When William F. Buckley Jr. went to the great Lyford Cay Club in the sky a year ago today, an era of authentic WASPy style died with him. If you want to get technical about it, Buckley wasn’t really a WASP (because he was Catholic not Protestant), and his wasn’t so much style as anti-style, but in the decades when he rose to prominence as a conservative provocateur par excellence, such distinctions waned in importance. “Being a WASP has nothing to do with religion or money,” author Susanna Salk declared last year in her preppy-stuffed picture book A Privileged Life: Celebrating WASP Style. Rather, she said, it’s all about getting the look right. Whether Buckley would have agreed is debatable, but there he was on page 84, clutching a copy of God and Man at Yale, his button down rumpled and repp tie askew, a picture of pure prep imperfection.
Old clothes “advertise how much of conventional dignity [the upper classes] can afford to throw away,” author Paul Fussell noted in Class: A Guide Through the American Status System. “The wearing of clothes excessively new or excessively neat and clean suggests that your social circumstances are not entirely secure.” That was of course never a problem for Buckley, whose “pleasantly disheveled and informal” look (as described by protégé Gary Wills) was rivaled only by that of his fellow patrician and friend George Plimpton. That’s not to say Buckley’s clothes weren’t well made. Fussell points to an episode of his long-running show Firing Line in which he interviewed an oafish Texan of decidedly humbler origins. The Texan’s jacket collar “gaped open a full two inches,” Fussell writes. “Buckley’s collar, of course, clung tightly to his neck and shoulder, turn and bow and bob as he might.” However, his genteel shabbiness did not extend to exhibiting “prole gape.”
A version of this story by Jared Paul Stern originally appeared in the New York Times’ T Magazine (online)