Monday, February 25, 2019

"Prep is a dangerous word"

That may be the most implausible claim I've read this year. It was said by a guy named Jack Carlson, who is the founder of a menswear brand called "Rowing Blazers". Here is a little more context,
“Prep is a dangerous word and when I first started the brand I was very skittish about it. It comes with a lot of baggage. A lot of people think of the 80s country clubs attended by an elitist buttoned-up clientele, exclusively white. That’s a problem in 2019. So it’s important to look at the original heritage behind it.”
It would be difficult to pack more ignorance into a paragraph. Buttoned-up?

The prep revival in the 1980s had little to do with "country clubs attended by an elitist buttoned-up clientele, exclusively white". It was spurred by a parody publication called The Preppy Handbook. That parody was brilliantly executed by Lisa Birnbach. She even played the part of preppy girl in her interviews, never slipping out of character. The book was very inside baseball. At the time it was published, preppy dressing was a minority thing even in country clubs and elite schools. The book was one group of elite insiders making fun of a smaller set of elite insiders. That it turned out to be a national best seller was a surprise to everyone.

The unintended consequence of the parody was that it democratized preppy. In order to mock a lifestyle that very few people knew anything about it was necessary to explain what was involved at some length. A whole lot of people took the parody as a guide book.

That suggests an interesting question: Given that parody necessarily involves intentional distortion, usually exaggeration, of the thing being parodied, was the style so many of us learned from this book in the 1980s actually a thing before the book was published? I'm not sure it was. During the Baroque period, there was an attempt to recreate Greek tragedy. No historian thinks the end result is much like the original. That hardly matters, however, because a new art form, opera, was created in the process. 1980s prep may be like that. It would be too much to say it had nothing to do with the culture that we were trying to recreate but it might be more accurate to say it was mostly something new. Imagine how opera might have turned out if the only source material on Greek tragedy they'd had was a parody of it.

My own experience might bear on the matter. I was a yacht club kid in the 1970s and very few of the kids I knew in those days dressed in the preppy style. None would have known that name for it. We would have called it the "Ivy-League look" if we called it anything at all.

You saw older guys who dressed and acted that way. I was once in the same room as Dennis Conner, the America's Cup skipper and Olympic medalist in sailing. He's about 17 years older than me. He impressed me deeply not so much by his blue blazer and grey flannels but because he quietly deferred to a janitor and respectfully called the man "sir" because he was older than Conner was. But he was a rarity among his generation. You saw more guys like that among the still older 2nd World War generation but the look and the manners were rapidly disappearing even there.

My mother's family, dirt-poor Irish who had earned their way into the upper-middle class between 1920 and 1960, had adopted the Ivy-League style and the manners that went with it in the 1960s because they believed it to be a marker for success. That gave me a huge step up when the prep craze took off; all I had to do to get a complete prep wardrobe was to open my closet and start wearing clothes my mother had bought me in the 1970s and that had languished there while I'd worn jeans and workboots instead. But I would not have recognized that these clothes constituted a style without the book to guide me. They were just uncool things my mother wanted me to wear. (Ironically, when I did finally adopt the look during my first year at university my mother was embarrassed by it.)

In 1980 "Prep" was a way of dressing and acting that pretty much everyone had an idea about in the same way that everyone today has an idea about the Hell's Angels. That is to say, we could conjure up an image, big, hairy guys wearing leather vests with club patches who own Harley Davidson motorcycles. We know enough about the stereotypes to put together a Halloween costume but not enough to do any more than that. Real Hell's Angels would spot us as impostors in two seconds, and probably stomp on our heads to teach us a lesson. Authentic preps, assuming you could find such persons in 1980, would have been much less brutal but there was still a fear of not knowing how to do it. That was the "problem" The Preppy Handbook solved. It gave a more filled-out picture of how to do it. Although Birnbach never intended for it to be a real handbook there was enough there that you could take it as one and a lot of us did.

I put the word "problem" in scare quotes because it was a problem we didn't know we had. Consider, for example, the movie Animal House, released two years before The Preppy Handbook. It deals with fraternity kids in 1962. The prestigious fraternities are portrayed as populated by "an elitist buttoned-down clientele, exclusively white". And they are cruelly mocked for being that way. This was a style that was rarely mentioned in the culture of the time and then only to mock. None of us wanted to be like that. And then the book came out and we did. For some it was just a style of dress but for a few of us it was a way of living we'd never hoped could actually be possible that suddenly was.

There is much more to say on this subject and I may even say some of it someday.

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