09 Sep 2011

The Ivy League Hermeneutics of Footwear

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White buckskin shoes became a symbol of insouciant membership in the croquet-playing, country club elite when worn uncared for, unchalked, and as mere utilitarian foot gear with manifest indifference to their special twixt-Memorial and Labor Days proper place. The more neglected and decayed the better. The most “shoe” of all would be the ones repaired with tape.

We still refer to “white shoe law firms” today, but young people at Yale today, alas! no longer remember the adjective which, back in my day, used to represent the supreme compliment at Yale.

Saying that someone was “shoe” described him as approximating the ideal of Yalieness itself. Being shoe meant that one possessed sophistication, the capacity for effortless achievement, and the specifically Prep School elite version of cool in its highest expression and form. The concept of shoe was essentially the same quality that Castiglione referred to in his treatise on The Courtier as sprezzatura.

The wearing of beat-up, ill-maintained (formerly white) bucks during school year, outside the proper Memorial-to-Labor-Day season, represented the perfect badge of membership in the elite because while mere ownership of white bucks in itself would serve as evidence of affluence and access to the sunlit fields of Gatsby-ish country club life, the ability to treat white bucks as fungible, the ownership of an older pair which could be demoted and conscripted into routine knock-around daily use demonstrated long-term upper caste membership, enough to wear out one’s white bucks.

Ivy Style has resurrected from the crypt of American culture a must-read 1953 Esquire magazine article discussing shoe in the concept’s heyday.

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.

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14 Feedbacks on "The Ivy League Hermeneutics of Footwear"

“White shoe” law firms

[...] Zincavage looks into the Prep School origins of that footwear [...]



anon

You might want to learn how to write, before you start blogging. I couldn’t follow what the hell you were trying to say here.



At Anon

@ Anon – You might want to learn how to read, before you start critiquing. Those of us with decent comprehension skills had no problem reading this.



Guest

“The wearing of beat-up, ill-maintained (formerly white) bucks during school year, outside the proper Memorial-to-Labor-Day season, represented the perfect badge of membership in the elite because while mere ownership of white bucks in itself would serve as evidence of affluence and access to the sunlit fields of Gatsby-ish country club life, the ability to treat white bucks as fungible, the ownership of an older pair which could be demoted and conscripted into routine knock-around daily use demonstrated long-term upper caste membership, enough to wear out one’s white bucks.”

This sentence should be taken out and shot.



Eli

While devotees of modern writing, with its spare insistence on a single thought for a single sentence, are clearly unable to comprehend the layered intentions of the sentence to which “Guest” has made reference, those of us with the intellectual capacity to juggle a plethora of ideas with deftness had no trouble at all ascertaining Mr. Zincavage’s meaning.

And really, who the hell let “guest” in anyway? What is that doorman up to?



Stella Baskomb

Well, Guest, your brown shoes are stunning, really.



Pushkin

Didn’t know about this website yesterday. Was better off then. Though the thought of Eli “juggling a plethora of ideas” is genuinely funny. Perhaps someday he will hook up with Stella to produce “layered intentions” of his own. English majors are so cute.



super-prep

Alas, you either are in the club or not as the comments show. The sentence in Q mocks Fitzgerald and captures an era when those in the know could flaunt it. It is wonderful. Trust me –I grew up on the other side of the divide.



Not a Shoe

Interestingly enough, there is a spectrum of “Shoeness”. While being “shoe” may have been a very high compliment within the Ivory Towers, being called “a shoe” is actually a pretty grave insult in certain places. In some places “shoes” are looked upon with disdain as people whose only worth to a work crew is that they fill a pair of shoes on a call. For many of those who think of “shoes” in this latter sense, most buckskin wearing, prep school types would most certainly qualify as “shoes” (in the derogatory manner) since they probably wouldn’t know the first thing about hard work.



JDZ

Guest’s comment is exactly the kind of thing my wife often says.

Alas! My blogging is time-restricted and stream-of-consciousness one draft wonders (just like my Yale papers) are what you get until revenues expand to point of providing staff support.

A fair criticism.



Karen Myers (the wife)

I have limited editorial authority (though unlimited in-house sarcasm), but I do draw the line at any sentence which requires me to read it 3 times before concluding that grammatical correctness cannot save it. Although I must say, those of you who know David will remember the orutund hand waving gestures that typically accompany these gleeful perorations.

Be grateful I’m able to kill as many breath-pause commas as I do.



Jest

JDZ deserves admiration for stretching out what could have been two clauses into a blog post. I would post an example, but that would open me up to ridicule beyond my ability to handle.

Though Mark Twain once apologized for a letter, saying he had not the time to make it shorter, I don’t know how to level that charge against Eli without bringing the unfortunate JDZ under collateral fire. I enjoyed his blog.



Robert Whitcomb

I inherited a pair of old white bucks from my father, who wore them in the ’30s.
They lasted until the Ford administration.



Tim of Angle

Of course, in the Navy ‘black shoe’ and ‘brown show’ have entirely different meanings.



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