The Tipsy Point

“Preppies no longer exist,” declare Matt Walker and Marissa Walsh in their book Tipsy in Madras, A Complete Guide to ‘80s Preppy Drinking. Although a book about cocktails, the introduction of the text actually provides insights which might be most interesting to the readers of this site. The authors take one through a succinct timeline of prep culture through the 1980s, painting an arc which links Nelson Aldrich’s 1979 Atlantic article “Preppies, The Last Upper Class?” to the publication of The Official Preppy Handbook and the fervor that followed. They remind us of small gems, like George Plimpton as spokesperson for video game systems, and “rent-a-prep” services offering Lacoste-attired lawn mowers and house painters.

The introduction winds up with a particular emphasis on how the preppy was supplanted by the yuppie in the mid-’80s. “It began with titles like The I-Hate-Preppies Handbook and Save an Alligator, Shoot a Preppy… Movies like Alligator demonized the preppy mascot and every movie starring James Spader demonized the preppy himself.” So when does the extinction of the preppy occur, exactly? According to the authors: “Reagan’s election was the seed that would blossom with poisoned fruit only a few years later.” By mid-decade, the gig was up. “Confronted with yupsthetes wielding shiny Italian designer accessories and an encyclopedic knowledge of world cuisine, what could the preppy do? The choice was clear: either join in the orgy or cast oneself willfully into obscurity. Always seeking a reasonable compromise, preps did both.” Overall, the intro provides a nice insight into the culture from the early-’80s and helps to bridge the gap up to the book’s publication in 2004; the same year in which, as chance has it, Rugby Ralph Lauren was founded, and the seeds for the neo-prep revival of the mid-to-late-2000s were just beginning to take root. 

Historical analysis aside, Tipsy in Madras includes a nice elucidation of cocktails, wines, and beers appropriate to people who self-identify as prep, and the book contains chapters which address each of the three alcohol categories described above. Five of the nine chapters are dedicated to cocktails appropriate to a wide variety of social events and seasons, and are organized as such. The cocktail chapters cover drinking at the club, the deb party, the tailgate, weekend brunch, and even when slumming.

What constitutes a preppy cocktail, one may ask? Here, the authors draw a clear distinction: anything widely served pre-1980 makes the cut, in addition to other qualifying characteristics, such as archaism, understatement, efficiency, and carelessness. This category includes familiar favorites such as Old Fashioneds, Manhattans, Martinis, Dark’n’Stormys, Gin-and-Tonics, and of course, the brunch time staple, the Bloody Mary. The chapters on wine and beer do a nice job of highlighting sensible choices of restrained taste, with the takeaway that the preppy choice for both are the drinks which are good but understated, tasteful but not too expensive. Hence, the prep proclivity towards Sauvignon Blanc over Chardonnay, and Heineken or Budweiser over, say, obscure and exotic imports or anything micro-brewed. The book also offers guidance on building a classic and functional bar, including stock alcohol of choice, glassware, and bar tools. The authors do a nice job of citing plenty of books and movies featuring WASPy characters and storylines as the basis for their recommendation of, say, Beefeater over Tanqueray, on the grounds that Beefeater is humble, and Tanqueray too yuppie. 

From where do these assumptions come? The authors conducted much of their research by watching a number of (mostly) 1980s movies spurred by the zeitgeist following the release of The Official Preppy Handbook. An index of said movies in the book include some obvious selections with which many may be familiar (Love Story, St. Elmo’s Fire, Making the Grade, and every film directed by Whit Stillman up to Last Days of Disco), some surprising but loosely related choices (Legally Blonde, Ordinary People), and some bizarre choices (Friday the 13th, Friday the 13th Part 2). Also included in the index is a playlist to drink by (lots of Motown classics, a few Cole Porter staples, and The Beach Boys, amongst others), and a summer reading list, again with some expected choices (John Irving’s Hotel New Hampshire), but others which seem to miss the mark (Miss Piggy’s Guide to Life, Return of the Jedi Storybook). 

