New School: The Evolution of Preppy Fashion
Recreational Habits / Provided
Preppy finds a new and appreciative audience that is moving on to something much more inclusive.
From cottagecore to the dark academy and everything in between, the internet’s appetite for “the aesthetic” – or defining your style personality through the visual subculture you identify with the most – s’ is sometimes felt insatiable.
But there is a classic look that has found its way back into the limelight, one of those heritage trends going round in circles, and now being embraced by a new generation who want to dress like “new money.” – the 2021 version of preppy.
Since its popularization in the 1980s, the preppy look has been inspired by the attire of those who attended private – or preparatory – schools in the United States. Key wardrobe items quickly became symbols of wealth, distinction and prestige.
Impeccable shirts, cashmere sweaters, chinos, corduroy pants, monograms, cardigans, wool blazers, cardigans and moccasins are all hallmarks of this look, and are also, incidentally, what fashion likes to declare as “the classics” .
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Since the 1980s, the popularity of the preppy has evolved, generally acting as a kind of backlash against the maximalist tendencies that came before it. But this time around, the BCBG comeback is different.
There are the markers expected of a comeback: the wardrobe of the Gossip Girl remake, the tailoring of designer Thom Browne worn by Ella Emhoff, a new generation’s obsession with Princess Diana’s style (although ‘she is actually Sloane-y, a British version of the preppy).
But preppy also recognizes its own (monogrammed) baggage. It might be “classic,” but its emphasis on the style of the privileged generally offered a fairly narrow and white point of view. If the preppy is considered a matter of “good taste”, who owns the taste?
In a viral TikTok video, Anna of the Dead Hollywood account explained why she found the overhaul of the “old money” aesthetic so boring. “It’s the absence of something,” she commented, reflecting on her legacy of racism and fatphobia. “It is the absence of flesh, the absence of Darkness, the absence of extravagance.”
This questioning is valid. But it’s important to note that various “new waves” of BCBG have pushed back or overturned these typical ideals. New cult brands such as Rowing Blazers, Noah and Recreational Habits reflect a subversive or ironic approach to traditional preparation.
The latter was started earlier this year by husband and wife Marlon Muller and Jackie Skye Muller, who purposely wanted to recognize the elitism and exclusivity story of the preppy aesthetic and make it inclusive.
“We believe that all people, whatever their color, should be able to enjoy the joys of sport and recreation, from horseback riding to golf, hospitality and galas,” they wrote to About the brand. “Our hope is to reverse the unspoken prejudices of country clubs and shamelessly rewrite the rules.”
Black communities have often drawn on the aesthetics of BCBG in acts of cultural reconquest. Coming book Black Ivy: a stylish revolt by Jason Jules explores how black culture has reinvented and subverted the Ivy look. Some of the more prominent examples include Boyz II Men, Pharrell Williams, and Kanye West during his College Dropout era.
In the ’80s and’ 90s, Ralph Lauren, a brand that helped define a specific look of American readiness and wealth, attracted a subculture known as Lo Lifes – young people from Brooklyn who were flying to the display of their favorite designer stores. Kiwi photographer Tom Gould, who recently shot a campaign for Polo Ralph Lauren in Aotearoa, published a book, Bury me with the Lo On, chronicling the influence of Lo Life on hip-hop style and culture.
Today, rapper Tyler, The Creator has an influential preppy-inspired look that is reflected in his clothing brand Golf Wang, which plays with preppy sportswear roots. With its playful colors and oversized shapes, it’s a modern take on the ‘aspirational’ class aesthetic – and the key to wearing preppy in a way that feels fresh again.