The phrase “white-shoe college boys” was first used by J.D. Salinger in his 1957 short story Franny and Zooey.
According to William Safire writing in the New York Times , Salinger was referring to
white “bucks,” the casual, carefully scuffed buckskin shoes with red rubber soles and heels worn by generations of college men at Ivy League schools. Many of these kids, supposedly never changing their beloved footgear, went on to become masters of the universe on Wall Street and in the best-known law firms.
The adjective “white-shoe” is defined by Webster’s New World Dictionary as
designating or characteristic of a business company, especially a law firm or brokerage, in which the partners belong almost exclusively to the WASP upper-class elite and are thought of as being cautious and conservative.
Legal Affairs suggests that “White-shoe also implied exclusion of anyone who was not a WASP male–particularly Jews, who in the 1950s and 1960s were trying to break into establishment firms.”
The same article goes on to discuss the rapidly changing demographics of both ivy league universities and elite law firms. Clearly these institutions have changed significantly over the past fifty years. They are certainly less exclusive and conservative. And their attitude toward fashion has also changed.
Ben Stein discusses the changing fashion standards in another New York Times piece:
To put it as boldly as it needs to be put, men at work these days all too often dress like total slobs, and it hurts the eyes, the spirit and, I suspect, the bottom line….Clothing that grown men used to wear to clean the garage is now what they wear to write briefs and prepare for oral arguments or research possible fraud claims.
Despite the elimination of all the characteristics associated with a white-shoe firm (e.g., WASP culture, conservative dress, and exclusivity) the phrase somehow still remains part of our lexicon.
As Legal Affairs puts it, “the white buck is gone from elite law firms, but the snobbery it represented lives on.”