Alison Lurie on Being Rich and Dull

The following is an excerpt from Alison Lurie‘s 1981 book “The Language of Clothes,” a fascinating study of the semiotics of clothing. Lurie 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 casual, rather uninteresting sports clothes worn by upper-middle-class suburbanites in the conservative fifties and early sixties.”

Lurie points out — also 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.

31 Comments on "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.

  11. As others have noted above, I ,too, like the look of the gentleman in the photo. Everything goes well together, it is traditional, the colors are subdued and the fit practical. Its Prep at its comfortable best.

  12. White Pinpoint | November 17, 2019 at 12:03 am |

    “Rather uninteresting”?
    Quite the contrary, I daresay.

  13. I think imagination can be injected into the look. It just takes a nice combination of taste and confidence.

    O’Connells carries some gorgeous, multi-colored Magee tweeds that can be paired tastefully with a tattersall BD shirt and an ancient madder tie. In the summer, you can splash some pastel color around, though I must plead guilty to sometimes splashing too much. Throughout the year, you can play with textures (linen with seersucker for example) to create visual interest as well.

  14. Charlottesville | November 17, 2019 at 10:08 am |

    One can like it or hate it, but how can the range of colors associated with the preppy look of the 80s be considered dull? Even I find some of it a bit garish. The author seems to think clothing should exude sex and danger. Well, looking around today, I think she got her wish. Give me the tweeds, flannels, Shetlands and cottons of trad, and keep the rest. To each his own, though.

  15. Old School Tie | November 17, 2019 at 12:30 pm |

    Now, in the mid-1980s, being very slim I would often wear a turtleneck under a shirt during the winter months. Blue chambray shirt, white turtleneck, checked Harris tweed sports coat often with all three buttons fastened and beat-up 501s. The equivalent night out look was a black turtleneck, white shirt, black 501s and a black leather perfecto. I like the look in the photograph, brings one right back in time and place. I considered myself very stylish indeed, avant-garde even and the British indie music scene of the time accepted the look as part of its stylistic repertoire. Definitely never felt dull.

  16. @Bill Stephenson
    Re: “It is not possible to change who you are by adopting a style of clothing.”

    It is precisely because we believed and still believe just the opposite that Ivy/Trad style has survived.

  17. Lurie obviously spent no time examining the origins of the look, leading her to wax idiotically about kilts and fastenings. I also note she is far kinder to the much dumber and shorter lived punk look.

  18. What whiskeydent said. Lurie was writing this when traditional clothing was still a signifier of traditional / conservative values and, clearly, she was a tight-on type (today, they’d say ‘woke’).
    Great post!!

  19. Alan Tolchin | December 1, 2019 at 9:01 am |

    What about saddle shoes? Do they make the preppy list?

  20. Roger Sack | June 12, 2021 at 5:06 pm |

    Saddle shoes?, White bucks? Definitely Ivy, even more broadly,
    “collegiate”. However, I do not recall them in the “preppy revival”
    of the 80s. When I was at Cornell in the late 50s early 60s, white
    bucks were ubiquitous, less so saddle shoes. Both were being
    replaced by tennis shoes, preferably Tretorns.

  21. While the core basics of the wardrobe – khakis, blue oxford, blue blazer and penny loafers – are “easy’ and arguably boring, and have been adopted by the managerial across the country for many years, the riot of color (as noted by Charlottesville) associated with the true Ivy or preppie look defies being labeled as unimaginative or “uninteresting.” Just consider the amazing creativity of the gorgeous tweeds we wear, the old Brooks custom striped shirtings (God, I love that word), CHIPP linings, the bright Shaggy Dogs, and the combinations thereof put together by many sartorially inclined old boys (e.g., Richard Press, GHWB pre- and post-Presidency, Paul Mellon, Dean Acheson or Tucker Carlson), while still maintaining all of the integrity of the traditional cut and detail we love. This is what Sid Mashburn is trying to emulate in a modern (dare I say fashion forward) way. Moreover, the people who wear these clothes are anything but boring, as Lurie would know if she’d ever partied with them at their fraternity house or country club or anywhere else (she might rightly find them insufferable, but not boring or lacking in fun).

