Prep culture in the United States traces its roots all the way back to the late nineteenth century. In the wake of the Industrial Revolution and the subsequent economic boom, WASP (White Anglo-Saxon Protestant) families in the Northeast were searching for a way to distinguish their “old-money” wealth from the rising tide of newly wealthy families. In an attempt to isolate themselves from those they deemed to be inferior, these privileged families established elite, private preparatory schools for their children (Khan 2011).
These new boarding schools shared a resemblance to the British preparatory school system and reflected the way in which WASPs in the Northeast sometimes imitated the norms of the British upper classes (Lingala 2013). The proliferation of these preparatory schools across the Northeast gave WASPs their own version of aristocracy that valued inheritance, family name, legacy, and “old-money” over all else. Not only were these schools designed to give the children of WASP families a high-quality education, but a central aspect of preparatory schools was that they isolated and sheltered children from the negative influences of the lower classes. Importantly, these prestigious preparatory schools served to create an “us vs. them” mentality among the elites, and over time these schools became a site in which the elites established social connections and formed a tight, private network that would serve them well in their futures.
After graduating from elite Northeastern preparatory schools such as St. Paul’s, Phillips Andover, or Phillips Exeter, many students went on to attend highly esteemed colleges and universities in New England. In particular, by the late nineteenth century, the vast majority of children from upper-class families in the Northeast attended Ivy League schools such as Harvard, Yale, and Princeton (Karabel 2014). These schools were founded during the colonial era and graduating from one of these schools was an important milestone within the WASP community. Generations of the most entrenched American families graduated from Ivy League schools, so naturally these schools represented the next stepping stone following the elite preparatory schools.
It is important to note that this conceptualization of preps and prep culture does not quite fit with the other subcultures that are included on this website. Most of the other subcultures on this site have a shared sense of marginalization from and resistance to a perceived “conventional” society (Haenfler 2014). As noted above, preps historically come from a background of privilege and wealth, and consequently wield considerable social and cultural capital in their interactions with society—a luxury that many of the other groups on this site do not have.
Much research has been done on marginalized, lower class groups, but it is also worthwhile to study more privileged and powerful groups and the ways that they navigate through society. Even though people who identify as preps may contribute to the marginalization of others (including members of the other subcultures studied in this website), this is precisely why it is valuable to more closely examine prep culture. As sociologists, the examination and interrogation of prep culture can perhaps teach us important lessons about things like elite deviance, the cultural reproduction of inequality, and the reproduction of class and class inequality.
Over time, students at these preparatory schools and Ivy League universities developed their own sense of fashion, later dubbed “preppy style.” This sense of style arose out of a shared sense of community among these students, who all came from similar familial backgrounds and social status (Karabel 2014). Furthermore, preppy style allowed students to further distinguish themselves from the lower classes.
Scholars believe that preppy style originally developed on Northeastern college campuses, where high-end brands such as J. Press and Brooks Brothers opened up stores and began to target the WASP students who comprised a large portion of the student body (Gentleman’s Gazette 2016). Specifically, these companies developed clothes such as the polo shirt that were designed for the traditional New England leisurely past-times of sailing, fencing, rowing, tennis, golf, and polo.
The popularity of sportswear around college campuses began to grow in the years following World War I. During this time, students developed a sense of style that combined athletic clothes with the traditional, classy look favored by many WASP students (De la Chapelle and Banks 2011). The sportswear fashion symbolized masculinity, strength, and leadership among male students, and items such as boat shoes and tennis polo shirts were critical to this style. Sportswear quickly staked its claim as the preferred leisure style for WASP students (Clemente 2008).
Besides sportswear, some important aspects of the preppy look are conservatism, attention to detail, wearing the “right” brand, androgyny, and layering (Lurie 1981). Preppy style has historically been characterized by name brands such as Ralph Lauren, L.L. Bean, J. Press, and Brooks Brothers. These brands are known to be more expensive, and consequently their stores are most often frequented by members of the upper and upper-middle classes. Additionally, preppy clothes have long been typified by pastels and strong primary colors (Aldrich 1979). The preppy look has also been described as being understated, relaxed, casual, and sometimes bold (Gentleman’s Gazette 2016).
