I have always been interested in social class, cultural/subcultural groups and the role that style (i.e.clothing) plays in their construction. I stumbled upon this essay by Russel Lynes on social groups in college communities on IvyStyle.com last year and it has become one of my favorites. Russell Lynes was a art historian, author, and editor of Harper Magazine. He is well known for being an expert on highbrow and lowbrow. This essay was published in Esquire in September 1953 and is well worth the read even if there are no pictures.
How Shoe Can You Get?
By Russell Lynes
At Yale there is a system for pigeonholing the members of the college community which is based on the word “shoe.” Shoe bears some relation to the word chic, and when you say that a fellow is “terribly shoe” you mean that he is a crumb in the upper social crust of the college, though a more kindly metaphor might occur to you. You talk of a “shoe” fraternity or a “shoe” crowd, for example, but you can also describe a man’s manner of dress as “shoe.” The term derives, as you probably know, from the dirty white bucks which are the standard collegiate footwear (you can buy new ones already dirty in downtown New York to save you the embarrassment of looking as though you hadn’t had them all your life), but the system of pigeonholing by footwear does not stop there. It encompasses the entire community under the terms White Shoe, Brown Shoe, and Black Shoe.
White Shoe applies primarily to the socially ambitious and the socially smug types who affect a good deal of worldly sophistication, run, ride and drink in rather small cliques, and look in on the second halves of football games when the weather is good. They try so hard not to be collegiate in the rah-rah (or, as they would say, “Midwestern”) sense of the term that they are probably the most “collegiate” types now in college. Brown Shoe applies to the general run of those who are socially acceptable but above thinking that it really makes any difference. They constitute the general middle class of the college that overlaps somewhat into both White and Black; their ambition is to be the average citizen raised to the highest power compatible with being a cultured and relaxed gentleman. Black Shoe implies some of the attributes of the “grind” and is applied to those who participate a little too eagerly in seminars, literary teas, and discussions of life, literature, and the pursuit of philosophy. They are in college because they consider it primarily an educational and not a social institution; they mind their own business rather intensely, are probably in love with the girls they will eventually marry, and in many respects appear a good deal more sophisticated and grown up than the White Shoe crowd.
The shoe categories obviously allow for a great deal more precise definition than this, as I have no doubt the first Yale man you meet will tell you. But pleasant as it is under the elms of New Haven, let us move into other groves of academe. We will have to take our “shoes” with us, however; the terminology may not be the same in all the colleges, but we will keep finding men whom the shoes will fit.
The Button-down Butterfly
First let us look at a group to whom the social aspects of college life are to all external appearances the only reason for being there. These are the social smoothies — butterflies in button-down collars — short haired, unbespectacled and with unextinguishable but slightly bored smiles. They wear the current college uniform, Ivy League version, but they wear it with an air of studied casualness, as though they would be at home and socially acceptable anywhere in whatever they had on. The uniform, of course, is the familiar khaki pants, white bucks, or possibly dirty white sneakers, a slightly frayed blue or white button-down Oxford shirt, no necktie, and a grey sweater which the wearer expects you to assume was knitted for him by a girl. On occasions that demand a gesture of formality, dark grey flannels without pleats supplant the khaki pants, a necktie (either regimental stripes or club tie) is worn, and so is a tweed jacket with vent, pocket flaps, ticket pocket, and three buttons. For bucks substitute well-shined cordovan in season. For city wear the uniform is a dark grey flannel suit; the haberdashery stays much the same.
The butterfly’s manner is as casual as his dress and like it conforms to a well-defined pattern. He says “Hi” to any passing figure whom he thinks he ought to know, but his eyes never quite focus on you, and the “Hi” is as much a dismissal as a greeting. He actually speaks only with those he knows to be entirely acceptable to the group in which he moves, and he avoids even the most casual social byplay with anyone who is not quite “shoe” as he can’t afford to be friendly with the wrong people. In the classroom he is politely tolerant of what goes on and sometimes, especially on Mondays he dozes as weekdays are merely the links between weekends, when he leaves town by car (his own if he happens to have one — but whether he has one or not he always has access to one (“only Black Shoes [take the] train”). Where girls are concerned he affects the attitude that they are an essential but always replaceable commodity. If you are to maintain your status in this group, you are not where you said you’d be when your girl arrives for a house party. She will have to go looking for you and likely as not will find you drinking in somebody else’s fraternity house. To continue to consort with he girl you were so desperately in love with in high school is considered a social absurdity, and sexually immature.
