Preppy is both an American adjective and an American noun, while prep is only an American noun, traditionally used in relation to Northeastern private university-preparatory schools and denotes a person seen as characteristic of an attendee or alumnus of these schools. The noun prep has become a colloquialism in the United States and has largely replaced the noun preppy. Characteristics of preps include a particular subcultural speech, vocabulary, dress, mannerisms, etiquette, and accent reflective of an upper-class, Northeastern upbringing.
The term preppy derives from the expensive pre-college preparatory or prep schools that American upper-class and upper-middle-class children in the Northeastern states sometimes attend. The term is commonly associated with the Ivy League and oldest universities in the Northeast, since traditionally a primary goal in attending a prep school was admittance into one of these institutions. Lisa Birnbach's 1980 book Official Preppy Handbook, which was written to poke fun at the rich lives of privileged East Coast college students but ended up glamorizing the culture, portrays the preppy social group as well-educated, well-connected, and although exclusive, courteous to other social groups without fostering serious relationships with them. Being well-educated and well-connected reflects their upper-class status, a socioeconomic status that encourages attributes leading to higher education and professional success with a high income.
The term prep is particularly well-known among Americans, since most middle-class Americans are introduced to the subculture in high school. However, high school preps found in middle-class communities in the United States differ from traditional East Coast preps. The usage of prep and preppy in American high schools is used to refer to a fashion choice, rather than the preppy lifestyle associated with traditional, Northeastern preps. Unlike traditional Northeastern preps who come from upper-class families, high school preps are often from the middle-class and may or may not be from an upper-class background. Furthermore, high school preps are found throughout the United States, rather than being localized to the Northeast. Hollywood films of the 1980s, such as John Hughes' Sixteen Candles, Pretty in Pink, and The Breakfast Club, characterized high school preps of the 1980s, who are depicted as a shallow and transparent group primarily concerned with extrinsic things. It was in this same decade that the aforementioned Official Preppy Handbook was published, which focused more on the traditional preps.
Preppy fashion started around 1912 to the late 1940s and 1950s as the Ivy League style of dress. J. Press represents the quintessential preppy clothing brand, stemming from the collegiate traditions that shaped the preppy subculture. In the mid-twentieth century J. Press and Brooks Brothers, both being pioneers in preppy fashion, had stores on Ivy League school campuses, including Harvard, Princeton, and Yale.
Some typical preppy styles also reflect traditional upper class New England leisure activities, such as equestrian, sailing or yachting, hunting, fencing, rowing, lacrosse, tennis, golf, and rugby. Longtime New England outdoor outfitters, such as L.L. Bean and the recently-revived brand Madewell, became part of conventional preppy style. This can be seen in sport stripes and colours, equestrian clothing, plaid shirts, field jackets and nautical-themed accessories. Vacationing in Palm Beach, Florida, long popular with the East Coast upper class, led to the emergence of bright colour combinations in leisure wear seen in some brands such as Lilly Pulitzer. By the 1980s, other brands such as Lacoste, Izod and Dooney & Bourke became associated with preppy style.
For professional women, preppy-influenced fashions became dominant beginning in the 1960s, a trend led by designers such as Perry Ellis, and influenced by designers such as Oleg Cassini. The classic ensembles often seen worn by professional women in East Coast cities and elsewhere include tailored skirt suits, low heels, wrap dresses, shift dresses, silk or cotton blouses, and jewelry with a refined style. Such clothing often includes elements drawn from typical preppy style, such as nautical stripes, pastel colours, or equestrian details. Some "cultural icons" of preppy style for professional women include Audrey Hepburn, Grace Kelly, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, and 20th century New York socialites Gloria Guinness, Babe Paley, Slim Keith, and C. Z. Guest, all women whose style is often referenced by designers.
In recent years, newer outfitters such as Ralph Lauren, J. Crew, Vineyard Vines, and Elizabeth McKay are also frequently perceived as having preppy styles, with designers such as Marc Jacobs and Luella Bartley adding the preppy style into their clothes in the 1990s. New York City maintains itself as the headquarters for most preppy clothing lines, such as J. Press, Brooks Brothers, Daniel Cremieux, Ralph Lauren, and Kate Spade New York, underscoring preppy subculture as a reflection of Northeastern culture.
Examples of preppy attire include argyle sweaters, crewneck sweaters, grosgrain or woven leather belts, chinos, madras, Nantucket Reds, button down Oxford cloth shirts, seersucker cotton suiting, pearl necklaces and earrings, gold bangle or large chain bracelets, loafers, and boat shoes.
- Dictionary.com definition of 'preppy'
- Colman, David (17 June 2009). "The All-American Back From Japan". The New York Times.
- Fashion Encyclopedia article
- The true roots of preppy
- Elements of Fashion and Apparel Design. New Age Publishers. p. 25. ISBN 81-224-1371-4. "Ivy League: A popular look for men in the fifties that originated on such campuses as Harvard, Priceton [sic] and Yale; a forerunner to the preppie look; a style characterized by button down collar shirts and pants with a small buckle in the back."
- Zlotnick, Sarah (February 24, 2012). "Your cheat sheet to preppy style". The Washingtonian.
- Peterson, Amy T., and Ann T. Kellogg (2008). The Greenwood Encyclopedia of Clothing Through American History 1900 to the Present: 1900–1949. ABC-CLIO. p. 285. ISBN 9780313043345.
- Peter R. Eisenstadt, Laura-Eve Moss, ed. (2005). The Encyclopedia of New York State. Syracuse University Press. p. 550. ISBN 9780815608080.
- MacDonell, Nancy (2007). In the Know: The Classic Guide to Being Cultured and Cool. Penguin. p. No page. ISBN 9781440619762.
- "The preppy look a brief history". Retrieved 25 April 2012.