Wes Anderson Cools the W.A.S.P.: How to Mislead a Whole Generation About Preppy Chic

As one more white person of a certain subset of a generation of white people that came of age in the time of Wes Anderson movies, I am totally stoked to see Moonrise Kingdom even though his movies haven’t been very good since The Royal Tenenbaums. Anderson has been making movies about children for ages, he just always puts them in adult bodies. Which worked ok for Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums, but not so much for Darjeeling Limited. Three rich white guys on a train in India acting like spoiled children was not too charming, so much as it was historically correct.


Speaking of rich white guys, Anderson has done a lot to contribute to a misconception by countless people of my generation: that preppy W.A.S.P. style that alludes to a certain level of snobbery is cool. And by “cool,” I mean James Dean-style cool. That’s right: White Anglo Saxon Protestants, a descriptor that sounds applicable to many white people — myself included — but in fact fits best when describing a certain brand of New England blue blood.

The Kennedys set the standard for WASPs in the 20th Century. Not a bad thing necessarily.

(NOTE: Kennedy was in fact a Catholic, and so is exempt from literal W.A.S.P. status, since he was missing the end letter of the acronym. Even so, the Kennedy style is still pretty iconic W.A.S.P. style and honestly, I like how it looks. Jackie especially.)

I actually completely understand Anderson’s obsession with this odd breed of American. Anderson grew up, like myself, in the South. He in Texas, me in Tennessee. Now, we have wealthy people in the South. And we have white people in the South. And we have Protestants in the South (in fact, we pretty much ONLY have Protestants in the South). But we don’t actually have W.A.S.P.s. W.A.S.P.s are a regional culture unto themselves and the culture is….well…tight-ass, as I’ve discovered as an adult. The South is a lot of things, but even white wealthy people there are too boisterous to be W.A.S.P.s because W.A.S.P.s seemingly love whatever is appropriately bland. Or at least, that’s my impression now that I’m around them a lot.

Kennedy he is not.

Anderson’s version of W.A.S.P.

I was fascinated by the idea of W.A.S.P.s (also by Catholicism, the Mafia, and easy access to lobster) as a teenager in Nashville. They wore such funny clothes. They lived in Maine, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island. They sailed, played Old World lawn games, sipped appropriate cocktails on properties filled with flowers that were allowed to go appropriately “feral.” There were children’s books about how they aged, bought bicycles with baskets on the front and rode around seaside towns planting flowers. WHO DOES THAT? From afar they seemed so enjoyably eccentric! So exotically Caucasian! They lived in this country, but were completely of another world. HOW? Hilarious.

This really is what I imagined the WASP’s life to look like.

The ’60s, maybe because of the Kennedys, were also the WASP’s heyday.

So as a young adult, I ate up Anderson’s line-up of odd W.A.S.P.s as  relatively accurate portrayals of a hilarious demographic whose style was so different from anything I’d ever known, it seemed pretty cool. Now that I live in New England as an adult, I’ve realized that W.A.S.P.s are no joke, man.

Wearing Top-Siders or Nantucket Reds on the West Coast, I felt like I was nodding to some enjoyable Andersonian make-believe. Here, I feel like I’m expected to join a golf club– also known as the field where you pay a lot of money to have a leisurely walk about with white people with no sense of humor.

This look does not mean the same thing here.

Which brings me back around to why I’m looking forward to Moonrise Kingdom, which was filmed entirely in Rhode Island. Anderson has finally found a landscape, time, and age group that better fits his aesthetic and White Anglo Saxon Protestant obsession. But also, because I like seeing the beautiful and idiosyncratic New England landscape through the eyes of someone not from here and as explored by children, as it should be.

Why AREN’T there girls with binoculars staring out from the pleasing red and white lighthouse on that little rock near Newport? Why doesn’t the chilly New Englander personality translate into sardonic hilarity? Why don’t we row to beaches carrying wooden picnic baskets and have it inspire a wonder for the natural world?

I guess sometimes it takes a semi-outsider (Anderson IS a well-to-do white guy, after all, so it’s not like he’s THAT much of an outsider) to see new possibility in age-old ways of being. Or to read hundreds of years of blue blood appropriateness as deeply absurd and not a little goofy. And this is how we were mislead: absurdity goes well with originality and creativity, both of which are associated with cool when it comes to a certain subset of white people.

