Consider the following questions:
Do you dress in a manner which attracts women – to other men?
If you had your life to live over again, would you still fall in love with yourself?
Are you currently employed as a professional inheritor?
If Moses had seen the way you dress, would there be another commandment?
At your college football games, do you dress like a neon sign?
These are a selection of questions from a 1980 poster that asked ‘Are You A Preppie?’ (pictured). If you answered yes to the majority of questions above, you are likely to be an ‘Intermediate Prep’ or an ‘Ultra Prep’. Commiserations. If you answered no to the majority of questions, you are either a ‘Pseudo Prep’ or ‘Normal’.[i] Congratulations.
It is interesting that the preppy look was satirised in this way during the 1980s, a decade that commenced with giddy financial success, peaked with social excess and concluded with the largest one-day percentage change in the Dow Jones’ history on Black Monday. The socio-economic events of the present decade are not dissimilar to the 1980s, and just as before prepsters are experiencing hard(er) times. In November last year, Ralph Lauren announced that it would close its ‘high-end college wear’ Rugby Label before the end of 2013. Several weeks earlier, the Jack Wills group confirmed that it would close Aubin & Wills, the ‘upmarket sister line’ to Jack Wills.[ii] The brands’ store closures was attributed to the economic slump and the need to focus on core business, but the decisions suggest something interesting about how people perceive and practice clothes shopping.
It is hardy surprising that our current financial woes have altered the way we think about and the buying and wearing of clothes. Moments of acute economic, political and social stress have always triggered changes in dress. Think of the Zoot Suit in 1930s-America or Dior’s ‘New Look’ after the Second World War.[iii] Crisis episodes almost invariably force us to re-evaluate some aspect of our professional and personal lives, so it is little wonder that we simultaneously critique our raiment. Consider contemporary clothing trends. According to fashionistas, hats are currently conspicuous, perhaps because their height confers a confidence recently shattered? As an ancillary item, their possession also hints at disposal income, a pleasure many people have lost. Men’s decision to invest in products or services that suggest their immunity from the economic ennui is one reason why more are seeking out sun beds and fake tans. Apparently. However dodgy the result, the sun-kissed look, which we associate with travel and leisure, ‘implies [people] have time on [their] hands, [which is] the ultimate accessory’ in today’s worked-obsessed and debt-ridden society, according to psychologist Alan Redman.[iv] The uproar against bankers and other city slickers could even explain the abandonment of the suit and the heretical adoption of the ‘mix and match’ jacket and trouser.
A Privileged Look
On the face of it, people’s present concern to bolster, or reinvent, their identities should be a boon to the Preppy Look. Originating within the privileged confines of American Ivy League campuses during the 1920s – notably Princeton[v] – the popularity of Preppy style, or the Ivy Look, grew in the 1950s. The nonchalance and insouciance that was signified by the conspicuous use of layering, button down collars, sport-themed motifs, skinny ties and primary colours, not to mention the wearing of Bass Weejun loafers[vi] and Ray Ban Wayfarers, appealed to the young and young-at-heart in the post-War West. This apparel served as ‘a grounding force, a reminder of the security and propriety of old-school ties, and a platform for the appealing irreverence of [youth]’.[vii] The ideas that Preppy style expressed were probably most prevalent during the presidency of John Fitzgerald Kennedy. Brief though it was, JFK’s presidency gave many Americans a new vision of hope. His clothing choices, which feature in the majority of Preppy guides, effortlessly symbolised the tradition, modernity and prosperity that his policies and speeches trumpeted.
The paradoxes of the Preppy Look – it is simultaneously bold & conservative, modern & traditional, relaxed & contrived, safe & sensuous – would seem to make it the Everyman clothing choice, particularly for socially turbulent times. This would certainly explain J.Crew’s strong sales last year. In the third quarter of 2012, the group gained $33.2m. in revenue, a 54% increase on the same period during 2011.[viii] But if J.Crew are doing well, and are looking to open their first London store, why are Ralph Lauren and Jack Wills closing stores? And why, in 2011, did Abercrombie & Fitch reportedly offer reality-star (if there is such a thing) Mike ‘The Situation’ Sorrentino (!?) money to stop wearing its clothes ‘to try and preserve some of the brand’s status’?[ix]
A possible answer is this: beyond their madras prints and bold colours, Preppy purvyeors are far from homogeneous. The multitude of companies that sell this uniquely American look cater, if subtly, to different consumers. They distinguish, in a more sophisticated way than the above poster, between the Ultra Preps, Intermediate Preps and Pseudo Preps. And it is interesting that those companies who are currently presenting Preppy as an edgy, even subversive, style are generally doing better than competitors who focus on the more conservative and moral attributes of the Look.
