Nothing distinguishes a Reedie quicker perhaps than their sense of fashion. Or so I discovered when, following graduation in 1982, I was awarded a scholarship to a prestigious publishing course at Harvard on the condition that I bring a jacket and tie. Reedies, I was told, had been banned from the program years before due to their attire, especially during the mandatory sherry hour each day. After finishing the course, I secured a low level position at a literary magazine in Manhattan, but hankered for working at the New Yorker as a factchecker. Asked to include a writing sample with my application, I submitted a clip about a recent Reed fundraiser—my first—that I had attended. Written in the magazine’s classic “Talk of the Town” style, it failed to get me the job. No doubt, the hiring manager was a Harvard grad.
Each spring, presidents from prominent small colleges across the country descend upon the city with their entourages in the style of traveling ministers, calling on alumni flocks to reaffirm their allegiance to the old alma mater in monetary terms.
We recently attended one such gathering for Reed College at the Village Vanguard as guests of Virginia Picchi ’82. Ms. Picchi warned us to expect the unexpected. “Reedies strive for the unusual,” she promised, “and can sometimes be subversive.”
What we found however upon entering the dimly-lit, subterranean nightclub was a typically well-dressed crowd mingling around with wine glasses and appetizers. Surrounded by wall photos of Billie Holiday, John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Leadbelly, and Pete Seeger, they could have passed, in their dresses and heels and suits and ties, for a swanky group of bankers, lawyers, stockbrokers, and publishers gathered at the Harvard Club.
A young alumnus named Jacob Allderdice ’82 quickly set us straight. “I can’t speak for the ladies here, but don’t be fooled by the ties on the men. Just count the number of un-ironed shirts—Reedies never fully conform, not even in the business world.”
Mr. Allderdice, who said that he had been working recently for a shoe manufacturer, proudly displayed the rumpled shirt that he was wearing beneath his sport coat, then pointed to a pair of pinstriped sneakers on his feet. “I’ve got fifty pairs of these,” he said. “By this time next year, all of Manhattan will be wearing them. I’m way ahead of the fashion game in this town.”
Couture was also on the mind of the evening’s master of ceremonies, financial investor Walter Mintz ’50. Stepping onto the Vanguard’s tiny black stage under a spotlight, Mr. Mintz adopted the air of a standup comedian, complimenting the assemblage on their smart attire. He recounted the fiasco that had occurred at an alumni gathering held the year before at the Harvard Club, where half of the Reed men had been turned away at the door for failing to meet the club’s jacket and tie dress code. A group of Reed women then began collecting jackets and ties from the Reed men who had already been admitted, and smuggling them outside to the under-clothed men waiting on the street.
The club’s waiters, noticing that a number of men were suddenly jacketless inside, conferred with the doorman, who noticing a stream of men entering the club in ill-fitting jackets, immediately shut down the clandestine clothing supply line. The men left standing outside on West 44th Street then began to loudly protest. They were soon joined by the jacketless alumni inside the club, who were ejected out onto street with them.
Having set the tone for the evening with this tale, Mr. Mintz then introduced the owner and founder of the Village Vanguard, Max Gordon ’24. A Reed graduate from 1924, Mr. Gordon spoke in a gruff voice that appropriately sounded like a saxophone blowing in a smoky jazz club. Waving an unlit cigar in his hand, he chided the crowd for showing up overdressed—“this ain’t no stuffy uptown joint”—but promised not to eject anyone on that basis.
“I came to New York right after graduation to attend law school at Columbia,” Mr. Gordon told the gathering. “But then I started working in the nightclubs, and dropped out. I learned to take my education where I could find it.”
Finally, it was time for the college’s visiting president from Portland, Oregon, Paul Bragdon, to take the stage. Tall and distinguished-looking in a well-cut suit, Mr. Bragdon nevertheless knew how to tailor his remarks to a Village audience, having served earlier in his career as press secretary to New York City mayor John Lindsay.
“I actually got my start here at the Vanguard,” Mr. Bragdon began. “Then Max sent me on the road, where I’ve been doing one night stands and passing the hat out in Portland for the past thirteen years.”
At the conclusion of Mr. Bragon’s talk, Mr. Gordon invited everyone to come back to the club later that evening to hear a new jazz quintet perform. “Just bark out ‘Reed’ at the door,” he said, “and they’ll let you in, no matter how you’re dressed.”
For more documentation of Reed's unique sartorial flair, check out Comrades of the Quest.