by Réginald-Jérôme de Mans
A recent conversation with Ivy revisionist Berkeley Breathes led to me a revelation. The relationship between Prep and Ivy, I epiphanized, is that of birds and dinosaurs. Just as my mom’s evil African Grey who used to eye me balefully was the collateral heir to the thunderous hundred-foot-long Ninjatitan zapatai (they did it, they really gave an animal the scientific name Ninjatitan, so prep is the existing offshoot of a look that otherwise died in the 1970s, or 65 million years ago in fashion years. Existing Ivy exponents are no dead clade walking, but as authentic as rumored plesiosaurs subsisting in Loch Ness: impossible, ridiculous and fascinating latter-day inventions. What actually and organically has continued to evolve following the death of Ivy is messier, sloppier and more casual, less precise and thus more adaptable… and may even owe its survival to its adoption and adaptation by American’s most important designer, Ralph Lauren.
There’s a lot to unpack from the free-with-purchase-at-these-fine stores Polo-branded baggage of the above paragraph. As I’ve written in earlier pieces, reading Richard Press’s Threading the Needle and the interesting if misbegotten Ivy Style museum exhibition monograph helped sharpen the picture of what Ivy style is perceived to be now (the old Take Ivy book helped provide a more contemporary picture of it at the time that Ivy was on its last legs). Youthful as it purported to be (its very name localized it to college years at privileged college campuses), Ivy still included aspirations to a kind of maturity: grown-up clothes in the form of tailored jackets, and sobriety’s leash itself, the necktie. Even if decades ago such clothes could exist in more casual registers by nature of their materials or patterns (J. Press’s famous tweeds, for instance), they existed as prescribed forms of uniform at prep schools and (at least as a de facto uniform) universities at midcentury. From the 1960s, student rebellions of various forms threw off such uniforms among young people. At my own prep school, legend had it that protestors against the old coat-and-tie uniform even came to school naked (this was several years before it also went co-ed). Legend? I suppose if I had wanted to investigate, I could have asked teachers who had been at the school since shortly after graduating from it in 1952, or the octogenarian who had taught there 60 years straight since 1929.
The death of a frankly prosaic tailored uniform opened up two planes of possibility: one for the more casual sorts of Ivy play clothes that younger students had worn that were less restrictive and less costly than tailored clothes; and another plane of imaginary romance and dash for myths to write themselves. Ralph strode in and straddled them both, and preps welcomed him. No more did the privileged student have to order jackets from LL Bean or Barbour, piqué shirts from Lacoste and loafers from Bass or Brooks Brothers in New York. Instead, Ralph’s shop-in-shops in better department stores across the country offered a one-stop experience for an entire look immersed in the sort of generalized Anglophilia and muddy horsiness (from the brand name Polo on down) that put America’s aspirational middle classes at ease in their social insecurities.
1980’s The Preppy Handbook gave us an informative snapshot of its time and this attitude: Polo items infiltrated the various shots of preppy accoutrements, as do the various carefree, confident corner-cutting that began to mark its difference from dead Ivy: moccasins held together with duct tape and a lack of any care about fit, and later, provenance: the book points out to us to notice the sloppy hemming job on a grown-up Prep’s suit pants, and tells us the credentials of former Prep hall-of-famer Lisa Halaby are now in question for marrying a man “whose blazers fit perfectly”: the incredibly elegant, Camps de Luca-clad King Hussein of Jordan. Preps were happy to wear Izod’s licensed Lacoste shirts instead of the original, and over the decades to wear Ralph as he expanded into a brand supported (according to biographer Michael Gross) by its outlets, and later Ralph pastiches like Tommy Hilfiger. The populations wearing prep changed in appearance: prep schools themselves became somewhat more inclusive, at least in appearance, and other populations appropriated aspects of the look that Ralph popularized, even if old curmudgeons like Lewis Lapham missed no opportunity to sneer at Ralph for now making expensive copies of traditional garments in cheap factories.
I used to share that rather snobbish sentiment, before realizing that for better or worse Ralph captured all the problematic romance of nostalgia without the boredom of latter-day Ivy irredentists, arguing over details of collar roll and shoulder construction irrelevant to everyone but themselves. One writer in the Ivy Style monograph suggested that Ralph started his business in reaction to seeing Brooks Brothers (where he had sold ties) losing its way. Rather, both Ralph and Brooks Brothers were reacting to changing times that killed Ivy as anything but a historical look. Ralph moved into fantasy, bringing elements of 1930s English dandyism (too flamboyant for Ivy to have espoused even in an abdicated, morganatic manner) and of other senses of loss: lost colonial empires through exotic and safari imagery and lost WASP fortunes and heritage in the decoration and presentation of his boutiques, most infamously in the conversion of Manhattan’s Rhinelander Mansion into his New York flagship. His boutiques around the world followed its inspiration. Even if their décor was ersatz copies of its old wood, the Ralph Lauren staff knew how to trigger that strange sense of transport which is momentary acceptance in prep enclaves, like when a beblazered boys’ chorus began singing carols in the gallery of one boutique during our holiday browsing.
He made prep more interesting, more visible and accessible, and more new than its traditional retailers had. In the beginning, at least, he probably kept some in business, too. Such is the case with an amazing vintage handmade Fair Isle sweater, made in Britain for Ralph Lauren in traditional wool with traditional heathered colors… and metallic lurex, more commonly associated with punks, giving it gold highlights. A deep dive looking for handmade Fair Isle sweaters turned up this example (a Scottish knitter friend told me that if I wanted a new handknit sweater, I had better pick up “a pair of pins” myself, since even one of the famous handknitters was photographed using Shima knitting machines). It made one of the staples of prep (as the distant, extant vestige of Ivy) novel, arresting, yet coherent. Even if, 35 years on, the Ralph Lauren empire has retrenched, its brand and manufacturing approaches called into question, what he does today is still the heir to the best, or most redeemable, of what prep was.