This is admittedly a pretty half-assed theory, but it’s the best I’ve got on this gorgeous Memorial Day. Now I’m off to sip a cocktail in my hammock.

About Michael von Braithwaite

Does it look like I'd wear it on a boat, at an eccentric person's estate or accompanied by a peacock on a chain? Yeah, I'll probably buy that.

12 comments

  1. Michael von Braithwaite

    Writing this also made me realize how weirdly race is handled in Anderson’s movies, which might lead to another post with a less half-assed theory.

  2. Hi. I loved this post- (as I always love MvonB’s essays). As a Middle-Atantic WASP, I feel pretty conflicted about Wes Anderson’s and other presentations of the tribe. When it comes down to it- Wasp is about appearing traditional. This may also mean being traditional but not necessarily. Wes Anderson uses tradition as a foil- for change, for showing that often time has moved on well before people have. But other parties use Wasp appearance to suggest change isn’t necessary, because tradition is still relevant. Bullshit. If Wasp is earnest, it’s bad. That’s that. Oh- and I was puzzled by photos of Kennedys as Wasp poster children.?? They were never Wasps (since they were pretty obnoxious Catholics). Sooo…?

    • Michael von Braithwaite

      Hannah, I totally agree about Anderson’s WASP-y foil strategy! A friend of mine also asked about the Kennedys. I actually initially forgot that they were Catholic and thought of them immediately as the epitome (in the best possible way, in fact) of WASP style. Totally spaced about it until a friend pointed out the hole in my logic. I love how they look, though, so I left them in with a note about it below the photo (added after your comment). The Kennedys had such an ease about their WASPy style, but maybe that’s due to the Catholic in them!

  3. G

    I would love to read that post about race in Wes Anderson’s movies, Michael. Also: when we moved to New England, my mom told me: “just tell everyone that you’re a WASP.” I thought that she meant the insect.
    Turns out that I am actually 1/4 Jewish, 1/4 Catholic, and 1/2 Southern Baptist. She thought that this was too complicated for a 6 year old to understand.
    The 80’s! What a decade of weirdness.

    • Michael von Braithwaite

      G, you’re a good mix! Very balanced. I think telling people you’re a badass stinging insect would have been amazing, too!

  4. This post made me realize I’m naive to the distinction between W.A.S.P. and preppy, style-wise. Or, is there one? Shine a light on this for a naive Cali-native and lifelong hippie-chic devotee?

    • Michael von Braithwaite

      Ah! Excellent question. Especially because there can and is some overlap. I think WASPs take fewer risks, sticking to what is essentially the blandest of bland preppy style. It usually involves dockers/khakis, a polo shirt, and a brown belt. Pastels are favored, as are over the shoulder sweaters.

      Like so:

      Or Charlotte from Sex and the City

      Preppy style I feel like is more fluid and can be riffed off of more easily, comes from a collegiate look, rather than a look that screams upper middle class. So if you go super straight-laced preppy, you’re in WASP territory. If you get creative, then you’re more in preppy style territory.

      Like so:


      http://images.urbanoutfitters.com/is/image/UrbanOutfitters/15939945_24_b?%24detailmain%24

      See how it’s a little looser?

      But these are my own definitions as someone who didn’t grow up around them. Others might have different style lines between the two.

      It’s also important to remember that WASPiness is more than simply clothing. There’s a whole host of attitudes and cultural experiences that make a WASP. I think it might really be a deep belief in and perpetuation of Colonialist values. Which is why you don’t see them so much in other parts of the country less connected to Colonialist roots. I went to high school with plenty of people who LOOKED like WASPs, but their value system, behavior, and attitudes were different. And like I said, Southerners are inherently too rowdy to be WASPs. As we all know from Streetcar Named Desire and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. ROWDY!

      • Maddy

        Ah! I dig it. I think your point about Colonial values is an insightful one, and I get a good, solid idea of the sartorial distinctions from the pic links. (And as an Andre 3000 fan, I was tickled to see him included.) Thanks!

  5. Milkman

    Looking forward to that post Michael!

    I saw this movie and since I’ve been trying to figure out what this kind of style means over here in England. At the moment it’s a super trendy look.

  6. LG

    FACT: i’d gone through three copies of miss rumphius by the age of six.

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