Chip Vs. Charles: Preppies And Yuppies During The Reagan Years

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:

  1. Traded in his pink Lacoste shirt and madras pants for a Ralph Lauren pinstripe suit and a Gucci pigskin briefcase
  2. Dropped his old prep school nickname. (Charles, not Chip, is a more suitable name for someone who negotiates eight-figure corporate mergers.)
  3. 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

45 Comments on "Chip Vs. Charles: Preppies And Yuppies During The Reagan Years"

  1. Well done, Matthew.

    Guy at the top looks like Stiffler.

  2. Basically yuppies have no values except greed and money. Case in point: Patrick Bateman from “American Pyscho.” He was an empty shell of materialism and greed for money, sex, and violence.

    Preppies have values, traditions, and a sense of timeless style.

  3. Mitchell S:
    Values, traditions, and a sense of timeless style?
    Not the preppies I know. Some preppies grow up, and become Ivy adherents or Trads.

  4. Trevor Jones | July 17, 2018 at 2:50 pm | Reply

    Excellent work here, fascinating piece. ??

  5. Brian McNeill | July 17, 2018 at 3:29 pm | Reply

    Present during the emergence of the Yuppie, I was not to the manner borne. My father was a police officer and my mother managed a lunch-counter style restaurant. I did attend a private liberal arts college, but not one of the epicenters of privilege.

    Following a stint in the Army, I landed at Price Waterhouse. There, I learned how to dress like an adult. Our dress code was “dress like you’re going to a funeral, but put on a more conservative necktie.”

    Alas, it was not warm to a traditional look. I had one Sr. Manager tell me that my bow-tie made me “look like f[unpleasant verbal] Orville Reddenbacher.” He sent me out at lunch to buy a “real” necktie.

    On the cusp of retirement, I still dress traditionally and with a nod to the past. DC is HOT, HOT, HOT in the summer, so I wear seersucker, poplin, and linen, and in light colors. I don’t much care that oh-so-serious DC considers them outre. Let them wear their navy and charcoal wool suits on a 98 degree day.

  6. They mention Rolexes and Gucci briefcases, but I was under the impression that the third quintessential (or cliche) item in the Yuppie uniform was an Armani suit. The sort Niles Crane wore in early episodes of Frasier; far from the realm of Northeast fashions.

  7. I was not to the” manner borne”.

    Your upward mobility is commendable. However, you
    must have skipped some spelling classes during your
    rise. It’s MANOR and BORN.

  8. I think that one distinguishing feature separating preppies from yuppies is the “consultant”. Yuppies had them for clothes, travel, décor, food, practically anything that was included in a “lifestyle”. Preppies didn’t need to hire expensive strangers for that…or refer to their “lifestyles”.

    Millennials seem to seek “mentors” a lot: kind of the same thing, but cheaper.

  9. In Texas, the preppies I ran with came from comfortable income households, but not necessarily wealthy ones. Lots of lawyers, stock brokers, commercial insurance agents, and oil and gas executives.

    Moreover, being a yuppie was not about clothing choices. I think it was more about showy lifestyles and shifty morals. A preppy wore what he wanted to wear. A yuppie wore what he thought he needed to wear to get rich.

  10. This article could only be written by a guy named Benz, right? Of course would it not have been even more relevant if his last name was Tesla? It would be consistent with how we yuppies have….evolved.

  11. Roger Sack:
    A bit of Googling will tell you that “to the manner born” is the original form, and that we owe it to Shakespeare. The Columbia Guide to Standard American English says both forms are acceptable. The older expression still means familiar with something since birth. The “manor” version means privileged since birth.

  12. Huntington Howell | July 18, 2018 at 5:23 am | Reply

    Am I the only one who was amused by the Sony Walkman on the cover of the Yuppie Handbook?

  13. I always viewed the trend of traditionalism in the 1980’s as an over-shooting reaction to the complete crumbling of values, style and ethics during the 1970’s. The 70’s produced an earthy, relativistic feeling that you can see in colors of that decade, in careers people pursued and even the economy. All tradition in all things was entirely suspect for about a decade until about 1980, when suddenly it all came charging back. Traditional clothes, traditional career tracks and traditional colors were suddenly in style by the early 80’s and, to those of us who remember the time, it seemed like it just happened overnight. We went to sleep in a hippie commune and woke up in a cartoon version of the penthouse at Trump Tower.

