The Official Preppy Handbook was first published in 1980. It celebrated (and also poked fun at) a way of dressing, and indeed living, that had been established for decades on the elite US university campuses.
The fetishizing of the smart-casual lifestyles of well-to-do, conservative college kids continues to this day: forty years on from the Handbook, Preppy is a defining menswear code of 2020 - not just Over There, but here, too, where boat shoes worn for reasons other than boating, turned-up chinos and colourful polo shirts, signet rings and V-neck sweaters, are once again objects of desire not only for the comfortably middle aged, but among the cutting-edge jeunesse doree, too.
Fashion’s chin-stroking sociologists will no doubt diagnose multiple psychopathologies behind this development. But there’s no great secret to it: in this discomfiting year, when so many of us have found ourselves marooned at home feeling, well, discomfited, what could be more appealing than slipping into one of the most approachable styles of the pre-Covid twentieth century, a golden age during which — as all young people know — everyone was attractive and wealthy and nothing ever went wrong?
The zenith of Preppy might be thought to be the early Sixties, when Preppy icon JFK was in the White House. (Kennedy was a Catholic Democrat, of course, rather than a WASP Republican, but he did look great on a yacht.)
It’s had its moments in the shade since then — it looked pretty square a decade later, when the Hippy roamed the earth — but Preppy staged a comeback in the Eighties, when tasselled loafers were pressed to the pedals of Porsche convertibles without a hint of shame, or irony; adolescents wore blazers without being bribed to do so; and the playing of lacrosse was — very briefly — not regarded as likely to accelerate the preconditions for violent revolution.
It’s that version of Preppy that has made an unscheduled return, revving its engine like the chiselled villain from an Eighties teen movie, a pastel sweater tossed over its shoulders and loosely knotted at the chest, like a cashmere cape.
Among menswear aficionados the new-look Preppy is referred to as Neo-Prep or Prep 2.0. This suggests a major overhaul when in fact it’s had not much more than a gentle refresh.
A new class of labels offer, with a worshipful tip of the sunhat to classic preppy brands — Ralph Lauren, Lacoste et al — a slightly bolder take on the established essentials: slogan sweats, rugby shirts, button-downs, polos, chinos, stripes and checks. Just a few of the young names making the running: Noah, Aime Leon Dore, Rowing Blazers, Ami, Maison Kitsune.
I think a bit of Preppy, old or new, is just dandy in a man’s wardrobe. One doesn’t want to go about with the name of an American university one has never visited, let alone studied at, emblazoned across one’s chest, but a smart sweatshirt worn over a button-down, chinos and loafers: what’s not to tolerate?
One note of caution to the Preppy Brit: the aforementioned pullover slung over the shoulders is the sort of thing best left, old sport, to our more Gatsbyish cousins on the other side of the Atlantic. Even if you graduated summa cum laude from Yale, you can’t expect to get away with that.
Alex Bilmes is editor in chief of Esquire.