Fitzgerald and Princeton Style

When it comes to fostering fashion trends, there’s Princeton and then there’s the rest of the Ivies. From the three-button suit to a namesake haircut, Princeton students have popularized many menswear styles: Norfolk suits, raccoon-skin coats, tweed blazers, rep ties, spectator shoes, khaki pants, Shetland sweaters. The students’ sartorial influence has been dulled by time, but for much of the twentieth century it was well acknowledged by both a watchful fashion industry and their colleagues. Life magazine’s 1938 article, “Princeton Boys Dress in a Uniform” confirmed that “tailors and haberdashers watch Princeton students closely” and those at Harvard and Yale called Princetonians “the prototype of Hollywood’s conception of how the well-dressed college boy should look.” Okay. So, Princeton men held a place of prominence on the American fashion scene. Why?

A main reason is F. Scott Fitzgerald. His place of prominence on the American cultural landscape in the years following World War One furthered the school’s reputation as a playpen for the rich, a country club, where all men were “lazy and good-looking and aristocratic—you know, like a spring day.” The mood of the Princeton campus in the years right before the War is best captured in his first novel, This Side of Paradise (1920). An enduring commentary on both collegiate culture and the evanesce of youth, the novel also provides a window into Fitzgerald’s experience. Its main character, Amory Blaine, is a self-portrait, and much of the plot follows Fitzgerald’s own life. In a conversation about which Ivy college to attend, Amory decided that “Princeton drew him most, with its atmosphere of bright colors and its alluring reputation as the pleasantest country club in America.” As for the University’s eating clubs, Ivy was “detached and breathlessly aristocratic.” Cottage, Fitzgerald’s own club, was “an impressive mélange of brilliant adventurers and well-dressed philanderers” (44).

The portrayal of the university in the novel concerned administrators who were well aware of the public’s impression. In May 1920, President John Grier Hibben wrote to Fitzgerald, “Your characterization of Princeton grieved me. I can not bear to think that our young men are merely living for four years in a country club and spending their lives wholly in a spirit of calculation and snobbishness.” Hibben even asked the author for advice on ways to improve the situation. Fitzgerald admitted in his response that the novel “does over accentuate the gaiety and country club atmosphere of Princeton. . . . It is the Princeton of a Saturday night in May.” Offering what appears to be well-intentioned praise, Fitzgerald noted that the school’s current undergraduates are “cleaner, healthier, better looking, better dressed, wealthier and more attractive than any undergraduate body in the country.”1

As his work documented, Princetonians had money and a penchant for quantity and quality. They were courted by the rapidly consolidating American fashion industry. Yearbooks, newspapers, and athletic programs were filled with advertisements for Brooks Brothers and Franks Brothers—a top-tier shoe company. Not only did Princeton men spend big bucks on their own apparel, but their stamp of approval helped manufacturers court other collegians. The school’s name attached to a design spoke to the garment’s integrity. E.E. Taylor Corporation’s “Princetonian” shoe was advertised as direct “from the campus of the country’s collegiate fashion center” and was one of the company’s best selling models of 1934.

To a large degree, Princetonians lived in a self-regulated environment with a well-defined social pecking order. Set off in rural New Jersey with little meddling from the administrators, Princeton men created a homogenous campus culture that prioritized “fitting in.” On his first day at Princeton, Amory “felt unnecessarily stiff and awkward among these white-flannelled, bare-headed youths who must be juniors and seniors, judging by the savoir faire with which they strolled” and he “wondered vaguely if there was something the matter with his clothes.” For the first half of the century, Princeton freshmen and sophomores were banned by written rule or by tradition from wearing particular garments, such as white flannel pants or striped ties. One had to earn the right to dress like a Princeton man.

An ample bank account and the need to dress the part allowed the Princeton students to assemble a well-honed wardrobe, but the leisure-based lifestyle of their campus inspired the actual trends. Athletics dominated their student culture. Sportswear was worn around the clock. Earlier trends, such as tweed golfing suits or flannel blazers borrowed from the crew team, had an air of formality. Those that came later in the century couldn’t have been more casual, including sweatshirts, sneakers and t-shirts. Despite such differences, the collective contribution of Princeton students to the modern American wardrobe is undeniable. Whether you’re wearing khakis and a sport coat or jeans and a cardigan, chances are, your clothes were first popularized at Princeton.

1. This May, 1920 correspondence is found in Fitzgerald papers at the one-and-only Firestone Library.

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