Lisa Birnbach's 1980 book Official Preppy Handbook was written to poke fun at the rich lives of privileged Ivy League and socially elite liberal arts college students but it ended up becoming a bible for many.
Preppy fashion for men has its roots with the Ivy style of dress which originated in the early 1900s and had become widespread by the 1950s. The style was inspired by leisure activities commonly enjoyed by the upper classes such as polo and lacrosse. The sportswear associated with them was adapted into everyday wear. As a result, it incorporated aspects of British country clothing such as tweed sports coats. There then came an emergence of more casual and youthful interpretations such as rugby shirts and boat shoes.
The men’s clothier J.Press represented the quintessential purveyor of Ivy style and opened its first store on Yale university campus in 1912. For reasons both academic and societal, Princeton in particular had the right demographic mix to be the Ivy League trendsetter. It was a place where personal style thrived, within certain parameters.
"When you think about prep, one of the big elements is the disconnection of the suit. And what do you see the boys at Princeton doing? They're the first to break apart the suit and make it stylish." - Deirdre Clements, material culture historian. And so, casualwear was born: Once you break apart the suit , you're able to mix and match.
By the mid 20th century both J.Press and Brooks Brothers had stores at Harvard, Princeton, Columbia and Yale, dressing all the young men who attended.
During the 1950s, there was conflict between ‘Squares’ with their Ivy League clothes and their rivals, the working class Greasers. This conflict has been featured in films such as Grease, The Outsiders, Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull and Cry-Baby.
Ivy style for women has a different history. In 1937, Life magazine posted an article about what the girls at Ivy League sister college Vassar were wearing- tweed skirts, men’s Brooks Brothers sweaters, polo coats and tennis shoes.
It wasn’t until 1949 that Brooks Brothers sold its first garment designed for women, a pink Oxford-cloth button-down. Many female students saw the Ivy League Look as a means of outwardly affirming their right to be in this exclusive, selective and respected academic world.
By the 1950s, Vassar women had adopted their own unofficial campus uniform: Bermuda shorts (madras or Black Watch tartan), knee socks, loafers, Brooks Brothers oxford shirt, topped with a classic Vassar blazer, Shetland sweater or cashmere twin set.
“Ultimately, the definitive 1950s Vassar Girl uniform began to dissipate with the dawn of the ’60s. Much like the demise of its central inspiration, the Ivy League Look, classic Vassar style was considered anachronistic and irrelevant by students by the late ’60s. By the time the school went fully co-educational in 1969, skirts were no longer required for dinner, the Bermuda short was replaced by denim, and the preppy, privileged Vassar look was disregarded as a sign of an old-school elitism undesirable in Vassar’s new, more egalitarian, co-ed environment. The 1950s really was the golden age of iconic Vassar style, and probably the last time you could spot a Vassar girl by her Bermudas”. — REBECCA C. TUITE, author of ‘Seven Sisters Style’.
Take Ivy is a 1965 fashion photography book which documents the attire of Ivy League students of the 1960s. Take Ivy has been the Ivy League bible for Japanese baby boomers and has also influenced a "neo-Ivy" style in recent years.
Ivy style dropped off in the late 60s but was picked up again in the 1980s, with the likes of Ralph Lauren bringing in a resurgence of the style and launched it again into the mainstream, this time known as ‘Preppy’ (from preparatory school). It wasn’t just a style for old-money elites anymore. J.Crew and Vineyard Vines were large marketers of preppy clothing in the 90s and 2000s. Other retailers that have become associated with the style include L.L.Bean, Orvis and Eddie Bauer.
The line between Ivy and Preppy is somewhat blurred but preppy tends to involve more colour and casual wear than the more traditional Ivy, which can also be referred to as ‘American Trad’.
We take a look at the history of the preppy brand J.Crew below.
Mitchell Cinader and Saul Charles founded low-price women’s clothing business Popular Merchandise Inc. (Popular Club Plan) in 1947, selling clothing direct to consumers in homes. They did well throughout the 50s, 60s and 70s.
Catalogue retail giants like Land’s End, Talbots, and L.L.Bean saw booming sales in the 1980s. Popular Merchandise decided to initiate its own catalogue operation, focusing on leisurewear for upper-middle customers. Mitchell’s son Arthur (Yale medical school dropout) and granddaughter Emily took over the brand, with Emily designing and Arthur marketing. It changed its name to J.Crew in 1983. Each year the company issued 24 editions of the J.Crew catalogue, distributing more than 80 million copies.
They became known for the same American preppy style that Ralph Lauren had popularized, but more basic and more affordable.
J.Crew opened its first store, in Manhattan, in 1989.
In 1991, they expanded to Canada and in 1992 to Japan and Europe.
In 1998, the Cinader’s sold most of the company to a private equity firm.
The Globe and Mail noted that “there was a time when J. Crew was King. When millions of devoted customers fished monthly catalogues from their mailboxes that carefully outlined in an aspirational and approachable way, how to dress – loose and casual, with an Oxford shirt always on standby – and how to live – on the East Coast, preferably seaside. It sold a life and style originally modelled on the prep school fashions of the British aristocracy.”
Jenna Lyons took over in 2008 and made it even more desirable. The Business Insider noted: “What made Lyons' aesthetic so unusual at the time was its embrace of contrasts: masculine and feminine, expensive and affordable, nerdy and cool.”
The brand also unveiled the Ludlow suit in 2008 and it took over menswear for a time, being perfectly on trend when Mad Men was all the rage.
It had reached its heyday by this point, having garnered “a reputation for being one of America's most iconic brands, successfully toeing the line between preppy and cool and garnering the admiration of everyone from celebrities like Gwyneth Paltrow to former U.S. First Lady Michelle Obama.”
It opened its first international store in Yorkdale, Toronto, in 2011.
Sales started to slump in the 2010s and prices went up, aiming for a high fashion appeal, which alienated a lot of its customers.
By the time the coronavirus pandemic came around, it was time’s up for J.Crew and it closed many of its stores and filed for bankruptcy.
Now, under new management things are beginning to look up again for the iconic American brand.