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 firstname.lastname@example.org.