Preppy Evangelist: The Lisa Birnbach Interview

Thu 29 Apr 2010 - Filed under: 1980s,1990-present,Top Drawer — Christian
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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)

Twilight in Vermont: The Rise and Fall of the Moriarty Ski Hat

Fri 12 Feb 2010 - Filed under: 1980s,Sport — Christian
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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

 

The Aristocrat of Topcoats: Boyer on the Polo Coat

Mon 11 Jan 2010 - Filed under: 1980s,Clothes,Historic Texts — Christian
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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)

 

Secrets of Sprezzatura: The Messed-Up Shirt Collar

Sat 31 Oct 2009 - Filed under: 1980s,Clothes,Film — Christian
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Do your outfits look stiff and contrived? Do you have a tendency to wear matching pants and saddle shoes?

What you need is a dash of sprezzatura — deliberately calculated nonchalance — to give yourself a more devil-may-care, deshabille appearance.

Here’s a quick fix in three easy steps:

1) When you launder an oxford-cloth buttondown, keep the collar buttoned. As the shirt gets knocked around in the wash, then flutters in the autumn wind as it hangs on the clothesline, the back of the collar will inevitably come out of alignment.

2) Remove dry shirt from clothesline. Don’t iron it. Don’t fix the collar.

3) Put the shirt on and continue through your day as normal, completely oblivious — or at least feigning to be — of your messed-up shirt collar.

Image courtesy of the 1988 film “Mystic Pizza,” in which a married Yalie architect seduces his babysitter with wine, Mozart, and charmingly disheveled shirt collar. — CC

 

Prep Membership Card: The LL Bean Norwegian Sweater

Sat 17 Oct 2009 - Filed under: 1980s,1990-present,Clothes — Christian
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In the 1980s, I would stroll through the oak grove of my small college campus clad in a well worn pair of chinos, cream-colored turtleneck, a pink Brooks oxford and an LL Bean Norwegian Sweater. I was confident in believing I had found the perfect sweater that would be around forever.

Boy was I wrong.

November 1 will see the long-awaited return of the LL Bean Norwegian Sweater after hiatus of nearly two decades. Though not yet listed on the LL Bean website, you can place a telephone order for the sweater now.

Wildly popular in the ’70s and ’80s, the past 18 years have not been good to this preppy icon. In the wake of increased apparel outsourcing, the once authentically Norwegian sweater began being made in China. This sino-faux sweater received a chilly reception, and in one of the trade’s most creative euphuisms, Bean decided to let the sweater “rest.”

Long favored by Norwegian fishermen, the iconic blue with white birds-eye pattern is back and better then ever. Bean has returned to the original supplier, which has been producing traditional Norwegian knitwear for over 70 years from a small, idyllic island factory. The sweater is priced at $129.00 and is available in two models: the original crewneck and a 1/4 zip-neck. The zip sweater will be available through Bean’s retail stores and is designed to appeal to those more accustomed to performance fleece then staid wool.

First introduced in 1965, the Norwegian Sweater earned the devotion of outdoor enthusiasts. The original model was 80 percent unscoured wool for water repellency and 20 percent rayon for strength. The new models are 100% wool. The whole process from farm to factory has improved; advancements in wool and knitting technologies allow the all wool sweater to be stronger, water repellent and retain its shape This change from the original sweater should be good news to devotees of traditional clothing who are largely synthetic-fiber phobic.

“The nearest thing to a prep membership card,” is how Lisa Birnbach describes the Norwegian Sweater in  “The Official Preppy Handbook.” The unisex sweater was integral to the preppy layering scheme, and the shoulders were supposed to be dirty as evidence of the deviant social practice of “gatoring.” Birnbach quietly warned against similar outdoorsy models, and encouraged readers to source exclusively from LL Bean. Three photographs, one illustration, and a handful of references in her best-selling tome solidified the Norwegian Sweater as a campus favorite and helped drive sales throughout the ’80s.

