Haute Historian: American Preppy

“I have always been inspired by the dream of America” is the beginning of a quote from Ralph Lauren that is posted on his web site. Lauren is the man and designer who is most recognized for creating clothing that reflects preppy American style. But while Lauren may be the most acknowledged name of America’s popular and enduring fashion trend, especially as he has been the go-to designer for the U.S. Olympic team for a number of years (including this year’s Summer Olympics), he is purely reinterpreting a style that has long been a part of the American lifestyle, albeit doing a very good job of it.
Brooks Brothers, America’s oldest clothing retailer and a store where Ralph Lauren worked prior to becoming who he is today, introduced many articles of clothing to the American public that would now be considered preppy. Madras, seersucker, Argyle socks and the polo button-down shirt are just a few of the items that Brooks Brothers sold to Americans and still do. While the leisure, prep style of clean lines, simple sophistication and functionality has been around for many years, the preppy lifestyle’s true origins come in the 1950s with the growth in popularity of the New England preparatory schools. Prep schools, as they’re also known as, were particularly popular in the mid-1950s for conservative, upper-middle class students to prepare for an Ivy League education (so called because of the ivy-covered outer walls of the New England colleges, i.e., Harvard, Yale, Brown, et al.). And with the education came as well a sense of camaraderie that stemmed from not only having a similar background as their fellow students and bonding during team sports, but a uniformity in dress as well. Chinos, loafers, button-down shirts, blazers and ties were the traditional school uniform and were an obvious indication of wealth and affluence, setting them apart from other Americans.
The prep style had a resurgence of popularity in the 1980s when former Brown graduate, Lisa Birnbach penned The Official Preppy Handbook which was a humorous how-to on living the preppy lifestyle, offering advice on what clothing to wear to different functions, which schools are acceptable and even what major one should study. While the book was more than likely written as entertainment for her peers, non-preps were impressed with the lifestyle and wanted in. At this time catalog companies like J. Crew emerged, offering a less expensive preppy clothing option to the masses. J. Crew still, within its catalog pages, creates a world of wealthy luxury but at an affordable price. The pictures of pretty, young people wearing neat, classic clothing in lovely locals, still have people longing to enter into this elite class and if a pair of loafers will help them achieve their dream, then they’ll do it.
1. Madras items from Brooks Brothers 1920s
2. Brooks Brothers Women’s Button-Down 1949
3. The Official Preppy Handbook 1980, wikipedia.org
4. 1980s Ralph Lauren Ad, makonikey.blogspot.com
5. & 6. J. Crew catalog June Style Guide 2012
– Bonnie J Brown

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