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Is There A High WASP Retailer In The 21st Century?

We may want to dress just like our mothers. Or we may want, for many reasons, to avoid our culture of origin, seeing it as baggage. No belting leather lined with watered silk, either. In my experience, however, cultural avoidance is a waste of time. We don’t have to fully embrace our backgrounds, if we don’t want. But what our grandmothers ate and what language our fathers spoke tends to matter in ways we can’t always predict. I have found it useful to pick a position vis-a-vis my heritage and stand there on both feet.

I spent some part of my life trying NOT to dress preppy. Didn’t want the label. I would refuse to try things on, “No, that will make me look too preppy.” When you are blonde, mid-height, mid-weight, and your nose is longish and uppish, preppy comes with the visual territory.

As I aged, and my confidence inexplicably increased, things changed. (Before I proceed let me say that this may apply only to me. I don’t pretend to speak with the voice of authority. Only the voice of hours of anxiety and analysis. Occasional rapture.) In my 50’s I chose to expand the concept of preppy to include me as I am. Executive fiat. High WASPs can be preppy, if they like. Preppies can be High WASPs, if they choose. No requirements. I like classic clothing, I like simple clothing, I like clothes with a design sensibility that sounds a little “Ding!”. Sometimes preppy. A little bit elegant. I don’t like frumpy clothing, I don’t like obviously outdated clothing, I can’t even do overly girly, but I don’t want to venture into butch. Somewhere in that Venn diagram is the High WASP x Northern California style that I was both born into and chose.

However, perfect things to wear did not at the point of realization start to fall out of the sky onto my head. I had to find a place, or places, to buy them. When I was working, I had this figured out. Now in uncharted territory, I ask myself this question.

There used to be High WASP retailers. Do they still exist?

I thought about the retailers vying for my dollar. My, “I can dress you head to toe!” dollar. My, “I know who you are, I know what you want, come here my dear, and let me Cinderella you.” dollar. Those siren calls, oh pink, oh shine, oh brocade, oh serge. The mainstream US suspects. Anthropologie, GAP, Ann Taylor, Talbots, Lilly Pulitzer, J. Crew. I decided to do some on the ground research. Yesterday I went to J. Crew. Research purposes only, you understand.

Boy do they do retail right or what? At least in the High WASP good taste diary.

I walked into the store. Stopped. Looked around. Before me was a torso mannequin, wearing a skirt, ruffled blouse, mohair cardigan, and multiple strands of large crystal necklaces. I could feel tingling in my fingertips and electricity in my mouth. The desire to become. The feeling, “Oh yes! I DO want to put myself in your hands. Make me like you. Find me colors that are a flag of beautiful and let me wave as I set sail.”

I don’t even like ruffles. Then there were these:

I walked slowly around the store, inner voices chanting in growing volume, “Yes….” A bag on display. The same bag. Over and over again. Looked uncannily like a certain Louis Vuitton sparkly metallic eggplant tote. I mean Amarante.

They had pumps. Lots of pumps. With 2.5 inch heels. But not a speck of dowdy, what with the toes peeping and the pearliness shimmering and all.

They had these.

Finally, they had these.

Which would clearly have to be worn in some combination of multiples.

Let me explain right off the bat that High WASPs don’t really buy accessories. Well, sure, shoes and bags, but since servants became prohibitively expensive nobody is carrying me or my belongings around. I am obliged to do it for myself and therefore need shoes and bags. We don’t buy fashion jewelry. We have the stuff mom and dad gave us, the gold Georg Jensen bracelet our dotty grandmother gave us the same year she gave the boy cousins shampoo and notepads shaped like pianos. We buy ourselves new diamond earrings sometimes. Sometimes our sisters and brothers give us Me and Ro for our 50th birthday.

We just don’t do what our mothers called “costume jewelry.” It makes us feel like we are trying, which, no matter how shimmery or adorable the effect, causes far too much emotional overhead.

We will, however, fall prey to the same lure as others. When we see that sparkly stuff all perfectly layered in its multi-color glory around the mannequin’s neck we get excited. We want to buy something. Something else, maybe, but something. The remainder of the family fortune calls to us, “You can afford it.” The “it” isn’t even specified.

J. Crew got me. No, no, I didn’t buy anything, I was too busy thinking. I can’t buy and think at the same time. But here’s what they did so well. So evilly well:

  • Showed me a way I might like to think I looked, all the details included. Didn’t require too much of a leap of faith. Didn’t have to step away from the High WASP comfort zone. After all, how always useful is a buttoned shirt and a pencil skirt?
  • Convinced me, and this is key, that I couldn’t do it myself. The color. Perfect and out of reach.