The Jack Wills group may have shut Aubin & Wills, but its younger, errant and eponymous brand thrives. Two years ago, nineteen complaints were received, and upheld by the Adverstising Standards Authority, when the Jack Wills 2011 Spring Term Handbook, printed a double-page spread of a bare-chested teenage couple canoodling in the surf at night.[x] The brand’s Easter Handbook was similarly provocative and advertised ‘debauched partying’ as part of their university tour of Oxford, Cambridge and Bristol. Scantily clad teenagers still featured in the introductory photographs. By contrast, Aubin & Wills had turned to Alex James, former bass player for Blur, now farmer, cheese-maker and Classic FM radio host, to promote its wares. Notice a difference? In January, America’s stylish First Lady, caused a mild sensation and a run on J.Crew stores by wearing a $265 rhinestone belt to her husband’s inauguration.[xi] If these up-start Preppy brands are booming – J.Crew was launched in 1983; Jack Wills in 1999 – Ralph Lauren’s fortunes might have taken a dip because of its ‘squeaky-clean’ image. In a recent interview, Ralph Lauren talks about his forty-eight year marriage and his lack of vices:
I don’t have vices. You won’t find me with a large Scotch and a cigar in the evening.[xii]
Whilst the integrity of Ralph Lauren has undoutedbly contributed to the longevity of his clothing brand, his reticent demeanour suggests a man and multinational temporarily out of touch with the concerns and consternations of many of its consumers. Trends on this year’s catwalks have emphasised the avantgarde and angular, to the extent that some designers, notably Vivienne Westwood, have gone back to the Middle Ages for sartorial inspiration.[xiii] Ralph Lauren’s staple polo shirt is somewhat at odds with this sartorial outlook.
So there is a conundrum. The Preppy Look appeals because it signifies security and tradition and yet it is rejected, or at least considered less appealing, if it appears too conservative and conventional. It might be going too far to say that this attitude is indicative of all people’s approach to dress, but the Wheel of Fortune’s turn in favour of Preppy brands that embrace heritage and modernity highlight long-standing sociological observations about our desire to conform and express inviduality. And the need to express ourselves is often greater when we feel that our current position has been, or is in danger of being, threatened.
…and however we might pigeon-hole prepsters, they are clearly not as nonchalant as their clothes suggest.
[i] A. Lurie, The Language of Clothes (New York, 2000), 164.
[ii] H. Walker, ‘Preppy look’ brought down a peg to leave labels in a mess’. The Independent (Tuesday, 6 November, 2012), 7.
[iii] V. Karaminas, ‘The Zoot Suit: Its History and Influence’, The Men’s Fashion Reader, ed. P. McNeil & V. Karaminas (Oxford, 2009), 347-52; C. Breward, Fashion (Oxford, 2003), 175-7.
[iv] S. Armstrong, ‘Bronze age man’, The Sunday Times: Style (Sunday, 17 March 2013), 62.
[v] D. Clemente, ‘Making the Princeton Man: Collegiate Clothing and Campus Culture, 1900-20’, The Places and Spaces of Fashion, 1800-2007, ed. J. Potvin (London, 2009)108-20.
[vi] G. Marsh & J.P. Gaul, The Ivy League (London, 2010), 22-47.
[vii] J. Banks & D. de la Chapelle, Preppy: Cultivating Ivy Style (New York, 2011), 4-10.
[viii] F. Gilles, ‘J.Store confirms London store.’ http://uk.fashionmag.com/news/J-Crew-confirms-London-store,298204.html. Accessed: 13-iij-2013.
[ix] Walker, ‘Preppy Look’, 7.
[x] http://www.asa.org.uk/Rulings/Adjudications/2011/4/Jack-Wills-Ltd/TF_ADJ_50083.aspx. Accessed: 21-iij-2013.
[xi] M. White Sidell, ‘Michelle Obama’s J.Crew Belt is Already Sold Out.’ www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2013/01/21/michelle-obama-s-inauguration-day-J-crew-belt-is-already-sold-out.html. Accessed: 13-iij-2013.
[xii] J. Davis, ‘What I’ve Learned: Ralph Lauren’, Esquire (UK): The Big Black Book (Spring/Summer 2013), 69.
[xiii] ‘Vivienne Westwood’s wearable medieval ode’. http://www.mail.com/int/entertainment/lifestyle/1927306-vivienne-westwoods-wearable-medieval-ode.html. Accessed: 21-iij-2013.