Preppy Week continues with this pre-OPH exploration of prepdom from the August 27, 1980 edition of The Toledo Blade.
Everything you always wanted to know about prep but were too stuck-up to ask
By Mike Steere
Blade Staff Writer
For lack of a better word, we’ll stick to the label that has been so cavalierly sewn on the recent resurgence of classic conservative clothing — Preppy.
What Preppy really means is someone who went to a fancy eastern boarding school, which is to say somebody whose daddy and grandaddy had pots of money.
In clothing, the word denotes a style based on a small number of expensive, natural-fabric, subdued-color pieces. The things that have been worn for at least 35 years by the spoiled scions of old money.
The basic idea of preppiness is to look rich and as though you’ve been rich so long you don’t have to flash it.
The hard part of it is that you have to look rich while wearing different combinations of a half-dozen garments that come in dull colors and crumple up as soon as you put them on.
There are rules here. You can’t, for instance, money up your appearance with Las Vegas displays of gemstones. Nothing gaudy is allowed.
Preppy is not an easy look. If you don’t FEEL preppy, you can’t possibly look preppy.
The idea is to wear a $250 blazer and $80 slacks like coveralls. Even if you got it last week, the prep ensemble should look as if you were born in it and that, at the time of your birth, your father was wearing the same thing.
Prep knows no age. The basic prep components are about the same from high school through retirement.
There’s nothing new here. For at least 35 years — through all the vagaries of fashion weather — the ship of classic conservatism has sailed on. The same people have bought traditional in the same places, and they will continue to do so until the last martini is mixed and the last bridge hand dealt.
If you want to wear these time-honored styles with authority, it is necessary to look like one of those people. With the newcomer to prepdom in mind, we have prepared the following short encyclopedia of prep.
The Preppy Look For Men
From Frank Kahle, owner of Neil’s Men’s Shop in Ottawa Hills, one of Toledo’s shrines to traditional clothing:
Like most people who are serious about this stuff, Mr. Kahle doesn’t like calling what he sells “preppy.” This appellation is merely a glib commercial label for a system of dress whose devotees are, like Mr. Kahle, religious.
This man is an absolute fetishist for tradition. If a garment isn’t cotton, wool, silk, or lambskin suede, he wants nothing to do with it.
To be a purist, he says, is to cultivate snobbery.
Basic prep items, according to Mr. Kahle, are the all-cotton button-down shirt, cotton khaki trousers, Shetland woolen sweater, serge regimental-striped belt, wool blazer, and the various species of Ivy League shoe.
The khakis are “the jeans of traditional clothing.” Mr. Kahle also acknowledges the admission of blue denim jeans and corduroy Levis to prepdom. Regretfully.
Ties ought to be silk, maybe wool or cotton for summer, in either a regimental stripe or Foulard pattern, (plain field with rows of little colored cells). The apogee of tie tradition is a burgundy and navy-blue regimental stripe. A true believer might have two or three of these.
Mr. Kahle frowns on club ties, the ones with little sporty things like pheasants, golf clubs, or sailboats.
A preppy pretender, Mr. Kahle says, can be spotted at 100 yards.
Suit or suit jacket shoulders tell the tale. Padded shoulders are very unprep, as are jackets with too much tailoring. True traditional clothing has natural shoulders and a sack shape.
Count the jacket buttons. Two is unprep. Three is the thing.
Pay attention to the rumple, Mr. Kahle says. Natural fabrics, unlike natural-synthetic blends, wrinkle. “Traditional clothing rumples, and it looks rumpled, and that is a very accepted, prestigious look.”
Pills around the collar – those minuscule fuzzballs – are another sign of the unprep, Mr. Kahle says. The pills only form on synthetic-blend shirts, which are not part of the purist’s wardrobe.
Cuffs are the stuff of tradition. You can get by with plain-bottom khakis, but Mr. Kahle encourages cuffs on all trousers.
The true believer doesn’t like new clothes. Certainly not new-looking clothes. The rapport between man and garment has to be relaxed and intimate, like old friends.
Your sheepskin suede sport jacket (ultra-suede is absolutely outré) doesn’t come into its own for two years.