  14. Thank you for the piece.

    And thank you, Jerry, for this spot-on observation:

    “We went to sleep in a hippie commune and woke up in a cartoon version of the penthouse at Trump Tower.”

    Well stated.

    This exercise of culling Ivy style of all the successive attempts at reinterpretation is most welcome. Again: thank you. I think CC used the phrase “bastardization” (or “bastardized”?). Is there consensus that such attempts have been mostly disastrous and have resulted in a diluting/polluting/tainting of the style? Ivy has benefited from small protestant reformations–always looking back to the 1950s for guidance (in the same way Calvin looked back to Paul, Augustine, and the Patristics). This is all to the good.

    One reoccurring affiliation with the 1980s has to do with the Alden tassel moc. It’s really too bad it’s so connected with the Reagan era. It was available and favored by more than a few in the 1960s. A favorite picture of a young John Kerry is found in Douglas Brinkley’s (excellent) biography. Standing tall somewhere on the St. Paul’s campus, he’s wearing a tweed jacket, OCBD, repp tie, flannels…and tassel mocs.

    I fondly recall the resistance to the 70s and 80s–men who maintained their crewcuts and wore the suits, jackets, blazer, and ties they had bought decades previous.

  15. Well there’s that damned law of entropy at work here. All other male styles (such as ’30s Apparel Arts/Old Hollywood/Savile Row styles are also watered down today. Rapid and constant social and sartorial change.

  16. Charlottesville | July 18, 2018 at 12:35 pm | Reply

    Mr. McNeill – It sounds like you and I may have been in Washington around the same time. I arrived after law school in the latter half of the 80s and enjoyed the final days of Brooks Brothers on L Street as a trad haven. Not the Ivy Heyday, by any means, but perhaps the last gasp. 3/2 sack suits, OCBDs with unlined collars, and 3.25-inch ties were pretty standard. At that time I was fairly young, lived in a more-or-less urban environment and was a professional, but I would not have thought of myself as a yuppie. However, non-yuppies may have viewed me that way simply because of my age, clothing and job. I remember the term “Yuppie” as slightly derogatory, conveying a sense of shallow materialism and trend-following, which seems consistent with most of the comments above. In one of the great stunts I recall from that era, one of the paralegals programmed the firm’s computer system to show the message “Die Yuppie Scum!” when we turned on our PCs one morning. We all enjoyed it and he was a sort of folk hero for a day or two. Like you, I still wear seersucker and poplin in the summer and I still wear a bow tie once a week or so when the mood strikes. Best wishes to you from another hot and humid town.

  17. @Charlottesville
    “…shallow materialism and trend-following…”
    Thank goodness those days are over!

  18. Charlottesville | July 18, 2018 at 1:34 pm | Reply

    Don – Hah! Good one. Alas, human nature is such that shallowness, materialism and group-think will likely always be the norm. At least the trends in the 80s tended toward better dress. Post-disco and pre-athleisure. But of course, I am romanticizing my memories and ignoring grunge, parachute ants, leg-warmers and some rather over-the-top hairstyles.

  19. Charlottesville | July 18, 2018 at 1:37 pm | Reply

    *pants. Sorry.

  20. Carmelo Pugliatti | July 18, 2018 at 2:09 pm | Reply

    As for 60s,the 89s too can be divide in two different hal decades…less extreme in differences and changes of 60s,but also rather distincts.

    I like early-mid 80s,while for many aspects see the late 80s a very less brilliant period.
    About clothes, male fashion in 1980-1985 was very proportionate,elegant and timeless ( maybe a part for a relative low gorge in the coats).
    I like also the conservative vibe of early 80s..after those all weird and sads years were a restoration parfume in the air.
    In America is morning again, the Space Shuttle bring back the US Astronauts in space,commies are again the empire of evil,suit and ties are still “in”,hairs are short again….even Jerry Lewis back to cinemas with a new movie after more of ten years,and Sean Connery back as 007 !
    Britain had his new D Day in Falkland,USA shake the stick in Grenada…
    And i liked very much Ronnie.
    I think that in his mind Reagan wish really bring back USA to the good old days (the real “make America great again”)in a sort of political and social “back to the future”.
    But his revolution was betrayed by new conservatives and by the yuppies generation.
    And more,at a certain point there was a strange aliance between amoral greed and ultra-liberal ideologies (greed is good,but follow politically correct hypocrisies is a must).