I couldn’t possibly be sure enough to wear an apricot shirt with a purple-pink skirt and brick pearl pumps. I know what shoes to wear with navy blue. I know that by heart, in my blood, in my sleep. For apricot, I need J. Crew’s help. For purple I need a whole army of reassurance. I need the salesperson to rave over how cute it all is. I want the salesperson to rave over how cute it is.

See what I mean? You can tell. These are the feverish rantings of a woman infected by retail. Damned by her heritage and doomed by her desires. Let us hope it is not terminal. If I bought anything, it would be for research purposes only. You believe me. I know you do. High WASPs don’t tell fibs. Well. Mostly. I might never be able to do apricot and would have to go for light blue instead. But I would blame it on the apricot.

All images J. Crew

40 Responses

  1. The purple skirt makes my heart skip a beat, I have decided it must be mine for the winter…

  2. Most High WASP retailers these days are independents – chains, for the most part (I haven't been in a J Crew in so long I can't remember the last time), are far too busy catering to the "young, hip" crowd. Those who carry clothing for the more "mature" customer make you feel like you should be playing Bingo and taking a few laps around the mall for exercise.

    High-end independent apparel retailers often do High WASP exceedingly well, though. Have I mentioned we develop software for them? LOL

  3. Great post! I get the same feeling when I enter J. Crew and to some extent Lilly, though they are so different from one another. Its the "we're selling you a lifestyle" feeling. And I want that lifestyle!

  4. Well Jan I'm happy to do some on the ground research at your clients:). Do tell! Glad to hear others like some of the this stuff. Doing my part for the economy…

  5. I dream about hiding under a rack in Anthropologie, and living there after closing.
    When I was a little girl I told my mother that I wanted Bloomingdale's to be my home.
    My girls, 5 and 8, are obsessed with the juniors department at Nordstroms.

    Amazing how the "right look" and "perfect detail" can make you feel so at home.
    If it weren't for fashion, would we have any idea who we really are?

  6. Okay, now you've got me wanting to go shopping….
    Luckily I am going to Manhattan this w/e. Just to see my son's apartment of course. But my daughter is taking the train in to meet us from college, and I may be forced to take her shopping. Perhaps I can help you with some research. Any suggestions??
    And I can definitely do apricot!

  7. Great post! This really cracked me up: "We just don't do what our mothers called "costume jewelry." It makes us feel like we are trying, which, no matter how shimmery or adorable the effect, causes far too much emotional overhead."

    I remember being told growing up that most costume jewelry made one look "cheap" which only whetted my appetite for it. I love the look that J.Crew has cultivated, yet find so few things there that work for me beyond the occasional pair of shoes or bit of sparkly stuff.

  8. I completely understand the one foot in the preppy closet, one foot happily out mindset. As I get older, I grow more comfortable with it, but I'm still a little of this & a little of that.

    I'm more of a Banana Republican myself, but I do like to pretend I'm living in one of those vibrantly colored J Crew catalogs every now & gain.

  9. I enjoyed this post enough that I want to comment, but I find there's so much food for thought here that I've got to go away and do that first — I'm thinking about our respective positioning vis-à-vis class and how that affects our relationship with retailers. (and, okay, I might be gone to do some shopping as well, now that my appetite is whetted!)

  10. I love your high wasp posts – it's such a cultural concept that we don't get in Australia I'm fascinated by it. We also don't do preppy either – that is an American style.

  11. JCrew is my retail of drug of choice. I do have a small complaint that they are getting overly feminine and not as classic. Too many ruffles. But all of your choices are perfectly unruffled. I too need that skirt.

  12. See I actually think they do retail poorly, and catalogues well. I love their catalogs, but two minutes in the store and I'm *done.* the store still has a scent of their 90's prep-dom, while their catalogue is all slightly feminine, urban-yet-bohemian chic. And I don't do preppy. No.

    Though I do agree with you on the costume jewelry. Better nothing than fake, is what the voice always whispers in my ear. Though it is awfuly pretty to look at.

  13. I have a hard time paying what JCrew wants for "fake" just for the fact that my belief has been for just a bit more money one can "invest" in "real".

    I do own fake jewelry but don't pay much for it.

  14. Sometimes I get upset about how much J Crew I wear. How predictable it is for me, a blond girl on the taller end of average height and medium weight to wear J Crew day in and out. But I love it. I'm going to keep wearing it. I want to drop my as yet unborn children off at college in J Crew and wear it to my little brother's graduation. It's a thing.