Old preppy saying: “Weejuns aren’t worth a damn unless you’ve worn them in the shower.” Shoes should look broken-in. Shined, but never too shined.
Shoe advice from Mr. Kahle for women: Don’t move into colored Sperry Topsiders until you have a standard brown pair. Always build from the traditional ground up. (Continue)
In celebration of the publication of Lisa Birnbach’s “True Prep,” Ivy-Style is devoting the entire week to preppy posts. By the end of the week you’ll be so sick of them you’ll relish the final post, in which preppies are skewered and stuffed to a Dead Kennedys soundtrack.
First up is an excerpt from Alison Lurie‘s 1981 book “The Language of Clothes,” a fascinating study of the semiotics of clothing. Lurie (now 86), is also novelist and taught English for many years at Cornell.
The book includes a section called “Social Conformity: The Preppie Look.” In it Lurie calls the prep look the descendent of ’50s Ivy League leisure clothes; a photo caption reads, “The Preppie Look of the 1980s has its origin in the asual, rather uninteresting sports clothes worn by upper-middle-class suburbanites in the conservative fifties and early sixties.”
Lurie points out, as previously noted in the “The Official Preppy Handbook” from 1980, and Nelson W. Aldrich Jr.’s 1979 Atlantic Monthly cover story, that the most salient characteristics of the preppy look are:
1) Total lack of imagination
2) Importance of the “right” brands and details
And if you can pull all that off, you too can appear to have been “rich and dull for generations.” — CC
The other emergent style of the late seventies, the so-called Preppie Look, originated in North America rather than in Britain and expressed not social protest but social conformity. In fact, it was not a new style, but a revival of the most conventional American suburban styles of the 1950s and early 1960s, what at the time were called “country-club fashions.” It was very popular in Ivy League colleges: the Radcliffe glamour girl and sports buff Brenda Patimkin in Philip Roth’s “Goodbye, Columbus” (1959) usually appears in tan Bermuda shorts, a tartan belt and a white polo shirt with a small turnover collar.
The Preppie Look featured the sort of clothes worn by adolescents at expensive American and Canadian boarding schools: tweeds, tartan kilts, blazers, Shetland and Fair-Isle sweaters, chino pants, polo shirts, Oxford-cloth and madras and plaid flannel shirts. All these garments followed the usual rules for conservative dress: they were of relatively heavy (usually natural) fabrics, backward-looking in design and allowed very little scope for personal taste or imagination. The choice of styles was extremely limited, and to be correct everything had to have the “right” manufacturers’ labels and come from the “right’” stores. Simple primary colors were preferred, with an emphasis on the patriotic triad of red, white and blue, plus a neutral tan. The aim was to look as if not only you but your family had been rich and dull for several generations denying, and at the same time of course suggesting, a deep-seated social anxiety.
What distinguished the Preppie Look from the country-club styles of the 1950s was the range of its wearers. These casual garments were now being worn not only by adolescents in boarding schools and Ivy League colleges, but by people in their thirties and forties, many of whom would have considered such styles dreary rather than chic a few years earlier. Moreover, the Preppie Look was now visible in places and on occasions that in the 1950s would have demanded more formal clothing. Preppies of both sexes in madras check shirts and chino pants and Shetland sweaters could be seen eating lunch in elegant restaurants, in the offices of large corporations and at evening parties-as well as in class and on the tennis courts.
Though the elements that composed the Preppie Look were old-fashioned, it had certain original features. One was the custom of what was called layering: wearing three, four or even more visible thicknesses of cloth over the upper body. A Preppie might wear (moving outward) a turtleneck jersey, one or two cotton shirts, a crew-neck sweater, a down vest or wool blazer and a loose coat, often with a large wool scarf draped over the whole. Such extreme layering must have been intended partly as Conspicuous Consumption, but it also suggests concern with the world energy crisis and an anxiety about warmth and survival so severe that even overheated American schoolrooms and offices seem cold. A secondary effect of layering on this scale was the blurring of the body image and even of sexual differences, so that except for the length of their hair the Preppie young were often indistinguishable from one another. When they projected a sexual aura at all it was one of healthy athleticism or of prepubescent cuddliness: a sort of teddy-bear warmth.