    As P.J. O’Rourke said: “The weirder you’re going to behave, the more normal you should look. It works in reverse too. When I see a kid with three or four rings in his nose, I know there is nothing extraordinary about that person.”

    I wore pink oxfords and boat shoes to Dead Kennedys (and Circle Jerks) concerts, and while it got me strange looks, it didn’t stop me from jumping right in and stage diving with those in t-shirts and safety pins. I met some interesting friends in those venues. And Little Feat played at my fraternity house.

  22. Nobody who’s familiar with the better (and better-known) purveyors of this style would use the word “uninteresting” in reference to the clothes– the Scottish tweeds, the cavalry twill, the West of England flannel, the horsehide moccasins, the beefy English oxford, the Donegal linens, Irish Poplin– all tailored and accessorized in ways that accentuated a man’s physique, no matter his size or posture. Whatever one calls it (I’ve long since stopped caring), it spiraled downward into “uninteresting” only when (after) very boring people, more interested in grotesque profits than preservation of its style took over the manufacture and marketing. (No, this is not the beginning of yet another ‘Fall of the Brooks Empire’ screed).

    What’s uninteresting? Athleisure.

    One of the reasons the style–and I’ll gladly go with designation ‘American Traditional’– is so rarely seen these days is that its most reliable clientele (patrons) have mostly died off: the vestrymen of our Episcopal parishes, the session members of our great Presbyterian congregations; the board members of our Congregational churches. Also known as WASPs, with emphasis on the ‘P’ (as in the Reformation). Ralph Lauren’s dream that WASPyness could be replicated by anybody who has the $ has morphed into a laughable and slightly pathetic nightmare, illuminated by Aldrich’s introduction to his book on old money: the old WASP credo, defined as much by embarrassment-fueled modesty as anything else, has been morphed by the vulgarities that accompany our new investment class. Oh, the beautiful irony that the franchise-ish growth of Brooks and PoloRL affirm the triumph of the ostentatious and flamboyant over the decorum, dignity, and reticent elegance of old, Dewars-soaked WASPyness.

    “You can put a navy blazer, nantucket reds, and topsiders on a pig…but it’s still a pig.”

  23. edit: the irony isn’t beautiful at all. It’s dreadful.

  24. Nevadicus | June 13, 2021 at 1:23 pm |

    Wow, the elitism and racism in a few of these comments! This is a blog about a style of clothing. Dressing like it’s the early-1960s doesn’t make any of us special. In fact, we should call ivy style what it is, a sartorial subculture. It is no longer mainstream, and is presently only about as popular and relevant as the punk rock clothes of another subculture cited in the post. I dress with a lot of ivy influence for my own personal enjoyment, as I believe most of us do. And as with all clothing-informed subcultures, most of us probably enjoy how our clothes signal our hipness to others in-the-know. But let’s stop pretending our clothing choices grant us special status or membership in some exclusive, exclusionary club. And if you *are* a member of an actual exclusive, exclusionary club, I hope that in time you can get comfortable with the fact that you’re no more special than anyone else, and neither are your clothes.

  25. Not subculture, but high culture. Now more than ever.

    And special people are definitely special. Amid the rise of mass culture and egalitarianism, now more than ever.

  26. The Earl of Iredell | June 13, 2021 at 4:24 pm |

    @Nevadicus: Well then, regarding special people, three cheers for mediocrity, eh wot?

  27. Nevadicus | June 13, 2021 at 6:42 pm |

    Well messrs. Fancypants, I would respectfully argue that looking down one’s nose at those outside the club is a great way to shrink, not expand, the relevance of the values of so-called high culture that you espouse. What do you value more? The feeling of exclusivity? Or the high culture itself? As with animal species and languages, a culture must either evolve or go extinct. I would argue (and so would many a city organization dedicated to so-called high culture) that the continued perception of snobbishness is precisely why the patrons of high art are mainly the aging and the dying out.

