April 14, 2023
Source: Wikimedia Commons
Just as I finished complaining last week of the inability of Americans to string together a complete sentence, I realized they make up for it by being the worst-dressed people this side of the Ukraine. J.Crew has been in the news lately because the company has yet again changed hands, with hacks waxing nostalgically about preppy style and all that ’60s stuff. All I can say is, how can they tell? Hacks wouldn’t know what style is; they even thought Gianni Agnelli’s unbuttoned button-down shirt was due to carelessness.
The last American newsman with style was Joe Alsop, now long gone, a cousin of Roosevelt and a D.C. insider, who, unlike the motley group of grifters and wokesters assembled by the Bagel Times, was born a gent. Style is the most overused word in English, usually attributed to fashionable people who lack it, Vogue’s Anna Wintour being a prime example. Style is an elusive quality, and no one is capable of buying or faking it. It is of an abstract nature, and one either has it or doesn’t. Today more than ever, and especially here in the Bagel, there is a dearth of style, especially at the top.
Once upon a time women dressed in order to be admired by men. Now they dress to be comfortable, and they look much poorer for it. Some look like female Soviet shot-putters of long ago, others like homeless lassies, but one thing is for certain: No one will whistle at them, even if whistling weren’t a jailable offense. Still, the idea that men’s fashion is being written about, instead of women’s, tells us a lot about the state of America.
Woke culture has an unyielding stranglehold on style. That’s because fashion was basically invented in order to boost preening female egos. But preening is a no-no in the woke climate at present. Dressing down is in, and to hell with beauty, style, and elegance. But back to prep: Actually it never existed, but was popularized in the film Love Story more than fifty years ago. American prep school boys, like their Brit counterparts in public schools, all dressed a certain way: sports coats with khaki trousers, button-down shirts, and loafers. The ones who didn’t were called greasers, because they dressed and sounded like John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever. Yes, it was snobby, but so what? Greasers became preppy after a while, and so on.
Throughout last week newspapers and other media here were full of stories about the paradoxes of prep—written by those who never went to prep school but have seen the movie. Most of what was published was old hat, because one of the defining oddities of the age is the desire to wear brand-label clothing. This syndrome came later, long after preppies like Taki were wearing blazers with khakis and penny loafers under the clock at the Biltmore, no longer with us—the hotel, not Taki.
America’s shifting attitude toward fashion now leans to leisure uniformity, sweats and leggings, along with oversize bags for women, bulky dark jackets, and droopy large trousers for men. Dressing down is in like Flynn, and to hell with glamour and style. In a long article in The New Bagelite the writer admits to not being familiar with prep while growing up, but familiarized himself—or herself, I couldn’t tell the sex by the name—through the movie in which Ali McGraw calls Ryan O’Neal preppie. The writer somehow brings in WASP privilege and other tiresome clichés as expected. What the article gets wrong is Ralph Lauren. Lauren, born Lipitz or something like that, in the Bronx, was never a preppy icon. His stuff was too contrived, stripes too loud and too far apart, checks too loud and so on. One of Lauren’s first and most recognized ads was called “Polo” and committed in my book the greatest ever faux pas, a left-handed mallet strike. Left-handers are not permitted in the game of polo because it confuses the line. But how was Lauren supposed to know that, n’est-ce pas?
Brooks Brothers, now gone with the wind, was the original supplier for everything preppy, along with J. Press. I suspect Ralph Lauren was inspired by them, copied their style but overdid it, at least in my opinion. His stuff was also too pricey, and WASP culture rejects conspicuous consumption. When she was little, my daughter was a big J.Crew catalog fan, along with many copycats, filling my house up with their laundry lists and asking me nonstop for moola.
Once at university, one founded by that greatest of all Americans, Thomas Jefferson, potential fraternity boys like us outprepped each other while being looked over as candidates. In my frat house, the only one not preppy had fought with distinction in Korea, hence free to look like a greaser, although he was a gentleman of the old school.
It all sounds rather snobby, but again, so what? Snobby is supposed to mean without nobility, sensa nobilita, or something like that, but preppy was never about where you came from—that was made up by Hollywood types and journalists whose antecedents did not exist before the great aristo Donald Trump. Preppy was a school uniform for boys who stood up when a lady came into the room and returned a wallet they found on the road, and did not kiss and tell the next morning. Nothing to write home about, except that it is part of a lost America.