The other outstanding characteristic of Preppie fashion was its use of unnecessary fastenings. Shoes were trimmed with nonfunctional ties and hooks and latches; the pleats of kilts were safety-pinned or buckled together; leather and cloth straps unnecessarily secured the wrists of gloves, the waistbands of skirts and jeans and the shoulders of raincoats; even the corners of shirt collars were buttoned down so they could not get away. Clothes like these are a sign that. someone or something is being confined or restrained. Significantly, an even greater excess of fastenings appeared in Punk clothing, but here the effect was of a barely controlled, sexually charged violence and energy. The ubiquitous Punk zippers were usually left sagging open, and the safety pins fastened torn and skimpy garments that seemed about to fall away from the naked body; stuck through the cheek or earlobe, they suggested that the flesh itself was splitting. Though Preppie and Punk Looks were in almost every particular as disparate as the people who wore them, both styles graphically conveyed the sense of a world, or a personality, in grave danger of coming apart.
When it comes to classic Americana, the Japanese are meticulous in their research and sticklers for details — at least most of the time.
Nick Sullivan, Esquire‘s fashion director, recently lent me the latest addition to his style library: “The Ivy Pictorial Dictionary” by Toshiyuki Kurosu (who’s associated with the brand VAN, according to our man in Tokyo), from 1983.
The illustrated pocket tome is curious for several reasons. For starters, it’s called an “Ivy” dictionary, yet includes listings for anything classic and American, including Harley Davidson, Jack Daniels, and Union Pacific Railway.
For the letter I, the book includes the “Ivy League Model” suit, with a detailed description of what makes a suit Ivy, yet states that the three-button is the exemplary Ivy model, not the 3/2.
A friend translated the passage, coming up with this:
The kind of clothing we call “Ivy” is actually called “Ivy League Model.” Over there, if you say “Ivy,” people may think of Ivy League schools. Be careful.
The clothing has several distinctive features: natural shoulder, widely spaced three buttons (only the top two buttons are used), stitches around sleeves and the pockets, and hooked vent. Slacks are plain front, come with belt loops and back strap, and the silhouette is stove-pipe. These are the must-have characteristics.
It’s silly, but when I was young, I was so proud of myself for remembering all those details.
Evidently the Japanese can be rigid perfectionists when it comes to Ivy style, painstakingly recreating vintage styles, and then turn around and use the term “Ivy” quite loosely, as in the song “Ivy Tokyo” we linked to yesterday in the Ephemera column. You’d like to think the guy is singing about hooked vents and lapped seams, but the song is really about chasing girls.
“Men’s fashion wouldn’t exactly make a cool subject for a song,” said my friend. — CC (Continue)
Six months ago Lisa Birnbach, author of the 1980 bestseller “The Official Preppy Handbook,” agreed to do a Q&A interview with Ivy-Style. Shortly after settling in New York, I contacted Birnbach, who said she was too busy to talk as she was finishing a sequel.
Then, when word recently leaked out about the forthcoming tome (“True Prep,” set for September release), it set off such a media frenzy that Birnbach’s publisher called a moratorium on publicity until the book hits shelves.
But Birnbach, in a beau geste that is very preppy, graciously honored her promise to Ivy-Style.
Below is the last you’ll hear from her until the fall, when I suspect she’ll again become a very public figure proselytizing in the name of prep.
But while the first book was a reveal of a largely unseen world of Northeastern upper-middleness, “True Prep” takes a more democratic approach, Birnbach says, and aims to preach a gospel of civility and good manners in a crass and vulgar age. — CHRISTIAN CHENSVOLD
* * *
IS: How did the new book come about?
LB: It came about when I met Chip Kidd. In the back of my mind there was always the possibility that I would revisit the “Preppy Handbook.” But it’s a very self-contained manual that didn’t really require updating, particularly as we said that nothing changes.
Chip came up in Facebook as a possible new friend, and I thought, “Oh, there’s that talented designer. I wonder if he’ll accept me?” Well I got an email back from him saying, “Is this really Lisa Birnbach? I’ve always wanted to meet you.” So we had lunch last May, and in the third hour he started to tell me how much online life there is dedicated to or inspired by the “Preppy Handbook,” none of which I was aware of. Somehow we started talking about a new book together, and here we are.
