Somewhere in Time: The Preppy ’80s

“If one more person comes in here and asks for Bass Weejuns, I think I’ll scream,” says an Atlanta saleswoman in a 1980 article from Time Magazine. A more muted but equally frustrated voice can be heard from a Time writer in an article several months later while writing about New York’s soon-to-be-closed Biltmore Hotel: “Years before alligator shirts covered every second American torso, long before artifacts of Ivy League style were mass-merchandised, before anyone dreamed of writing an ‘official handbook’, Manhattan’s Biltmore Hotel was the premier place for preppies.”

The writer goes on to paint a dazzling scene: “Within its vaulting rococo spaces, numberless Princeton boys leered at an endless parade of Vassar girls, while Dartmouth seniors, a little tight, chatted up Smithies. The bubbliness was swell and incessant.”

Both the saleswoman and the writer express a certain anger, but for different reasons. The saleswoman can’t keep buyers from flooding the gates in search of “Oxford-cloth shirts and Shetland sweaters, khaki slacks and tartan skirts.” (After all, the reason she’s interviewed is because of a burgeoning preppy America.) But the writer sees the demise of a stale, previously grand hotel as representative of the state of prepdom in the 1980s. With the Biltmore gone, what do preppies have left to define themselves? Certainly not the clothes on their back, as every Brad and Tiffany now have the same.

How is it that one single media outlet was painting two vastly different portraits of prepdom? Because just as it was making its grand appearance on the national stage, with its lifestyle glorified, replicated, exaggerated and mocked, classic prepdom was also on its deathbed — its subtle, idiosyncratic, authentic self mourned by its faithful, destiny-driven band of originals.

A review of Time articles from the 1980s reveals the two parallel storylines, with death and a culturally dominant, more egalitarian rebirth as two prevalent themes.

So here’s the best of Time‘s coverage and commentary as the old preppy order was dying off and a new one was being born. I’ve provided some of the more colorful excerpts; you can click the links to read the complete articles for free at

• April 28, 1980: “Here Comes the Preppie Look

A meditation on the shifting trend in mainstream fashion to the preppie look: “This summer and fall, the fashion-conscious woman will be wearing exactly what the fashion-unconscious woman has been wearing for decades.” Includes a Prep 101 footnote for novice readers: “ Though the male of the species is often called a preppy, when describing women’s fashion the word is usually spelled preppie.”

• August 17, 1981: “When in Need, Rent a Preppie

A story about preps for rent, a truly bizarre service that brought teenagers to houses to mow the lawn, paint the house, and prune the shrubs, all while wearing Lacoste shirts, Top Siders, and khakis: “The American preppie is a marketable commodity … So far, the only setback for Preps for Rent was when a local bank refused to allow them to print an alligator on their checks.”

• August 31, 1981: “Knells for a Preppie Hotel: The Biltmore

See comments above.

• November 30, 1981: “Exposing Secrets of the Closet

A review of Alison Lurie’s book “The Language of Clothes”, which reflects that everything from a J.C. Penney denim shirt a buckled leather loafer is more than just fabric or material. It’s a statement: “Elsewhere, Lurie detects a curious connection between the two most publicized American styles, preppie and punk. In their Brooks Bros, and L.L. Bean gear, preppies favor useless buckles on loafers, buttons on Oxford-cloth collars, straps on raincoats and safety pins on kilted skirts. These fastenings strike the author as powerful agents of emotional restraint. Punkers, on the other hand, leave zippers sagging, shirts unbuttoned and wear safety pins through their cheeks as though the flesh itself is literally exploding with rage. The styles may be disparate, Lurie concludes, but “both graphically convey the sense of a world, or a personality, in grave danger of coming part.”

• March 22, 1982: “Decline of the Wasp

A review of the play “The Dining Room” by A.R. Gurney Jr., a “series of vignettes, almost like revue sketches, set in Northeastern Wasp territory, where the inhabitants go to Ivy League schools, often possess inherited wealth and hold their opinions in their obdurate spines.”

