The Raincoat

Spring is coming and nothing says WASP style like a classic raincoat.
Spring is coming and nothing says WASP style like a classic raincoat.

It’s been a particularly brutal winter for the howtoWASP and in anticipation of the arrival of spring, warmer, and wetter weather, what better time to feature that all-time WASP wardrobe great: the raincoat.

Not just any raincoat, mind you, but the classic Burberry style trench coat.  As I’ve often mentioned, one of the great things about WASP fashion is that so few of the trends every go out of style and the raincoat is definitely not an exception to that rule.

Here’s a simple test; go look in your grandparent’s closet and see how many of the clothes you’d be willing to wear out today.  Since they probably lived through the 60’s, 70’s, and 80’s, the answer will invariably be: not many.  However if you’re lucky enough to pull out a Burberry trench coat, you could wear it with pride and not look a bit out of place walking down Madison Avenue.

Of course there have been updates to the classic style over the years (more on that later) but the basic raincoat has endured as a fashion icon for more than a century and likely won’t be going anywhere soon.

History:

So which is it, a trench coat or a raincoat?  Both are technically correct but the former highlights the original purpose for which the coat was designed, and eventually made famous, in the trenches of Europe during World War I.

The trenches of Europe during WWI gave birth to the original trench coat.
The trenches of Europe during WWI gave birth to the original trench coat.

But let’s back up a little first.  The true origin of the raincoat began with Thomas Burberry’s invention of a new water repellant fabric he marketed as Gaberdine in 1888.  The material was made of a pre-treated worsted wool and cotton blend and tightly woven together to enhance water resistance and durability.

Any early example of the original Burberry trench.  Many feature remain today.
Any early example of the original Burberry trench. Many features remain today.

Burberry used the material to outfit the great British explorers of the day (including polar pioneers Ronald Amundsen and Ernest Shackleton) but it wasn’t until 1901 when he submitted a design to the Army for a new, lighter weight, officer’s coat that concept of the trench coat was born.

Or more correctly, the “military style officer’s raincoat” was born.  The term “trench coat” would not become ubiquitous until a decade later with the onset of the first World War.  By then the coat had received minor modifications including the addition of several now classic features including shoulder straps for epaulettes, D-rings along the belt to carry equipment, large pockets, and various flaps and vents all designed to aide functionality on the battlefield.

After the war, many of the officers returning to civilian life held on to their beloved trench coats and gradually the style became as common on the streets of London as on the battlefields of Europe.

The Modern (Classic) Trench:

While there have been countless updates to the Burberry style raincoat over the years, the true classic will always include certain features:

A modern version of the Burberry raincoat, featuring many of the classic elements.
A modern version of the Burberry raincoat, featuring many of the classic elements.
  • Khaki or tan colored gaberdine fabric.
  • Fairly long, with the bottom hitting somewhere around the knees.
  • Double Breasted, button up enclosure.
  • Shoulder Straps.
  • Rain flap over the back of the shoulders.
  • Belt with D-Rings attached.
  • Strap adjustments for the cuffs and sometimes the collar as well.
  • Large front pockets.
  • Gun flap over the front of the right shoulder (less common but still a classic feature).
  • Zip-in liner for added warmth.

If you’re a true sucker for tradition, then there’s really no other way to go.  However, if that all seems like a little too much, there are more modern versions.  The best of these manage to look much less conspicuous (fewer straps and military relics, different colors), are easier to wear (single breasted, no belt, shorter length), while still retaining small touches and nods to the classic version.

This definitely makes a statement, although probably not one a WASP would comprehend.
This definitely makes a statement, although probably not one a WASP would comprehend.

Ironically, today the company that seems to be pushing the envelope the most when it comes to raincoat styling, is the company that brought us the original: Burberry.  While they still do offer some traditional versions, many of their modern interpretations take the concept to the point of bizarre.

While the howtoWASP believes everyone is entitled to their own opinion when it comes to style and taste, I would not recommend going that route if the air of WASP’iness is what you seek.  And let’s be honest, would you have really made it this far in the post if that wasn’t the case?  I thought not. Let’s move on.

Where to Buy:

If money is no object, then your best option is to head over to Saks, Nordstrom, or some other high end retailer and pick up a classically styled Burberry raincoat in khaki.  Or, if you’re still not impressed and just can’t bring yourself to buy off the rack, then you could always go the bespoke option for the ultimate in WASP’ish outerwear.

However, if you’re like me and neither have nor want to blow $2,500 on a coat, there are other alternatives.