Growing up in 70′s the sweater was “the first LL Bean item I wanted,” says project manager Don Rogers, who spearheaded the sweater’s return. Its rebirth reflects a growing interest in American heritage brands, he says. “Now is the right time for the reintroduction of the sweater.” — CHRISTOPHER SHARP

Christopher Sharp lives in upstate New York. He is a former community-newspaper reporter who has served in the Navy Reserve for over 20 years, currently supporting the Global War on Terror.

 

Slipping Into Something More Comfortable

Tue 18 Aug 2009 - Filed under: 1980s,Historic Texts — Christian
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This is the second in our efforts to digitize the work of G. Bruce Boyer, whose many fine articles on menswear have not yet found their way onto the Internet. Titled simply “Loafers,” this piece originally appeared in the July, 1982 issue of Town & Country, and was collected in Boyer’s 1985 book “Elegance.”

Boyer was kind enough to provide a few remarks on the piece by way of introduction; they are followed by “Loafers” further below.

It’s been almost a quarter century since this piece was published in “Elegance,” and I read it again with mixed emotions. On the happy side, I think the broad idea of comfort’s influence — footwear serving as a synecdoche — is seen to be truer now than ever. On the less happy side, comfort’s influence seems now to be mostly the only influence.

Not quite true because the overriding rule of fashion is that we will continue to dress like those with whom we wish to be associated. But then of course, why shouldn’t comfort be the overriding concern? The answer to that question is another paper I’d like to present to The Academy of Arts & Sciences some day.

I still think “That Touch of Mink” made a sartorially interesting point, and that Kipling is more right than ever about 49-year-old women. I haven’t seen any stats about what dress shoe is the most popular, but I would still put my money on the slip-on. Will men really turn completely to those hyper-designed sports shoes, even when produced in black leather or dark suede? Most shoes are now made of synthetics.

What continues to surprise me, though, is how conservative we continue to be in our dress, how slowly we change. The style of business dress has changed only minutely in over a century. Only the Medieval cloak seems to have had such a track record in the past 800 years or so of male attire. When we think of all the incredible, unimagined inventions within the suit’s history — radio and TV, telephone, airplanes and cars, computers, organ transplants, superconductors, outer space travel, and on and on — how is it that men are still wearing the same style jackets and trousers and shoes and shirts and neckwear they did over a hundred years ago?

In so thoroughly materialistic a world, it’s intriguing to think that we continue to be intimately surrounded by objects of such incredible symbolic worth.

Me? I’m still wearing my Alden cordovan penny loafers, model #986. — G. BRUCE BOYER (Continue)

 

Dirty Rotten Scoundrel

Sun 10 May 2009 - Filed under: 1960s,1980s,Film — Christian
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Every so often Hollywood makes a film that perfectly crystallizes the inversion of values that has taken place in America since the 1960s. “Dirty Dancing” —  made in 1987 but set in 1963 — perfectly illustrates the newfound bias against clean-cut, Ivy-type guys who wear madras jackets.

Set at a summer resort in New York’s Catskill Mountains, the movie is a powerful piece of countercultural propaganda that, through the medium of cable television, repeatedly brainwashes American women into thinking that uneducated hunks in leather jackets are preferable to college boys in oxford-cloth buttondowns.

Johnny, played by Patrick Swayze, is poor and dresses in all black. He is the film’s hero. Robbie (pictured) wears white bucks and tennis sweaters. He is the film’s villain.

Robbie is a Yale med student working a summer job at the resort. Evidently planning to study gynecology, Robbie has no less than three dalliances during the course of the film.

While Robbie has the collegiate look, he’s no rich kid: Not only is he forced to work as a waiter to pay for med school, his sense of superiority, unsupported by high birth, must seek its justification in the novels of Ayn Rand. At one point Robbie spouts a cynical remark about the superiority of the select few, then whips out a tattered copy of “The Fountainhead.” He’s promptly called a sleazebag.

At the end of the film the resort owner laments how the business has survived two World Wars and the Great Depression, but that he isn’t sure he’ll make it through the ’60s. “It all seems to be ending,” he says. “You think kids want to come with their parents and take foxtrot lessons?” — CC

 
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