  15. hahaha, I'm a shortie blonde who somehow is an unexpected jock in all things preppy- you tell me what I'm supposed to wear ;)

    totally know what you mean too about classic, quality without being too frou-frou, my mom is the same way and that sensibility has rubbed off on me too- which is why costume jewelry is something we're not so big on. quality over quantity- the few pieces I have, I wear to death. and they're real!



  16. I find it really interesting that La Belette finds J. Crew now too feminine, and Meg finds it too preppy still. If we were a video game I'd line you two up and say Off to J. Crew and have you report back on what you see tomorrow. Because to me they hit the right balance. At least the day I went in, in the Stanford Shopping Center, around lunch time:).

  17. Yes, the people who do marketing are very good at their jobs. They show you what you *could* be, if only you had this and that, and that one over there, and this bag, and that one, too.

  18. I love what I see in J.Crew catalogs… and luckily (or not) for me, they do not have any store here!

    By the way, the boy cousins got shampoos and piano-shaped notepads? And you got a Georg Jensen bracelet? Granny must have a soft spot for you. :) I so ♥ Georg Jensen!

  19. I totally agree. Sometimes I feel it is geared for teenage/early 20's but I can usually find other things for me!


  20. I adore J Crew, and don't you worry, L, there is a sea of navy and grey there (see online choices for sweaters), they just don't display it in the stores.

    You want WASP? Brooks Brothers. Also see Maus and Hoffman, and Paul Stuart.

    I'm with you on the jewelry, as you know from my blog. And I wear a lot of old Jensen too, especially Henning Koppel.

  21. Brooks Brothers? My husband looks fabulous in their slacks. I've noticed a bit more sophistication in their offerings lately.

  22. I think JCrew is more for the nouveau riche, actually– though over the last few years they have tried to create a more upscale image.Their catalog styling is well done, but the actual product leaves something to be desired (quality and fit have been an issue). Still, for a mid-priced mass mall retailer, it has an appeal unlike its peers (BR, gap, ann taylor, etc.). The label aspires to designer, and it's not going to happen.

  23. I should add, I do like JCrew's basics (like the plain button down and pencil skirt above), but they are really overdoing it with the baubles and ruffles. It's because they are trying to shed the preppy image that made them famous. Or maybe they are trying to redefine what preppy is. I can't decide.

  24. And I think Ralph Lauren did High Wasp but let fabric quality slip in the last decade. To me the quintessential HW- Hermes raincoat with ancient jeans.

  25. I'm with "TM," but she (I assume you are a she, TM) was much more articulate than I. I have never quite been able to put my finger on it, but there is something off about J.Crew to me. It's more trendy than classic to me, and I like my classics to be Classic.

    I used to love Abercrombie & Fitch — when they still had the "& Fitch" and weren't catering to 15 year olds. I still wear some of my old Abercrombie things that are at least 20 years old. They still look good because the styles are plain and the materials good quality.

  26. Brooks Brothers I will do for work, but it's too staid for my casual self. I never would have understood that J. Crew aspires to designer, but I see what you mean. Love the idea of Hermes raincoat with jeans. Must go see what one looks like:).

  27. Such a fabulous post Miss LPC, you articulate the whole apparel & accessories syndrome exceptionally well.

    You know our taste runs to Brooks (yawn), Talbots at times (double yawn?), occasional Crew for the color palette sans the ruffles, and a mix elsewhere. We could crawl on our soapbox and wax pathétique about the original Abercrombie (sniff), but shall spare everyone that tedium.

    The point about the smaller, independent stores is well taken, there are *very* few outposts where one can acquire the skirt, jacket, shoes and bag in one stop, and that number dwindles daily, as you know.

    Love this post, and the comments!

  28. I guess I love costume jewelry. I take the view that the Art Nouveau artisans did, that artistry and beauty is more important than intrinsic value (to me). They used all sorts of metals and materials that had not previously been used in jewelry in western society.

    I do get a lot of stuff on Etsy. Is a handcrafted lampwork glass bead that's not trying to look like a jewel wrong? How about a bead that looks like someone cut away a rock to expose a jewel inside? What about a clay pendant with a picture fused to it? What about wearing a vintage earring as a pendant when it's made of three-dimensional brass branches with green glass leaves?

    I just feel joy for these things because of the shapes and colors.

    Sure, I have stuff in precious metals, but only wearing precious metals and stones seems so limiting to me.

