We’re all preppies now, sadly
Published in The New York Times on October 24, 2005; reposted from Wheeler’s Writer’s Web, the literary journal of the Onteora Club.
IT’S ALMOST TOO NEAT. The revival in preppy fashion that’s put ribbon belts back on the map is reaching maturity 25 years after “The Official Preppy Handbook” was first published. Of course that’s the way a true preppy would want it: tidy.
In fact that craving for order may have been what made the preppy world look interesting in the summer of 1980, when a group of glib Ivy Leaguers (including me) put together the book as a tongue-in-cheek guide to one of America’s obscure little subcultures. During the 1970’s we’d witnessed sartorial excesses like Nehru jackets at the cotillion. Yet the staunch minority to which our parents belonged had serenely continued to drink Bloody Marys on the yacht club deck, comfortably clothed in their ancient natural fibers.
No Peacock Revolution here: heck, men already wore lime-green. Certainly there was no need for recreational drugs – after all, vodka came in those big bottles. The preppy world didn’t even experience a Youthquake, because many of its young members were just as stodgy as the old ones. In 1980, this all seemed pretty funny.
As the best-seller list bears out, the book struck a chord but I’m still not entirely sure why, beyond hippie fatigue. Had people all over America been secretly wondering about girls named Muffy? Is preppy culture deeply linked to Republican moments? Were the readers of the book laughing at preppies or with preppies or were they laughing at all?
Apparently, some were not. There was yearning going on. That preppy world can be appealing. I don’t just mean the apparent security that comes with jobs on Wall Street and in white-shoe law firms, or the glamour threaded with nostalgia (thank you, Scott Fitzgerald). It’s plain old pretty: tennis courts and Long Island Sound and heirloom silver and people tanned by spending days on their sailboat. The behavior is attractive, too. Nobody pitches a fit over a line call and thank-you notes arrive like clockwork. What’s not to like? What’s not to aspire to? From time to time I meet someone who tells me that she memorized our guide as a teenager and took it as a literal book of directions. Maybe there was an implicit promise embedded in the humor: this ease, this comfort can be yours if you dare to wear pink and green.
Part of what made the insular preppy world so alluring was its assurance, which was part and parcel of its conservatism. Preppies hung onto not just furniture and names but also customs and especially shares in Exxon bought back when it was called Standard Oil or something equally quaint. The culture was also conservative in the sense of accepting these things without question. Your true preppy, it seemed in 1980, was a stranger to self-doubt: can we think for a minute about the whale as a design motif on clothes intended for grown men?
Today, though, I think the unself-consciousness that used to distinguish the preppy world is gone. When anthropologists study a tribe, however respectfully, they change it. 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.
Nantucket red pants came from Nantucket. Period. No Nantucket, no pants. The more faded they were, the more hours you’d spent on the water. They were better than an “I’d rather be sailing” bumper sticker because only the right people could read them.
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.
Maybe the little plaid book was the serpent in the Garden of Eden or maybe that was Ralph Lauren, but in the 1980’s the preppy uniform became just clothes. Here’s how you can tell: Mr. Lauren had a bad habit of putting his monogram on everything and nobody complained except my mother. The sourcing patterns for the lifestyle got blown open. A department store chain bought Brooks Brothers. L. L. Bean went from being the store in Maine where you got those lace-up boots to a national brand. People who’d never been on a dinghy started calling their raincoats “foul weather gear.” Cable-knit sweaters went mass-market.
There were lasting repercussions: the polo shirt and khakis entered the national clothing vernacular and allowed Casual Friday to exist. Chains like Abercrombie & Fitch, which originally sold arcane hunting gear, expanded into shirts that exposed girls’ bellybuttons. “Preppy” became a style choice like Goth, a high-school cafeteria category. The clothes that had once signaled membership in the shards of the WASP ruling class became a costume.
Meanwhile the actual lifestyle choices, like living in New Canaan and sending your children to boarding school, lost none of their charm. But I believe that living that way became more of a conscious choice than it had been. If nothing else, the preppy lifestyle got expensive: private school tuition, handsome real estate, a couple of club memberships and you’re deep into millionaire country. You don’t just happen, these days, to make or have that kind of money.
Preppies had money, but not necessarily a lot, and they wanted to hang onto what was there, to turn it over to the next generation. Hence their often-overlooked cheapness; in preppy precincts of Connecticut in the 1970’s a pair of Lucite salad tongs was a perfectly respectable wedding present. Their curious wardrobes were formed by the same instincts: Madras jackets might and did go out of mainstream fashion but that was no reason to stop wearing them.
And now they’re back. It makes sense, I suppose, from a fashion point of view. We just got through the hippie phase and preppy was due to be recycled. The alligator shirts and wood-framed handbags are a pure fashion revival, though, with little reference to the original subculture that spawned them. The proof? I recently typed “Nantucket red” into eBay and got 15 hits. Every pair of pants was from J. Crew.
Carol McD. Wallace is the author, most recently, of “All Dressed in White: The Irresistible Rise of the American Wedding.”