The Origin and Evolution of "Prep" and its Socioeconomic Relevance

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Preppy, Ivy League, WASPy, Country Club—all are used synonymously as terms for the classic collegiate look of the early to mid-twentieth century American menswear that has since been popularized, commercialized, and hyped to excess. In 2010, the Japanese cult preppy style bible Take Ivy was printed in English for the first time. The iconic book documenting fashion at American Ivy League universities was originally published in 1965, and sparked a craze for casual Americana in the authors’ homeland of Japan. Studying fashion at an Ivy League school at the time of the book’s 2010 re-issue inevitably piqued my interest in the associated preppy phenomenon, and I began to look into “prep” in America. I found that its definition seems to remain consistent regardless of who is recounting it: conventionally clean-cut, yet just a bit lazy. “A list of articles in the Preppie wardrobe would be tedious, but the following are some of the more familiar items: LL Bean boots, Top-Sider moccasins, tasseled loafers; pure wool socks, black silk socks, no socks; baggy chinos, baggy brick red…trousers, baggy Brooks Brothers trousers, baggy boxer underpants; shirts of blue, pink, yellow, or striped Oxford, sometimes buttoned down, some made for a collar pin, usually from Brooks or J. Press…jackets of tweed, corduroy, poplin, seersucker with padless shoulders, a loose fit around the waist…a shapeless beige raincoat bleached by years of use and irresistant to rain” (Aldrich, 1996: 16) But beyond its unwavering characterization as a clothing descriptor, “prep” becomes blurry. The existing literature discussing preppy style tends to glaze over its actual origins and complex evolutionary history. Different sources attribute the beginnings of “prep” to institutes ranging from preparatory schools, Ivy League universities, and White Anglo-Saxon Protestant (WASP) society, and each declares the “golden age” of preppy fashion as a different decade spanning 1890-1970. In the recent Preppy: Cultivating Ivy Style, Jeffery Banks and Doria de la Chapelle wistfully describe “the windswept and privileged style known as preppy” as having “origins rooted in the grounds of the elite Ivy League universities of the 1920s, where young, WASPy, and wealthy gentlemen invented a relaxed new way for collegians to dress” (2011: 3). However, in her book discussing WASP style, A Privileged Life, Susanna Salk claims that it was born in the 1950s among the preparatory schools of the Northeast (2007: 106). The authoritative American Fashion Menswear alternatively contends that Brooks Brothers was the original proponent of preppy style during the years 1896-1930, along with the privileged elite college students attending Ivy League Universities who helped establish the most current trends in menswear. (Bryan, 2009: 83). These excerpts provide just a sampling of the confusing and contradictory arguments regarding the development of “prep.” Thus, the aim of this paper is twofold. First, I seek to clarify and substantiate the origins of prep style, its relationship with American collegiate culture and the national class structure, and its evolution as a fashion subculture. A great deal of writing analyzes the correlation between upper class society and northeastern universities, and some material also exists on the basis and popularity of preppy fashions in collegiate culture. However, the connection bridging these interactions is rarely discussed in the existing literature, or is only mentioned on a superficial level, with no apparent evidentiary support. Through a review of literature and historical materials, I will delve into the complex symbiotic relationship between these three aspects of American society (prep style, collegiate culture, and the upper class) as it developed throughout the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Next, I strive to attain a clear understanding of the cultural and socioeconomic significance of preppy fashion at that time in history, its function as an essential arbiter of class for the American aristocracy. I will consider the modern relevance of this historically critical relationship by looking at the development of contemporary fashion marketing and commercialization, ethnographic observation of the modern university climate, and interviews with current college students. Through my research, I determine that the declining value of this style as an indicator of class in our society is a consequence of the dilution of “prep” fashion by mass media and merchandising in the fashion industry. However, I find that, while not as precise of a gauge as it once was, prep style remains relevant as a means of providing insight regarding the wearer’s socioeconomic status and aspirations.

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2013-04-12
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Prep; Fashion
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