Recently we’ve examined the “bro,” who represents a kind of shadow figure of the contemporary young trad, sharing some of the trad’s qualities, but in a negative way. So what was the shadow figure of the ’80s preppy? Why, the gone-but-not-entirely-forgotten yuppie. Contributing writer Matthew Benz delves in.
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In the authors’ view, Preppieness is for young kids from old money, whereas Yuppieness “crosses ethnic, sexual, geographic – even class – boundaries, although it’s hard to see how that last part is possible, given how much it costs to be a Yuppie. Bill Bradley is cited in a list of “Yuppie Role Models” as a “classic case of Preppie turned Yuppie.” Also making the list is Ralph Lauren, since “you’ve gotta know when to change your name.”
It seems Preppies can become Yuppies, but only if they shed their skin:
There is a certain type of Preppie who has crossed class lines and converted to Yuppiehood by doing the following:
- Traded in his pink Lacoste shirt and madras pants for a Ralph Lauren pinstripe suit and a Gucci pigskin briefcase
- Dropped his old prep school nickname. (Charles, not Chip, is a more suitable name for someone who negotiates eight-figure corporate mergers.)
- Replaced his look of smug complacency with the leaner and hungrier look of his ethnic brethren (Remember, these are tough times; if you’re not first, you’re last.)
Preppies come in for fairly harsh treatment by the authors. In home décor, they write, “By all means avoid ruffles and steer clear of florals – too Preppie.” When naming their children, we are told that Yuppies likewise steer clear of Preppie names. “Naming your kid something like Chatsworth Osborne, Jr. means you run the risk of having him end up breeding horses instead of going to business school.” And those shared ways of dressing suggested by the cover drawing? They’re a matter of cooptation, not kinship. Clothing is just one more thing that Yuppies appropriate from others, along with gentrifying neighborhoods conducive to loft-living, gadgets from Japan, and outré cuisine.
According to the authors, LL Bean customers used to consist of “genuine Preppies with at least one uncle who actually hunted ducks. These days, even Yuppies whose uncles made it big in the seltzer or mozzarella business order the Maine hunting shoe and wear it with pride.” This would explain the cover drawing. In fact, there’s just one chapter on clothing – short, like all the rest, and really about the acquisition of clothes (it’s titled “Mail-Order Mania”) rather than clothes per se. But in articulating the core Yuppie dressing principle, it does provide the funniest line in the book: “The idea is to look as much like John Dean as possible, whether you’re a man or a woman.” This too explains the cover drawing.
Late Yuppie-era books like The Bonfire of the Vanities (1987) and American Psycho (1991) reflect concern about the harm that self-involved strivers were causing in the world. The social commentary of the Handbook is limited to light satire, although the humor is at times unintentional. Those who are old enough to remember will be amused by some of the phrases of the era (“no pain, no gain,” “if you’re not first, you’re last”), while those who are not will wonder what the “Beta/VHS controversy” was all about. The one thing about the Handbook that’s modern and familiar is the tone: ironic, sarcastic and mocking, whether of Preppies, Yuppies or anyone or anything else. One could see The Onion publishing a book like this today, replete with those references to word processers and cordless phones for maximum comic effect.
Given their close association with the laughable technology and other trends of their flowering period, it’s easy to dismiss Yuppies as a now-extinct ’80s-era phenomenon. But what about Preppies? What do they stand for? How have they survived? For starters, survival is easier when your defining characteristic is something tangible like clothing. But beneath the blue blazers, Shetland sweaters, repp ties and khakis lies a value system that Yuppies lacked. True, Prep is really just about clothes, and it can be even further reduced to just a few staple items. But Preppies believe that you stick with those staples because they last. In some cases – a frayed OCBD, a duct-taped pair of boat shoes – you stick with them even after they cease to last. Preppies are also sustained by institutions: the prep schools from which their name comes, the colleges of the Ivy League and others like them, and stores like Brooks Brothers, J. Press and Ralph Lauren. The educational institutions do not belong to Preppies alone, and not all the clothes that the stores sell are Preppie. But they keep the flame alive.
There’s a case to be made that the Yuppie spirit remains alive as well, that the Yuppie is, in the words of Jeff Gordinier in a 2006 Details articles, a “shapeshifter” that “finds ways to reenter the American psyche.” “A generation and a half” after the Yuppie heyday, Teddy Wayne wrote in The New York Times in 2015, “we have so deeply internalized the values of the yuppie that we have ceased to notice when one is in our midst – or when we have become one ourselves.”Millennials “have inherited an economy too fragile, and student loans too insurmountable, to enable their full-fledged yuppification. But they still share their ancestors’ love for conspicuous consumption (Instagram pictures of meals, parties and vacations) and toys (in lieu of expensive cars, real estate and artwork, the sleekly technological and more affordable plunder of Apple products and apps).”
In other words, Yuppieness does have a value system after all. Those who prefer Prep may scoff at what those values are. But there will always be some part of each of us who want the next new thing – and some who find value in what lasts. It’s the choices we make about the things in our lives that determine whether we’re Chip or Charles. — MATTHEW BENZ