The Ornamentation of the Privileged Tribes of the East Coast: The Politics of Preppy Clothing

Posted on April 14, 2011 by


Last week I saw yet another of my peers abusing the local speed bumps with his kitted-out jungle-ready Land Rover complete with steering wheel on the right side of the vehicle (this car had Pennsylvania plates, mind you). The driver looked like he was all set to partake in some Pacification of the Primitive Tribes of the Lower Niger. Needless to say, I had some words: “I’m so sick of all the preppy people on this campus and their neo-safari colonialism!” Our campus is plagued with preppy styles – croakies, khakis, and pastels in full force. To be frank, it doesn’t appeal to my aesthetics at all. This is irrelevant, though; I suspect that dressing preppy is less about aesthetics and more about privilege.

Whether or not “neo-safari” is part of the popular lexicon, it’s definitely part of a greater nostalgia for the old-school white aristocrat, which informs the preppy clothing trend. Preppy clothing represents a time gone by when power rested in the hands of a few wealthy individuals. Anyone could recognize these individuals – you just had to look at what they were wearing. Since that time, preppy clothing has become democratized; the United States has become a meritocracy, says common wisdom, and anyone bootstrappy enough can make themselves rich. Those same people can deck themselves out in a polo shirt to match their beloved bootstraps without any class repercussions. Wearing these clothes gives the wearer the appearance of privilege. Though the U.S.’s so-called meritocracy has banished aristocracy from the popular imagination, idolization of the aristocracy’s privilege remains, and everyone wants a piece of it. This is easier nowadays, as even suburban mall stores like Hollister specialize in the style. However, apparent democratization of preppy clothing has ultimately failed, as the style continues to preserve nostalgia for aristocratic privilege.

Regardless of the democratization of preppy clothing, the style still finds its roots in the lifestyles of the rich and famous. Preppy clothing originated in the ability of the leisure class to participate in specialized recreational activities. Most of these activities take place outdoors (and yes, taking a safari is one of them). The ability to participate in leisure activities, especially outdoor ones, remains a privilege to this day. Consider working class individuals who work multiple jobs, leaving no time for outdoor exercise, or those in inner city areas which lack safe green spaces. For many Americans, finding the time, energy, and space to play a simple game of catch is a privilege, not to mention the highly specialized leisure activities for which preppy clothing was created.

Not only do these activities require time, energy, and space, but they also require highly specialized outfits and equipment. After all, one can’t wear boat shoes while hunting or don a skiing outfit to play tennis. Nor could one wear these outdoorsy clothes to civilized functions like tea or dinner parties. Yet the democratization of preppy clothing has divorced specialized leisure clothing from its activities while maintaining brand exclusivity. Surveying my peers’ wardrobes, I see many outdoor activities represented in everyday casual wear: polo (Ralph Lauren polo shirts), sailing (nautical themes), boating (Sperry top-siders), skiing (North Face equipment), team sports (jerseys), just general mucking around (L.L. Bean and Hunter boots), and yes, going on safari (I consider that frat boy’s Land Rover as legitimate a style choice as any overpriced pair of khakis). My classmates don’t wear these clothes just to go sailing or hunting; in fact, many of them may have never done either of those things in their lives. Instead, they mix and match pieces from different specialized outfits to wear to class or work, pairing a North Face jacket with a nautical-themed dress without a touch of irony.

But just because the consumer has never actually been skiing does not mean that they can buy any old fleece jacket and properly emulate preppy style. One must dress in the “right” kind of preppy clothing. Performing preppy properly means not buying your polos and Madras plaid ( colonialism ahoy!) at Sears but directly from the very expensive original source – Ralph Lauren, for instance. This is what makes preppy style unique from any other. More than any other aesthetic, preppy style has preserved its style icons in a kind of sartorial amber. Pieces like rugby shirts and khaki pants have not changed in appearance all that much since their original inception for practical use, probably due to the insularity of the leisure class.  (Neither have non-clothing status symbols like Land Rovers, for that matter.)  Brands like Hunter boots, once created solely for utilitarian wear, have been preserved as the correct expression of preppy style. Along with the preservation of the brand comes the preservation of the aristocratic privilege and high price. Dressing preppy correctly still remains an elite style choice.

These unique characteristics of preppy clothing preserve and reinforce privilege, totally negating any sartorial meritocracy myth we might like to tell ourselves. Maybe this is why I find preppy style so distasteful – as much for its politics as for its aesthetics.

Posted in: Clothing