STERN: Rethinking the Ivy style

A Stern Perspective

Before I came to Yale, I didn’t know that outfits of bright green shorts, pastel-colored collared shirts and boat shoes were all that common. I was not accustomed to brand-name clothing that was kelly green, periwinkle blue or pale pink (sorry — salmon). Before I came to Yale, my exposure to preppy clothing had been very limited. Now, I feel weirdly well-versed.

I started thinking more about preppy clothing after coming across an article in last week’s News about an “Ivy Style” art exhibit at New York’s Fashion Institute of Technology consisting of mannequins dressed in a quintessentially preppy manner. The exhibit — from its title to its mannequins standing “in the middle of a grassy quad against the backdrop of a neo-Gothic façade akin to Calhoun College” — equated preppy clothing and the Ivy League.

Historically, this conflation is accurate. The preppy look was born early in the last century when upscale clothing lines like J. Press marketed collegiate British garb to students at schools such as Harvard, Yale and Princeton. Over the next few decades, this look became synonymous with the Ivy League; the style gained its name from the elite prep schools that adopted the look of the universities they fed into. Now, the word “preppy” instantly calls to mind Lacoste and Brooks Brothers, Chinos and Sperrys — all of which I see on a daily basis at Yale.

Before I go any further, it should be noted that Yale is not the preppiest school out there. According to the Huffington Post’s very scientific “Preppiest Colleges of 2012,” the preppiest school is Georgetown, followed by the University of Virginia and Boston College. Other names I frequently heard in a highly informal poll I conducted at lunch were Bucknell and Vanderbilt. Many students told me their high schools were far preppier than Yale.

Nevertheless, preppy clothing has been linked to Yale. To me, coming from a public high school in Pittsburgh where preppy clothing was certainly not common, this link seems valid. At first, I instinctively disliked preppy clothing for what it represented. “Preppies are most basically those people who don’t mind being associated with elite schools and the professions those schools feed into,” Mark Oppenheimer ’96 GRD ’03 wrote in Salon a few months ago. “By virtue of the clothes they wear, they express their comfort being associated with a certain kind of cultural prerogative.”

That cultural prerogative is a distinctly upper-crust, monied one. Cody Pomeranz ’15 remembers how a bunch of kids at his private high school in Cincinnati founded a “Gentleman’s Club” and wore expensive and preppy clothing to school every Wednesday. It was no coincidence, Pomeranz believed, that most of the members of the Gentleman’s Club were also members of the Investment Club.

Preppy clothing is “better understood as an orientation toward power,” Oppenheimer wrote. To me, that seemed a bad thing. I perceived preps — who wore expensive clothing that peacocked opulence — as elitist. By looking like you are just about to head off to the yacht club, you are practically begging people to make a judgment about you, your parents and your country club membership. You seem exclusive, at the very least.

Three years ago, Harvard set off a minor controversy in the fashion world (are there ever minor controversies in the fashion world?) by launching its own brand of clothing: Harvard Yard. This archetypically preppy line — “A New England patchwork of tartan, seersucker and old-school plaids,” in the words of The New York Times — was instantly assailed for being both elitist and designed solely for the elite (sports coats cost a hefty $495).

I judged Harvard Yard. I judge Yale’s preps. That is, until I started talking to them. At a certain point I had a revelation: Even preppy clothes are still just clothes.

I don’t dress well. Really. You can ask pretty much anyone I know. I also don’t expect anyone to judge me because of how I dress. Not all people who wear preppy clothing are pretentious, and not all people who wear old jeans and T-shirts are slobs. After meeting countless preps who were normal, down-to-earth kids, I rethought my opinion of those who don the Ivy Style.

Clothing has always carried certain connotations. Preppy clothing — expensive and ostentatious — carries with it a stereotype of Yale I don’t care for. But clothing really is just something you wear because being naked would be too uncomfortable. You might never catch me in salmon slacks, but if you choose to wear them, I have no right to judge.

Scott Stern is a sophomore in Branford College. Contact him at scott.stern@yale.edu.

Comments

  • cincinnatus

    This was a fun read, Scott. On one level, clothes are just clothes — but on another level, they are also signifiers about who we are, who we aspire to be, who we can afford to be, and so on. One reason that sumptuary laws existed in the past is because the upper classes didn’t want the nouveau riche diluting their brand with their distinctive (and here we are supposed to read lower-class) mannerisms. Another reason is that the upper classes were afraid that the nouveau riche would fit in all too well and the carefully cultivated social distance would disappear. Contradictory reasons, but real nevertheless…! My point is simply that how we dress has a variety of implications for how we are received in society and how we self-identify.

    This was a compelling piece — thanks for writing it!

  • jorge_julio

    it totally makes sense to buy a $495 blazer just to keep from being naked.

  • Goldie08

    Preppiness is not about power – it’s about recreation and leisure. Sport coats, sport jackets, boat shoes, shooting jackets, etc. – all based on sport.

    Also, harvard started harvard yard to capitalize on the weird trend in Asia (especially korea) or people wanting to wear the ivy aesthetic even if they’ve never visited campus.

    Also, Brooks bros. shot part of their fall catalog at yale. Cross campus, sterling memorial and old campus.

    • cincinnatus

      Of course, the sports that one participates in when dressed in preppy clothes are traditionally aristocratic sports. One does not play soccer in a sport coat!

  • The Anti-Yale

    Preppy?

    Just another of Mercantilia’s uniforms.

  • ilovelovedontyou

    Are you implying that being ‘down-to-earth’ can’t be a part of being ‘oriented towards power’ or ‘elitist?’ Regardless, I think one can certainly be powerful, elitist, an investment banker / financier, and be gracious, welcoming, polite, ‘down-to-earth’ – in fact, I think they often go together. I find that questioners of the privilege of wealth and education often paint the privileged as snobby and haughty. While I wouldn’t claim that there have never been any haughty or snobby privileged people, I find that typifying personalities often misses the point about whether a society should structure itself to harbor such inequality [on both sides of the debate.] People shouldn’t rail against bankers/high income individuals for being indifferent or uncaring (many are actually super nice). High income people would probably do better not to claim that poor are lazy or ‘victims’… . …

    If anyone knows of a way to fix that, i will give them a nickel.

    Rather, folks should come to terms with questions of whether such a society is a) just [NOT just legally, those arguments are frustratingly amnesiac] b) not just the type of place we would want to live in , but the type of place we would want others to live in (if we were in their shoes) and c) what changes should we make to achieve b).

    also, scott is a decent dude.