Frat style goes fashion-forward

Story highlights

  • Emory student Jonathan Weiss wanted to help his fraternity brothers dress better
  • Weiss recommends a modern take on classic Americana looks
  • Weiss' said his fraternity brothers support his interest in fashion

Fraternities might seem to have a Stepford-like uniform: khaki pants, flip-flops, T-shirts or maybe Oxford button-downs.

One e-mail from 19-year-old Jonathan Weiss proved that it can be far more tailored than that.

By now you've probably heard about that e-mail, wherein Weiss tells his fraternity brothers at Emory University's Alpha Tau Omega chapter that they are "poorly dressed." The self-proclaimed "fratshionistau" then listed a few sartorial tips that have been hailed by GQ and other men's fashion experts as sound advice.

His recipe for a well-dressed brother is simple: Wear Earth tones (extra points if you can manage burgundy), cuff your pants, sport a statement scarf and seek inspiration from innovative labels like Japan's Talking About The Abstraction. Oh, and get a tailor, because your clothes don't currently fit your body. To be on the safe side, purchase J.Crew's Ludlow suit.

A native of Columbus, Ohio, Weiss said he had long ascribed to the fashion "my parents decided for me," which he calls "eccentric rower preppy." He's now drawn to a more nostalgic "Americana" style, thanks to a freshman-year introduction to Beat poetry. (Weiss is dual majoring in English and neuroscience.)

"I fell in love with 1950s America, this idea of refining yourself. You look at the fashion they had and the way (the Beat poets) dressed and what they inspired, being very nationalistic, very cool. I got inspired by that," he said.

Conveniently, key items from Beatnik styles are available at modern malls, he said, like cardigan sweaters (Weiss prefers Ralph Lauren's rugby collection), chukka boots a la J.Crew or Clarks, and thick-rimmed Warby Parkers.

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"Americana" style encompasses a lot of looks, said Esquire's senior associate market editor, Nic Screws: "Everything from American-made heritage brands to prep to regional influences. Red Wing boots, Repp ties and nautical stripes can all be considered Americana."

The young man's fashion takedown might seem like a bold change from the "Animal House" fraternity stereotype (and a bold move for a new brother), but according to G. Bruce Boyer, a contributing editor to Town & Country, the looks Weiss advocates have roots on campus.

Although it might feel like high style on the average college campus these days, fraternity members at Princeton, Yale and Harvard were running counter to the formal fashion of the early 1900s. With colorful scarves and sport coats, the Ivy League elite pioneered casual, stylish men's fashion, said Boyer, who co-curated a recent exhibition of Ivy League fashion at the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York.

"It only became this new-conservative look of the Eastern establishment in the 1950s," Boyer said. Post-World War II, it became a status symbol, a look associated with power, Boyer said. It was revived in the early 1980s, when it became known as "preppy."

The current revival of Ivy League style, and the broader Americana look, is driven by close, fitted Italian tailoring and Japanese fashion sense, Boyer said. The notion that clothes have a deeper, non-verbal communication is something Weiss subscribes to.

"I view fashion as a means to present yourself before you open your mouth," said Weiss, the self-proclaimed "apparel chair" of his Alpha Tau Omega chapter. "It's another way for you to communicate with someone. It's not the only way, of course. I think the content of what you say is more important than how you look, but it can hinder or further how you frame your message."

Boyer couldn't agree more: "Not only do clothes talk, but they never shut up. You keep looking at people, you learn more and more about them from their clothes."

"One thing that interested me about (Weiss) is, he is very much aware of the details," Boyer said. "Mentioning the Earth tones and cuffed trousers: He was aware that that little, two-inch strip of cloth at the bottom of your legs was somehow important, that that cuff somehow separated the men from the boys, the well-dressed from the not-well-dressed, the knowing from the not knowing."

Understanding fashion is what Weiss feels he can contribute to Alpha Tau Omega. Counter to the stereotypes of hazing, lecherous, binge-drinking party animals, he said, fraternity life is about trying to "find kindred spirits that you can connect with on a deeper level."

Weiss hopes to one day own a store in his Ohio hometown with his older sister, who is interning in the fashion industry while pursuing a law degree in New York.

For now, he said, his fraternity brothers welcomed his e-mail with good humor and respect for his opinion, even if they didn't share his passion for fashion. They continued to encouraged him when the note spread on the Internet, despite some bloggers and journalists calling it "ridiculous."

"Some might have seen this as a negative, 'Oh, how embarrassing' kind of thing," Weiss said, but, "I only received support from (my brothers.) I guess a thank you note is in order."