Students returning to the hallowed hallways and gossipy corridors of Harvard University this week will surely be drawn into the pressing debate of the day. Is it appropriate that an Ivy League institution that has been striving for years to shed its elitist image should be lending its name to a fashion line that screams old-school elitist?
It could all be a storm in a seamstress's thimble, but controversy continues to grow since officials who oversee trademark agreements for the university confirmed they had done a deal with a New York fashion group called Wearwolf to create a preppy (and pricey) line of men's clothing bearing the name Harvard Yard.
They argued that the arrangement directly undermines the efforts made over several years by the admissions department to diversify the student population on the campus in Cambridge, across the Charles River from Boston, and extinguish once and for all the damaging notion that Harvard puts pedigree and money over brilliance and brains.
There is no stopping the Harvard Yard brand now, however. The first items should start showing up in shops sometime next spring. There will be snappy men's shirts for $160 (£97) and swell blazers redolent of a bygone era for an even less modest $495. There will be no actual Harvard University insignia, but the plaid and tartan designs will be distinguishable by such detailing as crimson stitching around the buttonholes.
Probably, no one at Harvard or Wearwolf, had any idea the kind of kerfuffle the agreement would stir. After all, the university, like many others, has been trading on its unique brand with similar fashion-wear agreements for years. But the reaction was swift. J.P Stiltz, who, slightly unfortunately, plays for the Harvard's polo team, expressed his discomfort to the Harvard Crimson, the university newspaper. "I think it's going to be bad for Harvard's image. We already have an image that all of our students are aristocratic, preppy bastards, frankly. So as an undergraduate student I'm kind of taken aback a little bit that that's going to be happening."
The discussion quickly caught the imagination of bloggers and before long had become fodder for the late night television shows. "Harvard University is launching a new clothing line called Harvard Yard," Jimmy Fallon, the comedian and actor, began one of the jokes. "Of course the clothes are really hard to get into, unless your father wears them first."
Comments by Jeffery Wolf, an executive at Wearwolf, may not have helped. "Harvard is the ideal, the pinnacle," he told Bloomberg News. "When you think of modern prep, you think of New England and the Northeast. You think campus, quad, and you think Harvard.""
Harvard cannot be blamed for wanting to make extra money. Its endowment plunged by $8bn after the the financial catastrophe last October. But the irony is that all the money it expects to raise from the deal will go towards the financial aid fund that helps provide scholarships to students from underprivileged families.
That may be one reason why the Crimson has expressed its own impatience with the brouhaha, publishing a testy editorial under the headline, 'Peddling Preppy Pants'. "The reality is that Harvard is rightly doing everything in its power to ensure the well-being of its own financial-aid program. Claims that a couple of pricey jackets and khakis here and there will lead to "exclusion" miss the point."