Preppy or prep (all abbreviations of the word preparatory) refer to a subculture in the United States associated with private Northeastern university-preparatory schools.
Preppy or prep are both American adjectives and American nouns, traditionally used in relation to Northeastern private university-preparatory schools, and denote a person seen as characteristic of a student or alumnus of these schools. Prep has become a colloquialism in the United States and has largely replaced preppy in modern usage. Characteristics of preps include a particular subcultural speech, vocabulary, dress, mannerisms, etiquette, and accent reflective of an upper-middle class, Northeastern upbringing.
The term preppy derives from the private, university-preparatory or prep schools that some American upper-class and upper-middle-class children in the Northeastern states attend. The term preppy 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. Preppy fashion derives from the fashions of these Northeastern colleges in the early to mid-twentieth century. Lisa Birnbach’s 1980 book Official Preppy Handbook, which was written to poke fun at the rich lives of privileged Northeastern 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 is associated with an upper-class socioeconomic status, a status that emphasizes higher education and high-income professional success.
Preppy fashion has its roots in the Ivy League style of dress, which started around 1912 and became more established in the late 1950s. J. Press represented the quintessential Ivy League style, stemming from the collegiate traditions of Ivy League schools. In the mid-twentieth century J. Press and Brooks Brothers both had stores on Ivy League school campuses, including Harvard, Princeton, and Yale. Preppy fashion emerged in the 1970s with cues from the original Ivy League style, along with influences from traditional Northeastern culture.
Some typical preppy styles also reflect traditional upper class New England leisure activities, such as polo, sailing, hunting, fencing, crew rowing, lacrosse, golf, rugby, and swimming. This association with New England outdoor activities can be seen in preppy fashion, through stripes and colors, equestrian clothing, plaid shirts, field jackets, and nautical-themed accessories. By the 1980s, a slew of 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, Daniel Cremieux, Ralph Lauren, and Kate Spade New York, and demonstrates prep 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, penny loafers, and boat shoes.