  21. Carmelo Pugliatti | July 18, 2018 at 2:10 pm | Reply

    As for 60s,the 80s too can be divide in two different hal decades…less extreme in differences and changes of 60s,but also rather distincts.

    I like early-mid 80s,while for many aspects see the late 80s a very less brilliant period.
    About clothes, male fashion in 1980-1985 was very proportionate,elegant and timeless ( maybe a part for a relative low gorge in the coats).
    I like also the conservative vibe of early 80s..after those all weird and sads years were a restoration parfume in the air.
    In America is morning again, the Space Shuttle bring back the US Astronauts in space,commies are again the empire of evil,suit and ties are still “in”,hairs are short again….even Jerry Lewis back to cinemas with a new movie after more of ten years,and Sean Connery back as 007 !
    Britain had his new D Day in Falkland,USA shake the stick in Grenada…
    And i liked very much Ronnie.
    I think that in his mind Reagan wish really bring back USA to the good old days (the real “make America great again”)in a sort of political and social “back to the future”.
    But his revolution was betrayed by new conservatives and by the yuppies generation.
    And more,at a certain point there was a strange aliance between amoral greed and ultra-liberal ideologies (greed is good,but follow politically correct hypocrisies is a must).

  22. MacMcConnell | July 18, 2018 at 3:26 pm | Reply

    I was born in 1951. Since I began wearing long trousers I’v dressed the same way. I grew up in Mississippi, Texas and Missouri, went to university in Kansas. I always dressed the same way. In the fifties, sixties and seventies I was just normal, but then in the eighties I was called a Preppy, in the late eighties a Yuppie. Still don’t get it.

  23. @ Carmelo: “About clothes, male fashion in 1980-1985 was very proportionate,elegant and timeless.”

    I agree and believe we can thank Giorgio Armani.

  24. Carmelo Pugliatti | July 18, 2018 at 6:38 pm | Reply

    Armani for some strange reason had a great success in USA.
    In Italy were considered good for women apparel,but for man fashion was mainly a export firm.
    His cheap bold look parody was considerad exaggerate and ugly.
    If you see the pictures of elegant Italian men of 80s are all in classic bespoke suits.

  25. @MacMcConnell I was born in 1949. Spent my whole life in Texas, including college and law school. Been dressing trad since I was a teenager. Got caught up in the yuppie deal in the mid 80’s with the purchase of a BMW or two. Fortunately, I came to my senses shortly thereafter. I’m very conservative now when it comes to spending money.

  26. MacMcConnell | July 18, 2018 at 7:57 pm | Reply

    @John Carlos
    By 1980 I’d already gone though three BMWs. I stopped buying them because BMW ceased being austere four bangers that were a hoot to drive. Where in Texas, I was in San Antone.

  27. That’s where I’ve lived since 1975.

  28. @Mac Where are you now?

  29. Quick little historical trivia. When “Yuppie” as a term came out, it was a winner over “YAP” (Young Aspiring Professional) and “YUMP” (Young Upwardly Mobile Professional fully acronymed). There was some pseudo-academic discussion as to why, but I read it/forgot it/didn’t care to start with.

  30. Vern Trotter | July 18, 2018 at 11:12 pm | Reply

    “Yuppie” has always seemed to be a mildly pejorative term. Many nicknames are after all; a diminutive also is many times. But not always.

    Tonight I went to 21 for dinner. Very busy. Most gents 65 and older were wearing neckties. Younger, not. Coats still required, no jeans or sneakers permitted.

    I notice you fellas call it San Antone. My dad always did also as he spent a baseball season there in 1937. Most up north folks of course call it San Antonio. 7th or 8th largest city now, isn’t it? I have been there many times. Maybe Texas will split into it’s agreed on 5 states if Calif goes to 3.

  31. @Vern Trotter You are very perceptive. The natives here cringe at San Antone. Very much like Frisco. Yes it is. The great state of Texas will never split. We just kick butt from an economic standpoint.

  32. @Vern You strike me as being like myself. I’m happy to get your perspective on things.

  33. @Vern Did your dad play for our AA affiliate?

