Living in New Zealand after being brought up in New England, I am occasionally asked to explain this thing called “preppy.”And I am reminded of how happy I was, myself, to leave preppy style behind.
From the ages of seven to eighteen, my home was a small town just bordering New Haven, CT. New Haven is the demarcation line between NYC suburbs and “real New England”, as indicated by my family’s bitter inter-sibling rift between being New York Yankees fans and Red Sox fans. My svelte British mom liked New Haven’s Georgian colonial flavor, the brick and shale and clapboard buildings, the streamlined, classic clothes – the look called preppy that is well described here as “British inspired New England styling“. J. Press, the Yale Co-Op (which was its own small department store with in-house clothing brands until the 1990s), and Laura Ashley were just the thing for the tennis lessons and beach club visits.
Today, preppy styles have been given slimline makeovers and an ironic wink, and there are lots of preppy aficionados – even the Preppy Handbook has been updated. The web page for that update, True Prep, is a preppy primer. Pastels, madras, and tailoring take over the streets of Nantucket in the summer. On the Boston sidewalks, every other person is preppy, and the look leaks down all the way to Washington D.C. According to True Prep, there are now new-prep variants across the country, from Lily Pulitzer southern belles to dignified Northwestern polarfleece. It seems easier for men, somehow, and easier to subvert today (if you’re read right). Lisa Birnbaum’s witty interview here sums up the subdued ethos of preppiness very well. “Grey and navy, navy and grey, pink and navy…”
All well and good. For me, as a teenager in the 80s, before the ironic makeover, preppy style in its 80s apotheosis made me think I hated clothes.
I took after my dad’s side of the family physically, with an Eastern European chassis. My cheeks, hips, chest – everything, really – curved. My hair waved and tousled, neither preppy straight nor 80s full, in the years before straighteners. I tried to be a hip ’80s New England teen. Disastrously. Shoelaces with hearts on them (mine had frogs, so wrong), a Ralph Lauren polo, and a Le Sportsac bag. L.L. Bean snow boots in season. A Laura Ashley dress for everyone else’s bar and bat mitzvahs when I was 13. But the pinks and blues and boxiness of 80s wear in New England meant that clothes were just another way for me to be a dork – until I discovered vintage clothing.
Ah, those 80s vintage clothing stores, full of lost treasures. Whatever happened to the burnt-orange 60s evening gown I picked up for a song? The quasi-Chanel 50s suit that even my mom agreed was a good idea? I still have a few pieces of Victoriana from those days, and a retro 40s tilt topper that has since done duty on many a model’s head.
The next step in my style evolution was leaving New England. I relocated to the Philadelphia area. Yes, preppies still roamed, herding onto the Paoli Local R5 commuter train in beige trench coats. But it wasn’t mandatory. Philadelphia Freedom meant never having to wear a polo shirt again. In 1990, I bought a leather jacket on South Street and never looked back. Henceforth it was all admiring ladies in church hats, Mummers, and clothes from Zipperhead. I spent the 90s after work in sunflower sundresses and boots, polka-dot hot pants, leopard-print leggings from Contempo Casuals, and slinky oddments from the $20 sale bin at Betsey Johnson. Life got interesting to match the clothes – one memorable evening, I got smuggled into a voguing ball – though I never made it to one of Henri David’s Halloween balls. I’m thinking about the clothes now, but at the time, they were almost incidental, so much was going on.
And then, at 28, I moved to New Zealand…