A collaboration between Street Etiquette and Unabashedly Prep has been making waves in the style blogosphere over the past week. The project, entitled "The Black Ivy," is a set of photos depicting several  preppy black students going about their daily lives around the campus of the City College of New York. The slideshow concludes with a different series of photos, shot by Alfred Eisenstaedt at Howard University (one of America's historic black colleges) in 1946. Rather than any racial implications of either photoset, their juxtaposition got me thinking about the interrelationship between style and fashion, and particularly how fashion trends tend to date clothes.

Let's take a look first at these two photos from 1946. You'll notice many ways in which the suits of that era differ from the suits of today: higher-waisted trousers with wider legs, plus longer jackets that had wider lapels, longer sleeves, and higher button placements. And of course, hats were fairly common for everyday wear in 1946, whereas now they're exclusively reserved for the realm of fashion statement.

What we're seeing here is representative of the very particular way that men's fashion tends to change over time. That is to say: Men's fashion is a series of deviations away from one universal reference point. This reference point (or, for the Aristotelians in the room, the "Golden Mean") is a particular point in time, usually around the origination of the garment in question, which sets the standard for all subsequent iterations of that garment. In the case of suits, the reference point is the classic British/Savile Row cut of the 1930s (see photo at right). And the reason why I call it the "Golden Mean" is that the reference point is usually perfectly in balance with the proportions of its wearer, because (in the realm of suiting at least) the garment would have originally been custom-made to fit its particular wearer's body. No aspect of the garment is exaggerated or out of proportion; everything is perfectly suited to the particular individual. The width of the trouser leg is in proportion to the wearer's shoe size; the width of the lapel is in proportion to the breadth of the wearer's shoulders; the placement of the jacket's buttons and the height of the waist of the trousers are in proportion to the wearer's overall height. And, when you have a suit that conforms to the Golden Mean, it becomes nearly impossible to date. It is timeless. That's the reason why the evil EPA agent in Ghostbusters would still look perfectly well-dressed if he brought his suit from 1984 to today: because it is, essentially, outside of fashion.

Bearing that in mind, let's now consider one of the modern-day Black Ivy photos.

What we see here is a deviation in the opposite direction from the 1946 photos. In 1946, it was all about more and bigger: longer jackets, wider lapels, wider pant legs, longer hems. In 2010 (and for pretty much the last decade), it's all about less and smaller: shorter jackets, narrower lapels, skinnier pant legs, shorter hems. Note the fellow in the middle, wearing the light grey sport jacket with jeans: the width of his pant leg is ludicrously narrow relative to his shoe size. The chap with the tan striped sport coat? It's so short that it's barely covering his ass. Also note the two guys with their skinny pant legs cuffed or rolled a few inches above their shoes. Sure, this looks spiffy now, because it's 100% on-trend in the minds of those who follow fashion. But ten or twenty or sixty years down the road, these sticklike pants will look just as ridiculous in retrospect as those tentlike '40s pants do to us now.

Contrast those outfits with the one at left. Admittedly, the shawl-collar cardigan with toggle closure is a bit of a trendy style. But it references classics from the past history of menswear; shawl collars and toggle closures are both authentic details, though not necessarily on the same garment. And more importantly, the fit of what he's wearing is relatively timeless. The khakis are neither tight nor loose, long nor short, skinny nor wide; they're perfectly proportionate in every way. Likewise, the fit of the sweater is close, but not tight. In short, everything balances. No one aspect of the ensemble stands out as being exaggerated in any direction.
The lesson here: When you're putting together an outfit, avoid trendy extremes to avoid dating yourself. Don't go for the jacket with the 1.5-inch lapels or the pants with the 7-inch leg opening. Think first and foremost about what suits you: your body, your personality. Wearing things just because they're fashionable (hello, square-toed loafers and multicolor-striped shirts) is the surest way to look back ten years from now and regret every photo ever taken of you. Instead, dress to suit yourself. That way, you'll avoid becoming a fashion victim, and instead grow further towards your own personal style.


I posted the following as my Facebook status earlier today:

Attention, Wal-Mart shoppers: Would it kill you to put on a pair of freaking khakis? You look like shit. Seriously.
My brother-in-law's girlfriend left the first comment. I decided to use it as the title of this post. It got me thinking about why I said what I said, what I was really trying to say, and how the message may have gotten skewed by the way I chose to say it.

First off, I'm not asking for people to “dress up” when they go to Wal-Mart. I recognize there's an appropriate time and place for dressing up. I don't expect the average Wal-Mart shopper to look as nice as the average Michelin-starred restaurant-goer. (As one of my other friends archly observed, “Extensive socioeconomic research has actually revealed that many lower income families are unable to afford tuxedos for everyday wear.”) But the issue isn't “dressing up.” It's really just “dressing nicely.” Just a modicum of effort to not look terrible.

Image from http://www.peopleofwalmart.com
I like to think of it as analogous to proper spelling and grammar use on the Internet. The fact that it does require some effort to present yourself well, coupled with the comforting shield of anonymity (“I'm not going to see anybody I know”), may tempt you to let your standards slip, just because it's easier. It's not like it's a job interview, right? It's not your resume! It's just the Internet! It's just Wal-Mart, for God's sake! It's not like people are judging you based on what you're wearing!

