Poised Or Oblivious? The True Essence Of Prep

This weekend columnist Mark Oppenheimer penned an essay about prepdom for Salon that’s pegged on Whit Stillman’s new movie “Damsels In Distress.” The piece is more thoughtful than the usual stuff that gets said about the cultural phenomenon known as preppy.

Oppenheimer’s thesis is that preppy is more than a style of dress. This you already know. But the more part may surprise you:

It is more properly understood as an orientation toward power.

I don’t know about you, but my eyeballs involuntarily rolled at this. Is Oppenheimer suggesting a Marxist reading of preppy, the take on things that’s been so trendy (if not downright orthodox) in academia the past couple of decades? Though it may seem its polar opposite, claiming preppy is an “orientation toward power” actually comes from the same point of view that argues, say, that preppy is “all about marketing,” and its wearers not members of a cultural group linked by geography, education, class and taste, but fashion-following lemmings in the hands of money-grubbing business entities.

Granted, my own argument here is several decades out of date. Except for a small surviving old guard, preppy has long ceased to be an expression of the culture of the eastern elite. It is mostly — but not entirely, as well shall see — divorced from the WASPy values from which it sprung, and is primarily a fashion commodity. Nevertheless, it is a fashion commodity with certain social signifiers it will never shake.

As Oppenheimer’s essay continues, it begs further nitpicking:

Like members of other subcultures, including Deadheads or Goths or English soccer hooligans, real preppies are at least willing to proclaim allegiances.

This comparison feels dubious as preppy is — or once again, was — an expression of high culture (or something close to it), not subculture. It is disjointed for Oppenheimer to simultaneously link preppy style to the power establishment yet also compare it to goth teenagers going through adolescent angst or hippies who like to take road trips and get stoned together.

Moving on, here’s that damned word again. The sharp monosyllable “style” is so less pompous:

But the clothes are not just an aesthetic choice.

But forget my pet peeves. Here’s where things get more interesting: Despite the commodification and middle-class mainstreaming of preppy clothes, they will never shed their upper-middle connotations. One of the reasons for the failure of JC Penney’s American Living collection, I suspect, is that the company, despite trying to go upmarket, radically misjudged its lower-middle-class customer’s willingness to don critter shorts and pink oxfords, no matter how low the price point. In the documentary “People Like Us,” there’s an enlightening experiment in which working-class grocery shoppers were offered enriched white sandwich bread for 69 cents, or hearty, four-dollar artisan bread for free, and the shoppers preferred to pay for the white stuff because they liked the taste better. Likewise, in most large cities free classical music concerts are readily available, yet are sparsely attended. Beethoven, alas, is evidently something that can’t even be given away. Talk about putting the “class” in classical.

This leads us to Oppenheimer’s most insightful passage. Preppy clothing may be democratic, but it is still elitist. Like top-tier universities, just because it’s open to everyone doesn’t make it populist:

But preppy clothes have been the uniform of other products of the university, too, not just the bankers. Who loves a tweed jacket more than a humanities professor? And who loved a sack suit more than the elegant political radicals of the early 1960s? Take Malcolm X: For him, conservative attire was not ironic but proprietary. His clothes announced that he, and the Negro more generally, was entitled to the uniform and the prerogatives of power. Preppiness, in other words, is not inherently reactionary, and it is not inherently exclusionary; indeed, in a sense it is very democratic, precisely because one only needs the clothes, not a family crest. But it is not demotic; it is elitist. It is concerned with access to hierarchies, not the abolition of them. There have been left-wing preppies, but there have rarely been populist preppies.

Returning to Stillman, Oppenheimer notes the frozen-in-time aspect of preppy clothing and how the filmmaker uses it as part of the temporally vague settings of his films:

Stillman uses preppy clothes for an entirely different purpose. The clothes round out his characters, give the audience shorthand for what kind of families the characters come from, but above all take them out of time. For Stillman, preppy clothing is not a way to evoke, say, a Kennedy-era boarding school, but rather a way to defeat dating altogether. In short, if you wanted to make a fantasy movie set in some unidentifiable period of postwar America, you could use certain articles from Brooks Brothers and J. Press. And, indeed, that is what Stillman, who is not a realist or ethnographer but a fairy-tale fantasist, has done.

