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A Brief History of P-town Style

The Student Tailor Shop's 1947 advertisement hasn't quite stood the test of time. With Palmer Square in their backyard and New York City a 40-minute train ride away, Princeton students have all the resources to put together a decent wardrobe. However, what the Student Tailor Shop knew back then, and what the campus is very aware of today, is that Princeton (like it or not) has a distinct fashion style.

Nantucket red/salmon (Honestly, can we just call it pink?) pants and a canary-yellow polo, collar up, are never démodé on campus. Stroll into Frist with an overdose of plaid and a clashing sports jacket, and no one will give it a second thought. While these campus staples may seem like long-honored traditions, in the past century Princeton's constantly evolving sense of fashion has continually redefined "prep."


There was a very distinct fashion culture on campus long before Ralph Lauren, Burberry and Lacoste met Old Nassau. According to a 1957 article in Town Topics on the progression of the "Ivy League Look," "In the days when Princeton set the fashion, not only for Ivy League students but for alumni as well, the Princeton look was one of impeccable good grooming."

The word "impeccable" may even be an understatement for the strict fashion code on campus. In the early 1900s, incoming students would receive the "Freshman Handbook," a crash course guide to Princeton with a two-page "Don't" list. While some taboos covered social blunders, most addressed clothing in a way that is reminiscent of Cosmopolitan's "Commandments."

Here's a sampling from a 1909 "Freshman Handbook:" Don't wear a hat in Princeton. Don't wear the college colors in any form. Don't turn up your trousers. Don't wear a flannel shirt. Don't wear a V-neck sweater. Don't wear a yellow slicker. Don't put your trousers inside your high boots.

This list of standards was not reserved for special occasions, semi-formals or nights out on the town. Whether students were going to class, lounging in the Quad or making a trip to the University store, a white Oxford shirt with a stiff collar was the Princeton way in the early 20th century. The retailer of choice was Brooks Brothers, and the hottest item on their racks was the four-button suit (coupled with a vest). By the 1920s, an "acceptable" closet might contain high shoes, knickers, belted jacket, vest and, perhaps, a pocket watch with a chain (Town Topics, April 7-13, 1957). The style was not uniform throughout the year, and many would opt for linen suits when it was warm and stick to heavy wool for the winter. Stacks and stacks of alumni scrapbooks at Mudd Library are a testament to this "Ivy League look." There are countless photos of smiling Tigers proudly posing in their starched shirts.

But not everyone was content with the formality of the Princeton style. About half a century later, in 1950, an anonymous and very disgruntled student wrote a letter to The Daily Princetonian bashing "clothing conformity." According to the letter, the general trend of the times was "some little formula of gray flannels [apparently flannels had fallen back into favor], plus white bucks, plus striped tie." The letter, published on Feb. 25, 1950, asked, "Must a Princeton man always look like a Princeton man? Of necessity his environment will affect him, but need it indelibly impress its stamp on his wardrobe?" As the 1950s progressed, the voice of the anonymous author and those that shared his position were realized in America's social landscape and, eventually, a changing fashion palette. New tinted shirts of various colors and the rising popularity of athletic and cabana styles would accelerate the fashion revolution.

However, as America moved towards a more casual, liberal atmosphere, the college administration was disturbed by changing fashion trends. A Dec. 13, 1963 article in the 'Prince' revealed the administration's desire to enforce a stricter dress code for undergraduates. At the time, the University only made coats and ties mandatory for Sunday lunch at the Commons, and there was a dress code at certain eating clubs for select meals. In the letter, the Dean said he wanted to make coats and ties required at more events in order to stop the movement towards casual dress. "'Unfortunately the way many students dress today gives the impression that they are sloppy,'" Dean Lippincott said. According to the administration, he assumed that requiring coats and ties at more meals would eventually lead to coats and ties in the classroom.


Dean Lippincott's plan didn't pan out, and the the 1970s brought the disco, Travolta and the introduction of women to Princeton. The latter part of the 20th century dealt one of the final blows to the 'old-boys' school's brand of rigid formality. A photo spread from the June 10, 1974 issue of Women's Wear Daily captures a typical spring day at Princeton. The spread, aptly titled "The Leg Show," presents a number of students, male and female, "taking advantage of spring weather [and] showing lots of leg." Whereas exposed ankles would have been gossip-worthy a century earlier, short skirts and even shorter cutoff jeans were now a staple of the new casual and sporty prep-wear.

The era that spanned the '70s and '80s also saw the heyday of plaid and the polo with upturned collar. Well, maybe some things will never change.

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