IS: How would you summarize what has happened to prepdom in the last 30 years?
LB: Polar fleece. Thirty years ago, not only did I never wear synthetics, I traveled to all 50 states saying, “No unnatural fiber has ever touched my body.” Now I have children that have not known a world in which there was anything but fleece. They wear recycled water bottles all day. And I embrace this synthetic, and like it or not it’s an accepted part of our sartorial vocabulary.
But the reason for this book is that the world has changed more profoundly than we could have thought 30 years ago. The group of people calling themselves preppies, or who want to be preppies, or who like preppies, are certainly more inclusive and less exclusive. People thought I was brilliant 30 years ago because the “Preppy Handbook” kind of predicted conservative backlash. Well I don’t think I deserve credit for predicting that, but whatever gift of intuition I may have, I never could have predicted portable telephones, the Internet, the loss of privacy, and the way people interact.
IS: The ‘80s are considered a pretty preppy, clean-cut and Republican decade, especially compared to the ‘70s and ‘90s. How much of what came after the OPH do you think you influenced? A few years later Hollywood makes the movie “Making the Grade,” Ralph Lauren grows his empire — to what degree do you think you set the zeitgeist into motion?
LB: I really don’t know. That’s a great question. I’m thinking… the silence you hear is my brain trying to work. (Continue)
If there’s one character in “The Official Preppy Handbook” who could be singled out for derision, it’s the skier. Wearing mirrored sunglasses and a cocky sneer, he looks like the kind of guy you’d hate everything about.
Everything, that is, except his ski cap from Moriarty of Stowe, Vermont.
For five decades the Moriarty cap and the Stowe ski industry grew in tandem. Here is a story that appeared in the June 2006 issue of Skiing Heritage Journal, recounting how Anabel Moriarty founded a cottage industry and outfitted American Winter Olympians, including her son, from 1956-2006.
Today, as the opening ceremony marks the start of the 2010 Winter Olympics, I wish I could tell you that Moriarty is still a dominant force in ski hats. But there is no longer a store on Main Street, according to the Stowe Chamber of Commerce. The Vermont Ski Museum was also unable to locate a store representative.
But there are still hats available. The museum has a few caps left emblazoned with Stowe, and an Internet search reveals some interesting things for preps who turned left at Bohemian. Moriarty hats and sweaters also appear on eBay from time to time.
The optimist in me believes the Moriarty hat is simply dormant. I’d also like to think there are some Vermont knitters just waiting for someone to appreciate their work again.
As the old advisement used to say, “The People of Vermont make great maple syrup, great cheddar, and the best ski hats in the world.” — CHRISTOPHER SHARP
This year marks the 25th anniversary of one of the most erudite and entertaining tomes on menswear: G. Bruce Boyer’s “Elegance.”
Ivy-Style continues its efforts to digitize Boyer’s work for the Internet and a new generation of readers. This latest offering addresses the polo coat, the so-called “aristocrat of topcoats.”
Below are some words of reflection submitted by Boyer, followed by the article, which originally appeared in the July, 1981 issue of Town & Country.
* * *
I’ve been reading the latest editions of the fashion mags — as a professional critic, I’m desperate for any laughs I can get — and have noticed that the in fashion places this season seem to be either Kenya or India. I can’t speak for Kenya, but the literature is full of fashion that’s come out of the British Raj.
I once actually met a grandson of the Maharajah of Jodhpur — he was wearing a diamond on a chain around neck, and the stone was about the size of a small ice cube — and I asked him about jodhpurs. “The British stole that idea from my grandfather,” he pointedly said. The conversation drifted a bit after that.
But the sartorial heritage of that Indian-invented game of polo is still very much around, even when it comes to us from the British: the buttondown collar, chukka boots, the cummerbund, the polo shirt, and of course the polo coat.
The camel hair coat has changed its style a bit over the years, yet remains a classic of the genre. Brooks Brothers has been stocking them forever, or at least since the early years of the 20th century, and Ralph Lauren’s version (see example above) with flapped chest pocket is an authentic copy [note to CC: I know this sounds contradictory, but leave it in anyway] of one worn by the Duke of Windsor himself.
It looks to be with us for many years to come, the gods and camels willing. (Continue)