the Yale Club of New York to admit women, alumni argued that the pool was part of the men’s locker room to preserve their right to skinny dipping.
From the 1930s to the 1970s, every first year at Yale was photographed naked. The ostensible purpose of this exercise was to identify posture defects, but the pictures were secretly used to study the relationship between masculinity and smoking — and more chillingly, between body type and intelligence. Such a procedure would be unimaginable today — but for students of yore, nudity was such an everyday occurrence that no one batted an eyelash.
So how did nudity get relegated to a subculture — the preserve of naked parties, the Bass naked run and the Saybrook Strip — when it was once a mainstay of normative culture? The answer lies in the changing meanings of nudity, as it evolved from an engine of masculine socialization into a symbol of expressive individualism.
On its face, coeducation put an end to casual nudity. But women soon coopted nudity to assert their presence at the University. In 1976, 19 members of the women’s crew team walked into the athletics director’s office and stripped, revealing the words “Title IX” on their chests. Despite the passage of Title IX in 1972, which prohibited sex discrimination in athletic programs, the women’s crew team did not have a locker room at their boathouse. One rower caught pneumonia in the cold. “These are the bodies Yale is exploiting,” the team captain declared.
Against this backdrop of generational defiance, the Saybrook Strip was born. At one fateful football game, a single Saybrook student mooned Harvard fans. Others emulated his example in the years that followed, with men stripping down to boxers and jockstraps and women to bathing suits. By 1987, 20 to 30 “Brookers” were doing the strip each year, often with opposing fans throwing food at them. Harvard and Princeton students briefly copied the strip, but their pale imitations soon died out.
From the onset, the strip generated backlash. In 1983, the Class of 1931 — a major benefactor of Saybrook College — threatened to withhold funds unless the strip was banned. Yale acquiesced. The Saybrook College Council chairman decried the decision as blackmail, arguing that the strip “is just something fun to do.”
In 1996, the director of the Yale Precision Marching Band again tried to kill the tradition by refusing to play “The Stripper.” At the Yale-Columbia game that year, three Saybrook students protested by running around the field in their boxers. “The strip’s not going to die because just one man wants it to,” one student told the News. In both cases, older cohorts were not objecting to nudity per se, but the most visible manifestation of a shift in the University’s values.
Over the years, students have ascribed a range of meanings to the strip, from nihilism and sex-positivity to college spirit and a chance to show off. “It represents man’s inability to grasp the modern complexities of life,” a possibly inebriated junior told the Hartford Courant in 1994.
That the strip has survived four decades is no small miracle, a testament to the power of both tradition and invention. For students who may never have viewed a naked body off-screen, seeing real bodies in a non-sexual light can be a powerful experience, in a time when body image issues and eating disorders are rampant.
But above all, the Saybrook Strip has been a site of generational conflict as well as a product of generational change. An enduring legacy of the sexual revolution, it dramatizes the belief that the body is an extension of one’s identity, rather than an instrument of some communal good. Forty years on, the mythology of the strip is a nod to the reality of how our world has changed.
Jun Yan Chua is a senior in Saybrook College. His column runs on alternate Tuesdays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .