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The Things that Remain the Same

Originally Posted: May 04, 2004

Mary Cummings

The Fairy Tale (A Summer Day) c.1892; Oil on canvas; Private Collection

On August 15, 1897, The New York Times declared in its Sunday supplement that Southampton could no longer be considered "an unpretentious little resort." It had, in fact, achieved a "fashionable position and reputation which promises to be lasting..."

Pronounced "fashionable" by the foremost purveyor of truth, Southampton was on notice. Society's columnists and cameramen would henceforth be stalking the ranks of the resort's upper crust, on the prowl for fashion plates sporting the latest look in leisure-time finery.

Back then, when the resort was new and the people few, fashion was dictated by a supremely self-confident Old Guard elite. In Southampton the women who commanded the social seas were known as the "Dreadnaughts." They hosted the teas, defined the dress code, and brooked no departures from a strict code of conduct, though to at least one irreverent observer, the high-toned image they sought to project—and fashion, after all, is all about projecting an image—fell laughably short of the mark.

William Merritt Chase with his wife and students

Here is what Marietta Minnegerode Andrews, a visiting student at William Merritt Chase's art school on Shinnecock Hills in the mid-1890s, thought of the high-culture claque that fawned over Chase and fancied themselves arts patrons. In a memoir, she recalls deadly afternoon teas hosted by "overfed old ladies bristling in silks and satins, and feeble pale old gentlemen with very good clothes on, and certain evidences of having had too gay a time in the dear dead days beyond recall..."

She is less caustic in describing the very good clothes worn by the great man himself, who appeared before his art students looking "neat, immaculate, the sharpest creases in his trousers, the reddest of geraniums in the buttonhole of his gray morning coat, his brown Van Dyke beard trimmed to perfection."

It was a time of starched collars and Prince Alberts (long double-breasted frock coats) for the men, boned bodices and bustles for the ladies, who trotted out the same elaborate ball gowns for summer dances that they had worn for the New York winter "season." The only concessions made to summer were in sports dress, though they were hardly noticeable.

The Maidstone Club, East Hampton

An illustrated history of East Hampton's Maidstone Club shows a woman in 1882 holding a racket, ready for play, wearing a heavy-weight hat, full-length skirt and the kind of tight-fitting bodice that must have required some serious corseting. At the Meadow Club, the Southampton ladies were said to find sport in spectating, while providing much to look at themselves in their long white dresses, big straw hats and white gloves. The men, whose standard club dress was white flannel trousers, blue blazers and boaters, doffed the hats and the jackets out on the court but kept the long pants and long sleeves.

Perhaps the most fashionably impractical sports outfit was the one worn by the original members of the Shinnecock Hills Golf Club. Even Samuel Parrish, who is credited with hitting "the first golf ball ever struck in Shinnecock Hills" (an historic marker tells the story), and who probably played a role in choosing the uniform (his mother, Sarah Redwood Parrish was, after all, a Dreadnaught of the first order), seems to have thought better of the costume in time. He wrote later of the club's fledgling years when "the game was being played in the 'Hills' in all its red-coated, white-collared and monogrammed brass-buttoned splendor (a picturesque but for many years past an abandoned feature of the early days of golf; I still have the buttons, the moths the coat)..."

Women golfers, meanwhile, donned their usual voluminous ensembles for a round at the club—maxi-skirts, form-fitting shirtwaists, significant hats—and yet managed to win the United States Golf Association women's title for Shinnecock each year for the first four years of the club's history. Female bicyclists coped somehow with ankle-length skirts, but the billowing bathing costumes maidenly modesty required presented a real risk of drowning under the weight of so much sodden yardage, which kept most ladies from venturing much beyond the water's edge.

Everett Herrick, a founder of the Maidstone Club and a social tyrant to make the Dreadnaughts look reticent, took his dips in a blue flannel bathing suit trimmed with white braid reaching down almost to his calf, according to the club history, which goes on to note: "If he saw a bathing suit that he thought immodest he would not hesitate to tell the man or woman his views and practically order him or her off the beach." On dry land he favored a tam-o'-shanter, knickerbockers and a giant cigar.

Things didn't loosen up much on the fashion front until after the Great War. Women did show a bit of neck, while men kept their high collars but allowed the moths to feast on their frock coats. Hats held firm on both fronts. The late Robert Keene, Southampton's long-reigning historian and resident curmudgeon, always felt that Southampton peaked as a fashionable resort in those years just prior to World War I. "There was real elegance here then," he told an interviewer, sounding one of his favorite themes: the slide from formality to bad form, which, in his view, reached the tipping point in the fifties.

Mr. Black Jack Bouvier

It is true that the strict social codes he so admired went by the boards after that. The rules of dress loosened up and, only a few years later, the fashion plates of the pre-war years began to look incredibly quaint. Consider two generations of Bouvier men, Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis's father and grandfather. John Vernou Bouvier Jr., patriarch of the family that began summering in East Hampton in 1915, was known as a stylish dresser. His customary summer Sunday uniform, as described by another of his grandchildren, was "a high stiff collar, brown tweed jacket, white linen trousers, black socks and white shoes." He also sported a mustache waxed to spiky perfection, which made for risky kissing by little Jackie and the other grandchildren.

Then consider his son, John Vernou Bouvier III, Jackie's father, who nurtured his image as a dangerously dashing playboy in the twenties and thirties (they called him "Black Jack Bouvier") and brought the family's reputation for sartorial splendor firmly into the jazz age. On a summer Sunday in East Hampton, his nephew relates, "he would combine a wide-lapelled double-breasted beige gabardine suit, with its cuffless trousers rolled up slightly to reveal no socks on his deeply tanned ankles, with black evening pumps." It may be Black Jack whose fondness for "Brooks Brothers socks" (otherwise known as bare ankles) established socklessness as a mark of high-style insouciance. He probably also played a role in associating the pencil-thin mustache with a warning: "Women Beware."

In the thirties, glamour took a definite lead over by-the-books elegance and, despite the Great Depression, there was evidently plenty of it out in the Hamptons. Longtime Southampton Village historian and man-about-town Dick Foster looked anything but depressed in a photograph from the time. Wearing a light summer suit, he strikes a jaunty pose next to a boldly beautiful woman wearing wide-legged trousers and a chic little jersey with a cheerful nautical motif. Both wear their hair sleek, patent-leather shiny and close to the head.

Mary Johnson and Richard Foster

Everyone knows what happened after that—Joan Crawford shoulder pads and no-nonsense wartime wardrobes. A photographer posted at the Bathing Corporation gates was better off snapping the men, some of whom, like Governor Al Smith and Columbia University President Nicholas Murray Butler (caught in conversation one day as they entered the club) still dared to be dandies. The dapper Governor in pin-striped trousers, wide striped jacket and vest, two-toned shoes and broad-banded boater may have had the edge, but Butler's white flannels, dark jacket and snazzy shoes gave him a good run.

Since the 1950s, fashion has moved at speeds that make the pace of change during the first half of the century seem almost glacial: from preppy to punk, ethnic to opulent, from boyish severity to ultra-femininity, hippy to homespun, classic Calvin to erotic, exotic and outré. Through it all, some observers claim to see something that could be described as a Hamptons Look. It's not swanky like Saint Tropez. It's not fashion-is-for-the-frivolous Connecticut. It's not sexy South Beach.

John Duka, who used to write "Notes on Fashion" for The New York Times, saw a consistency in high-key colors. "Fashion trends may come and go," he wrote in 1984, "but in the Hamptons, country club bright colors never die." Attending a summer benefit, "where the rain gushed through the tent while Lester Lanin's orchestra refused to call it quits," he noted gleefully that "the crowd of 1,000 was alight with men wearing bright-green trousers." (Women, of course, got their hot pinks, lime greens and sky blues from the indomitable Lilly Pulitzer—and still do.)

Duka speculated in his column that most of the colorful trousers probably came from Shep Miller, whose shop on Jobs Lane in Southampton was for decades The Source. "The clothes there are some of the best to be found of the type that could be described as formal beach wear," wrote Duka, noting that as they are "extremely traditional in cut," the "totally devil-may-care approach to color" is permissible.

The cut-color dichotomy is oddly paralleled in an observation by Tom Wolfe who sets one of his characters down in a Hamptons party where the baked-bean aristocrats wear sober shirts, yacht-club ties, navy-blue blazers, brass buttons, and, mirabile dictu, crazy slacks—tartans and batiks. They are all sobersides above the waist, wild and crazy below.

That was 20 years ago, but a woman walking down Main Street today in a shift from Lilly Pulitzer would not look at all out of place. Whether a man outfitted according to Shep Miller's recommendations in 1984 would melt so easily into the crowd is another question. This is the ensemble Miller suggested for John Duka's social forays in the Hamptons: "a bright-green nubby silk jacket worn with a bright-yellow crinkly cotton voile shirt, set off by a navy ascot with yellow polka dots and pale-yellow silk trousers."

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