Conversation in this group has only one cardinal rule — it must never be permitted to take on any of the aspects of a serious discussion. To become involved or impassioned about any subject is a betrayal of the pose that nothing is important. The conversational pause, however, must always be filled, though never with a remark that looks as if it is intended to start a train of thought. “It all began when I was born a month too soon… ” will do nicely for most occasions, or “Well, let’s get back to the farm.” The point is that no situation is a serious situation, any occasion is an occasion to be taken lightly, thrown away and forgotten.
“School tie” is, of course, more important to members of this group than to any other, as is the necessity of belonging to the right clubs; equally important is the avoidance of any extracurricular activities with intellectual overtones. If they participate in sports, and most of them do, the sports are of the social varieties — tennis, squash, and skiing, rather than football, baseball or basketball. They regard the serious athlete as a “mercenary,” just as they regard the serious student as a “grind.” They take as many “gut” courses as the Dean’s office will allow and along toward examination time they pull up their argyles and spend the evening borrowing notes from more conscientious classmates. If they go to Harvard, they are apt to find it necessary to refurbish their intellects with the aid of Radcliffe girls.
The Intellectual Egg Beater
By glaring contrast with the button-down butterfly is the intellectual egg beater, though to an unpracticed eye it would often be difficult to tell them apart at a distance. The uniformity of the college costume is such that clothes are primarily a social camouflage, though there are always a few rebels who adopt a costume of mild revolt. I have been told, for example, that there are likely to be a certain number of Black Shoe physics majors and prospective engineers who are as inseparable from their blue jeans and plaid shirts and they are from their slide-rule holsters. There are also a few who as a gesture of strident defiance wear hand-painted ties, which are considered chic on the West Coast but sufficient cause for ostracism in the Ivy League. In general it is the science majors whose reputation for single-mindedness and nonconformity to the accepted standards of appearance is most blatant. Some undergraduates regard this as a lack of sensibility, a misjudgment of the true values of the liberal arts education in which a man is supposed to become a rounded personality, equipped to deal with worldly as well as intellectual matters. The only disturbing element in this attitude seems to be that on graduation the engineers and physicists are besieged with offers of high-paying jobs, and nobody can deny that there is something rather worldly and pleasant about that.
The devotees of the arts are not the radicals they were a couple of decades ago. It is not they who flout convention by leaving their collars unbuttoned; indeed, there is no button-up convention to flout. They are likely, however, to carry their books in briefcases, or attache cases; and bedeck their faces with heavy horn-rimmed glasses. They are not infrequently caught wearing neckties in class, though they are aware of the social risk they run in so doing. They tend to emulate the mannerism and mode of dress of the faculty rather than those of their peers, and they drink moderately, usually beer rather than martinis. They spend a great deal of time over weekends in the library. When they go to a football game, they sit through all four quarters. They do not become immoderately involved in it emotionally, but they are not so supremely casual about it as the second-half butterflies. Perhaps this is because they have a longer span of concentration. Where girls are concerned they make out rather better than the social smoothies — at least in their own terms. They have no reticence about devoting their attention to a single female, and there is no evidence that they have any less good taste or good luck that the butterflies. They think of a girl as a person who can also be talked to and with whom it is not a social gaffe to become involved. They are quiet about their attachments, and they place the satisfactions of continuity above those of variety.
Athletes — Pure and Impure
The traditional triple-threat athlete who shines on Saturday and sleeps through courses during the week, who wears his varsity letter plastered on his front (or as he used to, and may still, at Yale, on his back with his sweater turned inside out), and who is nudged through his courses with the help of a few friends and a few members of the faculty, all but vanished from the Ivy League some time ago. He was succeeded after the war by a type who, while his only known capital was his athletic prowess, treated sports as something of a gag and his own special talents for them as a knack which he really couldn’t help and which had nothing to do with anything that was important to him, such as women and liquor. He was half-diffident and half-smug about his ability, and he adopted the costume and customs of the social butterfly, though he rarely manged to attain the butterfly’s smoothness of exterior, casualness of manner, or special brand of cynicism. I have been told that his type is now on the wane and that a purer form of athlete, usually from a suburban high school, is reappearing in the Ivy League colleges, though he attains nowhere near the importance he once commanded in campus life and does not expect to or try to. He is as likely as not to be an able and conscientious student — in Shoe terms, Brown; in Princeton terms, Kazmaier.
