The elaborate social hierarchy that seems so daunting today started out a lot more simply. It began with some skinny-dipping. The year was 1879, and a new era of freedom was blossoming in the United States. Heady with the transcendentalist nature-loving prose of Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson, a group of Harvard students spent the summer camping out near Northeast Harbor. They called themselves the Champlain Society, and passed the time "rusticating," immersing themselves in nature—tramping the hills and nakedly braving the cold ocean currents. The boys were so taken with the place that two of them persuaded their father, Harvard president Charles W. Eliot, to build a summer house in Northeast Harbor. Eliot not only acquiesced, but proselytized. By 1890 many of New York's elite were also rusticating on Mount Desert, including J. Pierpont Morgan and John D. Rockefeller.
The Maine island where I spent my childhood summers—Macmahan, 75 miles away—was settled a little later, but in much the same way. First came the professors and the clergy, then their wealthier friends, urban Easterners drawn to the unspoiled Maine coast, whiling away the long days in amiable rectitude. As the years passed, many customs grew entrenched, including the casual mode of dress: the pink polo shirts, the embroidered belts, the boat shoes worn without socks until they fell apart. The same clothes, the same style, year after year.
A friend suggests I telephone Peggy Pierrepont, whose memories of Mount Desert go back to her childhood, for the lowdown on the island look. "I mean, it's not Southampton," she tells me. "You'd look silly wearing Prada. It's okay to be a little windblown, because everyone is extremely good-looking and in such robust good health."
On Peggy's recommendation I borrow a bicycle and pedal a half-mile down the western side of the harbor to the town's Main Street. The commercial district consists of a single block of shops and restaurants with a narrow sidewalk squeezed between parked cars and storefronts. Peggy's right: the people exude such nonchalant wellness—that wisp of sun-bleached hair pasted by sea salt to the ruddy, shining forehead—that they somehow seem glamorous in clothes that anywhere else would provoke unpleasant Official Preppy Handbook flashbacks.
Main Street is the place where everyone comes to poke around, eat, and run into friends. The locals on Mount Desert—the wage-earning year-rounders—are unfazed by the summer folks' prestige, and so here the rich and famous are at liberty to indulge in such lost pleasures as buying groceries. A five-minute stroll is enough to take in the prominent landmarks: Colonel's Restaurant & Bakery, where picnickers stock up on sandwiches and snacks; the Kimball Shop, a trove of sweaters, hats, and ensembles for the cocktail party—going matron; and the Pine Tree Market, an endearingly charm-free grocery and liquor store. There's not a single lobster plush toy in sight.
I stop into the Holmes Store, which dispenses Northeast Harbor clothing with unquestioned authority. (As Peggy put it, "They sell new clothes that look just like the old clothes.") Owner Anne Tucker, a lifelong resident of Northeast, takes a minute to chat about the sartorial preferences of her clientele. "They like the pinks, yellows, greens," she says, gesturing at displays of polo shirts, madras button-downs, and heavy wool sweaters. "Bright colors.
We sell kelly green pants embroidered with navy whales."
She holds up a particularly festive pair of men's shorts.
"Pink?" I ask.
"Actually, it's called Breton Red. I don't know how long people have been wearing this color, but it's been years. And still very popular. I bet I've sold twenty pairs in the last three weeks."
Why, I ask her, do seemingly sober people dress in such outlandish colors?
"That's the way it's always been," she says with a shrug. She thinks about it some more. "They came here as kids and saw this kind of clothing, and they just kept wearing it."