When first reading my copy of Preppy: Cultivating Ivy Style, I was reminded of how omnipresent the whole preppy thing has become.
OTC hit the internet back in 2005. Back then, there were very few men’s fashion blogs out there. And there were even fewer sites dedicated to the preppy/Ivy League/East Coast style so familiar to me.
Over the intervening years, the appeal of preppy style and East Coast lifestyle – at least as seen through the eyes of Lisa Birnbach – gained wider appeal and the proliferation of online experts and opinion-makers ensued. Back in the 1980s, when The Preppy Handbook first gave birth to a new, aspirational preppy phenomenon, the style was bombastic and over the top, colorful and caricatured. Today, it’s serious business. And I mean that both figuratively and literally.
Companies from J. Crew to Ralph Lauren, Brooks Brothers to J. Press are all rediscovering their uber-preppiness. New smaller brands that fancy themselves cultural artisans and holders of the “true” preppy standard are popping up by the day. Of all these modern labels only Brooks Brothers, J. Press and L.L. Bean can really lay claim to a physical connection to the genuine preppy aesthetic. At the same time, many fashion bloggers and armchair fashion historians extol the virtues of being “authentic” focusing on “heritage” brands.
I’ve seen some of this exuberant tut-tutting in the reviews of Preppy: Cultivating Ivy Style and find it a little perplexing. Some are critical of the book’s lack of historical gravitas and its apparent concession to modern (and apparently blasphemous) interpretations of preppy style. Too much Ralph Lauren – that’s not authentic prep! Does that make Polo/Ralph Lauren, founded twilight years of original Preppy, any less preppy? Is it less authentic? Of course not, Polo is the bedrock of modern preppy style.
All of this came quickly to mind as I unpacked the book, sent to me through the kindness of its authors, and started to leaf through the pages. I, and several other bloggers mentioned or quoted in the book have been aware of its development since last year. When I was contacted for permission to use a quote from my Roots of American Preppy article – for the introduction no less – I was intrigued. I liked the idea behind the book and the authors’ approach to creating a modern understanding of the style.
Turns out I also like the book. In fact, I think it’s a great resource for anyone looking to better understand and adopt preppy style. Preppy’s authors, very aware of bloggers’ influence and impact on modern preppy style, also reached out to some of the leading online influencers and mined our archives and writings. That perspective adds to the larger picture of preppy style today.
I don’t know if some people were expecting the Ivy League equivalent of Alan Flusser’s Dressing The Man – a book so detailed, complete and authoritative as to garner only criticisms about its obsessive detail. This book is more of an elegant and somewhat contextual style guide that shows you how to dress and accessorize in the preppy fashion. It’s not an exhaustive tome dedicated to the intricate nuances of preppy culture and history, pedigree and monogramming rules. Rather, it is a visual reference for achieving the preppy aesthetic.
Preppy runs the gamut of Ivy League influences and trends, styles, luminaries and brands. It also goes somewhere most books on this subject do not – to modern times. Photos from Fred Castleberry are mixed with references to the gritty cool urbanity of Street Etiquette.com. Modern influences have taken the preppy look in new directions, J.Crew being the standard bearer of the “New Prep.” In fact, even though J.Crew strives to break its generic “preppy” label, no other brand has so forcefully defined what kids today understand to be preppy.
What makes the preppy style of today so resilient and ubiquitous is that it’s not static – it’s not the old 1980s caricature. Through style blogs and social media, consumers have decided what they like and how they want to blend looks and even eras. Creating personal signature looks by blending new and old brands, mass market and small run specialty pieces, old school preppy and new school ironic keeps things fresh.
And that’s the way is should be. “Real” American preppy has always been about practically, function and quality. Together, those elements yielded the timeless and classic looks we so covet today. From bags to dogs, footwear to navy blazers, preppies created a distinctive style by finding what worked, sticking with it and evolving to include new elements that matched their style. Same thing with this book.
Preppy: Cultivating Ivy Style takes vintage and modern preppy, blends them up and gives us the recipe for achieving a look, a style and, sort of, a life style. It’s a lovely book and a great addition to a collection or coffee table.