American Ivy: Chapter 5
What is class?
This chapter might be my favorite. Because now we get into the 70s/80s… this moment when Ivy becomes Preppy.
(By the way! Look what New York Magazine is telling you to do! Congratulations on already doing it.)
So. The word “preppy” had been around for a long time (in the elite, closed circles of Prep Schools), but “preppy” starts to enter common parlance in the 70’s. And largely, this is attributed to its use in the book and movie called Love Story:
Love Story came out in 1970. And shortly after that, in 1972, Ralph Lauren comes out with the prep-defining garment. The one that would make the preppy look distinct from ivy. The so-called Polo shirt.
The thing that really cracks me up is that the “Polo” shirt is technically a tennis shirt (it was originally created by tennis player Jean René Lacoste in the 20’s). It’s just that Ralph Lauren named his brand after a different sport. Technically the shirt for polo would have been the oxford cloth button-down. Ha.
So the Preppy look was evolving and changing from Ivy. But the interesting thing about Preppy, as opposed to Ivy, is that it really is about a more complete lifestyle. It’s not just about clothing. It’s not just about college. Preppy-ness is a certain cohesive philosophy. And it was truly spelled out definitively and publicly for the first time in a little book called The Preppy Handbook.
This book is amazing, as a piece of anthropology. Look at this.
Yes, it’s very much about fashion. But it’s also about how a preppy, upper-middle class, elite-educated person would spend their free time. What sports they would play, what food they would eat, what turns of phrase they would use, what books and magazines they would read. The Preppy Handbook basically offered up all the cheat codes for this entire way of life.
There was this whole rash of knockoff handbooks afterwards, and they’re just as funny as they are odious. Like 'I’ve encountered the Yuppie Handbook, the Jewish American Princess Handbook, and the Jewish American Prince Handbook. Lol.
And this was all very much a part of the zeitgeist in the 80’s, when there was a lot of discussion about class and money more broadly.
In the 70s and into the 80s, financial innovations like the Money Market Mutual Fund made wealth and business success seem like something attainable— maybe even meritocratic. There were ads on TV all the time like this
And while everyone was paying attention to social mobility, there were popular books like Paul Fussell’s Class. And I just have to show you these cartoons from it:
As writer Jason Diamond so nicely put it, this book is like… not exactly correct per se, but Paul Fussell was on to something.
Because in the 80’s, now everyone could be preppy. Not just wear the clothes, but talk the talk, and strive to really live the full moneyed lifestyle. And of course the clothes themselves were massively popular. And not just in the United States.
Since 1965, in part because of Take Ivy(!!!), Ivy had also been steadily growing in Japan all throughout the 70’s. And by the 80’s, “preppy” would be in style in both the US and Japan. And this would be a massive landmark in fashion history.
But… that’s next time. Thanks for listening!
P.S. Listener Braulio Agnese tweeted to tell me there is also a companion book to Take Ivy simply called The Ivy, which is about the '70s/'80s ! BUT! It has yet to be translated from the Japanese!!! Are you a translator? Do you know anyone who is? I want to read this book! How do we get this out there?!