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Granted, my own argument here is several decades out of date.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

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