Monday, February 13, 2012

How to play the prep thing

To anyone with sufficient cubic footage to the cranium, it is readily apparent that Preppy is back. In its popular manifestations, there will be differences from the last time Preppy was visible on the public radar. To the hardcore, true-believer, diehard none of this will make any sense, because preppy never went away, at least not in civilized enclaves, like, say, my house.

One big, huge, humongous difference...the paradigmatic shift that tells the world "that was then, this is now" is Ralph Lauren's Polo. 25 years ago, the last time we had popular culture invaded by the tasteful and well-bred, Polo was the teeniest blip on the prep-o-graph. Now, it takes the placeS once occupied by Brooks Brothers and LL Bean. If, 25 years ago, someone had said "X dresses so preppy!" you would have visualized Brooks Brothers and/or LL Bean. Today you would imagine that person clad, from sole to crown, in Ralph's finery. This has allowed RL to amass an impressive empire, slowly eroding prep market share, not only from Brooks Brothers and LL Bean, but Lands' End, Jos. A Bank's and others. Some other competitors moved into seriously hardcore prepwear, the kind of stuff that separates the real deal from the wannabe. J. Press & Andover shop spring to mind.

Other places just junked the whole prep market and went for the jugular of the suburban, semi-affluent teen...like Abercrombie & Fitch, which has forsaken its original clientele with a marketing approach that would have made Robert Mapplethorpe delirious with longing.

Anyway, the point of today's entry is that it is very easy to overdo the prep thing and become, frankly, a caricature. Much of that is attitude. If you wear, f'rinstance, chinos with some embroidered motif, you must do so with the clear understanding--and broadcast as such--that these are perfectly ridiculous. These garments exemplify and make public and tickle your sense of whimsy. Same for madras pants (comfortable as they are in the swelter of a SoFla summer) or Nantucket Reds. The arriviste will have done the above with a sense of seriousness, the same sense of seriousness you see in people who disfigure their appearance with, for example, Versace apparel. The truly clueless arriviste, will mix and match. Memo to the C.A.: If you wish to attempt to dress preppy, it helps to have some preppy friends, to serve as a reference point. Polo, in spite of the myriad high-quality products, is not the arbiter of taste or preppiness. Nobody wears a crewneck sweater around his waist with a business suit with an untucked shirt with galoshes and with dreadlocks. Trust me.

Another aspect that distinguishes the true-blue from the fakey-doo is the age of the garments. Preppy clothing is of utterly unimpeachable quality and, since it will always be stylish, it will last almost forever. Attempts to emulate this have been rampant with "stonewashed" this and "distressed" that. This, in the long run, will fail to work. Cheap stuff pre-beat up will never look the same as really good stuff you have had for eons. As Poppy will testify, it is very possible to have numerous items still on active wardrobe rotation after 20 years. Like the buttondown in which I am arrayed.

The easiest step in which to make a misstep will come in the form of paisley. Paisley is thoroughly acceptable, in concept. The catch is that you have to make sure it is a tasteful, discreet paisley. That is, if you can tell it's a paisley from more than 10'/3m away, then you should ditch it. Paisley pairs up best with other subtle details...like a tight, muted glen plaid and a very quietly pinstriped shirt.

Lastly, avoid the ridiculous. The ridiculous will inevitably come in the form of pathetic tartans. It always does. Once you see tartans everywhere, the end is nigh.

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