Photo by Salt Water New England

Monday, December 27, 2021

The Thing Before Preppy

Photo by My Father - Camden, Maine

Looking over the photographs from certain clothing companies, you may see a pattern.  Brightly attired people are bounding at a tennis club or outdoor tailgating banquet or other aspirational setting, grinning ear to ear because they are having so much fun, while some animal looks on soulfully.  

These are derivative of Tommy Hilfiger’s “Meet the Hilfigers" advertisements from the 90s, which themselves were riffs on the earlier Ralph Lauren campaigns of the 80s, that were based on the work of Slim Aarons.

It seems inevitable that people today associate these increasingly ersatz marketing campaigns as the definition of preppy style.  Newcomers must see this as the sartorial equivalent of costume jewelry. 

My take is a bit different. 

For me, the origin of the style is in the 1950s, around the coast of Connecticut.  A culture was codifying influenced by the wealth and access of New York; strong schools; and the culture of so many early settled New England towns with deep British roots.  The clothes were often bright and casual but still substantive and well made, much of which came directly from nearby manufacturers. Towns also had shops that specialized in imported Irish woollens and tweed.

This style was immortalized in many classic New Yorker covers that were done under the art direction of James Geraghty.  

Heading up the coast, New Haven soon fully embraced a variation of this, and of course so did the Boston area.  The parents of prep school students bought locally-made leather shoes, Camp Mocs and Bluchers that were manufactured in Maine on the way home from summer camp.  

I grew up around New Haven in the 1970s as my parents had the generation earlier.  (Three of my direct ancestors were amongst the original settlers of New Haven in 1638.) It was a region and culture that raised the game of a lot of people.  Obviously we never labelled our culture growing up.

This look was eventually knocked off and mass marketed, to mixed degrees of accuracy, by the preppy books of the early 1980s. It became conflated with Slim Aarons (via Ralph Lauren).  At its most dreary, preppy has become completely derivative and even interchangeable with some touristy Americana. 

This may be why I think of my background (and what I explore here) less as preppy, and more as “the thing before preppy.”  

And to those generations that have imprinted upon these newest social media images, my culture may be even more remote, perhaps the thing before “the thing before preppy.” 

I do wonder as the zeitgeist tires of these ever more cheap and vulgar variants, when misdirection goes out of style and the maneuvers of social competition are understood to be self-defeating, then perhaps the older Geraghty vision will become a better source than Aarons/Lauren/Hilfiger.  

If that is the case, perhaps the thing before the thing before preppy might actually be the thing after preppy.  

Photographs from our Archives (all but the last taken at the Westport Historical Society's Exhibit): 



Daughter of James Geraghty






And at Her Maine Coast Shop


32 comments:

  1. I grew up in New Haven a decade before you. I think you are right. I don't remember anyone using the word 'preppy'. It was just the way everybody dressed.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. “Collegiate,” I believe, was the word we used, growing up in the New Haven area in the ‘60’s.
      It described what now, I suppose, might be considered the basics of the “preppy” look. At Yale Co-op one could buy shirts made by Gant and Sero. J Press supplied suits, jackets, and pants. If you were in the market for a Shetland sweater you went to Gamer on Chapel Street.
      There were many colors from which to choose, but only one pattern, the crew neck. You
      could, however, select the “cable” stitch over the plain. The young gent in our neighborhood with the largest collection of Gamer sweaters was known as “King Cable.” As for shoes, there was only one legitimate supplier, Barries. Weejuns did not quite cut it.

      Delete
    2. Me too.....the word preppy was not a thing growing up in DC in the 50s/60s.

      Delete
    3. Ivy League? At least down south.

      Delete
    4. Frederick J JohnsonJanuary 3, 2022 at 4:01 PM

      What he said.. also from New Haven in the 60's

      Delete
  2. Although the media certainly exhibit a northerly focus, the same things were taking place in the south. My Norfolk Academy yearbooks from mid-1950s show the popularity of Madras, tweed, navy blazers, khakis, and Weejuns.

    ReplyDelete
  3. I am old enough to have actually been on a single seat chairlift.

    ReplyDelete
  4. I believe “preppy” was introduced into mainstream nomenclature with the phenomenon of Love Story; both the book and the film.

    Before that one either dressed traditionally, collegiately, classically because that is what one did.
    If one knew they knew.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I remember hearing it spoken in the movie. It telegraphed its exact meaning, and it was not complimentary. I hope we have all striven to be more than our clothing conveys, however we are dressed, and to become the sort of people who make others comfortable. The more I view SWNE, the more I enjoy responses and dialogue, as opposed to pronouncements. You are such an engaging bunch.

      Delete
    2. "and to become the sort of people who make others comfortable"
      Isn't this what we all should be striving for in all that we are? Noblesse oblige and all that?

      Delete
  5. Get thee to Mad River Glen. Come home to their iconic “Single Chair.”