This next passage again suggests Oppenheimer’s “academic” point of view, in which everything in the world is viewed through the prism of race, gender, class and sexual orientation. It also serves as a reminder of just how unique Whit Stillman is as a filmmaker, as these things don’t concern him:

In all Stillman’s movies, there is no racial or religious tension, no class envy, no religious bigotry. Stillman’s world even lacks many of the interlopers who have kept prep schools and elite colleges vital and meritocratic (and fashion-conscious): There are no obviously Jewish characters in Stillman’s movies, no Asian Americans, only one black character who so much as gets a name, and no gay men or lesbians.

And in our value-free culture, let’s not make judgments about the lack of diversity in Stillman’s films. It’s OK to make movies about smart white people, just don’t confuse them with reality:

There is nothing wrong with Stillman’s World, this alternate reality in which conversation is snappy, the young men and women are all attractive, and their clothes are tailored awfully well. There are times when I would not mind living there. But that’s because it’s a Utopia, literally a nowhere — it does not exist, it cannot exist. That the resident characters wear certain clothes we associate with certain schools, certain professions, certain vacation spots and certain stores does not mean that these characters are like the real-world people found in those schools, work professions, vacation spots or stores. Whit Stillman characters are not preppies; they just dress like them.

Which brings us to Oppenheimer’s conclusion, which returns to his thesis about power:

But more than ever, what is true of Stillman’s characters may be true of anyone wearing preppy clothing in America today: He is not exactly a preppy. It’s not that he lacks money or schooling — after all, the majority of preppies were always aspirational, rather than bred. It’s that the statement he is making has nothing to do with elite institutions or power. In fact, preppiness today is a way to avoid those conversations.

To wear such timeless clothing in 2012 is a bit like wearing very preppy clothing in 1970, when Whit Stillman was in college. Outside the haberdasher’s doors, there is warfare, recession and class anger; but on one’s back there are the clothes of another era, indeed clothes that transcend all eras. In a time of tumult, preppy clothing is escapist. It does not imply that its wearer is a conservative or a 1-percenter or opposes birth control for women. But it does suggest that, at least for the moment, he would rather talk about something else — as if it were a few years ago, or a few years from now. As if talking about something else were ever really possible.

And so those born to prepdom and those who converted may find they have more in common than they thought. Wearing whale-embroidered cords is certainly a way of communicating that everything is all right — in your world, at least. And that unflappable insouciance is probably why so many people can’t stand preppies.

But since anyone today can don the clothing of the power elite, you never know just what the wearer of embroidered trousers may be really thinking. After all, he could be a radical environmentalist with an ironic sense of humor on a noble crusade to save the whales. — CHRISTIAN CHENSVOLD

28 Comments on "Poised Or Oblivious? The True Essence Of Prep"

  1. Chris Lloyd | April 9, 2012 at 10:07 am |

    Christian – Am I allowed to say Bravo?


  2. Dutch Uncle | April 9, 2012 at 10:46 am |

    I am more than willing to admit that my choice of trad clothing is a form of escapism. Considering the vulgarity that we are surrounded by, who in his right mind would not want to escape to more civilized times?

  3. I’ve skimmed around the menswear blogosphere for 6 or 7 years now, and nowhere did I see the levels of raw contempt, flames, classism, racism, you name it, just pure viciousness all wrapped up in the trad/Ivy area of menswear. I would always wonder why that was, and I think it’s because OCBDs, sack suits, khakis, etc. are way more than clothes. They represent a culture. The people who make a conscious decision to dress trad (to the point of researching the best 3/2 blazer or OCBD roll) are ones who’ve made the decision to preserve this culture from what they see as an existential threat. Cultures under threat, perceived or otherwise develop stricter orthodoxies. And nothing threatens an orthodoxy more than slight differences.

    Orthodoxy means detail becomes so incredibly important. Getting the exactly correct OCBD or critter cords or loafer. Where one brand or store used to have it, they don’t anymore, so smaller more boutique brands must be found that still follow the Rules. And one who doesn’t follow those exact rules in every detail must be cast out as a pretender.