Overall, if you’re searching for a guide to help you recreate an ‘80s drinking scene from one of your favorite films of the era, or if you just want to have drinks with the peace of mind that it’s what Biff and Muffy were likely drinking at the deb ball in the Four Seasons circa 1983, then perhaps Tipsy in Madras may be the book for you. — RYAN KIRK

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24 Comments on "The Tipsy Point"

  1. For a more cerebral take on a more cerebral
    subset of this demographic, I recommend
    the films of Whit Stillman. Specifically,
    Metropolitan (1990) and The Last Days of
    Disco (1998). Both explore the angst and
    neuroses of the wealthy Ivy-educated in
    80s New York.

  2. Birch Broughton | August 28, 2018 at 12:43 am | Reply

    We’ve go to rethink our labels/ categories, it seems.
    I would never have associated understatement and restrained taste with Preppies.
    On the other hand, much of what was described in The Official Preppy Handbook seemed to apply to Ivy before Preppy became a term of condemnation for many of us.

  3. Gray Flannels | August 28, 2018 at 1:29 am | Reply

    Yeaterday, I was wearing a navy blazer, a blue OCBD shirt, a rep tie, khakis, and cordovan loafers. A gentleman of my age (70s) complimented me on how “preppy” I looked. I told him that’s how I’ve always dressed since the early 1960s, long before I first heard the term “preppy” when TOPH was published.

  4. Poison Ivy Leaguer | August 28, 2018 at 7:01 am | Reply

    I think some of this stuff is a semantic teapot tempest. An Ivy Leaguer is a person who attended one of the Ancient 8. A preppie is a person who attended a private high school. A yuppie is a young urban professional. As Porky Pig would say, “That’s all folks.”

  5. Edward Aisthorpe | August 28, 2018 at 9:02 am | Reply

    Heineken and Budweiser are both vile. Can’t imagine anyone drinking it unless under duress.

  6. @Poison

    I get your prescriptivist point, but on the descriptivist side, all terms entered the popular lexicon for a period and were employed more broadly.

    See blog post “Haole Spirit” for pop-culture “Ivy League” reference circa 1964.

  7. I have to agree with Gray Flannels, I’m near two years short of 70 and never heard the term preppie till “Love Story”. The biggest influence on me was my eldest sister who was a decade older than me. My three older sisters all dressed what they called ivy league or just ivy. We grew up in the deep south, Texas and Kansas City. I thought the term preppie in “Love story” was a derogatory term. I never heard the term again till the eighties, I thought it was a derogatory term then too, still do.

  8. What a fun sounding, whimsical read, just in time for the Labor Day weekend! Just reserved it at my local library and look forward to checking it out.

  9. Poison Ivy Leaguer | August 28, 2018 at 11:33 am | Reply

    @Christian
    You’re right, but I think the slicing & dicing gets a little overdone at times. As I recall the menswear industry popularized Ivy League in the 50’s. Love Story popularized preppy in the 70’s with reinforcememt by Lisa Birnbach in the 80’s. I don’t know who coined yuppie, but it was certainly an 80’s phenomenon. I find it interesting that the terms got more inclusive as time went on. I wonder what’s next.

  10. @Edward Aisthorpe

    I feel the same about Stella Artois. Pabst Blue Ribbon from a can is far more drinkable.

    Will

  11. Poison Ivy Leaguer | August 28, 2018 at 1:34 pm | Reply

    @MacMcConnell
    I think it’s fair to say that preppy is often used as a derogatory term. I recall a conversation in the early 80’s with a British colleague who was explaining the term Sloane. He said, “They’re like your preppies, upper class twits.”

  12. My first thought: How in the hell did I not think of writing this book?

    Second thought: Based solely on the Mr. Kirk’s description, the book seems to be missing some “toe-ga, toe-ga, toe-ga.” Did they actually omit “Animal House” from their research?