Over time, preppy fashion has slightly evolved. New brands such as Vineyard Vines have experienced great success in the New England area, as this company rapidly became synonymous with authentic preppy style. The modern preppy look is louder and bolder than ever before, with an increased emphasis on strong colors and floral patterns (Binkley 2007). However, while prep style still maintains its commitment to pastels and strong primary colors, such as Nantucket Red (a blend of red, salmon, and pink unique to preppy culture), preppy clothes nowadays are less boxy (Lockwood 2011). Some particular clothing items that characterize the preppy look include blazers, polo shirts, madras and plaid flannel shirts, chinos, loafers, and boat shoes. Overall, preppy style is thought to have an underlying nautical vibe (perhaps in recognition of prep’s East Coast roots).
In addition to the unique preppy style, preppy culture is also known to have a distinctive lifestyle and set of values. Historically, the preppy lifestyle is associated with life in an “old-money” family, a preparatory school upbringing, education in an Ivy League university, country club membership, and athletic participation, particularly in sports such as polo or sailing (Lingala 2013).
In her book The Official Preppy Handbook, Lisa Birnbach identifies consistency, nonchalance, charm, drinking, effortlessness, athleticism, discipline, and public spiritedness as the central tenets of the preppy value system (Birnbach 1981). According to Birnbach, preppies should demonstrate an air of nonchalance and indifference when it comes to money. Preppies typically grow up in an environment where they never have to worry about money, and this attitude towards wealth should continue through adolescence.
The preppy culture continues to remain influential even after graduation from elite preparatory schools and universities. The networks established during one’s time in school pays dividends well into adulthood, as preppies often utilize these connections to find well-regarded, high-paying jobs. Adult preppies play an important role in facilitating the reproduction of preppy culture through their own children. These children are instilled with the preppy lifestyle and preppy values from a young age and later enroll in elite preparatory schools, where the cycle is continued.
EVOLUTION OF PREP CULTURE
Over the years, preppy fashion expanded past its Northeastern preparatory school roots and was adopted by a more widespread community. This process began in the 1920s and 1930s, when films, magazines, and advertising started to publicize the “preppy look” that had come to be associated with the elites on college campuses. In an attempt to emulate these “glamorous” elites, young people of all social classes began to adopt the preppy style. This “fashionalization” of prep style continued to grow throughout the twentieth century and was a source of discontent among the old-money preps, who feared that their means of distinguishing their social status was being endangered (Lingala 2013).
Prep style reached its peak popularity in the 1980s after the publication of Lisa Birnbach’s seminal book on prep culture, The Official Preppy Handbook. Fashion brands such as Ralph Lauren quickly picked up on the prep craze and created clothing collections that were designed to emulate the old-money aristocracy and lifestyle. Thus, the preppy look was soon commercialized and mass marketed by retailers across the country, and members of the general public had direct access to traditional preppy clothes.
Due to the fashionalization and commercialization of prep style, the association between prep fashion and socioeconomic status has become more muddled (Lingala 2013). To some, prep style is still used as a means to distinguish social class and mark participation in a broader prep culture. Others believe that participation in prep fashion can also indicate social class aspirations, as people from lower social class backgrounds may adopt prep style to show their desire to participate in the preppy lifestyle. Overall, it is clear that prep style and socioeconomic status appear to be intertwined, although the exact nature of this relationship is still up for debate.
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Elite deviance & cultural reproduction of inequality
Due to their high social class status, preppies often receive the benefit of the doubt when it comes to deviance. In fact, simply due to their position at the top of the social hierarchy, preppies are likely to be perceived as more moral, upstanding, and honest than their lower-class peers (Chambliss 1973). This perception of preppies gives them more leeway when it comes to committing acts of deviance, as they are less likely to be assumed of perpetrating any wrongdoing and often face far less severe punishment for their actions. Meanwhile, their lower-class peers who commit the same acts of deviance face much stricter consequences and stigmatization. Members of the upper-class take advantage of their social and cultural capital to navigate their way through difficult situations in the adult world and play the system to their advantage.
Link to “Elite Deviance and White-Collar Crime” theory page on this website: https://haenfler.sites.grinnell.edu/elite-deviance-and-white-collar-crime/
Social reproduction of class
These elite preparatory schools often serve as a site for social class reproduction. The children of privileged and wealthy families make up a large portion of the student body at these elite schools. Due to their parents’ economic, social, and cultural capital, they have access to a high-quality education, which often translates into better employment opportunities in the future (Khan 2013). Additionally, these schools act as a place where students can form networks and make connections with people from similar, influential backgrounds. Consequently, these schools not only contribute to social class reproduction, but they also facilitate the cyclical nature of social class inequality. Children of upper class families retain their position atop the social class structure while children of lower social classes do not receive the same opportunities to improve their social status.