    ReplyDelete
  6. I never heard the term "preppy" until I was an adult, but my parents and all their friends dressed in that classic style. (I rebelled a bit when the hippies appeared but soon got back on track.)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I have always hated the style. Even as a child I considered the clothing boring, dowdy and frumpy - at least for me. Actually, I found everything about the lifestyle boring and white bread. My poor parents had no clue what to do with me. My father was worried that I was 'attention-seeking'. Now, almost 60 years later I still wear the same 'Wes Andersen-movie-style' clothing and even my father has realized it's 'just me.' I go days at a time without leaving my house and yet on any given day you can see me farming/driving a tractor/cleaning horse stalls/feeding cows/chickens in a long mink coat, or a sparkling evening dress in the middle of the day with absolutely no human for miles.

      Delete
    2. The New Haven collegiate style men’s clothing is what I grew up wearing in the ‘60’s. My wardrobe has little changed. Womenswear is a different matter. It often seemed to follow York Street’s men’s lead. I began travelling overseas, to poorer countries, in the early ‘80’s. The flowing, colorful, sometimes diaphanous, often called “Dutch cloth,” robes worn by African and Middle Eastern women were a shock, and a welcome one, to an eye raised on khaki.

      Delete
  7. So glad to have found you again! Never stop your wonderful content and stories!

    ReplyDelete
  8. The word "preppy" was never part of my vocabulary, so I don't need to adopt the phrase "the thing before preppy". I prefer "traditional". Today, "collegiate" would mean flipflops and sweatsuits.

    ReplyDelete
  9. I love these reflective pieces you have been writing lately that explore cultural and fashion history. They add greater interest and depth to SWNE. I too grew up in the New Haven area. I think that "collegiate" is spot on as I don't remember any one using the word preppy until Lisa Birnbach's book hit the bookstores. My Mom and I shopped in the 1950s and 1960s for clothes largely at Fred Phipps on the green in New Haven for perfectly proper outfits for young ladies--with an occasional jaunt to NYC.

    ReplyDelete
  10. I have a 1960's book from Esquire Magazine called "What Every Young Man Should Know" which details a great deal of this stuff. The book refers to itself as Ivy, similar to the better known book "Take Ivy." I'm also laughing because much like the author I have a number of ancestors who were founders of New Haven, along with practically every other town in Connecticut, Massachusetts, Rhode Island and a few in Vermont.

    ReplyDelete
  11. Class, quality, and style will out, no matter of it's "title"! Thank you once again!

    ReplyDelete
  12. Brilliant, as always. Love the comments. I remember when "preppy" became a definition of "a look", then soon faded among those looking for a look.

    ReplyDelete
  13. It wasn't even thought of as being anything but the way one dressed at Columbia in the late 1950s. Flannels, OCBDs, tweed sport jackets, argyle socks (?), blazers, and white bucks maybe. No one tried to out-do anyone; we were there to learn and get on with successful lives. It was a far cry from today's campuses, and not only in the students' appearances. And profs. for that matter.

    ReplyDelete
  14. Probably we've always just been Urban Haute Bourgeoisie (UHB)!

    ReplyDelete
  15. When in New England close enough to NYC and Boston, their is that feeling of class, well educated, and culture. Muffy can describe it better than I.

    ReplyDelete
  16. It is interesting to parse these distinctions between authentic and traditional American style and what constitutes "preppy." Whatever the origin of the term and the roots of the styles, it seems to me that traditional American or collegiate style is rather consistent and has been for decades: Clothes that looked good in New England in the 1950s look good today. Preppy, on the other hand, changes with the decades. Some key pieces may have a through line, but there's a variety that's built on trendiness, not utility or endurance.

    ReplyDelete
  17. Old New England, there's nothing like it. Dress, culture, interests... Understated and high quality rule.

    ReplyDelete
  18. I don't think about whether I am 'preppy' or not. Since my childhood, I have always preferred traditional no-nonsense and robust clothing, like tweeds, without the frou frou and trendy bits, because of the comfort and familiarity, as well as what I was used to seeing as a child from my very dapper grandfather.

    ReplyDelete
  19. The last sentence brings to mind the opening lines of Eliot's 'Burnt Norton'.

    ReplyDelete
  20. Lots of terrific thoughtful comments. It's why I keep coming back to SWNE. I always learn something new.

    ReplyDelete
  21. Interesting article and commentary. I was of the high school group in the late 70s who wore embroidered blouses and clothing from a small Indian/Pakistani boutique mixed with levi's, boots, clogs, leather sandals and sterling silver and turquoise jewelry. My mother tried very hard to make me enjoy oxford shirts, khaki's, etc. as she loved what she called the "classic" look. The word Preppy came into my life in college when The Preppy Handbook, and one of my quadmate's from Westchester showed up. Added a few cute polo shirts to my wardrobe but the prepster look just never seemed attractive on my body. As an adult, mom still trying to fit me into those sweaters but I have my own style which is a mix of classic pieces, up to date jeans and boots, still great jewelry. Love that collegiate look on the students in New Haven, however!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Re: " that collegiate look on the students in New Haven".

      Sweatsuits :-(

      Delete
  22. Classic style will out, no matter what the title! Thank you!

    ReplyDelete