And that, in fact, is the crucial assumption: people are judging you, no matter where you go. You might think that they're too busy trying to get everything they need so they can get home and cook dinner, and maybe some of them are... but probably, some of them aren't. But hey—that's okay! You don't give a damn what they think, do you? What right do they have to judge you? They don't even know you. Maybe you're dressed this way because you've got the flu, or your grandmother just died, and it was all you could do to drag your carcass out of bed to Wal-Mart to get more chicken soup and tissues.

Okay, that's fine. I suppose I can't say with certainty whether such an excuse applies to any one particular shopper, so I can't soundly make a judgment about any particular person I see based on what they're wearing on any particular day. But I think I can safely presume that it doesn't apply to everyone at Wal-Mart all the time, which means that I can soundly make a judgment about people and their appearances on a more general level.

I really think it's a shame that the common discourse (both appearance-wise and language-wise) has degenerated as far as it has. When you dress up for a job interview, and when you take the trouble to compose a typo-free resume, the effort you expend is a sign of respect for your audience. Your effort demonstrates that you do care about what they think, because you value their opinion enough to put in the effort to make sure that it's a positive one. If you don't care what people think, you don't put in the effort. So, when people put in little or no effort to make themselves presentable, I essentially see it as a sign of general disdain for the opinions of everyone who's going to see them that day. And this is why I think it's much worse to look shabby at Wal-Mart than to look shabby at the corner store: so many more people are going to see you! I just think it's unfortunate that so many people are giving this big sartorial "fuck you" to the rest of the world on such a regular basis.

All I ask is a little effort. I don't think that's unreasonable. And besides—you never know who you're going to run into.


I'm not going to go out of my way to link to every piece of True Prep media coverage, but because I love Colbert so much—and because he's part of True Prep's Preppy Pantheon—I had to post this video from last night's episode (for Canadian residents only; if you're watching in the U.S., click here.) I just wish the interview had been longer!


Less than two weeks left! I'm not going to add too much of my own commentary, but it was really interesting to hear Ellen Mirojnick's thoughts about her costume designs for Wall Street and its upcoming sequel. The fascinating thing is thinking about who the characters are, what place and time they're in, and then thinking about how you reflect that in their clothes—how does that translate into wardrobe design. The contrast that I noted earlier, for example, between Gekko's casual clothes and his suits, is actually an evolution of his character over the course of the film. The casual clothes are at the beginning, when we first meet him and when he first meets Jacob Moore. He's lost his way a little bit. And so when he gets out of the off-the-rack stuff (Canali, e.g.) and back into the custom-made suits, it's a stylistic homecoming, but also a renaissance: he has to evolve. As Mirojnick says,

I didn't want to put him in contrast collar, I didn't want to put him back to exactly what he was. He was a groundbreaker at that time — he was outshining everyone around him — so why would he go back to that? Naturally, as a person of strong personality, such forceful instinct would progress. Sharks need to move forward. If they're not moving forward they're dying.


... is because, before I went to Chapters today, I went to H&M first, and ended up buying a couple of fantastic cotton sweaters for the fall.

My wardrobe has just been crying out for cable knits, and lo, the Good Lord provideth! I am absolutely loving H&M this season because they have great preppy sweaters and shirts that actually FIT my twiglike frame. (Sweaters are a nightmare for me to find a proper fit - even Ralph Lauren's "small" and Lacoste's size 3 are way too big for me.) And after seeing a perfect navy cardigan with white tipping (not in my size), and a perfect off-white tennis sweater with navy-and-green tipping around the V-neck and cuffs (also not in my size), I decided I had to seize these two before it was too late. That's the only thing I don't like about H&M: they always run out of small sizes first.


As if Brooks Brothers hadn't already answered the question "What does prep mean for fall?"...

And unfortunately, once again, I'm flagrantly behind the times; these pics were making the rounds of the blogs in mid-to-late July. However, when I picked up my copy of the September issue of Vanity Fair (because of the True Prep preview inside), right after the Table of Contents I found Tommy Hilfiger's ad campaign for Fall 2010, entitled "Meet the Hilfigers." Photographed by Craig McDean, the campaign apparently envisions some kind of nouveau-preppy family (or loose passel of relatives, at any rate) and depicts them during a tailgate party. Visiting the Tommy Hilfiger microsite, where the members of the fictional family are profiled, all the prepquisites are there: Columbia, Wellesley, basset hounds, fundraising, Vermont vacations, socklessness. But clothing-wise, I found the photos provided ample inspiration for fall. I particularly liked the patterned sportcoats; the crested, cable-knit, and tipped sweaters; and of course, loafers galore.