The Competent Man
So far we have been looking only at the extremes who, if we were to add them up, would account for approximately forty percent of what members of the faculty are likely to refer to as “the Current Crop.” We do not need to describe what the sixty per cent look like or how they dress; they look like and dress like ninety percent of the other forty percent, a statistic that has no relevance whatever. But they think and behave somewhat differently. Superficially they emulate some of the social poses of the butterflies, or smoothies — the casualness, the easygoing cynicism, the lack of intensity that is characteristic of the social deportment of their generation. But their standards are quite different. The ideal, as I understand it, is to be “well rounded,” never to “panic” about anything or to be “tense” in any situation — in their terms, to “stay loose.”
The rounded man is generally well informed. He regards a gentlemanly familiarity with politics, the fine arts, literature and the more sophisticated aspects of popular culture as essential to “well-roundedness.” It behooves him to be able to discuss modern painting, “the modern novel,” James Joyce, TS Eliot, and “the willing suspension of disbelief” as easily as he does the characters in Mickey Spillane or Pogo or “Mary Backstage, Noble Wife.” He is inclined to think that any personal situation, however distasteful to him, will improve if you just don’t make a fuss about it, and that no public situation is as serious as the newspapers make it out to be.
He believe in being busy. He “heels” the college daily as a freshman or sophomore, is on the Dean’s List as a matter of course, and may devote his energies and talents to writing short stories, often in imitation of Tennesee Wiliams or JD Salinger. He is a moderate drinker and a moderate connoisseur of jazz, and he has a more than passing familiarity with folk music. He participates in sports — usually tennis or swimming — may be involved with the dramatic club or choral society, and his ideal is to be poised, busy, broad-thinking, broad-minded, and a gentleman. He is, to quote one of them, “too polished to be a radical.”
The college radical as we knew him in the Twenties and Thirties, the unbrushed and burning-eyed young man with a cause, seems to have no counterpart today. Causes are not popular. The old crusaders for modern art have evidently won their battle; reproductions of modern pictures hang today on the walls of many college rooms. The old fight for modern poetry of the days when Eliot and Pound were considered outlandish has petered out, and no equally controversial figures seem to have taken their place. The leftist political radical these days is extinct; I am told tolerance and a recognition of the pressures and counter-pressures of practical politics is the accepted approach to public affairs. To quote a competent man, “A determined effort is made to see the other fellow’s point of view.”
Not all of the sixty percent can achieve this supreme well-roundedness, of course, and the more successfully competent citizens have a certain well-tempered scorn for the man who is just a “good guy.” The good guy is not necessarily a polished butterfly, but he does not participate intellectually with the more knowing and facile elements of the community. His conversation makes up in volubility what it lacks in subtlety; he is glad to settle for “C’s” and he spends a large portion of his time at the movies or in his club or fraternity drinking beer, looking at picture magazines and watching TV. He is the soul and spirit of amiability — reliable, enthusiastic, and kindly to his own kind. In his room you will find pin-up calendars, a […] paddle from last summer’s vacation, monogrammed beer mug, road and railroad signs, and furniture that spilled beer won’t spoil. His attitude toward girls is demanding. She must be a good guy too, always ready to drop everything for a date, always “game,” never insistent about being taken home or to supper, able to put away quantities of beer and not show it. And she must know all the answers — but this is probably not difficult, because the same questions recur with deadly regularity.
These then are the main types who dwell within the ivied precincts — or so, at least, I’ve been led to believe. Some, like the engineers and the pre-medical students, look upon college as vocational training, but for the most part they consider a liberal education a step toward a new ideal — the gentleman of culture. In this age when scientist seem to call the tune, there is a strong tide running in the colleges against the limited kind of specialization that the pursuit of science and technology demands. If there is a revolt in the colleges today, it is the quiet revolt of the humanities.
In playing the game, “Let Me Tell You about the Younger Generation,” there is one more thing to bear in mind. The classification into which a man falls as an undergraduate bears astonishingly little relation to what he becomes later on. The social butterfly may just as well become a secondary-school teacher as an advertising space salesman or a lawyer. The literary egg beater may follow his undergraduate pursuit of the muse with a couple of years as the Harvard School of Business Administration and wind up in merchandising. The “good guy” who coasted along on his “C’s” and spent his weekends chasing women (or being chased by them) might easily marry a girl he has known all his life and find a way to get a Ph.D. in sociology. The correlation between undergraduate interests, associations, and poses, and what happens to a man afterwards is — to say the least — full of surprises and contradictions.