Almost two years before “The Official Preppy Handbook” made preppy affectation accessible to all, Nelson W. Aldrich Jr. had already caught wind of the zeitgeist.
His January 1979 cover story for the Atlantic Monthly, “Preppies: The Last Upper Class?” is a seminal work of exposition on the manners and mores of the WASP establishment. It is also helpful in filling out the dark years between the fall of the Ivy League Look circa 1965, and the revival of what remained of it, combined with new styles and attitudes picked up during an intense period of social change, in November 1980 with the publication of “The Official Preppy Handbook.”
In honor of the article’s 30th anniversary, Ivy-Style herein presents this largely forgotten historic document now digitized for the Internet.
In the article, Aldrich — who authored the book “Old Money” and edited the oral history of George Plimpton Ivy-Style wrote about a while back — attempts to outline the behavioral characteristics of the prep-school set, their likes and dislikes, values and revulsions. Aldrich links the ideology of the preppy to his forbearer, the WASP, to whom the preppy owes his austerity, deference, and attitude toward money.
Aldrich devotes only a few paragraphs to preppy clothing; in his view the term “preppie” designates a group of people, not simply a style of dress. When he does mention clothes, he does so to illustrate the insularity of preppy society, in which the tiniest modifications of attire can carry great significance.
Worth noting is the passage in which Alrich argues that the distinguishing sartorial details of preppy style — presumably things like hooked vents, lapped seams and two-button cuffs, or perhaps embroidered whale belts — are relished by outsiders once they’ve figured out the secret code, but viewed as “oppressive” by the preppies expected to follow the code.
Along those lines, the famous preppy nonchalance envied by all may not come as easily as it appears. Writes Aldrich:
For the Preppie, on the other hand, gracefulness is less a gift than a standard, something to measure up to, a performance. The delight of the thing comes from the knowledge that it’s all contrived, that the effect of effortlessness requires a good deal of strain, that negligence requires attention, that indifference requires concentration, that simplicity and naturalness require affectation. The most delicious “in” joke of Preppiedom is the anxiety everyone feels about being carefree.
Aldrich’s attitude toward preppy culture is ambivalent. At times the article parodies the anxieties of preppies, yet Aldrich also seems to exalt their modesty and discretion. Although preppies may be the target of his satirical tone, he finds redeeming qualities in them which he suggests may be growing rare.
Ultimately his article is less the lampooning of a social class and more the taxonomy of an odd breed. Less than two years later, this taxonomy would reappear as a New York Times best-selling handbook.
The article is long and sometimes tedious, and so we’ve opted to present it in an excerpted format. This also presumably reduces our culpability in any copyright infringement accusation.
In addition to “Preppies,” Aldrich uses the terms Archies (from the Archie comic books) to denote the suburban middle class, and City Kids for the urban working class. — ZACHARY DELUCA & CC
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“Preppies: The Last Upper Class?”
By Nelson W. Aldrich, Jr.
Atlantic Monthly, January 1979 (excerpts)
“Preppie” is a catchall epithet to take the pace of words too worn or elaborate for everyday use, words such as privileged, ruling class, aristocrat, society woman, gentleman, and the rich. Ideological struggle is too shaming to talk about these days. Lifestyle rivalry is the new engine of history. In this sort of society, Preppies pass for an upper class. (Continue)