First is to look into other manufactures to see what’s available.  Virtually every major clothing brand makes at least one style of raincoat and many can be had for very affordable prices.  Quality is going to fluctuate with maker and price, but you could easily pick up a nicely made, classic looking coat for a mere fraction of the cost of the Burberry original at just about any mall in America.  No, you won’t get the Burberry check on the inside, but most people will never know the difference.

The second option is to go used.  The advantage here is that through eBay or some other second hand source you can pick up true Burberry raincoat for for under $100.  The obvious downside is that you’ll be at the mercy of what’s available on the market at any given time with respect to size and style.

Condition can also vary wildly so be sure to either inspect in the item in person if possible, or request plenty of pictures before committing any of your hard earned dollars.  The last thing you want is a stained, ragged, and obviously used looking coat.   However a nicely worn (and  remember they are meant to be out in the elements) vintage coat can look just as classy and last longer that something bought new in a store.

A vintage Burberry label.  If you're buying used, make sure you can spot a fake.
A vintage Burberry label. If you’re buying used, do the research and make sure you can spot a fake.

One other word of caution, if going the second route, make sure to become familiar with the features and label of an authentic coat.  There are many more counterfeit Burberry items on the market than legitimate ones and it only takes a a little research to pick out the obvious fakes.

Option three is to get lucky.   Or in other words, find a friend of a relative that has a nice vintage raincoat that they no longer use nor want and is willing to donate it to you.  This is the classic grandpa’s closet strategy and unfortunately, more often than not, you’ll come up empty handed.  Then again, that’s exactly where my own mother got her Burberry raincoat, so you never know what you might find.

When to Wear:

Once again, the truly great feature of the raincoat remains it’s versatility.  While ideally suited as a topcoat over a suit or other professional wear, it’s equally at home on a casual weekend out.  That’s doubly true for today’s more modern versions, which are designed with more casual wear in mind.

For me the only real requirement necessary to break mine out is having the right kind of weather.  It’s definitely an “in-between” kind of item, at its best during the transitional seasons of spring and fall when it’s too cold for a jacket but too warm for a full on wool overcoat.    And of course any time you get a cool, damp day (think stereotypical London) there is no better choice.

The only real exception is if you find a coat with a good removable liner, which in some cases can pull double duty as a winter coat in less frigid climates.  Get yourself one of those and you’ll have truly found a real workhouse of WASP outerwear style.

The weather the raincoat was designed for.  However that doesn't mean you can't enjoy it in the sun as well.
The weather the raincoat was designed for. However that doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy it in the sun as well.
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The Top-Sider

A Golden Retriever and a well worn Top-Sider. A little piece of WASP heaven.

More often than not when discussing how to dress like a WASP, the conversation inevitably turns to business or other semi-formal attire. And while it’s true that knowing how to dress up properly is a key component of WASP culture, we must keep in mind that knowing how to properly dress down can be just as important.

And when it comes to casual attire, there is one item in particular that no self respecting WASP should ever be without: a pair of Top-Siders.

Now, I’ll be the first admit that some WASP’y attire isn’t exactly practical or cost effective.  There are, for example, only so many opportunities to show off that new Madras suit and not be mistaken for a hobo…  However, that’s definitely not the case with Top-Siders.  In fact they’re actually one of the most practical purchases you can ever make.

Why?  First consider that the Top-Sider (also known as the boat shoe or deck shoe) is perhaps the most versatile footwear option available on the market today.  Think about it, whether it’s in the office or on the beach, the Top-Sider is equally at home.  They’re perfectly appropriate just about anywhere and for anything.

Also handy is that they never go out of style.  Minor variations come and go, but the basic deck shoe has remained essentially unchanged (and a best seller) for nearly 80 years.  These days they seem to cycle between preppy niche item and mainstream fashionable.  Either way you can’t go wrong.

Dawn of the Deck Shoe:

Paul Sperry in 1935

Rather the typical Anglo-Saxon background associated with much of WASP culture, the Top-Sider is uniquely a product of American ingenuity.   The idea for the shoe was first conceived by a man named Paul Sperry.  During a cold Connecticut winter, Paul noticed that his dog Prince seemed to have no trouble running across slick snow and iced covered surfaces and became curious as to what made that possible.

Upon further investigation he noticed the pattern of groves and cracks in his dog’s paws and suspected they were the secret to Prince’s superior traction.  Sperry set about replicating the pattern by using a razor to score groves into a rubber shoe sole and the rest is history.  By 1935 the design was refined into the scalloped pattern of cuts (like you’ll find on any pair of deck shoes today) and the Top-Sider was officially introduced.

