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 Monthlycover 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.
IS: “Take Ivy” isn’t due to come out for another month, and yet you’ve already pre-sold the first printing. How many copies have you sold in advance of publication?
WDV: Let’s just say we’ve already had to go back to print, which is very rare, especially for an illustrated book. It’s really taken off because of the blogosphere. You guys are just taking the information and running with it. It’s just viral, which is the dream of every publisher.
IS: The book’s original hype was also driven mostly by the Internet.
WDV: Absolutely. I found the book via new media. I saw the Times write about it, and saw it on either A Continuous Lean or The Trad. The Trad had scanned the whole book, so I saw it and thought, “We have got to do this.” Over several weeks I was on the phone at 10 at night trying to find the Japanese publisher, trying to track down who holds the rights to this thing. We finally found them, and were just elated that we got the rights. So many people had been talking about it online that we thought we might be too late, but we weren’t.
All of us here saw scans and knew we loved it: none of us had seen a copy. Very few people have actually held a copy, so we were all just going crazy for scans, which really says something about the material. And now we’re seeing that a large group of people are really into this. But the timing is perfect, too, right in the thick of the American Craft movement, as some people call it, or a celebration of all things American. (Continue)
I’ve previously presented two articles on Brooks Brothers from the troubled Marks & Spencer era. This one, from four decades earlier, was featured in the September, 1950 issue of the Esquire-owned digest Coronet, and also reflects a time of corporate management change.
In 1946 Brooks Brothers was bought by the Washington, DC department store known as Garfinkel’s. The new president John C. Wood put customer fears of radical change to rest when he declared that he would sooner be seen wearing a zoot suit in Times Square than tamper with Brooks policies.
The amazing thing about Brooks Brothers and its image is how slowly things changed over the years. I believe Brooks Brothers customers over 40 feel some of the old mystique and will recognize something of the Brooks Brothers presented here.
This article from the halcyon days of Brooks Brothers is bound to cause some nostalgia, whether for a place remembered but now lost, or for a place one wishes he new. — CHRISTOPHER SHARP
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There’s Only One Brooks Brothers
By Lester David
Coronet, September 1950
Outfitting presidents of the of the U. S. has been almost-routine business during much of the 132-year history of Brooks Brothers, oldest and most famous clothing store in America.
When Abraham Lincoln was shot as he sat in a box of Ford’s Theater in Washington, he was wearing a new Prince Albert coat, waistcoat, trousers, and overcoat just delivered to him by the New York firm. When Ulysses S. Grant, Woodrow Wilson, and Theodore Roosevelt took their oaths of office, they were attired in new suits fitted by Brooks. When Franklin D. Roosevelt met Churchill and Stalin at Yalta in 1945, the great Navy cape he wore on the 6,000-mile air-sea journey carried the Brooks label.
Founded in 1818 when Manhattan was a seacoast town of less than 125,000 population, the store has kept some of the country’s (and the world’s) most noted personages in shoes, socks, pajamas, shirts, ties, hats, and suits. And some — their identity is a well-kept secret —in nightshirts and tasseled caps!
Diplomats and prize fighters, dukes and bankers, Cabinet members and theatrical luminaries stroll every day through the ten-story building on Madison Avenue. The sight of Secretary of State Dean Acheson trying on a new overcoat, or Clark Gable testing a new pair of shoes, or the Duke of Windsor undecided between a red or green dressing gown causes scarcely a flurry. The reason is simply that the store itself is a national legend, as noted in its own right as any of its patrons. (Continue)
In 1993, five-odd years under new owners Marks & Spencer, now widely agreed to have veered the brand drastically off course, Brooks Brothers took out a six-page advertorial in The Atlantic Monthly celebrating its 175 years in business.
Literary heavyweight George Plimpton was hired to write the text, which combines history with everyday goings-on at the Madison Avenue flagship.
Asked to check out Brooks Brothers on its 175th anniversary, I thought it best to outfit myself for the visit from head to foot in their clothing. It was not too difficult, since I have been a patron for years, as was my father before me, and his father before him. I missed out only on the shoes. I have an unnaturally wide foot, a triple E, and their shoe department stops at a single E, shoes that would have caused a wince at every step if I could have squeezed into them. But the rest was all theirs — socks, underwear, tie, a white button-down shirt, and a slightly rumpled seersucker suit, which was appropriate because it was a hot summer day. The blue flag with its legend attesting to “175 Years of American Style” hung listlessly in the heat over Forty-fourth Street.
Once inside the pleasant cool of the store, I was taken in hand by Wayne Sheridan, a salesman on the first floor. He has been employed by Brooks Brothers for thirty-five years. That is by no means remarkable. Indeed, the employment record is held by salesman Joseph Mancini, who retired in 1992 after sixty-six years of service. Another salesman, Frederick Webb, worked in the store selling suits up through his eighties. Among his steady customers (“see you” patrons, in the jargon of the store) were members of the Morgan banking family. He served five generations of them during his sixty-five years of service. He could never bring himself to judge when the young Morgans reached an age when it was no longer appropriate for him to call them by their first names: no easy solution. So he simply continued on a first-name basis with Morgan family members throughout their lives.
Mr. Sheridan, being on the first floor, which features ties, shirts, and men’s accessories, does not have quite the “see you” patronage situation enjoyed by the suit salesmen on the fourth. But he told me he had once sold a button-down shirt to Joan Collins. He remembers John F. Kennedy in his senatorial days, walking past the tie counter with his hands in his coat pockets. (Continue)
The March, 1991 M Magazine article — of which scans are presented below after the jump (click “Continue”) — is our second article on Brooks Brothers during the Marks & Spencer era.
Along with the previous one from Forbes, the article is part of a cache I collected while doing a paper for a Business 101 course. I titled my paper “The Fleecing of Brooks Brothers?” and chose the company as a subject because as a customer I had a vested interest in the changes going on.
Some of the changes make sense. Wardrobe sizing — the ability to buy separate pants in different waist sizes — allowed Brooks Brothers to fit people with non-standard drops. And wholesaling Brooks Brothers shirts to independent retailers opened the product to customers who were geographically isolated.
So what went wrong? I was uneasy from the start, considering that the best thing the press could say about Marks & Spencer was that they supplied Margaret Thatcher’s underwear. There were brash advertisements, new products, and perception of chasing a younger and hipper customer. There seemed to be a break with the past, and longtime customers lost confidence.
Richard Press, vice president of J. Press at the time, was spot on when he observed, “A number of customers are coming to us who can’t find what they want at places they’ve been shopping in the past. These customers have an allegiance to classical American clothing. Some of our competitors don’t seem to have confidence in that anymore.” — 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. He recently acquired the Brooks Brothers cigar label pictured above. (Continue)
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.
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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)