The Difference Between Ivy And Preppy

There’s much debate about the difference between Ivy and preppy, but it’s really quite simple: they occur at different points on a timeline. For example, in 1964, when a spirited girl meets a handsome, reserved, all-American, clean-cut kind of guy who gets his clothing at Brooks Brothers, and simultaneously finds herself both attracted and repelled by him, she teasingly calls him “Ivy League.” Case in point, Barbara Eden and Peter Brown in “Ride The Wild Surf.” And in 1970, after the fall of the Ivy League Look, when this same spirited girl meets the same all-American guy, she mockingly calls him “preppy.” Case in point, Ali MacGraw and Ryan O’Neal in “Love Story.” So you see, the clothing is essentially the same. It’s just how women referred to the clothing — and the men who wore it. 

32 Comments on "The Difference Between Ivy And Preppy"

  1. I have mentioned on another thread that the first time I ever heard the word “preppy” was in the movie “Love Story”, when I was in college. That was a full decade before the “revival” and the mainstreaming of Ralph’s Polo line and others that followed in the 80s. Granted, some took the look to extremes, but I’ve never understood why some take so much offence at the term.

  2. Dutch Uncle | June 28, 2012 at 9:13 am |


    Today, the term usually refers to clothing supposedly aimed at adults, but more suitable for the nursery school crowd as far as regards colors and critters.

  3. I have always considered Ivy and Trad to be synonomous. It wasn’t until the early 80’s that I ever recall the term Preppy being used. If memory serves me correctly, wasn’t it when Lacoste polos and Ralph Lauren clothing became popular, that the term Preppy came about?

  4. Jim
    You’re memory is correct, at least in the Midwest. Prior to the 80s preppy boom, you could only buy those brands in ivy shops, Polo from about 1969 on. After the boom they were available in department stores.

  5. I generally think of preppy as being more flamboyant than trad/ivy. However, I understand why I am called a prep when being teased. I think I dislike the term because of the animosity attached to it both by people who are annoyed by my ocbd/khaki chino regiment which they perceive as “preppy” and the trad/ivy crowd that do not want to be remotely associated with the term. Personally, I don’t mind being described as a very boring prep.

  6. OCBD
    You sir are definitely “preppy”! Admit it! Admit your guilt! Come clean! Have you in your possession or ever worn a KELLY GREEN Vanhuesan (sp) G-9 Barracuda? Please answer sir! ……..Sir, What are your thoughts on belts? Particularly, belts with fox heads, think before you answer, sir!

    Just f-ing with you. ;-o

  7. The term prep was in use in 1916 referring to university students.

  8. Now it’s called “fratty”

  9. Ignatious Reilly | June 29, 2012 at 10:02 am |

    I’ll try again!

    The Ali McGraw character calls Oliver preppy because he’s a rich kid from a prep school. This has nothing to do with clothes.

  10. Ali McGraw, what young man in 1970 didn’t want her? Well, and Oliver’s car.

  11. I find that ‘preppy’ has a certain connotation – one associated with a younger crowd, whereas ‘Ivy (league) Style’, for me, is more traditional; classic. In college, being called preppy was fine, although some of the comments seemed to be steeped in venom. Now that I am a wife and mother, I prefer the term Ivy to describe how I dress.

  12. JWF
    You have a very nice blog, enjoyed it and will be back.

    Interestingly, preppy got a bad name in the eighties, mostly from those that didn’t dress it the classic style. It also became the mainstream fashion tend, like alvacado kitchen appliances or shag carpet. Most lemmings went to extremes, but I’ve just always thought of what was called preppy, was just ivy casual wear. Of course we all grow up and have to go to work.

    In my life time the same clothing has been called ivy league, collegiate, traditional and preppy. Like you I’ve always proffered ivy, but over the decades most didn’t know what I was talking about.

  13. “Preppy” and “frat” were the terms we used in 1960s New Orleans. “Trad” and “Ivy” are terms I,ve learned on this blog.

  14. I never heard the word preppy until Lisa Birnbach’s book came out the ’80s. In my high school in the 1960’s you were either a greaser or a collegiate.

  15. MHJ
    That was my experience in my post above. I lived in Mississippi and Texas, it was called ivy league. In 1965, I moved to Kansas City, it was called collegiate, except for some older clothing salesmen, they still called it ivy league. All three places had greasers, there was always tension between the two groups, each seemed to look down on the other. Although, if an ivy had an interest in hot rods, motorcycles or was a successful jock, the greasers though you were cool. The reverse was, if a greaser was a successful jock, the ivys bestowed cool on him. If anyone, greaser or ivy or otherwise, was in a really good garage band they were cool.

  16. L.A. Trad | July 1, 2012 at 12:21 pm |

    Like MHJ, I never heard the term “preppy” until Lisa Birnbach’s book appeared.

    Furthermore, I never heard the term “ivy”, until I came across this blog. The term I have used since the 1960s is “ivy league” with reference to style/clothing.

  17. I’ve come to imagine the difference between preppy and ivy as connotations between the sports either side enjoys. I imagine ivy to enjoy the collegiate team sports and display more school colors. On the other hand preps enjoy the traditional country club sports such as golf and tennis.

