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Haute Stuff: The old boys’ club: musings on prepdom

Something about the East Coast has always called to me. It’s a long distance love affair that even I find hard to pin down. I’ve been fascinated by everything from Greenwich Village hipsters, to uptown eccentrics, to perhaps most recently and notably, the concept of prep culture.

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By Leanna Pankratz (The Cascade) – Email

Print Edition: February 8, 2012

I somewhat regretfully admit to my almost daily check-ins with the various fashion blogs and publications (Bill Cunningham candids, anyone?) that will forever brand me as a fashion geek. This primarily serves its purpose as inspiration to write, or perhaps most obviously, attain tangible style tips. Regardless of the publication, however, I find myself constantly drawn to anything with the slightest implication of anything eastern USA. Something about the East Coast has always called to me. It’s a long distance love affair that even I find hard to pin down. I’ve been fascinated by everything from Greenwich Village hipsters, to uptown eccentrics, to perhaps most recently and notably, the concept of prep culture.

Now, prep is a hard idea to capture in words. Long story short, this pastel-clad merging of fashion and lifestyle began in New England, USA, where old money clans intermingled within affluent communities. These were people who considered summer a verb, pearls a necessity and who recognized the merits of an education. In these eastern academic institutions, a definitive look was born that would go on to perhaps define the very core of classic American style – cardigans, plaid and good leather shoes, to name a few staples. It’s the image of the tried-and-true social mover – a romanticized young Ivy Leaguer riding a bicycle in a pair of brown J. Crew loafers. A person who wears and lives their intellect and ambition, and does so with a certain well heeled, bred and read charm that is often attempted in the fashion world, but rarely done justice as a concept or culture. Prep is a decidedly anti-fashion world, in fact. Opting for classics rather than trend pieces (pearls will always take first string over anything with the slightest glitz or gleam), the preppy look is style stripped down to its absolute essentials – crisp, clean, and to the point.

I admit to having once held a certain skepticism towards prepdom – particularly the clan’s apparent hang-up with quality over fashionable quantity. The fascination with anything that is simple and square was boring at best and archaic at worst – are we not in the age of experimentation?

This past summer, though, I found myself on a two-hour sailing experience with a group of four friends at White Rock beach. Through a philosophy of functionality more than anything else, I opted for a pair of plain white cutoffs paired with a navy-and-white sailor shirt. For a girl who loves to pile on layers and accessories, this sudden adherence to the basic rules of activity-appropriate dressing was liberating. (Not to mention the whole sailing thing was brilliantly Kennedy-esque. Can someone direct me to Cape Cod?) The simplicity of prep is unnervingly intoxicating, and in many ways, I have found the look to be among my most prominent style inspirations. There are few sartorial guilty pleasures more satisfying than a brightly-coloured Lilly Pulitzer summer dress, or a varsity-inspired rugby sweater from none other than Ralph Polo.

Tommy Hilfiger’s spring 2012 line brilliant plays off this ideal with a collection of academically inspired beige and navy sweaters, khakis evoking lazy afternoons on the campus grass, boat shoes and, of course, polo shirts in everything from pastels to classic white. A striped top is often a fantastic addition to any scholarly look, as well as a good plaid skirt or pair of trousers. His prep highness Hilfiger, himself, has set up an official Tumblr page that acts as a sort of scrapbook for photos of all things easterly, from mountaintop “champagne and ski” parties to sepia snapshots of Vassar freshmen decked out in white mini-dresses and tied back hair.

That such a definitive look still exists and thrives says a lot about the staying power of the classic American dream. Through our garment choices, we are free to make political, social and cultural statements that, perhaps unbeknownst to us, are more sociological than we realize. The preps will always have pearls, pastels and Pulitzer, regardless of the United States spinning nonstop towards the future. The sustainability of the prep represents the tenacity many westerners hold to their roots, even though (as Lisa Birnbach says in her opening to the 2011 guidebook, True Prep) “It’s a whole new Old World.”

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