Fashionistas, Recessionistas and Prepsters: Is Preppy Dead?

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polo player preppyIn September, Lisa Birnbach's True Prep hit bookstores. The long-awaited sequel to her 1980 opus, The Official Preppy Handbook, True Prep is Birnbach's attempt to explore how the prep lifestyle has weathered the past 30 years.

While the trappings of the upper-class lifestyle are more popular than ever, much of the preppy character that Lisa Birnbach lovingly cataloged in the original book seem to have left the scene, supplanted by ostentatious displays of wealth and privilege. As the monolithic 1980's preppy culture has fractured into a variety of brands and styles, from Gossip Girl to hip-hop Hilfiger, Ralph Lauren (RL) to Vineyard Vines, it's worth wondering if this explosion of prep may also signal its demise.

The Birth of Prep

Although the preppy style seems to have deep roots, it is a fairly recent development. The word itself is only a few decades old: according to some experts, "preppy" debuted in the pages of Erich Segal's 1970 bestseller Love Story. The term quickly gained traction, if only because the culture it described was already well known. Long the standard look of preparatory (or "prep") schools, preppy was first explored as an independent style in the pages of Take Ivy, a near-mythic 1965 Japanese fashion photo essay that brought the preppy look to the streets of Tokyo. In America, however, the national ascendancy of prep owes much to Birnbach's book, which obsessively analyzed the style, making it understandable -- and accessible -- to people who might never set foot on a prep school or Ivy League campus.

Birnbach's encyclopedic knowledge of all things prep fueled sales, driving The Preppy Handbook into the bestseller lists. At the same time, she attached a philosophical component to the look, explicitly wedding the preppy style to a hodgepodge of social values, including traditionalism, thrift, and brand loyalty. In Birnbach's analysis, preppies buy Brooks Brothers and Orvis because these companies have been in business for over a hundred years and have proven reliability; they send their children to Dalton and Exeter for much the same reason. From cars to dog breeds to vacation resorts, the society that Birnbach outlines is functional, not flashy; tasteful, not trendy, wedded to a collection of consumer habits and social mores that have proven themselves over decades, if not centuries.

And the classic preppy brands are similarly storied: Brooks Brothers, for example, dates back to the early 1800's, and made clothes for both Abraham Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt. While J. Press and LL Bean can trace their roots only to the dawn of the twentieth century, both were widely regarded as classic brands when Birnbach celebrated them in 1980.

A Prep Brand Revolution

Thirty years later, the classic American prep brands are no longer all that American: J. Press is now owned by Onward Kashiyama, a Japanese company, while Brooks Brothers is a subsidiary of Luxxotica (LUX), an Italian eyewear manufacturer. Even Bean, long famed for its made in the USA cachet, has outsourced much of its production to Asia. At the same time, these classic brands have also launched major changes in the hopes of attracting a younger, wealthier clientele: Bean has updated its stodgy, sturdy offerings with the Signature line, a pricier selection of clothes that have a more contemporary, tailored cut. Meanwhile, Brooks Brothers' "Black Fleece," offers a modish take on the company's classic cuts, while Paul Stuart's "Phineas Cole" offerings suggest a dapper if somewhat androgynous British teachers' lounge, circa 1937.

It's not hard to see why classic preppy brands have expanded to attract a hipper clientele: since 1980, the preppy retail pantheon has become packed with other, pricier companies, many of which didn't exist thirty years ago. In True Prep, Birnbach expands the prep horizons to honor several of these newbies, including Prada, Vineyard Vines, Ralph Lauren, Hermes and Armani. While some of these new brands maintain the balance between tailored and slouchy that Birnbach celebrated in 1980, they do so at a premium price. As $90 LL Bean boots and $300 Coach bags now battle with $700 Polo boots and $9,000 Birkin bags, tradition and thrift seem to have become something else.

From Middle-Class Comfort to Over-the-Top Wealth

The marriage of prep and profligacy has been a long time coming. In 2008, Workman Publishing, the company that released the original Preppy Handbook, issued a sequel of sorts. The layout, font and style of Christopher Tennant's The Official Filthy Rich Handbook was almost exactly the same as Birnbach's book, and it covered much of the same ground. This time around, however, the well-worn station wagon and stylishly shabby country house of the original prep were replaced with $85,000 Escalades and 20,000 square foot compounds on Long Island. Essentially a buying guide for the "other 0.0001%," Tennant's book took the prep style to a whole new level, even as it did away with concepts of thrift, taste, and restraint.

And Tennant's book isn't alone in its depiction of the new wealth. Richistan, Robert Frank's analysis of the uber-wealthy and The Recessionistas, Alexandra Lebenthal's thinly-disguised memoir of life among New York's elite, tread much of the same ground. In both books, life among the privileged is an outsized parody of middle class style: both Frank and Lebenthal note that, like their lower-earning brethren, many of the super-rich are chin-deep in credit, living from bonus to bonus, and desperately trying to keep up with the neighbors. While their outward appearance may hearken to the WASPy style of Northeastern preppies, their lifestyles show little of the thrift and restraint that Birnbach once hailed.

The Super Wealthy Pendulum

One of the biggest changes between 1980 and today lies in the way that the wealthy seem to regard their riches. In her first book, Birnbach summed up the relationship between the preppy and his or her money: "The thing about money is that it's nice that you have it. You're not excited to get it. You don't talk about it. It's like the golden retriever by the chair -- when you reach out for it it's there." In other words, nice people don't brag about their bank balances, and they don't fret about cash.

In True Prep, however, conversation positively drips with references to the signs of wealth, as Birnbach instructs readers: "Your car wasn't in the shop; your Mercedes was getting fixed. You didn't wear shoes; you wore Manolos." Somehow, between Dynasty and Dallas, the Reagan-era tax cuts and the real estate bubble, wealth was no longer like the golden retriever by the chair; it was more like the pit bull on a weak chain: aggressive, obvious, and disturbingly unrestrained.

Some theorists have argued that 1960's and 1970's tendency toward restrained displays of wealth had much to do with the Great Depression, World War II and the postwar economic boom -- historical events that honored hard work and frugality over big spending and self-indulgence. If this is true, then it seems possible that the pendulum may be poised to swing back to its pre-Reagan position: as Birnbach notes, moneyed mavens like Bill Gates and Warren Buffett are leading a pack of competitive philanthropists, and the Wall Street meltdown inspired some consumers -- like Richard Fuld's wife -- to try to conceal their hyper-expensive brand addictions.

Throughout her book, Birnbach tries to demonstrate that her beloved prep lifestyle still survives, even as she admits that profligate displays of wealth, outrageous super-mansions, and outrageously-priced brands have transformed American upper class life since 1980. The question remains, however, if the preppy style that she once celebrated can survive when its key personality traits of subtlety and restraint have been exchanged for obscene displays of wealth.

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