  29. I love the idea of artisanal jewelry. To borrow a word from materfamilias. Ethnic jewelry as well. I'm just terrible at it. The High WASP aesthetic loves it too, i.e. the whole arty aunt phenomenon. Which might be a whole new post.

  30. Thank you, LPC. I thought I was doomed. ;-)

    Not that I'd change though. I think I'd be more depressed if some of my costume or artisan stuff was stolen than I would the real stuff. If they took my real Akoya pearl stud earrings for instance, my soul wouldn't be crushed because they are easily replaced. But if they took those vintage costume earrings, I'd never be able to replace them because they are rare and unusual. If they took my brass earrings with one-of-a-kind vintage beads or my handmade sterling silver filigree flower earrings from Thailand, I'd be despondent. Etc …

    BTW, I'm 51 and too much a free spirit to fit into the WASP asthetic, although I like some of it. I also look very young and have no children, which has delayed any sense of gravity.

    I was not brought up in wealth at all, yet there seems to be some WASP ideas that I can detect. Showing off has always seemed unspeakably vulgar to me, which nowadays means I'm assaulted by vulgarity on a daily basis. Restraint is hard to come by. Weddings dripping in too many crystals bother me, but lots of flowers don't.

    Oh, and I love those pumps from J. Crew. And I loved that deep purple purse you bought.

    I'm just going on and on. ;-)

  31. LOL

    I've seen lightly frosted branches (not crystals) lining an aisle and a crystal snowflake cake topper for a winter wedding in Colorado and it was enchanting.

    But crystals dangling and festooned everywhere seems vulgar. Also don't like tall centerpieces that block the view of the person opposite you.

  32. I find very little about JCrew appealing. I occasionally find a top or skirt there, but frankly, I think it's geared to women in their twenties as shown in their catalog.

    I also have a very hourglass figure so it really doesn't fit my body well either.

    I do enjoy looking at their catalogs though…they're always beautifully photographed.

  33. Oh this post is marvelous, and the comments are very nice as well. I love J Crew and thinks it strike a nice balance for the most part. Sometimes they seem to be trying to hard to find a broader market. Some of their things are better than others.

    Sometimes the costume jewelry is just too much. I used to feel very strongly about the no costume jewelry thing, and then I was about to say I abandoned that premise, but to do so would be false. I like real jewelry, although I am not about to limit myself to my grandmother's pieces, love old Jensen, and I do wear costume, but it tends to be either arty/artisanal/or deliberately rustic. I despise costume jewelry that tries to look like real, although I do find that old costume jewelry can be far more interesting than the new stuff.

    I think I need to go shopping now too.

  34. Mardel,

    You clarified something I neglected to say. When I was defending "costume jewelry", I should have said I usually don't go for anything that tries to look real or be something it isn't.

    Thank you for mentioning that.

    I like your terms "arty/artisanal or deliberately rustic" which describes what I like to a "T".

    I have a friend who is turning 50 this October. We live in the mountains and anything rustic or nature inspired goes over well here. I am giving her some sterling silver earrings that look like branches and leaves with freshwater pearls hanging at the ends, and a necklace that looks like a branch with pine cones made of brass with copper overlay.

    Suits her life here. We do go to parties and restaurants, but it's casually elegant.

  35. I love costume jewellery when it is so completely over the top that it is quite clear that the 'real' think would have cost simply millions. Otherwise it's just a little sad and depressing.

    The debate that rages over what J Crew is vs what J Crew attempts to convince us it is reminds me of everything I hate about shopping.

  36. Peonies,

    Good point. I'd thought of that "over-the-top" aesthetic too, but didn't post it.

    I once bought a pair of 50's era earrings on Ruby Lane in various shades of green and blue irridescent rhinestones. They were curved to fit the contours of the earlobe.

    To me, anything irridescent isn't pretending to be real. They didn't suit me, so I gave them to a friend who loves 1950's style. She wore them to see Sex In The City with a bunch of her girlfriends. They were all getting dressed up and going to a special showing and drinking Cosmopolitans. When her girlfriends saw her in those earrings, they all screamed.

    They were so over-the-top in a cocktail party sort of way, they succeeded.

    It was pure fun and I know she'd never wear them to anything but a cocktail party.

  37. Ah, yes, the lure of retail… I have to say that I set foot in JCrew today (wedding to go to on Saturday — waited till the last minute, so here I was at the dreaded Mall instead of taking my time and finding better venues and options). I thought they had lovely stuff, though, and I wouldn't have considered it my style a few years back. Lots of gauzy, translucent, dreamy ruffles and gathered materials, all very subtle. I was surprised, I guess, that I liked most of the stuff I tried on…

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