    And as the purists cast out more and more pretenders, purifying their culture more and more, it shrinks under them, and they contribute to their culture’s own death, they ARE the threat that motivated them to create the orthodoxy in the first place. So they create stricter orthodoxies, and tighter rules. And the culture tightens more and dies

    Similarities to other political movements, religions, etc. are left as an exercise for the reader.

  4. Christian | April 9, 2012 at 2:41 pm |

    Ah, so you’ve discovered Laguna Beach Fogey?

  5. I wore traditional clothing in my early years in business because it was the uniform of the corporate world…period. It was simply about fitting in with the tribe and the tribe wore Trad. If they dressed like rock stars, I would have dressed accordingly. My goal was to fit in, advance in my profession and make money. Ha! No, I wasn’t Bud in the movie Wall Street, but I could have been. I liked Gekko’s clothes much more than BB’s sack suits and got more compliments from women when wearing an international look, Flusser, Armani, etc, than from men. Men like sameness and the sameness depends on what tribe you are trying to impress.

  6. Simulacrum | April 9, 2012 at 10:51 pm |

    @ Christian.


  7. Bill Stephenson | April 10, 2012 at 4:28 am |

    As Freud said…..”Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar”.

    Maybe this is a subject that lends itself to over thinking, occasionally.

    Surely there are some who wear Mercer shirts because of the way that they look and feel, with the certain knowledge that virtually no one knows or cares what shirt you are wearing.

    Automobiles, however, seem to send out some kind of a message, to many casual observers.

    The recent NYT had a listing of the most popular automobiles. The Ford 150 pick up came in second. There may be some owners who make this choice to send out a macho image.

    Others just need to haul stuff, with no concern about image.

  8. I opted to read the entirety of the article before looking at your critiques. I don’t entirely disagree with everything Oppenheimer said, but I think he applies it to far too many individuals. I usually dislike speaking about my politics on the blogosphere, but I think it’s easily possible to recognise the value in prep style without accepting the the political views that have traditionally been stereotyped, but that doesn’t mean that what I choose to wear is a “costume.” Nor is it any kind of “phase.” The irony for me, I suppose, is that my “phase” was running away from the clothes in which I had grown up… and then coming right back to them as the adult world demanded I “get serious” (with the possible exception of go to hell item choices).

    I find that while many people are “playing at preppy,” it is mostly teenagers that do so. That prep can be a costume is not something I disagree with Oppenheimer about. However, we expect that teenagers will try on identities. Some of them will become converts, others will have a fling with prep style and abandon it as soon as the next trend comes along. A good example is the boat shoe. Everyone and their dog is wearing Sperry Topsiders- the irony is, they’re all wearing the Billfish model, which is a model I’ve never much liked and I don’t remember growing up with. Everyone is wearing madras shorts, but the general public did not in the 1990s- You had to be a member of the prep set in order to have the confidence to wear them even while the general population would think they look silly. Eventually, we will see the prep resurgence come to an end. Most of Oppenheimer’s prep escapists will find their own identity. But did they ever actually possess the “true meaning of prep?”

    A final note, JC Penny’s American Living line is something I liked very much. The quality of the other Ralph brands for a much smaller price tage. I’m a huge fan, and I’m very sorry to see that it did not succeed, although I think I agree with your view that the general population doesn’t see the point. Not when a t-shirt and a pair of jeans with flip flops will do any time you’re not absolutely forced to wear that one suit in the back of your closet…

  9. Would you expect something different from Salon?

  10. I agree with Henry on this one. I expected the Marxist reading. The first gambit of essays such as this is to deny that preppies exist at all; failing that, the second is to re-categorize preppies or to say that what we think is a preppy is not a preppy; the third is to admit that preppies exist, admit to a common definition, but damn them as purveyors of the white hegemony. Yawn.

  11. It seems you and your dumbass readers are starting to ‘get it’.

    It’s not merely about the clothes.