  34. Vern Trotter | July 19, 2018 at 12:23 am | Reply

    Yes, he was a pitcher, went 22-9 that year. A St.L Browns ( now the Baltimore Orioles ) farm team AA, Bill Trotter.

  35. MacMcConnell | July 19, 2018 at 10:15 am | Reply

    @ John Carlos
    I live in Kansas City, Missouri, moved here from Texas in ninth grade.

  36. @M Arthur

    By the late ’80s and early ’90s, Armani had become credited with the baggy, unstructured look that filtered throughout menswear. Look at the young Tiger Woods for example, in those baggy golf shirts with sleeves down to his elbows. It also caused the mass of average men of all ages to suddenly have no idea how clothes are supposed to fit.

  37. Charlottesville | July 19, 2018 at 11:36 am | Reply

    Vern – I wish I could have joined you at 21. I have not been back since the flood and re-opening. Hope it is still the same as its antediluvian self. I can’t think of anyplace that still requires a tie, but am thankful for the few holdouts for jackets. I’m not 65 yet, but am certainly not a kid. At work there are a handful of regular tie-wearers, but few trads. At restaurants, I am usually the only tie-wearer apart from waiters and bartenders. This seems to be the case nearly everywhere.

    Carmelo – I am with you on Armani for men. The low gorge, low button stance and very full cut always looked exaggerated to me. Still, I suppose he got some men into coats and ties who would otherwise have been in jeans and t-shirts.

  38. Charlottesville | July 19, 2018 at 11:42 am | Reply

    Christian – Looks like our comments crossed in the ether. You are exactly right. The baggy 80s. Timothy Dalton’s James Bond in License to Kill also comes to mind.

  39. MacMcConnell | July 20, 2018 at 12:43 pm | Reply

    I first noticed the Armani on Hollywood awards shows long before I saw “civilians” wearing them. But, I live the mid-west. Something just struck me as Guido about the over-sized black silk suit, white silk shirt and black tie, plus not very imaginative.

  40. Brian McNeill | July 20, 2018 at 5:48 pm | Reply

    Charlottesville– I am a native Washingtonian. I was born here, and apart from my time away in the military, I’ve been here all my life.

    Yes, I remember the old Brooks Bros. location. Most of my daily-wear suits come from J.Press, which is still on L St.

  41. Charlottesville | July 23, 2018 at 2:59 pm | Reply

    Brian — You are one of the rare native Washingtonians. I have met others, but it tends to be a town of transients and transplants. Because of the university here, Charlottesville is similar but on a much smaller scale. I miss the old Brooks on L, and not just the location. I too switched my allegiance to J. Press when they opened the Washington store, by which point the downward slide at Brooks had already accelerated. Chris Dunn was my usual salesman there in the 2000s, but I don’t get back that often any more. I miss Washington, although I try to get back a few times a year.

  42. In the 80s yuppies were obsessed with impressing certain others while preppies felt it only natural to adhere to an old code that happened to impress certain others and amuse or confuse others. Yuppies dress, drink, worship, play and study like their parents (and great-grandparents) because nothing else is quite right, while yuppies almost contemptuously avoid the ways of their parents as they ascend. Incidentally, yuppies work for preppies.

  43. Dressing in trad and prep clothing in the tropics of Washington, D.C. is always a challenge, despite seersucker, white ducks and my olive drab poplin suit. We now live in Hanover, Pennsylvania and summering here is a bit more comfortable.

  44. LOL. It sounds to me like the Yuppie is the one that has the better value system. They actually DO SOMETHING. LIKE WORK. Preppies on the other hand as you describe them seem to do nothing but navel gaze and drink. While I love the preppie style, I absolutely abhorr the elitism, snobbery, and desire to “help” those not as fortunate by enacting endless rules which kill businesses and jobs, hurt the middle class, and promote a hate of patriotism. Scratch any annoying liberal globalist politician, and you get a preppy. Yuppies have something Preppies never will; Actual jobs!

  45. Right now there is none of this magic. These brands have all gone mass-market so they are not truly Prep or Yuppie. Models today are ugly mass-market. Pandering everywhere. They have lost their way and their clientele in the process. When Brooks Brother sold this last time we closed our long-term account, along with the BB Platinum MC branded card. Done. On to private tailors now. Let them find out what they have done the hard way by pandering to a clientele that had nothing to do with building their brands. Money spends anwwhere.

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