Club ties. Lilly Pulitzer. Pants and belts embroidered with little whales or sailboats. Jack Rogers sandals.
Preppy is back in full swing. Not just the understated khakis-and-white-polo kind of preppy. This is a time of loud pink and lime—for men.
The new preppy is much like the style chronicled in 1980s The Official Preppy Handbook, but with some new twists. Lilly Pulitzer, whose flowered Palm Beach shift dresses became famous in the 1960s, now has a collection for men and has broadened her offerings for women and children as well. Ralph Lauren has renewed its famous Polo shirts by enlarging the pony, giving its WASP-y standard an ironic wink. There are new angles—like pants in horizontal seersucker and corduroy from Cordarounds.com.
Vineyard Vines now does for men what Lilly Pulitzer has long done for women. It has quickly sold out of this season’s colourful patchwork shorts, and another hot seller is four-panel pants in blue, green, pink and yellow—each panel a different colour. Launched in 1998, its revenue has risen nearly sixfold over the past three years, and it is now taking its seersucker pants and flowered shorts across the Pacific to the UK. So very American, the silk ties populated by tiny whales, sailboats or flags are a favourite among politicians; Arnold Schwarzenegger and Bill Clinton are among the adherents.
The last time we were loving golf shirts and pearls this way, we were entering an era that celebrated wealth, on our way to a time when Gordon Gekko was the king of Wall Street and every aspiring corporate raider had a closet full of Lacoste alligator shirts and Topsider deck shoes. Then, greed was good.
Now we call it “luxury”.
This is a period that lusts for symbols of the good life: $3,000 (Rs1.2 lakh) crocodile handbags, $20,000 tourbillon watches, $250 bottles of olive oil, and big charitable donations that assuage the guilt of driving an SUV. The preppy look is the affordable weekend version of all that. It’s what the people who run the nation have always worn at their country homes. Now, as in the 1980s, people who want to suggest they live that lifestyle are wearing it, too. Never mind that preppies were traditionally old-money understated; now, the look is about flamboyant colours and embroidered whales. Over drinks a few days ago at power-burger restaurant J.G. Melons in Manhattan, I noted three pairs of Madras shorts, two loud Lacoste shirts, a Nantucket Reds T-shirt, and one Vineyard Vines canvas tote—not to mention mayor Michael Bloomberg, who was dining there. Though casual in slacks and a button-down that evening, Bloomberg has been photographed in a Vineyard Vines tie.
For much of the past two decades, preppy wasn’t politically correct. Those who were born to it toned it down—khakis and a bland polo. It certainly wasn’t mainstream in the loud, embroidered-lobster versions that are appearing today. It turned out that Gordon Gekko, the iconic character in the movie Wall Street, represented the end of an era—he was headed to jail at the end of the movie, which came out a few months before the Black Monday crash heralded a new zeitgeist. Soon, avarice was sin again, and political correctness was at cross-purposes with preppy WASP-dom. Anyone parading around with their polo collar turned up in 1999 looked chuckleheaded (remember the preppy evil girlfriend in 2001’s Legally Blonde?).
Then, times changed again. Today, rather than corporate raiders, we have private equity, hedge funds and all manner of derivatives trading.
“Things got so multicultural around here that preppy waned,” says John Murray, co-owner of Murray’s Toggery Shop in Nantucket, which invented the prepster staple Nantucket Red canvas pants and holds a copyright on them. “But now it’s back.”
Of course, today’s preppy look has some new elements—like more dress styles, more florals. Even as some people take pages straight from the 1980s, like layering two polos, others are mixing and matching preppy with other looks—Indian skirts, $300 jeans. Many people today want to be more worldly than the 1980s, with organics and “Red” campaign causes, and they don’t want to look like they’ve never spent a summer away from Nantucket. So they pair those Madras shorts with cowboy boots. Wearing the “whole look” is so heart-on-sleeve aspirational that even the co-founder of Vineyard Vines, Shep Murray, calls it “a little extreme”.
Hip-hoppers have put their own spin on the look. The popular hip-hop group T-Pain wore Madras shorts, bow ties and pink Oxford shirts for their recent appearance on the BET Awards.
But the bottom line is the same: a reference to wealth and power. To promote its Raw Tea drink, Smirnoff has posted a rap video and website (www.teapartay.com) that aims to be satirical viral advertising. It is actually a spot-on look at the intersection of preppy and cool. “We keeps it REAL,” raps a blond, white group calling itself “Prep Unit” in the Smirnoff video, wearing pink golf shirts and seersucker. “By REAL we mean RICH. From New Hampshire to Vermont. From the Main Line to GreenwICH.”
The video’s director, veteran rap-video director Julien “Little X” Lutz, says hip-hop culture has a sister in WASP style. “Hip hop is rapping about money and power and women, which is perfect for preps,” Lutz says.
A book called A Privileged Life: Celebrating WASP Style , was just published by Assouline Publishing. Susanna Salk, the book’s author, says she had trouble getting people to participate in the book because many people feared the term WASP would generate controversy. It was thought to suggest narrow-mindedness or white monoculture. But the book hasn’t been controversial. “Preppy fashion is so iconic now,” Salk says. “There’s a nostalgia element to it. It’s certainly a privilege to live in a manner that doesn’t evolve, doesn’t change.”
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