  12. Commodore Plaice | April 14, 2012 at 7:01 am |

    @Laguna Beach Fogey


    There are some people who read both your blog (for a healthy dose of concern about endangered Western civilization) and Ivy Style (for a healthy dose of traditional clothing) and hardly deserve to be called dumbass readers.

  13. @Bill Stephenson opined

    “The recent NYT had a listing of the most popular automobiles. The Ford 150 pick up came in second. There may be some owners who make this choice to send out a macho image.

    Others just need to haul stuff, with no concern about image.”

    I have yet to meet a pick-up truck owner who was NOT concerned about projecting his idea of the correct “image”.
    Or rather, to make sure he was projecting anything other than “effete” (to use a word that bothers some around here).

    He may never use the word “effete”, and would no doubt vehemently deny any concern about his “image” though.

  14. @Laguna

    Meaning that in your eyes, it’s all about the pose.

  15. So let me get this straight, when I made my First Communion in 1956 wearing a navy blazer, tan pants, rep tie, and Weejuns (my mother made me wear socks) it was about POWER, who knew?
    Marxist are so full of intellectual crap.

    Oh, people like me buy F-150s because they are versatile and ride on the highway like Lincolns once did.

  16. La Goony Bitch never gives up, does she?

  17. @MAC

    Yeah, you bought your pickup for how it rides on the highway.
    SURE ya did. You keep telling yourself that and maybe you’ll even believe it.
    Because nobody else does.

  18. @Anonymous

    I have no idea what ant farm like metropolis, beta male infested locale you live in. But, outside a few cities in the Midwest or the east and west corridors we in the rest of the country drive long distances. We hunt, fish, go boating and pull trailers. You can’t get four grown men, shotguns and dog boxes in a Subaru or metro toy and comfortably drive eight to fourteen hours to western Kansas, South Dakota or Colorado. You’ve never driven a modern F-150 down the highway obviously. You sir seem to be far intellectually superior to me, I can’t divine what other individuals’ self image is over the internet.

  19. @MAC

    “I have no idea what ant farm like metropolis, beta male infested locale you live in. But, outside a few cities in the Midwest or the east and west corridors we in the rest of the country drive long distances. We hunt, fish, go boating and pull trailers. You can’t get four grown men, shotguns and dog boxes in a Subaru or metro toy”

    Nope, absolutely no concern about “image” there…..(snicker)

  20. @Anonymous

    Do you really think an F-150 truck is a status symbol? What universe do you reside? If I was concerned with image, I’d be driving a BMW or Jag. At my age, image is a waste of time.

  21. Where did I ever say “status symbol”? Nice attempt to spin, but you failed.

    “Image” comes in all shapes and sizes, depending on the individual and what they (consciously, or SUBconsciously) are trying to project. Or maybe conversely, attempting to NOT project.

    Maybe you want project the image that you’re not a “beta male”? (Your words)
    You certainly seem to throw out a lot of defensive psuedo-macho imagery in your efforts to make sure we all know who/what you are NOT.

    Methinks the lady doth protest too much.

  22. Methinks these are hot words coming from a man who cares enough to write them, but not enough to sign them.

  23. “hot words”??
    They’re only “hot words” if someone sees themselves in that “image”.

    Methinks the “beta males” are too concerned with assuming the alpha position. The more you people talk, the more you prove my point exactly.

  24. Mark Oppenheimer wrote a great article. I must to see the movie now.

  25. Anonymous, I think you are a genius, a cigar is never just a cigar. Be careful though, in some states you can lose your licence psychoanalyzing someone over the internet. 😉

  26. Howdy! This post could not be written any better!
    Reading through this post reminds me of my previous
    room mate! He always kept talking about this.

    I will forward this article to him. Fairly certain he will have a good read.
    Many thanks for sharing!

  27. I drive a pickup truck because my dad made me get one after I totaled my 3 series, we needed a car to tow the boats, and you can drive to sketchy gas stations and pick up Mexicans looking for labor and drive them to the Border Patrol office. Most people here (Dallas), don’t get pickup trucks to look “macho.”

  28. Guess I missed this when it was initially posted. Excellent critique, CC.

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