Wednesday, October 6, 2010

WASP Films

The two great virtues of WASP culture, sport and social skills, are captured in the comedy  Caddyshack, 1980, costumes by Cocheo & Lavery. The film mocks many WASP cliches but for the purposes of this course it also showcases many WASP clothing conventions. It also features Chevy Chase, a 14th generation American on the Social Register since birth.

WASP arises from English and Dutch upper class transplants to the US in the 16th century, followed by Scotch Irish and Germanic immigrants of the 17th century. Describing WASP, the "white anglo saxon Protestant" subculture, is not only about describing ethnicity, but like all groups, describing traditions and social practice. Those traditions are associated with faith, family, education, wealth, athleticism and social engagement.

WASP is both a genuine and constructed category. There are important figures in WASP culture who have written about their role in society just as there are style books and photo essays about the "WASP look."

Above actress Katherine Heigl for Harper's Bazaar July 2010 embodies a WASP stereotype.

WASP meets Prep in Northeast academia where early Americans laid the foundations of American education.

Self Service, September 2009

WASP Films

In 1967, The Graduate was an important film in defining the conservative but stylish American WASP dress, even though the all American post-grad lead was portrayed by Jewish actor Dustin Hoffman. Costumes by Patricia Zipprodt.

Released in 1970, Love Story became the most defining Wasp film that actually brought the term "preppy" into popular use. It was filmed at Harvard and Manhattan with a classic prep color palette, plaids and winter sweaters of Northeastern collegiates. Again though we have a conflict with an Italian Catholic female character not a WASP. Costumes by Alice Martin.

Wasp intellect and the sedate color palette in Interiors, 1978 costumes by Joel Schumacher

The Wasp family in Ordinary People, 1980, costumes by Bernie Pollack

In 1985, St. Elmo's Fire was a part of a number of Brat pack films. It showed the white Wasp world of DC where suits and ties, pearls and plaids dominate. Costumes by Susan Becker.

Below Sheedy's classic Wasp pearls stay with her even in bed.

Dead Poet's Society from 1989, costumes by Eddie Marks follows the classic prep school protocol. The uniforms are used for in class and athletics. The teachers however take a different earth town color palette in contrast to the dark military colors on the boys.

Restricted by uniforms the boys find other ways to express individuality.

Perhaps the most definitively WASP films are those by White Stillman. Designer Mary Jane Fort chose society gowns of the period and classic tuxes for Metropolitan, set against a backdrop of conservative uptown apartment decor.

In Last Days of Disco we find a transitional moment where Reagan era 80s prep ultimately won out over the looser postmodern fashion of the 1970s.


  1. WASP culture is based primarily on English upper class and to a lesser extent New Amsterdam Dutch upper class culture as brought to American shores in the 16th c. Caddyshack is a low-brow Hollywood attempt to mock and slander WASP culture brought to you by proletarian Ellis Island immigrants that are riddled with social insecurity when they contemplate the stately WASPs. Hence the vitriol. It comes from jealousy and hate. We pity the poor things.

    1. Thank you for this wonderful, honest observation. Hollywood loves to take its "revenge" on WASP culture. And we all know who run things in the entertainment industry. I've never met a group of people more obsessed with WASPs than them.

  2. Thanks de Varenna. The post is from a course on clothing conventions in film. Historically "WASP" began as you describe 16th c English/Dutch but grew to include 17th c Protestant Scotch Irish and Germanic groups. This posting above however was NOT intended to summarize the social history but was a brief summary of Hollywood film clothing conventions only. We explored HOW film represents social groups, sometimes accurately and sometimes not.

  3. No mention of Whit Stillman! Metropolitan, Barcelona, and The Last Days of Disco absolutely belong here.

  4. Yes thanks! I actually covered Stillman elsewhere in this course which is not visible on this post but I have added it since so many people visit this page :)

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