Preppy Week: Alison Lurie on Being Rich and Dull

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 Monthly cover story, that the most salient characteristics of the preppy look are:

1) Total lack of imagination

2) Importance of the “right” brands and details

3) Androgyny

4) Layering

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.

10 Comments on "Preppy Week: Alison Lurie on Being Rich and Dull"

  1. Christopher Tawney | September 7, 2010 at 12:31 pm |

    I would guess that the 1960s and 1970s (the decades that taste forgot) were seminal to Ms. Lurie’s Weltanschauung. This would explain her fundamental lack of grip and understanding that, to rephrase some other old bat, ‘it is impossible to be too rich and too dull’.


  2. Christopher Tawney | September 7, 2010 at 12:37 pm |

    P.S. Never mind the Dead Kennedys; Little Feat were on the Old Grey Whistle Test in the mid 1970’s doing ‘Rock’n’roll Doctor’ with Lowell George wearing Topsiders, chinos, an OCBD and cashmere sweater worn as scarf knotted round the neck. It’ll be on Youtube.


  3. Bill Stephenson | September 7, 2010 at 2:16 pm |

    It seems like a bit of a shame that traditional ivy league clothing, that is admired by most that stop by here, has gotten mixed in with the “preppie” nomenclature.

    Burnbach did a great job with the OPH as far as satire mixed with an examination of parts of the US culture was concerned. However, this seems to have led an incredible number of people to an aspirational life style, that is a bit of a jolt. It is not possible to change who you are by adopting a style of clothing.

    True Ivy league clothing seems to have become a part of what looks like a bizarre costume, when adopted by those trying to affect the “preppie” image. Lime green trousers (with a critter motif), ribbon belt, boats shoes with no sox, grosgrain striped watch band,polo shirt with popped collar, and pink sweater knotted around shoulders. Preppie? I guess, but surely not Ivy league, and an aspirational costume, at best.

  4. “it also suggests concern with the world energy crisis”

    Alison may be overthinking some of this stuff.

  5. I really like this guy’s kit – I’ve tried to copy it – to some success, and I’ll keep trying. I don’t think I’ll be sick of the prep look by the end of the week…. keep them coming – and as always – I look forward to your posts!

  6. I think the outfit in the picture generally works. The white turtleneck has to go, though.

  7. What Lurie calls “a total lack of imagination” is what many of us would call “an adherence to tradition”.

    There’s already too much imagination in the men’s clothing world.

  8. I always find it funny when people try so hard to distance the Trad/Natural Shoulder/Ivy look from “Preppy”. “Preppy” is essentially the Ivy look for the weekends. If you’re afraid of lime green pants and ribbon belts, that’s cool. But, don’t try to make it seem like this look is as rigid as you are.

  9. Ms. Lurie’s book is a gem. I read it when it came out and still quote from it. My favorivte was the, “Artists are workers too” look. A look which never really left, but has returned in force in the form of all the pre beatup jeans, Redwing boots and flannel shirts seen in Soho.

  10. Dad wore tweed sport coat on weekends, Junior’s prep school made him wear a sport coat to dinner in the dorm so Jr wore green pants with his sport coat to piss off Dad and the school authorities. Jr came back from summer in France with a La Coste shirt and wore it under his sportcoat with a duck tie, green pants and added sweatsocks with his Weejuns, he was being a nonconformist. Preppie style got picked up by the teen and college culture at large and later became traditional but in the beginning it was a middle finger aimed at Dad. Check James Dean out in Rebel, he’s wearing a sport coat and slacks, early Elvis is in a sportcoat and slacks. Back then the black leather jacket and boots stuff was mostly gay guys as it is now. Brando wore the biker look but he was not a teen icon, he was a theater type worshipped by gay men.

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