    I will try to find this book and provide a “professional’s” review.

  13. @whiskeydent Author here. Good question. I don’t remember seeing explicit references to Animal House when I read the book, but I’ll take another look at it tonight and let you know.

    • It came out in ’77, if I remember correctly. Maybe that was too early for them. As someone who lived through that period, it had an enormous impact out in the hinterlands beyond the Northeast.

  14. @ Whiskeydent: Animal House came out in August 1978. TPOH came out in October, 1980. Both had an enormous impact upon me during my college days.

  15. It may be time to come out with a book about all the trads and preps I know from my AA meetings on the Upper East Side; with the names changed, of course. Lots of madras and everything else there. Lots of good tales also. And the best place for good looking women. Actually, this has already been done by John Cheever but some time ago.

  16. For what it is worth, in his 1959 book, “The Status Seekers,” journalist and social critic Vance Packard uses the word, “preppie” in reference to those students who attended private schools as an element indicative of the upper class, and goes on to specifically list 16 boys schools and ten girls schools which are considered the leading boarding schools. As the term is used in a sociological rather than sartorial context, I presume its use would have been confined to a relatively small segment of society. Nonetheless, it is out there.

  17. I have a copy of this book, too, and while I could find a few references to, and quotations from, “Metropolitan,” a quick browse turned up no references to “Animal House,” not even in the section on collegiate drinking. I suspect @whiskeydent is correct — that movie wasn’t ’80s enough for the author.

    Looking through the book did remind me how much I liked the opening epigraph: “A Yale man gets drunk in a wholly different way from a Penn State man.” — Dwight MacDonald

  18. Trad vs. Ivy vs. Preppy
    Some have denied the existence of “Trad”, claiming that the label is a Japanese invention, but there are even those who deny the difference between preppy and ivy. We may disagree about the exact characteristics of each category, but the categories themselves are not to be denied. I would argue that it’s all a matter of maturity/conservatism, not necessarily age. I place myself in the Trad category and find a lot of preppy characteristics outlandish.

  19. Mr. Trotter, I would buy that book in a heartbeat.

  20. “Preppie” was always a subset of Ivy, and by no means exactly the same thing. That’s because the people who went to Ivy colleges were not just graduates of New England prep schools. The distinction is captured in (dare I say it!) Erich Segal’s Love Story. The two main protagonists, Oliver and Jennifer, are both Ivy types to the core, even though Jennifer comes from a lower-middle-class family. But only Oliver is a preppie, as Jennifer keeps reminding him by using it as an affectionately sarcastic nickname for him throughout the book. (That was the first place I encountered the term, reading it as a skeptical 13-year-old trying to figure out what all the fuss was about.)

  21. @tmjm

    It’s absolutely true that Ivy Style arose from the Ivy League. However, the style transcended the originators — in both social status and geography — by the Tipsy Tartan’s 1980’s. In fact, we probably hit the, um, tipsy point when local stores across the nation started selling Ivy.

    The same is true for preppie, though its origins appear, at least to me, to be less distinct. Frankly, I hate the term preppie; I makes me think of some of the wimpy pissants I saw in college who starched everything they owned and wore pink or peach in the dead of winter. And my style is not strictly Ivy, so trad is my preferred label. Trad’s boundaries seem fuzzier to me and is more open to other Americana styles.

    Of course it’s utterly about semantics. The Ivy-Preppie-Trad debate is probably just a bad case of omphaloskepsis.

  22. Sacksuit, I agree with your description of Stella Artois, but please, PBR from a can!? Never. I once ran short of valve cleaner working on my ’70 TR-6 and used PBR. It worked fine.

  23. I just get my madras on, and that’s all the preppy I need.My madras shirts are custom made. I get my madras fabrics from https://fabriconlinestore.com and have my shirts made.

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