  28. I ran a website called for a couple of years around 2007-8, before focusing on Ivy Style. I attended many concerts, operas and ballets in Los Angeles, and then in the 10 years I spent in New York. Some of the events I attended were quite literally all people whose hair was as white as their skin.

    The dying of high culture is a result of the overall twilight of Western Civilization, the cyclical regression of the castes, and the ever-lowering of taste as a result of mass culture and what you might call cultural consumerist communism.

    The problem is not that high culture is snobbish because of old white people. Virtually every arts organization is going uber-woke (I just filed a story on this to San Francisco’s Nob Hill Gazette); it’s that people under 50 of all races aren’t interested in high culture.

    In the documentary on class “People Like Us” they couldn’t even give away artistan bread to the bottom class. They won’t eat it, preferring 69-cent white bread.

    Likewise, you can’t even give away high culture. Most of the concerts I went to in New York were free, and sparsely attended, despite a population of 8 million.

  29. I’ll be interested to read your piece. It is true that only recently most large arts organizations have started to realize that if they only perform or exhibit the works of old white guys, they will continue to see audiences (and donations) wither. What you call uber woke I call overdue. And it’s the best chance any of these companies have. I believe audiences for symphonies, operas, ballet, museums and the like can and will grow when artists who were once shut out (for reasons other than the quality and merit of their work) are at long last invited to the table, bringing their audiences with them.
    Education and privilege also play a huge role here: The more public schools are forced to cut budgets, the more arts departments are decimated and sometimes altogether eliminated, the fewer people have the exposure to a more cultivated side of life and the smaller (and older) audiences become.
    If we want a world that cares about these things, we have invite more people in and work harder to illuminate why they should care, not wall ourselves off in a gated community. Dull, indeed.

  30. Henry Contestwinner | June 21, 2021 at 3:04 pm |

    Nevadicus opines that what Christian calls “uber woke” is actually “overdue.” This is true only if the works of modern composers, playwrights, authors, etc., are on the same level as their predecessors—a dubious proposition at best.

    People listen to Bach because he wrote transcendent music. His music has been performed for the past 400 years, and will last at least 400 more. In contrast, who even remembers the title of the piece that won the 2020 Oscar for best original song?

    We have read Shakespeare for the past 500 years because of the beauty of his language and the poignancy of his themes. We will be reading him for at least 500 more. In contrast, who even remembers the title of the work that won the 2020 Tony for best play?

    It has always been true that works deemed important in the moment seldom last past their brief season. This is even more true now, since the overwhelming majority of current “art” is the dross of a culture in decay—harsh, base, and without redeeming value.

    Having said that, Nevadicus is correct on the importance of education: if young people are not exposed to the arts, then they are unlikely to gain an appreciation for them.

  31. I was class of ’81 at Cornell. I began in engineering but shifted to English and remember Alison Lurie. I read and liked most of her fiction including The War Between the Tates, a fictionalized account of life at Cornell (“Corinth” in the book). That said, I remember looking at this book when it came out and immediately putting it back down. The stuff quoted here reminds me why: painfully shallow. Well-observed, yes, as befits a novelist of manners, but a pig’s breakfast when it comes to causes, origins, and implications. If instead of generalizing from the outside she’d actually talked to some preps to gain knowledge from the inside, she could have spared herself some embarrassment.

    A biographical note: Lurie was married for a time to Jonathan Bishop, also an English professor at Cornell, who was the son of poet John Peale Bishop, one of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s roommates at Princeton and the model for Thomas Parke d’Invillers in This Side of Paradise. My buddy and I once invited the professor to cocktails at our fraternity to get to know him a bit better, but the hoped-for Fitzgerald stories were not, alas, forthcoming; Professor Bishop had a fine sense of discretion, even under the influence.

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