• August 23, 1982: “No Skid Scuffle

Long before Timberland became the footwear of urban youth, it tried its hand at the sailing set. With the backdrop of a rapidly growing market, Timberland and Sperry Top-Sider clash, inside and outside a court of law, to get the most market share and the claim of best boat shoe. “Timberland is happily handing out reprints of a Playboy ‘Fashion Guide’ interview in which Conservative Columnist William F. Buckley, a transatlantic sailor who always tries to put his right foot forward, calls Timberland’s product “the world’s most comfortable shoes.” To prove that Timberlands popularity cuts across political lines, the accompanying letter notes that ‘Senator Kennedy recently requested a pair of Timberland boat shoes … Sperry has been trying to stay above the fray by ignoring Timberland’s offensive. … After all, it really is just not preppie to pay much attention to the competition.”

• November 28, 1982: “Catalogue Cornucopia

A piece on the boom of catalog and mail ordering for Christmas presents, with an interesting note on the transformation of L.L. Bean from a small store front company with a loyal fan base to a well oiled catalog machine and the disconnect between the perception the company presents and reality: “The pioneer merchandise houses were actually led by seed companies, and, curiously enough, sporting-goods retailers. The most famous of all came along in 1912 when Leon Leonwood Bean started selling his rubber-bottomed hunting shoes from a Main Street address in Freeport, Me. … Today millions flock to Freeport … To the catalogue faithful it is a shrine to a Yankee mystique woven from images of integrity, good value, and handcrafted quality. Over the years a kind of reverse chic has attached itself to its sturdy Yankee clothes and shoes. Bean does its thorough best to live up to the image. The current store, renovated from the previous one, is only five years old, but antlers of moos bagged by the bean family hang on the walls, every sign is handcrafted of modest pine, and the salespeople radiate the oldtime assumptions about value for the dollar. However, half a mile beyond the railroad overpass, there is a sprawling group of modern buildings that are Bean’s real headquarters and a monument to modern mail order.”

• April 4, 1983: “Elegy for the Declining Wasp

Another review of another A.G. Gurney play. This one is “The Middle Ages” and it takes place solely in a “venerable men’s club” over the course of three decades. The world outside changes, while “the club remains a haven for an embattled Wasp old guard.”

• September 19, 1983: “A Good Snob Nowadays Is Hard To Find

Lance Morrow notes the demise of the long lasting qualities that differentiated old money preppies from the rest of America in his essay “A Good Snob Nowadays is Hard to Find”: “Being a snob of any kind is some times more difficult now. In a society of high discretionary capital and instantaneous communication, the snob and recherché effects tend to be copied and even mass-produced with stunning speed. For generations, much of America’s old money walked around wearing beat-up crew neck sweaters that had been around from St. Mark’s or New Haven; the khakis were always a little too short, ending just at the ankles, and there were Top-Siders without socks. And so on. Then this came to be known as the Preppie Look, and every upstart from the suburbs was marching around looking as if he were home from Princeton for the weekend. So how were the real aristocrats to proclaim themselves? By going pump? Slam-dancing at the Harvard Club? As soon as one finds something to be snobbish about, everyone else has got hold of it, and so the central charm of snobbery, the feeling of being something special, vanishes.”

In other words, the subtleties that made a preppy a preppy disappeared with the shrinking of 1980s America.

• January 9, 1984: “Here Come the Yuppies!

The yuppie: An 80s creation? An evolved preppy without the family tree? An urban denizen set on upward mobility? All three? Running on the success of the OPH, this piece reviews The Yuppie Handbook.
“The slim volume is yet another clone of a reigning champion in the impulse book market, The Official Preppy Handbook, which appeared three years ago and has more than 1.3 million copies in print. The new manual is aimed at an affluent, surefire market: the upscale young singles and dual-career couples gathered in or near big cities.

• October 1, 1984: “Life Before the Preppies

A review of “College Book”, another Lisa Birnbach production on the years that preppies, well, prep for the time spent as undergrads.