Author Lisa Birnbach discussing her newest book, True Prep, which acts as a sequel/updated version of her seminal 1980 book on prep culture, The Official Preppy Handbook.
A tutorial video on preppy fashion created by The Gentleman’s Gazette describing both the original and most iconic preppy styles as well as the newest trends.
This video gives an overview of the roots of preppy fashion, explores how preppy fashion has changed over the years, and discusses how preppy fashion intersects with popular preppy leisure activities.
Fashion editor gives advice on how to emulate the authentic preppy style.
“People Like Us” is a PBS documentary that provides insight into the differing expressions and inner workings of social class in the United States.
Link to the whole documentary: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nU5MtVM_zFs&list=PLC6D871A2A8C3C8EF
Baltzell, Edward Digby. 1987. The Protestant Establishment: Aristocracy & Caste in America. New Haven (Conn.): Yale University Press. Explores the rituals and lifestyles of the upper class in the United States, specifically within the white Anglo-Saxon Protestant community.
Birnbach, Lisa. 1981. The Official Preppy Handbook. New York: Workman Publishing. A seminal piece in prep culture that provides insight into the inner workings and rituals of the prep community. Originally written with a satirical bend, but many of the rituals and ideas discussed in the book have been claimed and accepted by insiders of the prep culture.
Jeffrey Banks and Doria de La Chapelle. 2011. Preppy: Cultivating Ivy Style. Rizzoli. Detailed look into the history and evolution of preppy fashion.
Karabel, Jerome. 2014. The Chosen: The Hidden History of Admission and Exclusion at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company. Historical overview of the relationship between Ivy League universities and members of the upper-class.
Lurie, Alison. 1981. The Language of Clothes. London: Bloomsbury Publishing. Explores the intricate relationship between one’s sense of style and their identity.
Chambliss, William J. 1973. “The Saints and the Roughnecks.” Society11(1):24–31. Case study of two groups of boys from the same town who act in a similar way but are perceived very differently by society due to differing levels of social and cultural capital.
Clemente, Deirdre. 2008. “Caps, Canes, and Coonskins: Princeton and the Evolution of Collegiate Clothing, 1900-1930.” Focuses on the history of prep fashion, specifically on Princeton University’s campus.
Khan, Shamus Rahman. 2011. “The New Elite.” in Privilege: The Making of an Adolescent Elite at St. Paul’s School. Princeton University Press. Examines the history and culture surrounding elite preparatory schools in the Northeast.
Levine, Steven B. 1980. “The Rise of American Boarding Schools and the Development of a National Upper Class.” Social Problems28(1):63–94. Details the origin and early development of elite private boarding schools.
Lingala, Anu. 2013. “The Origin and Evolution of ‘Prep’ and Its Socioeconomic Relevance.” thesis. Broad overview of the history and origins of prep culture, the evolution of preppy fashion, and prep culture in the modern era.
Lockwood, Lisa. 2011. “A Marriage Made in Preppy Heaven.” Author Lisa Birnbach describes how prep fashion has changed and evolved in the years following the publication of her first book.
Aldrich, Nelson W. 1979. “Preppies: The Last Upper Class?” The Atlantic Monthly, January. The Ivy Style website provides an excerpt from Nelson Aldrich Jr.’s cover story about the manners and mores of the WASP establishment.
Anon. 2010. “The Evolution of Prep.” The Economist. Brief book review of Lisa Birnbach’s book, True Prep, which serves as an updated version of her seminal work, The Official Preppy Handbook.
Binkley, Christina. 2007. “Plaid Taste: The Return of the Preppy.” Quick update on how preppy style has changed and evolved in the years following the publication of Lisa Birnbach’s book The Official Preppy Handbook.
Hogan, Chris. 2017. “The Roots of American Preppy.” Men’s Flair Brief overview of the history of preppy culture, specifically looking at preparatory schools in the Northeast.
Steere, Mike. 2018. “Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Prep.” Ivy-Style.com. Blog post on the Ivy Style website detailing preppy fashion and style, written from the insider perspective of a prep.
Trebay, Guy. 2010. “Prep, Forward and Back.” The New York Times, July 23. Details the history of the study of prep fashion and describes a few important works in the history of this scholarship.