I have to say that Tommy Hilfiger hasn't generally been among my favourite brands. The brand and the logo just don't have the same value to me, the same positive associations, as Ralph Lauren or Lacoste do. The clothes themselves are pretty decent, though; actually, one of my favourite pairs of khakis is Tommy, and their Custom Fit sport shirts in size extra-small are among the very very few off-the-rack items that fit my skeletally thin (or, as I'd prefer to think of it, "aristocratically slender") frame. Their sweaters, jackets and ties have never fit me, but these ads leave me hoping that I can manage to find something that does.

Click each pic to enlarge, and scroll down for a video.


Author Lisa Birnbach with Chip Kidd
With the release of True Prep only four days away, here's a quick update for those who haven't been following the latest buzz on the book's Facebook page:

And finally, an item that's three months old, but obviously not very well-publicized, since I just stumbled across it the other day: publisher Knopf has posted an 11-page sample from the book on Slideshare. (Download the PDF version here.)

I found the piece in Slate to be the most interesting and insightful of the bunch. Like many, when I first heard about the book, I wondered about the significance of the title "True Prep." (What exactly is "true prep"? Presumably the book is going to tell us. But how do the authors know, anyway?) So I was intrigued when reviewer Mark Oppenheimer said:
It's clear that, at least as far as Birnbach and Kidd see it, the leavening earnestness is gone: It's all irony now. There are no true preps, to be both admired and needled—instead, we're all just performing prep.
This Obama-era preppiness (he is preppy, too, according to our authors, as is Michelle) is a problem, because the appeal of preppiness, indeed its very inclusivity, depends on an outward exclusivity. The club should require a little effort to join. If everyone who has ever gone to a private school is preppy, then ultimately prepdom is just about money, which actually places preppiness out of reach for most people.
The authors are far too careful to [not] make preppiness identical with money; they don't present McMansions as preppy, or cruise-ship vacations. But in trying to make prepdom accessible, Kidd and Birnbach have made it less desirable. It's noteworthy that the great prep designers, from J. Press to Louis Pearlstein to Ralph Lauren to André 3000, have been non-WASPs trying to master the code of the WASP; in mastering it, minorities continue to define it. (It is entirely unsurprising that this book is by a Jewish woman and a gay man.) But if they define prep too broadly, they diminish their own success.

This time around, I do not think that Birnbach and Kidd are being prescriptive so much as descriptive. That is, they may not be leading prep fashion so much as responding to it. After all, is there a cohesive prepdom any more?
True Prep is an enjoyable but maddening wake-up call that we are watching a culture unravel, one lambswool thread at a time. If we don't snap to attention, throw on our duckboots, thread the duck's-head insignia belt, leash up the English setter, have a Pimm's Cup, and figure out what this culture is, it will be gone.
I would have said that the concept of "true prep" did require some sense of exclusivity; that's what makes it desirable to be preppy. But to hear Oppenheimer tell it, the book seems to democratize prep to nearly the point of meaninglessness. Birnbach herself said, in a different interview with Amazon from the one linked above: "Everyone can be a preppy. There’s no barrier to it. You want it? We’ll let you in."

From what I can tell, there seem to be two elements to Birnbach's "true prep": the clothes, and the lifestyle (which includes important things like discretion and manners). I gather that the point is that both of these can be acquired at any time if one doesn't already possess them. And apparently you needn't have actually attended a prep school or "one of your corduroy-jacket elbow-patch colleges" (to borrow from Stephen Colbert) to be "truly" preppy. You can see this in an interview that Birnbach did for Ivy Style back in April:
IS: One of the things that’s changed since 1980 is the commodification and parody of preppy — as in the Smirnoff “Tea Partay” commercial. In the OPH you’re describing a certain Northeastern upper middle class tribe or caste that was largely hidden from the general public. But in the last 30 years preppy has become so mainstream as a fashion style. Is there such a thing as authentic preppy anymore? And what is the significance of the new book’s title “True Prep”?

LB: The first book was a big giant reveal of a private tribe. There was a little bit of discomfort with the code being shared. I totally get that, but so be it. There wasn’t a lock and key on it. In every city I visited, I heard, “Oh, I had the idea to do this book.” It was a tempting Baedecker to create. And even when I was first working with Workman Publishing, they wanted to call it the “Preppy Catalogue,” and to be just about stuff and clothes. But there was no good way of explaining stuff and clothes without explaining context and worldview.

Is there a difference between someone wearing a polo shirt, khakis and a belt, and a preppy who went to St. Paul’s who’s wearing the same clothes? Sure there is, but it doesn’t fit the 21st century to keep people out. I can understand why someone from a certain restricted population might not want to share, but that’s really passé.

Personally, I feel the tension. On the one hand, "preppy" is valuable to me because it connotes a certain exclusive, upper-class, privileged way of life that's highly desirable. But on the other hand, I have to recognize that I myself would not qualify if the strictures of "true prep" required education at certain institutions, or a certain family pedigree. And if you want to be preppy because you like these upper-class/exclusive connotations, it diminishes the value of being preppy if anybody can do it. It's a genuine case of "I wouldn't want to belong to any club that would have me as a member."

I'll reserve judgment till I've read the whole book. But for now, colour me concerned, and a bit confused.

UPDATE: Read my review of True Prep.