As the name implies, the Top-Sider (referring to the outer or “top side” deck of a boat) was originally introduced as a boating shoe that would allow sailors like Paul Sperry to maintain traction in even the slipperiest of conditions.  The shoes proved to be highly effective and over the following decades became a WASP favorite both on and off the water; as their association with boating culture sowed appeal among the general preppy set as well.

The natural element of the Top-Sider. Thanks to their uniquely designed sole, they'll maintain traction on even the slickest of surfaces.

What to Buy:

OK, so you’re on board (get it?) with the idea that you need a pair of deck shoes.  Now comes the task of actually going out and buying them.

The good news is that just about every major shoe company out there makes at least one variation of the basic Top-Sider.  The bad news is that every shoe maker makers at least one variation… You get the idea, how are you supposed to choose?  There really are a huge range of options out there between different manufactures, levels of quality, material, color, etc…

My recommendation: stick with the classic.  That means going with the original Sperry Top-Sider.  They’re the real deal, last for years, and available everywhere.  They’re also fairly inexpensive compared to many of the deck shoes offered by other brands.

In terms of material I’d suggest going with the basic leather in some shade of brown or tan.   For the soles stick with the basic flat rubber bottom.  They don’t offer a lot in terms of support, but then again you won’t be wearing them to run a marathon…  If you want to go really traditional, get the soles in white (originally designed to not mark-up decks).  Although I’ll confess that I actually prefer the colored variety.

The classic version of the Sperry Top-Sider. Note the simple brown leather construction, rawhide laces, and white "non-marking" soles. If you want to go authentic, this is it.

Again, stick with the classic and you really can’t go wrong.  However, once you’ve got your classic pair of Sperry’s, feel free to experiment.  Higher end dress models, canvas, suede, different colors, there are a myriad of options from which to choose.  Just try not to stray too far from the original if you want to maintain that WASP’y image.

How to Wear:

This may seem like a no-brainer and in some ways it is.  For the most part you can simply throw on your favorite pair of deck shoes no matter what you’re wearing and you’ll look fine.  After all, that’s a major part of the appeal of the shoes to begin with.

However, in order to really do it right, I believe there are some general guidelines you should follow when wearing Top-Siders.  In my opinion deciding when and where Top-Siders are most appropriate depends largely on the age and condition of the shoes.  The breakdown goes as follows:

Like New (100-75%) – Generally when the shoes are new an pristine.  They’re unscuffed, unstained, and maintain their original form.  They’ve never really been exposed to water so the leather is still soft and supple.

In this condition Top-Siders are best worn in nicer settings, such as the office, out on the town, or when dining at a decent restaurant.  Think of them as being on par with a pair of loafers.  They can be worn with socks (only with pants, please) or without.

A well worn pair of Top-Siders that have seen lots of time on the water. This how deck shoes should look.

Worn (75-25%) –These are shoes that have begun to show their age and/or good use.  They’ll be worn, scuffed, and probably lightly stained.  They’ve seen lots of sun and water and taken on a flater shape.  The leather is stiffer and the seams might also be separating a bit at the tops.

While it may not sound like it, this is the ideal Top-Sider condition.  It shows that the shoes have been used as intended (out in the elements) and gives you that classic preppy/casual look.  What you loose in ability to wear in more formal settings, you more than make up for in terms of all around utility.  Out on the weekend, around the house, to the beach, at the pool, etc…  The list is endless.  At this stage of life, sockless is the only way to go.  (For instructions on how to weather your deck shoes, see “Next Steps” below.)

Near Death (25-0%) – The shoes have become heavily worn with lots of scuffs and stains, maybe even some tears as well.  The laces have probably broken at some point (simply retie them together) and some of the seams have begun to open up.  The shoes are severely weathered and the interior is frayed or coming apart.  The soles have hardened, cracked, and no longer provide grip.

The sad fact about heavily used shoes is that they all eventually wear out.  Top-Siders are no different, however that doesn’t mean they’re ready for the garbage.  While you can no longer wear these shoes out on the town, they are still great to have around the house for garden chores, or perhaps for use at the beach or pool.  When you need a simple pair of shoes that you don’t really care about damaging or losing, these are the way to go.

Once your Top-Siders have worn away to nothing, it’s time to go out and get another pair and then repeat the process.  My guess is that once you get used to wearing them, you’ll be hooked for life.

Next Steps:

Even high end manufacturers now make deck shoes. This version by Salvatore Ferragamo will set you back $300.

1) If you don’t already have a pair, head out to the store and buy some.  Almost every major shoe store or department store will carry Top Siders and/or other styles of deck shoes.  Pricing is just about the same everywhere, but sometimes you can find a deal for $10-20 off.  In general expect to pay around $70 for a pair of Sperry Top-Siders.  Some brands cost less, some cost much more.