• December 3, 1984: “In Maryland: Fowl Festival

A profile of Easton, Maryland, an idyllic, old school town that seemingly blends the old and the new prepdom as it celebrates its annual waterfowl season. “Catalog freaks would recognize Easton as an L.L. Bean kind of town. On second thought, that may be a little narrow. It is a Bean-Gokeys-Orvis-Eddie Bauer-Lands End kind of town; it spreads its trade around. Topsiders, penny loafers, khaki pants, monogrammed sweaters, oxford cloth shirts, lamb suede jackets and the ever present tweed, to say nothing of argyle socks, contribute heavily to the Easton uniform. Easton was preppie when preppie wasn’t cool. Ducks embellish its mailboxes; there are ducks on its welcome mats. It is a place of fine old houses hugging tidy streets. Well-fed cats walk its alleys with the air of taxpayers; they do not prowl.”

• September 1, 1986: “Selling a Dream of Elegance and the Good Life

A sweeping portrait of Ralph Lauren, the man and the company. It notes his quick rise and questions what it means when the portrayal quintessential preppy lifestyle comes from the originally unpreppy kid from the Bronx. “Lauren dreamed up his own brand of gentility and style. Now he has managed to create an image and a company that have nearly cornered the market for supplying today’s would-be Gatsbys. Shunning hipness and flamboyance, Lauren cultivates the up and coming customer’s appreciation for things and dreams that last.”

• July 17, 1989: “The Chic is in the Mail

Another piece on the manufactured images of mail order catalogues. By 1989, prepdom is not staying on York Street in New Haven. It, or at least a version of it, is now arriving in the homes of millions of Americans. This piece notes the careful lifestyle marketing strategies of Lands’ End, J. Crew, and Tweeds. “A well-tanned, fine-boned man lounges on a wicker chair in the middle of a vast lawn, the picture of leisure in his long-sleeve polo shirt and cotton twill trousers. A square jawed baby boomer clad in a classic linen shirt and cotton pants gazes serenely along a shoreline as if he is planning a bright future. The people in these scenes, which evoke the studied relaxation of a Ralph Lauren ad, look like the sort of folks who would hate to spend any of their precious free time at a shopping mall. In fact, their well-composed snapshots come from the pages of America’s popular new crop of mail-order catalogs: Lands’ End, J. Crew, and Tweeds.” — GREG MONIZ

6 Comments on "Somewhere in Time: The Preppy ’80s"

  1. Pale Male | July 5, 2013 at 4:03 pm |

    And today: “People have never looked so ugly.”

    — Vivienne Westwood [2012]

  2. I was bemused by the preppy fad of the 80s because I started
    wearing Ivy clothing during the 50s “Golden Age” and continued
    dressing that way with some changes: nipped waist, double vents,
    all available from the venerable Ivy clothier Chipp. I am not a WASP
    but the grandson of poor immigrants and attended Cornell. My Dad
    was my model. He dressed very trad.

  3. LL Bean’s pre-1990s inventory was better than (or at least as good as) clothing at local stores. If only we could turn back time: we would stock up on USA-made khakis, cords, flannel shirts, OCBDs, (wool) flannel pants; Scottish Shetland and wool ragg sweaters; made-in-Maine penny loafers and moccasins. Probably had more to do with the popularization of Ivy/Preppy than Ralph Lauren. Ditto for Lands End. I recall ties (tartan, ducks, trout) and tweed jackets, as well.

    It was in the 90s that the downward spiral began.

  4. Charlottesville | November 22, 2019 at 9:32 am |

    S.E. – So very true. The LLB all-cotton OCBDs even had a pocket flap like those from Press. The current no-iron version is a poor substitute. Along with their camp mocs or gum boots, shetland or Norwegian sweaters, and Duck Head khakis, that was pretty much my uniform up through law school.

    Mr. Sack – Your comment reminds me of a favorite New Yorker cartoon by William Hamilton: .

  5. Well done. Thank you for compiling this. Haven’t checked the site in a while. Glad I stopped by today.

  6. Alan Tolchin | December 1, 2019 at 8:52 am |

    What about saddle shoes? Is that still preppy?

Comments are closed.