Dressing Preppy, Circa 1980

I recently came across the following article. Published in 1980, the information contained in it remains, on the whole, true today. My sincere hope is that much of it will remain true in 2080.

The well-written piece primarily focuses on how Old Money Guys and Gals dress, but there are some aspects of attitude and philosophy that bleed into the conversation. It’s inevitable.

On the same topic, know that I’m hard at work on the upcoming ‘Old Money Style – Gentleman’s Edition’. The book will cover, among other things, the philosophy and purpose of a man’s wardrobe, as well as offer a Starting Five–five essential garments that every man needs to own.

I’ll also going into detail on an inventory of quality, versatile, and enduring garments that make up an Old Money Guy’s wardrobe, and a list of preferred vendors.

The book won’t be published before the new year. The delays are my doing: I’m offering more than I originally intended, and I think the value to you will definitely be there.

So until then, enjoy this…

Everything you always wanted to know about prep but were too stuck-up to ask
By Mike Steere
The Toledo Blade
August 27, 1980

For lack of a better word, we’ll stick to the label that has been so cavalierly sewn on the recent resurgence of classic conservative clothing — Preppy.

What Preppy really means is someone who went to a fancy eastern boarding school, which is to say somebody whose daddy and grandaddy had pots of money.

In clothing, the word denotes a style based on a small number of expensive, natural-fabric, subdued-color pieces. The things that have been worn for at least 35 years by the spoiled scions of old money.

The basic idea of preppiness is to look rich and as though you’ve been rich so long you don’t have to flash it.

The hard part of it is that you have to look rich while wearing different combinations of a half-dozen garments that come in dull colors and crumple up as soon as you put them on.

There are rules here. You can’t, for instance, money up your appearance with Las Vegas displays of gemstones. Nothing gaudy is allowed.

Preppy is not an easy look. If you don’t FEEL preppy, you can’t possibly look preppy.

The idea is to wear a $250 blazer and $80 slacks like coveralls. Even if you got it last week, the prep ensemble should look as if you were born in it and that, at the time of your birth, your father was wearing the same thing.

Prep knows no age. The basic prep components are about the same from high school through retirement.

There’s nothing new here. For at least 35 years — through all the vagaries of fashion weather — the ship of classic conservatism has sailed on. The same people have bought traditional in the same places, and they will continue to do so until the last martini is mixed and the last bridge hand dealt.

If you want to wear these time-honored styles with authority, it is necessary to look like one of those people. With the newcomer to prepdom in mind, we have prepared the following short encyclopedia of prep.

The Preppy Look For Men

From Frank Kahle, owner of Neil’s Men’s Shop in Ottawa Hills, one of Toledo’s shrines to traditional clothing:

Like most people who are serious about this stuff, Mr. Kahle doesn’t like calling what he sells “preppy.” This appellation is merely a glib commercial label for a system of dress whose devotees are, like Mr. Kahle, religious.

This man is an absolute fetishist for tradition. If a garment isn’t cotton, wool, silk, or lambskin suede, he wants nothing to do with it.

To be a purist, he says, is to cultivate snobbery.

Basic prep items, according to Mr. Kahle, are the all-cotton button-down shirt, cotton khaki trousers, Shetland woolen sweater, serge regimental-striped belt, wool blazer, and the various species of Ivy League shoe.

The khakis are “the jeans of traditional clothing.” Mr. Kahle also acknowledges the admission of blue denim jeans and corduroy Levis to prepdom. Regretfully.

Ties ought to be silk, maybe wool or cotton for summer, in either a regimental stripe or Foulard pattern, (plain field with rows of little colored cells). The apogee of tie tradition is a burgundy and navy-blue regimental stripe. A true believer might have two or three of these.

Mr. Kahle frowns on club ties, the ones with little sporty things like pheasants, golf clubs, or sailboats.

A preppy pretender, Mr. Kahle says, can be spotted at 100 yards.

Suit or suit jacket shoulders tell the tale. Padded shoulders are very unprep, as are jackets with too much tailoring. True traditional clothing has natural shoulders and a sack shape.

Pay attention to the rumple, Mr. Kahle says. Natural fabrics, unlike natural-synthetic blends, wrinkle. “Traditional clothing rumples, and it looks rumpled, and that is a very accepted, prestigious look.”

Pills around the collar – those minuscule fuzzballs – are another sign of the unprep, Mr. Kahle says. The pills only form on synthetic-blend shirts, which are not part of the purist’s wardrobe.

Cuffs are the stuff of tradition. You can get by with plain-bottom khakis, but Mr. Kahle encourages cuffs on all trousers.

The true believer doesn’t like new clothes. Certainly not new-looking clothes. The rapport between man and garment has to be relaxed and intimate, like old friends.

Old preppy saying: “Weejuns aren’t worth a damn unless you’ve worn them in the shower.” Shoes should look broken-in. Shined, but never too shined.

Shoe advice from Mr. Kahle for women: Don’t move into colored Sperry Topsiders until you have a standard brown pair. Always build from the traditional ground up.

The Look For Women

The garment vocabulary for women is more or less the same as the men’s prep pantheon – blazers, woolen pullover sweaters, oxford button-down shirts, penny loafers and slacks.

Also on the list, according to Madonna Corrigan, fashion director for Lasalle’s, are knee-highs or textured hose, kilts (plain or plaid), berets, plaid pants or bermudas, trench coats, and pea coats.

Jewelry is minimal. An acceptable piece, Mrs. Corrigan says, is the geometric pin.

The traditional dress code was established in men’s fashions, and most of the toniest prep women’s clothes come from companies that once belonged exclusively to men, Mrs. Corrigan said.