2) Check out the Sperry website to get an idea of the ranges and style available.  As I said, stick with the classic for your first pair.  After that, sky’s the limit.

3) Weather your Shoes:  If you want your Top-Siders in the desirable “worn” phase of life, there are ways to speed up the weathering process.  My dad often asks me to take his new pairs with me when I go sailing, which is hands down the best way to weather your deck shoes.  If you don’t have access to a boat, you’re not out of luck.  It’s an easy process to replicated on shore.

Simply take the shoes and dunk in completely under water (salt water if you really want an authentic look, but make sure to rinse with fresh water before drying).  Don’t worry, as long as you have a basic leather and rubber model, the shoes are designed for this kind of abuse.  Once the shoes are soaked, take them out and let them dry completely in the sun.  You’ll notice they’ll be very stiff at first, but will quickly soften out with wear.

Sometimes one soaking is enough, or you might have to repeat the process 2-3 more times.  But eventually you’ll have a nice pair of perfectly weathered Top-Siders ready for casual WASP duty anytime, anywhere.

4) Once you have your shoes purchased and weathered the last step is simple, just thrown them on and enjoy!

The Sunday Brunch

When it comes to upscale socialization and drinks before 5:00, brunch reigns supreme.

With Easter Sunday nearly upon us, what better time to highlight that WASP’iest of all meals: Brunch.  Aside from being one of America’s best loved portmanteaux, the mere mention of bunch is sure to conger up images of the classic WASP lifestyle.  Upscale social interaction, fancy restaurants, preppy attire, and of course, the hands-down best excuse to drink during the middle of the day.

That being said, brunch basics are a must-know for any serious student of WASP culture.  The good news is that learning to brunch (yes, it’s a noun and a verb) properly is one of the easiest lessons you’ll find on the how to WASP.  Really all that’s required is knowing when and where to show up, what to consume once you’re there, and then going out and experiencing it for yourself.  But first, a little history…

Brunch Beginnings:

Like most WASP’y, it should come as no surprise that the institution of bunch traces its origins back to Great Britain.  According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the term was first used by a man named Guy Baringer in an 1895 article he wrote for Hunter’s Weekly titled Brunch: A Plea.

The traditional English Sunday dinner doesn't exactly qualify as "light" fare.

Prior to Mr. Beringer’s plea, the typical English Sunday consisted of an early breakfast and morning church service followed by a formal Sunday dinner.  Now, it’s important to note that in those days, dinner didn’t mean the same thing that it does today today.  Rather than being the third and largest meal of the day served in the evening, dinner was more akin to a substantial late lunch, served around mid-afternoon.  It was largest meal of the day and typically followed by a smaller evening meal called supper.  The English Sunday dinner in particular was often an especially heavy meal consisting of substantial meat dishes and other savory offerings.

If that sounds a bit daunting, you’re not alone.  Guy Beringer thought exactly the same thing and in Brunch: A Plea he proposed an alternative:

Instead of England’s early Sunday dinner, a postchurch ordeal of heavy meats and savory pies, why not a new meal, served around noon, that starts with tea or coffee, marmalade and other breakfast fixtures before moving along to the heavier fare? By eliminating the need to get up early on Sunday, brunch would make life brighter for Saturday-night carousers. It would promote human happiness in other ways as well. Brunch is cheerful, sociable and inciting. It is talk-compelling. It puts you in a good temper, it makes you satisfied with yourself and your fellow beings, it sweeps away the worries and cobwebs of the week.

Remarkably, this more than a century old proposal almost exactly describes brunch as it exists today.  Essentially a lighter mid-day meal that serves both as an informal social occasion and a reprieve from having to get up too early after a little weekend excess.

Over the course of the 20th Century brunch steadily caught on United States.  It also developed its close association with WASP culture as the meal became a favorite post-church social activity among the upper class establishment.  The golden age of brunch probably occurred around mid-century when each Sunday millions of Episcopalians across the country would head out from church on a weekly trek to the nearest restaurant to eat, drink, and socialize with friends.

While church attendance gradually declined in the decades following World War II, the institution of Sunday brunch stuck around.  Partly out of respect for social tradition, partly out of the appeal of not having to get up too early, and partly out of the aforementioned excuse to drink before five o’clock, brunch thankfully still remains relevant today.

A Quick Guide to Brunching Like a WASP:

As mentioned earlier, there’s really not too much involved when it comes to brunch, but there are couple pointers for first timers looking to do it right.  Remember that brunch is by nature informal and fun, so please consider the following general guidelines rather than absolute rules.

