Thursday, April 12, 2012

Whit Stillman's Guide to Preppie Fashion

Posted By on Thu, Apr 12, 2012 at 10:23 AM

Even though Damsels in Distress, Whit Stillman’s latest film, is set in a collegiate Oz rather than the Ivy League, he continues to have an unshakeable reputation as cinema's Preppie ambassador. But preppie looks in the films—and on him—are in many ways simply an economical solution for a look that doesn’t age, as much a matter of penny-pinching as aesthetics. (Buying a few beautiful pieces and wearing them until they fall apart is a form of anti-consumerism.) So preppie in his films is a bi-product of a search for timelessness, appropriate for films that usually take place in a nonspecified moment in the past and seem, too, instantly like classics.

Stillman spoke with us about classic collegiate looks, his Rushmore-esque past, and his fashion advice for those with a “pathology of cheapness.”

The new film takes place on a campus. Do you have thoughts on classic American collegiate looks?
What is that book that’s so famous, Take Ivy? It’s a very famous book about American collegiate fashion.

The Japanese book?
Yes. It looks terrible. In my memory it was much better. I remember the old catalogs for my school, the Millbrook school, and everyone looked kind of woodsy and great. It was a very naturalist-oriented school. And it’d be interesting to see the old school catalogs from the early 60s.

Were the catalogs anything like the reality?
Absolutely. They didn’t have the budget to hire models. But I think my clothes, when I went away to school, my mother had bought at Giant supermarket, or something like that. It wasn’t very prepossessing.

But there was a really nice spirit in that school. It was crawling with people like Violet [Greta Gerwig's character in Damsels in Distress], actually, people who seemed really off-putting but they were actually really kind of nice and sweet. I remember coming from a school in Washington DC that was supposed to be really right on and political and correct; people were really mean to each other. Then I went up to Millbrook, and I remember a guy coming to my room and opening my closet and checking out my clothes. People there would be very competitive and observant. It was fun mocking. But it didn’t make you feel bad. It was being included.

What about sneakers and or sweatshirts? Those are kind of classic collegiate looks.
Oh really? [Faux-innocently] You know, I’ve never worn sneakers or sweatshirts in my life. And I wore blue jeans—pretty much the same pair of blue jeans—every day, throughout college. And I decided the moment I graduated from college that I would never wear blue jeans again. And I have never worn blue jeans again.

The tuxedos that you used in Metropolitan, created such a distinctive look—black and white in color—and created a sort of code, everyone dressed alike, and a specific world for the film. I heard that you got them for free?
That was one of the key things about that production. Because one of the ideas of Metropolitan was we could the actors dressed formally, and it would look different from all the other independent films; it wouldn’t look like a typical Sundance film. (Which was a problem, because we almost didn’t get into Sundance.) We thought this could be very cinematic, very minimalist and cinematic. So it would be these very dressed up characters talking in a very rich, plush room. And the whole story came from that.

So the key thing was to get these clothes. So I said to someone on the production, go to A.T. Harris. And she went to A.T. Harris, and he loved her—she was a really charming girl—and he said we could use all the evening clothes we wanted, for free. Also we had a scene that we wanted to shoot there, and he was the tailor. He said that he made so much money from Metropolitan, that he bought a country house. Metropolitan was the perfect ad for A.T. Harris.

Next: Whit's Guide to Style

There are certain things one likes but it’s a question of how they can be put together so they can be comfortable and good-looking at the same time. There’s always that comfort/good-looking axis. There are certain things I remember fondly. Normally, if you wait long enough, Ralph Lauren will bring it out. And often the revivals aren’t successful, so you can afford it on fourth reduction at the end of August. The thing is, then you’re going to have to buy as many as you'll need for the next twenty years.

Madras Jackets
I got a really nice Madras jacket from Ralph Lauren, so reduced they almost paid me to take it out of the store. And I was so happy to put it on and see how it looked on a hot summer day in New York, this very light Madras jacket. I remember the cool guys going to work in New York the early 60s, maybe in August, wearing them. I remember it being this very cool thing.

I love them. They’re so light and comfortable, and I think they can be so good-looking.

Chris Eigeman, on the other hand, doesn’t share the same point of view. He hates them. And for some reason I always dress Chris in Madras. There’s a scene in Barcelona where he’s supposed to be a very badly dressed civilian, so we put him in yellow trousers and a Madras jacket. And there’s a scene in Last Days of Disco, when he’s leaving to go to Europe with Jimmy Steinway, and I think he wears another Madras jacket. And when it came to record the DVD commentary, he was going on about how ugly that jacket was and how he hated wearing it, but I was dressed exactly like he was in the film!

Bass Weejuns
As you get older sometimes things become more and more extreme, and my pathology of cheapness has become so dominant that it sort of messes up my life. But I love it when something’s really economical, but also kind of classic and good. So I really like Bass Weejuns because they’re the cheapest leather shoes you can buy. They look good, you know all about them, they’re very comfortable, they slip on and slip off. And it’s almost as if no one is promoting them; it’s hard to get them in stores now. And I think it’s because they’re so economical that there’s no mark-up.

Green Corduroys
My favorite thing are comfortable, cotton trousers. I really like those sort of challenging colors. That summer of Nantucket look: men who are macho enough to wear pastels. I love a deep green. And corduroys don’t always look so good, they can sort of bulk out, but they’re so comfortable. I find a pair of hero trousers and I like to wear them all the time. Do you think it’s ok to wear corduroys when the knees are sort of worn?

Isn’t that when they’re best?

Because I remember wearing trousers like that that I thought were totally cool, these green corduroys with the knees totally worn through. But I went up to my sister’s apartment, and her five-year-old son was pointing right at my knees, saying there was something wrong with my trousers. Because things that we accept as fashion, or shabby genteel, children just spot as a defect.

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