The Old Villager company, for instance, was a man’s shirtmaker that began making women’s shirts. One day it occurred to the owner to lengthen the woman’s shirt, and so the shirt dress was born. An original Villager shirt dress is fabulously preppy.

The rules of prep dress aren’t quite as rigid for women, Mrs. Corrigan says. There is room to play with colors and textures.

The traditionally dressed woman can, by making very small adjustments, transform her look from the school-girlish true preppy to a classic professional or dressy appearance. Penny loafers and argyle knee sox yield preppy, and textured hose and low pumps mature the appearance.

Good women’s traditional clothing is of the same weight and quality as corresponding men’s items. And the cost is about the same.

The trend toward high-priced taste is a sign of the economic times, Mrs. Corrigan says. The initial outlay for classics is high, but clothes of this caliber are investments that pay off over the years.

Parameters of the Preppy Life-Style

ANIMALS – Dogs can be very preppy. Tops are floppy, affable, big breeds that swim and retrieve. The Golden Labrador is as preppy as anything sold at Brooks. Any bird dog with a high-price pedigree is acceptable. It pays to spend a little extra for a distinctive breed. English setters, for instance, are preppier than Irish setters. Avoid miniatures and long-haired Orientals. If you must have a cat, a big tabby with a name like Bob, who has a few funny eccentricities, can dress up a prep household. No show cats.

JOBS – Preppiest of all is an easy berth in Dad’s or Uncle’s company. Lawyer, accountant, or banker will do. It is very preppy to follow in male ancestor’s footsteps. Medicine can pass; if done in the correct, relaxed spirit. A preppy wants most of all to be able to wear fabulous suits to the office, take long lunch hours, and get away early for squash or skeet shooting.

FUN AND GAMES – Sailing, tennis, or any other racket sport, fly-fishing, volunteer work, tailgate parties at the alma mater’s football games, grouse hunting, and bridge. In all things the true preppy is a very sporting second-stringer — a better cruiser than racer. Marathon running, although very chic, is not preppy.

COLORS – For everything. Khaki, forest green, charcoal, maroon, navy-blue, white and camel.

LIBATIONS – The operative word is clean. Martinis, very dry. Scotch by the label. Bombay Gin. For mixers, tonic, soda, or water. Sipping sherry is acceptable, as is after-dinner liqueur, or brandy. Preppy soft drinks are apt to be gin drinks minus the gin – iced tonic or soda water with a lime wedge. Preppiest citrus is grapefruit juice. Booze is in decanters at home. For travel, silver flask with granddad’s initials.

HABITS – Regimentation — ordered and secure. No oversleeping. Social calendars. Little leather notebooks with lists of things to do. It is very preppy to slavishly follow any personal pattern observed in one’s family for three or more generations, whether or not it makes sense.

  • BGT


22 thoughts on “Dressing Preppy, Circa 1980

  1. Byron,
    That was an excellent article, thank you very much for sharing it.

    I am looking forward to the Old Money Style book. Not that it would change much (wink, nod 😉


  2. According to an article I’ve just read in something called ‘The Blade’, Mr.Khale will close his shop by the 21st December – two days from now, for good.

    I recommend your upcoming “ Gentleman’s Edition “ has some supporting notes on how to make things last longer than they’re supposed to because when they’re gone, they’ll be gone, and it’s going to become harder and harder to replace them.


  3. I just bought a coat on Christmas sale that is a wool blend camel and red plaid! I think it hits the perfect spot between preppy and a little bit of a statement.

  4. Well that was my “era”! Great times. I can’t wait for the book! For what it’s worth when in doubt as to what to wear, to a non-formal event, we would always say… khaki pants, white shirt, blue blazer!

  5. Great read—thank you for sharing! I look at my dad and see his way of dress is exactly the same at age 75 as it was when he was 25. While I am not sure he has worn his weejuns in the shower, they have definitely been through everything else life has thrown at them!

  6. Question, is everything dry cleaned? I tried to stick to natural fabrics since they feel better but couldn’t handle all the ironing.
    I had to laugh at the note on order and regimentation. One of my former co-workers was a preppy guy New England guy and he mentioned needing to go back to his room to write last night’s entry in his diary. Left me perplexed and speechless, but now I get it! Ha!

    1. Hi Mary, thanks for the question. Dry clean the sweaters, jackets, wool slacks, and suits when needed. Woolite hand wash can work also for sweaters. I’d check online (google and youtube) for how-to advice on hand washing. For shirts and chinos, Old Money guys often iron them at home. If the work schedule is too hectic, then you can drop the shirts and cotton pants at the cleaners and have them done. But no, not for everything, all the time. Hope that helps. – BGT

  7. Byron, hasten the publication of that book ! It’s needed.

    I’m at Charles de Gaulle this morning and sitting in the AF lounge waiting for my flight. I feel ‘ill’ when I see the way some of these people (?) are dressed. Not to mention the woman ( yes, I did not say lady as my mother would have insisted I did ) whose arms are almost black with ink. As you said in the OMB, ” if you have to ask you’re reading the wrong bloody book “.

    It’s not all bad though. I boarded one of the few operational buses two days ago and a teenage girl offered me her seat. It is so unusual in this city nowadays it is worth recording in print and telling other people. Come to think of it she might well be a Scout.

    Print that book ! I intend to sleep in my chinos and Mercers and polish the Dickens out of my shoes. No apologies.

    Compliments of the Season to all.


    1. Thank you, David. Happy 2020. If it’s bad in the Air France lounge, well, Houston, we have a problem. Last revisions are in progress on the book, and then it’s battle stations for OMG’s one and all. Blue blazers ready…attack! – BGT

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