What Day? – Brunch was traditionally served on Sunday and that remains the case today.  Technically you could have brunch any day of the week, but you’ll find most restaurants offering a specialized brunch menu will only offer it on Sunday.

Today most Americans only go to brunch as couple times a year, usually for special occasions like Mothers Day, Valentines Day, or Easter.  However, there’s really no need to limit yourself.  I would encourage you to have brunch as often as you like, every week if possible!

What Time? – Every restaurant is different, but usually you’ll find brunch being offered from 10:30 AM to 2:00 PM.  Sometimes it may begin a little sooner, or end a little later.  In general if you plan on showing up sometime during the late morning you should be OK.

Where to Go? – To do brunch right, you’ll want to find a nicer, fairly upscale, restaurant.  Preferably one that offers a dedicated brunch menu, or at the very least offers both breakfast and lunch options.  This doesn’t necessarily mean the most expensive place in town, just someplace nice.  Could you simply catch a late breakfast at Denny’s?  Sure, just keep in mind you’ll be straying a bit from the WASP ideal.

The good news is that since brunch is not a formal meal, most restaurants that might normally be out of your price range for dinner typically offer much more reasonable prices for daytime fare.  Some places will even have special deals just for brunch.  A little research can really pay off.

The general sort of upscale/casual atmosphere you're looking for when scouting a brunch locale.

What to Wear? – Back in the old days it was easy, you simply dressed in whatever you wore to  church.  Today however, the key is balance.  On the one hand brunch is supposed to be a somewhat casual occasion.  On the other it’s still a traditional social event taking place in a nice setting.    If you do decide to dress up, you won’t look out of place, but in general you can get away with a sort of preppy/casual style.  If you’re having trouble deciding between outfits, always err on the side of a little too formal.

You'll never go wrong with Eggs Benedict!

What to Eat? – One of the great things about brunch is the shear selection of choices available.  Because you’re in between breakfast and lunch, it’s appropriate to order either.  Eggs, Bacon, Waffles, Pancakes, Salads, Sandwiches… sky’s the limit.  Brunch is the one meal where everyone at the table can get just about anything they like, all served at the same time.

Personally I favor the breakfast side of the menu.  In fact my go-to selection is Eggs Benedict, which I consider to be brunch royalty.  You get a little bit of everything on a single plate.  The eggs, sausage, and English muffin suggest a casual breakfast while the hollandaise sauce brings a touch of rich decadence to the party.  If you can’t decide on what to get, you’ll never go wrong with Eggs Benedict.

What to Drink? – Brunch offers one of the few socially acceptable excuses to drink in the middle of the day, so you should definitely take advantage!  The only catch is that you’ll want to stick to a few pre-approved choices to avoid standing out.  Translation:  Save the beer and martinis for happy hour.

Basically there are two options: The Bloody Mary and the Mimosa.  Fortunately what you lose in quantity, you more than make up for in quality as both are excellent options and perfectly suited to brunch dining.  For those who many not be familiar with one or the other:

    • Bloody Mary: A savory tomato juice and vodka based cocktail with spicy kick.  It’s a heavy duty drink that can go with just about anything and is a true WASP classic.  Find out more here!
    • Mimosa: A sweeter cocktail of orange juice and Champagne, mixed in a ratio of 1/3 juice to 2/3 wine.  Technically if it’s not Champagne (with a capital C), it’s not a Mimosa, but these days any sparkling wine has become an acceptable, and far more common, alternative.  Mimosas are best enjoyed with egg and mushroom based dishes.
Your brunch cocktail options: Mimosas (left) or a Bloody Mary (right). You really can't go wrong with either.

That’s really all there is to it.  Stick to the guidelines above and you’ll be out brunching like a pro in no time!

Next Steps:

  • Again, this one’s easy, just grab a few friends this (or any) Sunday and have brunch!  Even better, set up a standing weekly brunch and turn it into a new tradition.
  • While Easter brunch is a great tradition, and one I encourage you to try, there’s something to be said for the “off” weekends as well.  By off weekend I mean any Sunday that’s not Mothers Day, Valentines Day, or Easter.  The crowds will be much thinner and the atmosphere more casual and conducive to socialization.
  • Put together a brunch appropriate wardrobe.  While looking sharp for brunch is an obvious benefit, having a go-to preppy-casual outfit can serve you well in a host of other situations.  In fact I’d call the preppy/casual look one of the most versatile dress options today.  Not sure where to start?  You can’t go wrong at Brooks Brothers.
  • Bon Appetite and Happy Easter!