  18. L.A. Trad
    In my post, I use “ivy” to mean Ivy league. It’s a short cut, I never heard the word “ivy” or used it, till this blog. Well, except for ground cover.

  19. Gabe
    This debate is fun, but in truth it’s like debating BBQ from different parts of the country. You can call it ivy league or the slang “preppy”, it all has the same origins.
    I think many, who stuck with the style through the main stream fashion disaster we call the late 60s and 70s, resent the main streaming ivy league in the 80s. Also, the term “preppy” was many times used as a derogatory term, usually by people mentioned earlier and those wearing polyester shirts. I like to think of “preppy” as casual ivy league, albeit taken to extreme by some in the 80s, but, exactly what items of clothing did ‘Preppies” wear that wasn’t available in most ivy league shops in the late 60s?

  20. It is a fun debate. “Betty or Veronica? Choose.”

  21. Sold analysis. Though I’d also submit that Trad is pretty solidly divorced from what people at ivy league schools actually wear, at least in the 21st century. Preppy is probably a more descriptive word.

  22. Love Story is an amazing movie. An amazingly depressing move, but an amazing movie.

  23. Preppy is the fun-loving, reckless, creative side of Ivy.

    Trad is the dull, strict, humorless opposite extreme.

    As a youngster, I was taken to a movie because my cousin’s boyfriend was in it playing hockey. Turned out to be Love Story. Few years later, my Classics Professor said that Erich Segal used to teach this class, before the Love Story movie deal.

  24. Ken Pollock | May 8, 2018 at 10:22 am |

    I did not think much of “Love Story,” but I first fell for Ali MacGraw when I saw her in her first film, “Goodbye, Columbus” (although she was already a successful model). She played the ultimate Jewish-American Princess, who had a romance with a guy from the somewhat wrong side of the tracks, the Bronx. Everyone in the film was rather preppy.

  25. As one of the observers here who is currently in college, current students have a very limited conception of Ivy and anything they see that is vaguely Midcentury American is referred to as preppy. Their limited ability to articulate their observations leads to the equation that preppy is merely synonymous with any of the various supposed WASP styles.

  26. Charlottesville | August 26, 2020 at 2:13 pm |

    Brutus – Your observation makes perfect sense. Even in the fashion columns of the mainstream press (e.g., NY Times, WSJ, Washington Post), there seems to be very little knowledge of 20th century American menswear. It’s all a jumble of fedoras, pinstripes, madras, button downs, polo shirts, dinner jackets, Hawaiian shirts, neckties and whatever else, from which one pulls fragments out at random.

    This lack of any real historical perspective, and the paucity of tastefully dressed male examples in popular media or in most universities and offices, makes it very difficult for anyone starting out even to understand what traditional style is. How would they know?

    It is always interesting and encouraging to hear from college-age commenters on this site. I am glad that you follow Ivy Style, which can inform your choices as you develop your own style.

  27. Brutus,
    Your awareness is appreciated. Current students have a very limited conception of just about everything, as did most of their predecessors, (mea culpa).

    If we found it necessary to define it, and I think “we” would be the authoritative source to define it, I would suggest that historically, prep schools have (had) strict dress codes. Those dress codes usually do not stray far from the ‘preppy” uniform: blue blazer, OCBD (usually white), school tie, “khakis”, socks, and “street” shoes, i.e., not athletic shoes. For the girls, the same except the khakis are replaced with a plaid skirt, and the blazer replaced with a cardigan sweater.

    The Ivy League style allows for more freedom; the freedom to exercise restraint while moving toward adulthood and professionalism, exemplified by jacket and tie, appropriate trousers, and shoes and socks, or the freedom to rebel, to which examples are too numerous to list.

    I do not find the GTH look to be either an Ivy or a Preppy style, both of which are suitable for academic settings, but is more a country club style, not an academic setting.

    I am obviously taking this all way too seriously. It is a pleasant diversion.

  28. Having observed general fashion trends among my peers, the cliché heir to Ivy definitely seems to be the venture capitalist look that is replete with Patagonia vests and Gucci loafers. It should be noted that I attend a University that was once synonymous with the preppy look (the 80s were a good time here) and many in my cohort would have been clad in popped collars and what not if they were here 35 years earlier. The athleisure look has overrun all other dress codes. It seems that many people are more concerned about abject wealth signaling rather than subtle status signaling. I suppose each person has to find a desired hill to die on and get to work.

  29. Brutus, I think you may have some thoughts there that are worth expanding into a piece for the site. Email me if you’d like to brainstorm.

    With spirit,


  30. Brutus, can wealth be abject? Serious question.

  31. As a relatively new observer here, I don’t remember hearing the word “prep” in regard to clothing when I was in high school or college (W&M 1966-70), but Ivy League was certainly a style that was prevalent at the time.
    I still have closets filled with OCBD’s, more blue blazers than I need, rep ties and khaki trousers. Unfortunately, my feet are no longer fond of loafers or canvas tennis shoes.

  32. I think, it has to do more with maturity than fashion. One grows up and progress to the next stage in life, his clothes is an outer expression of this. As a 70 something, I see the trends come full circle with only slight modifications;the classics will always endure.

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