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Why Brett Kavanaugh went Greek at Yale

Blog | By Harry Mount | Oct 06, 2018


When Brett Kavanaugh joined the Delta Kappa Epsilon fraternity in his second year at Yale in 1984, frat houses were just returning to fashion, helped not least by the popularity of the great film Animal House.

But why on earth do American undergraduates go Greek in the first place?

Fraternities and sororities derive their names from the Latin for brother (frater, fratris m.) and sister (soror, sororis f.). The terms can be used of all sorts of clubs - the Lions are a fraternity. But they are best known in their university incarnation.

First of the university fraternities was the Phi Beta Kappa Society, founded on December 5, 1776 at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia. Phi Beta Kappa was set up by students who hadn't been able to get into the college's prestigious Flat Hat Club (among its members, one Thomas Jefferson). Many of the fraternity rituals were borrowed from the Flat Hat Club, which had been set up in 1750. Members used to go to the rough Raleigh Tavern in downtown Williamsburg, drink heavily and mix with local sailors and soldiers. The university authorities disapproved and sent out scouts to track down the members.

To avoid the scouts, members came up with their own secret handshakes, oaths and passwords - practices copied by members of Phi Beta Kappa and succeeding fraternities in later years.

The rejects' club, Phi Beta Kappa, was an altogether more serious organisation - perhaps that's why its members didn't get into the frivolous Flat Hat - and began by calling itself a literary fraternity. Greek studies so filled their minds that they took the name, Phi, Beta, and Kappa, from the initials of a Greek motto: philosophia biou kubernetes — "Love of wisdom, the guide of life."

Despite the Greek name, the Phi Beta Kappa Society gathered to mull over high-brow topics that weren't taught at the classics-obsessed university. Perhaps because of this serious side, the fashion for fraternities only built slowly and it took nearly half a century before they mutated into the social organisations they are today. The Chi Phi frat, founded in Princeton in 1824, was the first social club. Then the craze mushroomed, with the Kappa Alpha Society following in the next year at Union College, Schenectady, New York.

Literary interests fell by the wayside; the fostering of friendship was the principal aim of Kappa Alpha and its Union College offspring, Sigma Phi andDelta Phi. This was the jumping-off point for nationwide fraternities, with Sigma Phi spawning a satellite chapter at Hamilton College in Clinton, New York, in 1831.

From then on, America went Greek-mad, with chapters opening in universities across America: Beta Theta Pi in Miami University in Oxford, Ohio (1839). Zeta Psi (1847) at New York University opened up a chapter on the other side of the country at the University of California, Berkeley (1870), and by 1889 had chapters at all Ivy League schools.After a dip during the Civil War, fraternities boomed again.

Society at the Wesleyan College, Macon, Georgia, was the first (1851), quickly followed the next year by the college's Philomathean Society (philomathean being the Greek for "love of learning"). It took a while for these to emulate the fraternities and take on Greek initials - the Adelphean Soociety and the Philomathean Society became Alpha Delta Pi and Phi Mu in 1904.

These early clubs weren't yet called sororities - they got given the oxymoronic name, "women's fraternities". Not until 1874 was the first Greek letter sorority, Gamma Phi Beta, founded at Syracuse University in Syracuse, New York.

Now what about the toga party, that fine American university tradition? Confusingly, given the Greek origins of the fraternity, the toga is a Roman garment; in fact it was looked upon as a distinctive mark of Roman citizenship from the third century BC, and non-Romans were forbidden to wear them. Togas were strictly a men-only thing; women wore the stola - a long-sleeved, pleated dress. Memo to all female undergrads before your next toga party - the Romans thought women who wore togas were prostitutes.

A proper toga takes up an enormous length of cloth, 20 foot long, made of wool, wrapped around the body, with a tunic beneath. The idea was that you could take it off when you were indoors or doing hard, manual work without being completely naked.

In time, the toga grew baggier and baggier as fashion dictated thatpragmatics should give way to style. It became impractical to wear for war or physical exercise (or dancing at toga parties - see The Official Preppy Handbook, infra). The sagum - or woollen cloak - took its place on the battlefield. And the laena - or buttoned cloak - became more popular on the viae of Rome.

Only in late 20th-century America did the fashion for togas return, as a useful, easy-access garment for college-based debauchery. The origins of the toga party are lost in the alcoholic mists of time. It appears that the parties began in the early years of the twentieth century as a natural offshoot from the fraternities' Greek roots. In the early 30s, Eleanor Roosevelt held a toga party at the White House to tease the journalists and politicians who had conceived of her husband as a second Caesar.

Toga parties really took off after Animal House (1978). The party in the movie was inspired by the memories of one of the film's writers, Harold Ramis, who had been a member of the Zeta Beta Tau fraternity at Washington University, St. Louis.

The film's toga party scene is crucial to the plot. The Deltas, the worst frat at Faber College in 1962 - as opposed to the best, the Omegas - are on double secret probation because the college dean hates them so much. Thinking that things can't get much worse, they decide to at least have the ultimate good time before they are disbanded.

With Bluto Blutarsky, played by John Belushi, at the helm, the party hits new depths of bad behaviour. The innocent freshman, Larry Kroger (played by Tom Hulce of Amadeus fame), pledge name "Pinto", debates with the devil and angel on his shoulders whether to take advantage of the mayor's comatosed under-age daughter. The Dean's drunken wife crashes the party and sleeps with the smooth reprobate, Otter. The Dean revokes the fraternity's charter and removes everything from Delta house, "even the stuff we didn't steal!".

Shortly after the movie came out, Newsweek did a feature on the toga party, and universities went crazy over the idea: emulating John Belushi and his frat buddies, 10,000 University of Wisconsin students dressed themselves in bed sheets and laurel wreaths for a huge party late in 1978. Belushi and several of the other actors from the movie took to turning up unannounced at the campus parties.

By the time of the publication of The Official Preppy Handbook (1980), only two years later, toga parties had become an acknowledged part of university life. The handbook gives this stern advice, "Toga party - Girls wear designer sheets, men wear the kind from the linen service. If accompanied by a Roman-style dinner, these sheets may go home stained with red wine, though serious drinkers might switch to a grain alcohol punch around 10 o'clock. Since dancing in a toga is impossible, getting drunk is the primary activity."