High WASP Secret Code, Or, What Not To Say

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

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  • Except in the deep south where being a member of the DAR is required, who else organized all the things that need organizing?

  • Just wanted to say that I love your blog, and the glimpse into this High WASP world. Please keep it up.

  • You have to hand it to Mrs. Paley – not everyone can pull off that look. Maybe it takes WASPishness to do it without looking foolish, I don't know.

  • "doing a good job, showing up on time, never showing off."

    High WASP or not, these are ideals everyone should aspire to. I say "aspire" because it is not easy for everybody to do these.

  • I have to confess a couple of things. First, I don't know the Deep South and I will have to hand the baton over to anyone who cares to elucidate the habits of the Deep South High WASP. I'm only good for the coastal species. Second, I think it takes style to pull off Ms. Paley's look, WASP or no WASP. How to stand out without showing off…or something.

  • Thank you for answering my question, and more broadly giving us a glimpse into your life.

  • Altho the roots may be different, I find a lot of that same behavior among the people I grew up with.
    Either way, I really enjoy the blog.
    Life is short; behaving in a classy way can never be a bad thing.

  • So interesting. And I've always loved that Babe Paley photo.

    I'll never forget the day I told my grandmother I was joining a certain social organization. She was something of an aspiring type herself (whatever variety that is in Southern California) and was just over-the-moon excited about it. I didn't get it, because to me & my generation, it was just a social outlet anyone could join to do charitable work & meet friends.

  • I've been finding beauty & class in strange places lately. Sittin' on a front porch of small southern porch, partaking of the last bit of watermelon, from someone who bought it as a luxury item…. discussing the weather, & "Maybelle's" mayhaw jelly…just reading about Jackie O's glasses makes my shoulders tense up. Not that I ever had more than an upper-middle class American lifestyle, I'm trading it all in, for the finer things in life…a cool evening breeze….screaming at the top of my lungs when I go white-water rafting in Colorado…homemade bread..lunch with a friend.

  • Coastal Species…that is funny. I enjoy your blog because it seems the complete opposite of a HIGH WASP to not only DISCUSS high WASPyness openly, but to pen an entire blog on the subject. Dare I call you….a rebel?

  • Miss Martini you have hit it on the nose. These posts are both tribute and rebellion. I want to honor promptness, promote navy blue, and disrespect Thomas Kinkade – at the same denying no one else the right to vote, own property, or marry who they want. To celebrate High WASP aesthetics and values while breaking down the tradition of, well, repression, suppression and exclusion. Large task. Clearly impossible. But fun. Life is short.

    5:43 am
    Rachel said...

    Thank you so much for the blog. I’ve learned so much. Growing up we never used the term WASP to describe ourselves, but of course we were WASP by anyones definition.

  • I beg to differ. DAR is not a secret lineage society. Similar to The Mayflower Society it is a lineage society that focuses on education, historic preservation & patriotism. The DAR has honored and aided veterans since the organization began. Mentioning it is permissible & completely appropriate. I'm not in these groups for my WASP badge. It's because I am proud of my ancestors.

    I appreciate how & when your ancestors came over. Please respect mine & how I choose to honor them. Like you said, Life is short.

  • I would never intend the slightest bit of disrespect for your ancestors or how you choose to honor them. This is all somewhat tongue in cheek, my sincere apologies if I crossed a line.

    1:34 am
    Rachel said...

    I think you are spot on about “Lineage Societies”. They became very popular when so many foreigners came to America. It’s not PC but they show pride in being here first. Sorry to say but I know this for a fact. One grandmother was a snob the other could have cared less about belonging to DAR. She always said “I know who my people are”, she could have cared less what others thought. She was socially secure. I still haven’t bothered to join because “I know who my people are”.

  • Quite a few of the southern “coastal species” of early settlers were English nobility…in most cases younger sons who would inherit no land and were able to get a land grant from the king. Also, no one has mentioned the Colonial Dames…definitely a cut above DAR. To belong to DAR, one’s ancestor could have been an illiterate private in the army during the Revolutionary War. To belong to the Colonial Dames, one’s ancestor held a position in colonial government or was an officer before the Revolution, and therefore in most cases had an education and owned land.But the previous poster is right in that we don’t talk about it!

    9:46 am
    Lisa said...

    I never know which rules I break more dramatically, the rules of my culture – don’t talk about it – or the rules of the larger society – don’t have it all be true in the first place:).

    9:33 am
    Poppy Buxom said...

    Politely butting in on an older post. I’m a Dame, and I talk about it once in a while on my blog, mostly as a sub-category of my OMG I have another ladies-who-lunch event to attend, what on earth will I wear? posts. I think I get away with it because 99 percent of my readers have no idea what The National Society of the Colonial Dames of America is.

  • My Mother in Law thought herself royalty because she claimed to be a member of the DAR. Not that she ever showed anyoine any proof.he was raised in a farm, so was my FIL, but somehow she felt superior to him and to everyone else. Especially me, because I was born in a foreign country, and even though I was far better educated than she would ever hoped to be she always talked down to me and for that matter everyone else, even though they were far more “solvent” than she would ever hope to be. I guess she had to hold on to something like a security blanket. Oh yes, I belonged to the JL and did a great deal of voulnterr work… but boy, that DAR was like being part of the Windsors… lol

    Indeed life is short.


  • I must apologize for my last post… rambling, repetitious, and typos…oops! Sorry ladies…


    7:15 am
    Lisa said...

    Not at all! I am happy to hear your stories. Thank you very much for commenting. I am sure your MILs behavior was about insecurities, you’re right.

  • By “Knights of Cincinnati” perhaps the writer meant the Society of the Cincinnati? The latter is widely regarded as the senior patriotic society as it was founded in 1793 and its first President was George Washington. Membership is hereditary and restricted to descendants of officers in Washington’s continental Army and it maintains a splendid club house on embassy row in Washington DC.