I wanted to respond to comments made here by Julia and Judy. Judy asked me if High WASPs joined organizations like the DAR and the Knights of Cincinnati. Julia asked me if my interpretation of my cousin’s remark about my dress had been correct. These two questions are in fact related.
High WASPs are characterized more by what they don’t say than by what they do say. We don’t mind if you join the DAR or the Knights of Cincinnati but please do not post documents confirming your membership anywhere we can see them. You may mention your membership, but only in very limited circumstances, and the mention must be accompanied by a sheepish or ironic grin.
We won’t tell you outright that you are declasse when you wear the wrong clothes but we most likely will think it. Unless you come from another land altogether. In that case we may withhold judgment. If, however, you are from our culture we may say things to you like, “What did you wear to your OTHER dinners?”, which will imply very carefully that what you are wearing now is a little less than perfect.
I have a theory as to why this is so. I have absolutely no proof, but never mind. When High WASPs came to America we were mostly merchants. Or preachers. Or cheese-makers. We weren’t the aristocracy. In fact we were directly prevented for the most part from becoming the aristocracy, unless we went off to the Crusades to bring home loot for our lords, thereby nearly getting ourselves killed. As we accumulated wealth in our new country, we wanted to show off our new positions. But since no titles were anywhere to be found, and since aspiring to the aristocracy was deemed traitorous to the new ideals of the new America, we invented a secret code and a way of speaking and not speaking that made us insiders and, by default, everyone else outsiders.
Things have changed and are changing, mostly for the better. The world has become, on the whole, more socially mobile, more open. The Junior League now does many more good works, and much less elite social signaling. Basketball players, musical artists, hedge fund managers, and software architects are the new High (although I don’t think a little training in manners would be such a bad thing). The secret language of the High WASP is fast becoming obsolete, like certain kinds of dialects once spoken in the mountains of Kyrgyzstan.
Even what I say on this blog has always been taboo to discuss amongst my cohort. The secret code meant it was certainly not discussed outside the cohort, at least, not by us. I now mean no disrespect. There just comes a time in your 50’s where you understand, finally, that one day you will leave this world. That one day you will become just one person among many in one generation among many. My kind are fading away. However, I believe that some ideals of the High WASP culture are worth hanging onto, doing a good job, showing up on time, never showing off. I also believe that in the public consciousness those ideals have been woven inextricably into images of Babe Paley by her pool, 3-strand 8-9mm pearls, and Jackie O’s sunglasses. I’m deconstructing as best I can. As the only form of commemoration I know.
Everything I say is true. I don’t know if it matters. That’s OK. Life is short.
*Not that I don’t just love that photo of Babe Paley…