Can Preppy Clothing Thrive In the Trump Era?
Fashion insiders see the revival of prep clothing coming, but it carries a troubling history for this era.
An image from the Noah lookbook, courtesy of Noah.
The moment is here. Yes, years from now, you will draw near to you the cyborg grandchildren birthed with twelve drops of Lil Miquela’s essence, and activate the “listen to your elders about the old times” feature, and say: “It was late August, 2018, when…the prep revival…began.”
As GQ wrote today, “The Great Preppy Style Comeback Has Begun.” And indeed, the prep revival has been bubbling for months. It began on the racks of cult menswear brand Noah, which has been churning out boat-y stripes and seersucker suits for the past few years, and then collaborated with Sperry at the beginning of the summer. Wall Street Journal men’s fashion editor Jacob Gallagher tweeted diagnostically that this collaboration signaled that “the first stage has been completed in the prep revival campaign.” Then he added, “Taking Back Ivy.”
(Now you chuckle like we’re in a secret club at Yale, drinking the blood of an innocent show dog.)
This past week, preppy was served refined and on the rocks, like one of Scotland’s richest drams. (Listen…it’s the end of August.) Our own Chris Black wrote about a Take Ivy shirt (omg), Jonah Hill wore a striped polo shirt (omg!), and Noah dropped a lookbook that resembles a cross between the glory days of the Abercrombie & Fitch magazine and a boarding school’s admissions brochure: pearls, calico, and people sitting around looking very pristine but so fun. Like a moth to a pile of evil flames on the internet, Gallagher returned to Twitter to declare that “the prep comeback [is] racing towards us like a runaway freight train.”
Nothing scares me like an unpredictable train. But the idea that people are ready to jump back into all these preppy basics gives me pause, as they’d teach you to say at cotillion. The style, after all, is inextricably linked to whiteness; it carries a tangled legacy of attempting to spin whiteness as an eccentricity, in which you wear Easter egg-colored pants (like the infamous “go to hell pants”) because you are goofy and fun but also due to the fact that you are so firmly ensconced in the realm of privilege that you can actually afford to look like an idiot. Prep clothing also has another disturbing, more contemporary angle: the Fred Perry polo was adapted by the alt-right as an almost official uniform, and several people, most recently journalist Matthew Zeitlin, have tweeted that Steve Bannon “personally killed the Barbour jacket,” a preppy staple since Diana the paparazzi huntress first uttered the words “steeplechase race.”
GQ wrote that the new prep—led by Noah but also evident in brands from Supreme to Acne—includes streetwear details and roomy silhouettes, and it should also be noted that Noah’s lookbook includes a racially diverse selection of models, rather than the blinding whiteness we’d typically associate with, say, Abercrombie. More specifically, “prep” historically means very well made clothing in straightforward cuts—often not very expensive—in prints and colors that are sunny and even a little silly. It means enough ease and confidence that you can wear a belt covered in little whales and expect that everyone will take seriously your thoughts on dividend payout ratios. It means you love things that look fussy, but are actually very easy to wear and move in; that’s the secret to every cool thing Princess Diana ever wore. With that in mind, it dovetails nicely with the fanaticism for streetwear, which is often cheap, funny, and obsessed with codes that outsiders just don’t understand (the cover of The Preppy Handbook included the quote: “Look, Muffy, a book for us”).
But why are we so eager to cover ourselves in clothing associated with unquestioned privilege, racism, and even fascism? A similar dynamic is at play with Dad Fashion: somehow, the uniform of the most maligned social category in the world—straight white men—is being blithely appropriated by the fashion crowd, with no apparent sense of mirth or irony. Then again, as Sun Tzu writes in The Art of War, you must don the high-water chino of your enemy to undermine his worst impulses. (Or whatever.) Is the prep revival ironic, or do its proponents hope to shake the garments of their sorry history and use their ubiquity as a channel for a larger message? Noah offers a clue: its varsity scarf features not the name of an enviable Ivy League alma mater but the words, “HUMAN RIGHTS.” Only time will tell whether “go to hell pants” could soon be a rallying cry directed at the monster who brought us Trump and took away the wax-cotton jacket.