Preppy means never having to say you’re sorry

14 Jun

for wearing go-to-hell pants.

(photo credit)

* * *

The American counterpart to Sloanes, of course, was the  “preppy” (occasionally referred to as “ivy style” or “trad.” I’ll let the true aficionados quibble over the distinctions, but for my purposes, they’re the same genre). As one author quipped, preppies and Sloanes have “a good working relationship,” but they are not the same.  But like Sloanes, the preppy look grew entirely from the lifestyle of the America’s once elite class, the WASPs.*

We like to pretend we do not have “class” distinctions in this country; we refer instead to “socioeconomic” groups, which somehow sounds more egalitarian to our Puritan ears. Thus, the WASP exonym evolved as a reference to this country’s highest socioeconomically advantaged: the American elite class.  According to political scientist Andrew Hacker’s oft-quoted 1950s definition (original source here):

[WASPs] are white, they are Anglo-Saxon in origin, and they are Protestants (and disproportionately Episcopalian). To their Waspishness should be added the tendency to be located on the eastern seaboard or around San Francisco, to be prep school and Ivy League educated, and to be possessed of inherited wealth.

“Preppy” was originally a reference to those who attended exclusive prepatory schools; the sartorial embodiment of the WASP lifestyle: clothing, activities, etiquette, and education.

Then in 1980, Lisa Birnbach and friends published The Official Preppy Handbook.  Like the Sloane Ranger Handbook that followed two years later, the Preppy Handbook unwittingly catapulted preppy from the characteristic look of the WASP class (er, socioeconomic group) to the forefront of American consumerism.  The book spent 38 weeks atop the New York Times’s Bestsellers list.  A writer for the Times noted this change following the publication of both the Preppy Handbook and the Sloane Handbook:

Both [books] started out as affectionate parodies of a certain slightly fusty social echelon; both ended up as a rallying call for the few genuine articles, and a style bible for the zillions of wannabes who wanted to buy into the Sloane/preppy notions of class and old money.

Predictably, a slew of books followed suit (The Original Preppy CookbookTipsy in Madras: A Complete Guide to 80s Preppy Drinking!) and soon preppies and their popped collars were populating malls and John Hughes movies.

Hollywood’s “How To” on dressing preppy: Making the Grade (notably not a Hughes movie)

Once preppy entered the popculture/consumer nomenclature, it went from an organic lifestyle to a studied, replicated manner of dressing.  Carol McD. Wallace, an original contributor to the (original) Preppy Handbook, similarly lamented this (inevitable) shift:

As the best-seller list bears out, the book struck a chord but I’m still not entirely sure why, beyond hippie fatigue. . . .  Preppy clothes had been a uniform by which you recognized the guy to sit next to on the train to New Haven. Like all the best uniforms, they were a visual language, instantly not only identifying but also, more subtly, placing the wearer. . . .  And then, suddenly, in the 1980’s, everybody looked like the guy on the train to New Haven. Imagine how they’d feel at West Point if all the tourists were in uniform too: cadets might begin to wonder about uncomfortable things like claims to legitimacy.

[I]n the 1980’s the preppy uniform became just clothes.

No true WASP or Sloane would self-identify as such (unless doing so tongue-in-cheek).  But compare this to being called preppy.  One need only glance around the blogosphere (glance at my blogroll to the right) to see that many people happily, if not proudly, wave the pink and green flag.  This is not to suggest that self-identifying as preppy is somehow inauthentic.  Not at all.  Rather suggests the degree to which preppy has departed from its WASP progenitors.

Or, as the (original) Preppy Handbook noted to readers, “Remember: Preppies don’t have to be rich, Caucasian, frequenters of bermuda, or ace tennis players.  But they do have to read this book.”

*White, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant: in other words, of (likely) British decent.  Not being a WASP—although I am married to one—I am not particularly qualified to espouse on the subject.  I refer you instead to the wonderful Lisa of Amid Privilege, High (Episcopalian) Priestess of all things WASP, privilege(d), and navy blue.

Additionally, visit Christian at Ivy Style and Muffy at Daily Prep for two distinct but equally delightful takes on all things traditional and prep.


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